Obituary: Barbara Strachey

IN OLD age Barbara Strachey could be alarming to meet. It was hard to tell when she was pleased, though she was capable of laughing at a good story - a slight frown was more common than a broad smile. It was not difficult to get her full attention, and you could see her concentrating behind her thick glasses, while she smoked one of her tiny cigars. Though she made a life-size doll of her uncle Lytton Strachey, which always occupied a chair or shared the sofa with her and a cat or two, she was fundamentally a serious person.

This trait she believed she had inherited from her mother's family, the Pearsall Smiths, immensely rich Philadelphia Quakers. Two generations earlier they had moved to England in 1899, settling in a big house in Surrey, to carry out their mission of revivalism and social reform. High up on the agenda was female emancipation, for, despite the fact that the most celebrated of their number was Barbara's uncle Logan Pearsall Smith (who published his collections of Trivia and who had employed both Kenneth Clark and Cyril Connolly as secretaries), the family was a strict matriarchy. Barbara once told me, "All the Pearsall Smith women were monsters, and I'm one too."

Her father, Oliver Strachey, one of Lytton's elder brothers, was an ace cryptographer during both world wars. Her mother, Ray, was his second wife. (The daughter of his first marriage, Barbara's half-sister, was the writer Julia Strachey.) As little girls, Ray Costelloe and her sister Karin (who married Virginia Woolf's brother, the analyst Adrian Stephen) were abandoned by their mother, Mary, who left her first husband and children to live with Bernard Berenson at Villa I Tatti, near Florence. Barbara was largely brought up by her aunt Alys Pearsall Smith, who never stopped loving the husband who had unceremoniously dumped her - Bertrand Russell.

Many of these famous friends and relations were painted by Ray, who took up painting as a hobby late in life. (Some of her Bloomsbury portraits are on view temporarily at the National Portrait Gallery.) When I first met Barbara, she was living in a large house in Kensington that had a long room, empty of furniture, with these pictures lining the walls.

She was then retiring from her job at the BBC, where she had been central to the metamorphosis of the General Overseas Service into the World Service in 1965. Barbara had had a great deal to do with making the fairly rudimentary foreign broadcasting service, which relied heavily on repeats of domestic broadcasts, into a 24-hour English broadcasting service. She was very good at the details of programming on different frequencies to audiences in different time zones.

Barbara Strachey was at school in Switzerland and was then sent to Oxford High School and to Vienna before Oxford, where she took a disappointing Third in history. In an attempt to end her youthful rebellion, her parents sent her on a windjammer journey to Australia. She rebelled even further, by marrying a fellow passenger, Olaf Hultin, the son of Professor Arvid Hultin of Helsingfors. They married in January 1934, had a son, Roger, in October and divorced three years later in 1937.

In September of that year she married Wolf Halpern, son of Dr George Halpern of Jerusalem. (Barbara was pleased to have enlarged her ethnic horizons. She was a keen amateur ethnographer, and boasted, after a stay in hospital where several of the nurses were of West African origin, that she could guess their national tribal affiliations with 100 per cent accuracy.) Halpern joined the RAF and died in action in 1943. Barbara used his name until she began her second career as an author.

Following the untimely death in 1975 of her brother Christopher, who was Oxford's first professor of computing, Barbara moved into a small house in Jericho. There she managed to pursue a passion for gardening in a truly tiny space at the back. The house had a lot of stairs. In a room in the basement were stacks of filing cupboards, which contained the 20,000 letters and manuscripts that had devolved upon her from her grandmother, aunts and mother, each of whom wrote a daily letter to the others. Eventually she lodged Alys's large correspondence (which included some self-incriminating letters from Russell about his relationship with G.E. Moore, about whom I was writing a book, and which she gleefully produced for me, as she disapproved of "Bertie") with the great Russell collection at McMaster University in Canada.

These papers contained most of the sources she needed to write her first book, Remarkable Relations (1980), the story of the Pearsall Smith family. She was a fine writer, and the material was superlative, resulting in a book that received much critical praise.

This gave her the confidence to seek a publisher for a project she had been working on for a very long time. Barbara's daily routine included polishing off the Times crossword in a very few minutes, and working on her maps of Frodo's journeys in Middle Earth. Though she had no training in cartography, she drew the maps herself for Journeys of Frodo (1981), an atlas of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, to which she was devoted. To Tolkien adepts she is one of the immortals.

Next she did a book that she particularly enjoyed, because it gave her a reason to visit I Tatti, Mary Berenson: a self-portrait from her letters and diaries (1983), which she edited with Jayne Samuels. Then in 1985 she did a partial history of the other half of her own family: The Strachey Line: an English family in America, in India and at home, 1570 to 1902.

Despite her forbidding demeanour, Barbara Strachey enjoyed entertaining, and was a meticulous hostess. I remember a lunch in Jericho with Lady Ottoline Morrell's daughter, Julian, and her husband Igor Vinogradoff. The food and, especially, the wine were good. Barbara was an unlikely bon vivant, but she used to relish her excursions with the Sunday Times Wine Club. She was a great traveller while her health allowed, even travelling overland to India by bus - and her house was filled with tribal art souvenirs of her journeys to distant places.

Even when she had lost some mobility, she was energetic. To mark her 80th birthday in 1992 she hired a boat and took her guests on the river around Oxford. Before she had to leave her house with its impossible stairs, she used to navigate Oxford in a 4mph electric cart. She loved going to the opera, and was proud of belonging to the Cranium Club, a dining club that numbers many descendants of the Bloomsbury group among its members.

Barbara Strachey was formidable rather than likeable, and it has to be admitted that she was a difficult woman. But she had the resources of character of both sides of her remarkable families. Though she inspired nervousness rather than tenderness, it was difficult not to feel a fondness for her.

Barbara Strachey, broadcaster and writer: born 17 July 1912; married 1934 Olaf Hultin (one son; marriage dissolved 1937), 1937 Wolf Halpern (died 1943); died Oxford 15 October 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders