A British member of the Académie Française

The poet, translator, literary critic and academic Michael Edwards has recently been elected to the Académie Française, becoming its first British-born member.

Michael Edwards at the Académie Française

Michael Edwards at the Académie Française

For those who don’t know the Académie Française it’s the French body entrusted with safeguarding the French language. Officially established in 1635 it has forty seats (although four are currently empty) and members are known as immortels. Most immortels are writers, although there are or have also been politicians, lawyers, scientists, historians, philosophers, and senior (Catholic) clergymen. There’s no rule that they be born in France, though they must hold French nationality. Immortels hold the post for life, but can’t be elected if they’re over the age of 75 (Edwards is two months shy of his 75th birthday). They are voted in, and this was Edwards’ third attempt, although applying several times before finally being admitted is apparently a sort of rite of passage. In this year’s vote, Edwards beat Jean-Noël Jeanneney, a former minister. Although he’s the first British-born immortel, there have been several bilinguals before him, notably the Franco-American writer Julien Green.

The reason I was especially interested in Edward’s election is that he’s a former pupil of my school, Kingston Grammar School, which is where he discovered French. Born in Barnes, he read modern languages at Cambridge before teaching at Essex university and holding the chairs for French and English at Warwick University. He later took up a post at the prestigious Collège de France higher education and research establishment. He is married to a Frenchwoman and has dual British-French citizenship. A prolific writer and poet in both English and French, he has written on Shakespeare, Molière and Racine and Rimbaud amongst others.

Lovekyn Chapel, Kingston Grammar School, which dates from 1309.

The Académie Française works to preserve the purity of the French language, and is against the use ‘franglais’ and English words in French. Will Michael Edward’s membership change anything? Quoted in The Independent (see below) he hopes his contribution will be “to show that the presence of English is not only a threat”. He recognises that the French are on the defensive, seeing their language under threat from an English invasion, but believes that English can actually help French to develop: “Rather than being a menace, it could help enrich French,” he says.

To find out more (in French):

To find out more (in English):