Feisty professor ‘took life on the chin’


Margaret Lenta

Margaret Mary Lenta was born and grew up in Northumberland, North England, and taught in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in South Africa in 1966.

From 1973 until her retirement in 1999 she worked as a lecturer in English studies at the University of Natal, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, rising steadily until she attained the rank of full professor in 1994. From 1999 she was emeritus professor and a very active senior research associate of the university.

My first experience of Dr Lenta, as she was then, did not give me any sense of how our relationship would develop later. She taught me Richardson, Austen and Chaucer, none of whom I was particularly receptive to in those heady days of high apartheid, what with the intoxicating effects of literary theory and the political and intellectual ferment that were so characteristic of the time.

She terrified me with her formidable knowledge, forthright manner and highly articulate, occasionally cutting verbal style. She was not someone to be trifled with and she had no difficulty in maintaining discipline in a lecture theatre of any size, her small stature notwithstanding.

A senior University of KwaZulu-Natal colleague, who was both a student and a colleague of Lenta for many years, recently told me of her experience of negotiating over an honours special essay. It was due on Monday and the colleague had a boyfriend down from the army over the weekend. Might she perhaps have an extension? She was met with an appalled silence and a look of utter incredulity. "No. A woman must get her priorities right" was Lenta's sharp retort. The honours essay was in on time and the boyfriend duly lost.

In response to changing times, Lenta shifted her research focus decisively and very effectively to South African literature, especially the novels of JM Coetzee, the journals of Lady Anne Barnard and the stories of Herman Charles Bosman.

The last were the subject of a master's degree by a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The student had been struggling with his topic and I, as external examiner, had had occasion to see a very inadequate earlier version of the dissertation. He was placed in her able hands and a year or so later I readily awarded the study a distinction. She was a tough supervisor, but she had the ability to get the best from her students.

Three notable University of KwaZulu-Natal colleagues — Michael Chapman, Margaret Daymond and Johan Jacobs — must be made mention of here. I came to think of them, together with Lenta, as the "gang of four".

Academic life is so often characterised by petty squabbles and divisions. These four have shown what can be achieved if the opposite tendency — warm collegiality and collaboration — is adopted. The four were instrumental in launching and sustaining a very fine and influential contemporary literary studies journal, Current Writing, and in producing scores of books and hundreds of articles and book chapters.

Their effect on South African literary studies, individually and collectively, has been immense. Over the past decade or more Lenta and I were peer evaluators of each other's articles (I as editor of English in Africa and she as associate editor of Current Writing). I always welcomed contributions from her because they were topical, well researched and immaculately written. On occasion, though, changes to her articles were requested by readers. She, unlike so many other prickly academics, took all valid suggestions in good part and invariably bounced back with a stronger article at the end of this process.

At a conference a few years ago, I complimented her on her equanimity in this respect. She fixed me with her sharp blue eyes and said: "Well, you see, we editors know how to take it on the chin."

Lenta took life on the chin. She had been battling with cancer for some years, but to the last refused to give in. She and Chapman co-edited the important SA Lit: Beyond 2000 (UKZN Press, 2011) and she travelled to Johannesburg this year for the M&G Literary Festival to speak on a panel that featured the book. I was a panellist and was struck by how well she looked. Moreover, she was her usual feisty self — sharp, incisive and entertaining.

It was all a courageous front. A little more than two months later she would be gone. I have no doubt that fighting to the last was the path she chose for herself. 

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