In Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Walter Hartwright’s “worthy Italian friend” is a political refugee who once taught at the University of Padua. He is distinguished by “the harmless eccentricity of his character”, showing his respect for the English by dedicating himself incompetently to cricket and fox-hunting. He also plays a crucial role in undoing his compatriot, the villainous Count Fosco.
The most frightening member of the anarchist cell in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is known only by his academic title. “The Professor” is their cerebral bomb-maker – a man of intellectual brilliance who despises “weak” human beings. He always travels with a bomb inside his coat and his finger on the button that will detonate it.
Professor Van Helsing
When beautiful Lucy Westenra turns pale and weak, her suitor John Seward naturally calls for his old tutor Van Helsing, a top scientist and a leading “metaphysician”. Good move: Van Helsing knows how to destroy vampires because he has read lots of books.
Sherlock Holmes’s foe (“the Napoleon of Crime”) is an intellectual gone to the bad. Once a professor of mathematics “at one of our smaller universities”, he has become bored by number-crunching and turned to crime. The author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid is Holmes’s worthy antagonist.
Professor Henry Higgins
In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Higgins is a professor of phonetics who sets out to convert a Cockney flower girl into a well-spoken lady. Higgins is a professorial know-all, but is revealed as irascible and intolerant when Eliza turns out to have more willpower than he had expected.
In the children’s books written by Norman Hunter, Professor Theophilus Branestawm is an eccentric and, yes, absent-minded inventor living in an English village (he doesn’t seem to need the support system of a university lab). He is a genius, but most of his inventions work in ways he had not anticipated, or create entertaining havoc.
Always off in his study doing something mysterious, Professor Kirke owns the rambling house to which the Pevensie children are evacuated in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Gruff but kindly, he is wise enough to believe in all their incredible tales of Narnia. CS Lewis wrote a prequel – The Magician’s Nephew – to explain why, telling the adventures of Digory Kirke as a boy.
An ever-present supporting character in Hergé’s Tintin stories, Cuthbert Calculus is an archetype of intellectual abstraction, and chronically hard of hearing. A scientific genius, he manages brilliantly successful inventions (everything from moon rockets to a pill that cures alcoholism) while apparently incapable of mastering the demands of everyday life.
In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Welch is the prosing, pompous head of the history department in a provincial English university, who inflicts evenings of madrigal singing on his subordinates. Jim Dixon has to suck up to him but fantasises about doing bad things to him.
Professor Morris Zapp
Cocksure, overpaid, jet-setting Eng lit prof Morris Zapp is the most memorable of David Lodge’s academic characters. Charming and cynical, Zapp has a verve notably lacking in his pallid British counterparts. He first appears in Changing Places, where he visits the University of Rummidge (very similar to Lodge’s Birmingham) and cuts a swath through English academia.