Obituary: Priscilla Napier

PERHAPS THE account of her early years, A Late Beginner (1966), showed Priscilla Napier at her perceptive, witty best.

It also set her in context. Her father, Sir William Hayter, was legal and sometime financial adviser to the Egyptian government, and Priscilla, born in 1908, spent much of her early life in Cairo. Of her nursery siblings, her brother William was to become Ambassador in Moscow and Warden of New College, Oxford, and her sister Alethea a respected literary talent.

After Downe House, Priscilla went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, read History, then at the age of 22 married a naval officer, Trevylyan Napier, a scion of the Napiers of Merchiston, whose family heroes ranged from the founder of logarithms to the conqueror of Sind. Trevylyan's ancestor left Scotland for Somerset in the reign of Henry VII; his immediate family were naval (both his father and grandfather were vice- admirals) and he himself died on active service, still in his thirties, in 1940. Priscilla brought up their son and two daughters, then in her long widowhood espoused her late husband's remarkable forebears in a series of books about the Napiers.

She won critical recognition with the first three - The Sword Dance: Lady Sarah Lennox and the Napiers (1971), A Difficult Country: the Napiers in Scotland (1972) and Revolution and the Napier Brothers, 1820-1840 (1973). Her publishing association with me began in 1990 with I Have Sind: Charles Napier in India, 1841-1844, followed a year later by Raven Castle: Charles Napier in India, 1844-1851 - good books on a good subject. By now her "non-Napier" output had extended to three books of verse, a translation (Bishop Theophan's The Art of Prayer), a novel published in the United States and a memoir of Lady Delia Peel.

After publishing another long poem, Ballad of King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas Wyatt (1994, to which Ted Hughes wrote the foreword), she returned to the Napiers again in 1995 with Black Charlie, a life of Admiral Sir Charles Napier, the tetchy, eccentric cousin of General Sir Charles, of Sind. Barbarian Eye was next (also 1995), subtitled "Lord Napier in China, 1834: the prelude to Hong Kong".

She then proposed a lengthy life of Captain Henry Napier (a less fortunate brother of General Sir Charles), which she had originally drafted in the 1960s and was now revising. She rejected the suggestion that it should be cut on the persuasive grounds that she was only able to make things longer. So Henry At Sea and Henry Ashore were published last year, tout non court, and those who sailored through them were rewarded - among other things - by Priscilla's sensitive and affecting final appraisal of her subject's life. The anguish of his marital bereavement, the curtailment of a future taken for granted, was for her something that struck a personal chord.

Latterly the response from the loyal core of known supporters - alerted ahead of each publication - began to dwindle. I reassured Priscilla that it was the Reaper not the prose that was doing the damage, but there is a certain melancholy in either explanation. And indeed her sort of cultivated, leisurely 19th-century portraits were already suffering in a changing market.

Her style was exuberant, tempered with excellent judgement. She had a flair for the felicitous expression, the unexpected image: of her childhood Bible studies - "We went clean through the Authorised Version and out the other end"; of her mother and her aunts - "true Victorians; not in a general way frightened of murder and sudden death, but perfectly terrified of insects"; of her cousin Jack Slessor's undiagnosed polio - "He limped from then onwards, all the way to the top of the RAF."

As a person Priscilla Napier was principled, tenacious, occasionally critical, generous with her laughter and her friendship. Blessedly she retained her enviable faculties to the end - not many 88-year-olds can produce an index of 72 handwritten foolscap pages in a fortnight. And, come to think of it, not many publishers want to receive one.

Michael Russell

Priscilla Hayter, writer: born Oxford 5 October 1908; married 1931 Trevylyan Napier (died 1940; one son, two daughters); died Guildford, Surrey 10 October 1998.