Professor Alison Finch

Churchill Fellow and Honorary Professor Emerita in French Literature at the University of Cambridge

8 March 2019

Professor Alison Finch is a Churchill Fellow and Honorary Professor Emerita in French Literature at the University of Cambridge. A specialist in post–1800 French literature, Professor Finch has taught and lectured in French in both Cambridge and Oxford. She has published a number of books and articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors, and covered the whole range of French literature in her latest book, published by Polity Press: 'French Literature: A Cultural History'.

Alison’s parents came from poor families and had to leave school early, but always supported her academic achievements. She sat the 11+ at age 9, in the teeth of opposition from the local authority, and on the strength of her performance was offered a place at Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school for high-flyers. She turned this down, preferring the local direct grant school. She went to Girton College as a scholar and graduated with a First, doing her PhD at Girton also – this was of course in the days when there were only three women’s colleges in Cambridge. In the first year that any Oxbridge men’s college admitted women, she arrived at Churchill as the Teaching Fellow in French, aged 24, and was thus able to witness how this momentous transition worked in its early days.

Although Alison’s career has been in Cambridge and Oxford, she has lectured and examined at many other universities, both in the UK and abroad. She has been active in academic administration as well as in research and teaching. In due course she became Vice-Master of Churchill and, for a period in 2012, Acting Master; she edited the Churchill Review from 2011 to 2015. She ushered in a number of reforms during her career, not only as Vice-Master of Churchill but also – for example – during her ten years at Oxford, where she was a Fellow of Merton College and Chair of the Oxford Sub-faculty of French; at a national level, she initiated other changes in her field, and was awarded the French Government honour of the Palmes Académiques at a higher level (Officier) than is usually bestowed on UK academics.

Alison was married to another French scholar, Malcolm Bowie, who was Master of Christ’s from 2002 to 2006. She has often been asked if they discussed Proust over the cornflakes. (The answer is no.) They had two children, and Alison has always been grateful for the help Churchill gave her as she tried to balance family life with work.

Throughout her career, Alison has encountered encouragement and inspiration, along with some obstacles. Women’s social and educational situation has improved markedly during her lifetime – an improvement in which Churchill College played a key part on the UK stage; she feels lucky to have come to Cambridge at the time she did.

Filmed on 8 March, 2019.


Related reading

Alumna Dr Judy Holyer (U&G72) has written a book about her experiences as one of the first women to be admitted to Churchill in 1972. You can read more about it and order your copy at the following link:

A Maze of Twisty Passages by Judy Holyer


About the series

A series of conversations with distinguished academics, hosted by the Master of Churchill College, Professor Dame Athene Donald.

This series aims to explore the individual paths of some eminent female professionals, who have made it to the top in their own particular ways. How have they found their own solutions to 'life', what tips do they wish they'd been given earlier on, and what might they view, retrospectively, with most pleasure or regret? 

More in the series