I had always assumed that Kathleen Nott had come from the professional classes. I was therefore astonished when, only recently, after many years of friendship, I learned that her father had been a lithographic printer and that her mother had kept the Brixton boarding house that became the setting of her 1960 novel Private Fires.
Regarded by everyone in her youth as a bird of paradise in a family of sparrows, she moved effortlessly from state school to King's College London, and then, on an open exhibition, to Somerville College, Oxford. Her original intention had been to read English, but she soon decided that that was not a sufficiently demanding academic discipline and instead opted for PPE.
It was at Oxford that she met Christopher Bailey, the distinguished "boffin" (as she would refer to him, after their divorce, half in admiration and half in derision) whom she would marry, with whom she would escape at the last minute from Holland when the Germans invaded, and whom, soon after the Second World War, she would accompany to Sweden - a country of which she would write brilliantly, albeit with a marked lack of love or enthusiasm, in her 1961 A Clean, Well-lighted Place.
It was in 1961 that she achieved her first major success with a contentious and strenuously argued work of philosophy, The Emperor's New Clothes, in which, herself an atheist, she took issue with such fashionable Christian propagandists of the time as Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. She enjoyed all the ensuing controversy, dismissing those who disagreed with her as "nincompoops" (a favourite word of hers when she felt that people, however eminent, had slipped below her own rigorous intellectual standards).
For many years, from the 1950s onwards, Kathleen Nott was active in Pen, when that organisation was more concerned with literature and less concerned with human rights than it is today. She was therefore the obvious choice to edit for Pen the Unesco-sponsored Bulletin of Selected Books (later retitled Pen International), a publication designed to increase knowledge of literature written in languages of lesser currency. Unfortunately, during her 27-year editorship, sales remained disappointing, such was her intellectual approach to a task which she carried out with unfaltering dedication for a salary far smaller than her father would have earned as a printer.
In 1974 she was elected President of English Pen. But this office, which at first brought her so much pleasure, eventually brought her chagrin. In the following year Pen began its plans to host an international congress, and reluctantly the executive committee came to the conclusion that Nott lacked the ease and charm of personality essential in anyone whose task it would be to entertain a host of eminent and, in many cases, demanding writers from all over the world. Instead of being re-elected for a further year of office, she was therefore replaced by Stephen Spender. When attempting to enlist my support to oppose his election, she told me: "I am as good a poet as he is and a far better critic." I had not the heart to tell her that, although that might indeed be true, she unfortunately lacked both his charisma and his popularity all over the world.
But if Kathleen Nott lacked those attributes, she was, until her last, increasingly depressing years as a semi-invalid in a nursing home, always stimulating and entertaining company when among friends. Over dinner at the University Women's Club, she would regale me with scandalous anecdotes about other writers, in a voice so loud (like many deaf people she was unaware of its volume) that I was nervous of how much was being overheard. Her jokes were good, if often acerbic, and she had the rare ability to be as much amused by the jokes of others as by her own.
On her retirement from her Pen editorship, I wrote of her as "a poet sadly underrated by those swept hither and thither on choppy tides of fashion, a prose writer who combines vigour with self-discipline, and a philosopher with a rare gift for exegesis not only of her own ideas but of the ideas of others". I meant every word of that tribute then, and I mean every word of it now.
Kathleen Cecilia Nott, writer: born London 11 February 1905; FRSL 1977; married 1929 Christopher Bailey (marriage dissolved); died Swindon, Wiltshire 20 February 1999.Reuse content