Professor Donald Thomas, prolific biographer, true-crime scholar and mystery writer – obituary

During his life, he was incarcerated in nine different prisons, including the Bastille, within sight of the guillotine and where, in 1795, he wrote his most mischievous work The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.

Among the sexual aberrations of his subject, Thomas’s opinion was that “for sheer finesse in sadism the Marquis fell far short of the Victorian public school system”, and observed that most of de Sade’s writings were a way to relieve the frustrations of imprisonment.

In The Sunday Telegraph, Brian Masters judged that Thomas had “succeeded in combining a detailed and elegant biography…with a fair survey of the man’s literary talents”. But while applauding Thomas’s clarity and style, Hardy Amies, the designer of the dress, who reviewed it for the Daily Telegraph, feared he would get the giggles – “what there is nothing faster to destroy the mystique of a good orgy”.

Thomas’s portrayal of novelist Henry Fielding (1990) was deemed a critical disappointment, but apart from his literary biographies he also ventured into the military realm with lives of heroes and anti-heroes such as Cardigan : The Hero of Balaclava (1987, revised 2002). Thomas dealt with the clumsy charge of the Light Brigade in a single chapter, spending the rest of the book examining Cardigan’s life, idiocies, scandals, and hubris.

In Cochrane: Britannia’s Last Sea-King (1978), Thomas described the action-packed career of Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, with the kind of panache befitting a figure on which both Horatio Hornblower by CS Forester and Jack by Patrick O’Brian Aubrey were modeled.

In his biography of Robert Browning, A Life Within Life (1982), Thomas recalled how Gladstone’s daughter Mary, sitting next to the great Victorian poet at dinner, had been revolted by his table manners and that he “blew , was blowing and spitting in your face”.

One reviewer, praising Thomas’s “quietly lucid and understanding” account, considered it “the best and simplest of Browning’s modern lives”.

Referring to him in The Daily Telegraph, novelist Anthony Powell noted that although Thomas shed light on some of the obscurities of Browning’s life, the poet remained “full of contradictions, a man who surprises as much by his banality as by his defiance of the rules “. ”.

Donald Serrell Thomas was born on July 18, 1934 in Weston-super-Mare. After Queen’s College in Taunton, he did his national service in the RAF before going up to Balliol College in Oxford, where he took a second in English language and literature in 1958.

His history of literary censorship in England, A Long Time Burning (1969), traced the careers of political pamphleteers as well as the flowering of dirty books like The Memoirs of Dolly Morton, of which Thomas edited a new edition in 1970, and which is often quoted in stories of pornography for his tales of slapping and flogging slaves in the American South before the war.

In a less lecherous vein, in 1972 he edited two volumes of State Trials, revising the texts of landmark decisions in English law originally collected by Thomas Bayly Howell at the request of William Cobbett and published between 1809 and 1826.

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