Starkie, Enid Mary (1897–1970), French scholar, was born 18 August 1897 at Killiney, Co. Dublin, second of six children, and eldest of four daughters, of William Joseph Myles Starkie (qv), resident commissioner of national education for Ireland, and his wife May (née Walsh) of Dublin. She was educated first by governesses – one of whom inspired her with an enduring love of everything French – then at Alexandra School and Alexandra College, Dublin, studying the piano meanwhile at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and dreaming of a musical career. Her autobiographical account of her upbringing in the Edwardian world of the ‘Castle catholics’, A lady's child, caused a sensation when it was published in 1941, being denounced by the Irish Times as ‘an unpardonable piece of disloyalty’ and deeply offending many of her family.
In 1916 she won a scholarship to read modern languages at Somerville College, Oxford, heading the class list in 1920 with distinction in colloquial use of French. Her father's death that summer affected her profoundly, and for the rest of her life she felt a compulsive need to live up to his academic expectations. Determined to support herself and to provide for her youngest sister, she taught briefly in a girls' school before winning a Gilchrist studentship which enabled her to work for a doctorate at the Sorbonne. For three happy years in Paris, she lived a bohemian life of extreme (if largely self-imposed) poverty. In 1925, after two terms teaching at a boarding school in Essex, she was appointed assistant lecturer in modern languages at the University College of the South-West at Exeter, returning to Paris in 1927 to defend her doctoral thesis, Les sources du lyricisme dans la poésie d'Émile Verhaeren, which was crowned by the Académie Française and awarded the Prix Narcisse Michaud.
In 1928 she was appointed Sarah Smithson lecturer in French at Somerville, succeeding Mildred Pope as fellow and tutor in modern languages in 1934. When in 1946 she was appointed university reader in French, Somerville elected her to a research fellowship, converting this in 1955 to a professorial, and in 1965 to an honorary fellowship. She rapidly established a reputation as a progressive figure in French studies, publishing ground-breaking biographies of Baudelaire (1933) and Rimbaud (1938), besides a monograph, Rimbaud in Abyssinnia (1937), an enlarged version of which was subsequently translated into French. In 1939 she became the modern languages faculty's first D.Litt. A critical edition of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal (1942) was followed by substantial revisions of the two early biographies, short studies of Petrus Borel and André Gide, and a major study of Flaubert, the first volume of which was published in 1967, and the second posthumously in 1971. Always attracted to the mauvais garçons of French literature, at the time of her death she was working on Jules Laforgue.
A member of the Anglo–French Cultural Commission, she was one of the rare English-speaking scholars working on major French authors to be well known and rated highly in France. She was chiefly responsible for bringing Gide and Cocteau to Oxford, and securing for them honorary degrees. In 1954, the centenary of Rimbaud's birth, she was prominent in celebrations in England, in Ireland, and on the Continent. She held a series of visiting professorships at American universities – most happily, in 1959, at Hollins College, Virginia, to which she bequeathed her fortune, and which later named a building in her honour. She enjoyed ‘meddling’ (as she said) in university politics, particularly in the elections for the chair of poetry, achieving national celebrity for her spirited, and successful, campaigns on behalf of C. Day-Lewis (qv), Auden, and Blunden, and herself standing unsuccessfully as a candidate in the 1961 and 1968 elections.
In 1948 she was created Chevalier, and in 1958 Officier, of the Légion d'honneur. A member of the Irish Academy of Letters and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, with honorary doctorates from Exeter (1960), TCD (1960), and Aix-en-Provence (1967), she was installed in 1965 as a Chevalier du Tastevin at Macon. In 1967 she was appointed CBE. She delighted in these various honours. But the professorship on which she had set her heart, and predicated her career, always eluded her.
A diminutive and flamboyant figure, distinctively dressed in trousers and jackets of Prussian blue and scarlet – in France she was known as ‘Mlle Perroquet’ – she came for generations of undergraduates to symbolise Bohemian feminism. She resigned her readership in 1965, suffering from lung cancer and believing herself to have only months to live. She in fact survived, and continued working, for another five years, dying at her home in Walton St., Oxford, on 20 April 1970.
The Starkie papers are deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A portrait by Patrick George, commissioned in 1963, hangs in Somerville.