Obituary: Rosemary Syfret

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The Independent Culture
IN 1948, when Cambridge University finally decided to grant women full degrees, it was Rosemary Syfret who, as Praelector, led the first contingent of Girton undergraduates into the Senate House for the degree ceremony. "It pleased her immensely," one of her contemporaries remembers. It was appropriate that the honour should go to her because care for students was at the heart of her academic career, first at Cambridge then Oxford.

The daughter of an admiral, she was educated at Godolphin School in Salisbury, and went to Girton to read for the English Tripos in 1934. She taught at Southend High School for Girls for two years, before returning to Girton as a research scholar, studying the origins and early years of the Royal Society. But research was interrupted by the outbreak of war and for three years she became a civil servant. She dealt with minutes and correspondence for various inter-departmental committees on security and polished the administrative skills that the academic world later found so useful.

Back at Girton after the war Syfret published some of her work on the Royal Society and became a tutor, fellow and registrar. In her spare time she was an enthusiast for outdoor life, especially gardening, and became a regular player in the biennial Girton versus Somerville dons' tennis matches - although the course of her career meant she had to change sides. Her friend and Cambridge contemporary the classicist, and Life Fellow of Girton, Alison Duke remembers her as "an extremely civilised and kindly species of younger don. She was so good at dealing with undergraduates, especially at encouraging some of the more diffident students."

But in 1946 her career was again interrupted. She was summoned home for 18 months to nurse her mother after a major operation. Alison Duke says, "It was the tail-end of the way women were treated. I'm sure her father sent for her and said, `You have a duty'." The need to look after her invalid mother interrupted her career at various points and was, as she herself accepted, the reason why her list of academic publications was short.

In 1952 Syfret applied successfully for the post of Lecturer in English and Treasurer at Somerville College, Oxford. In supporting her application, the Mistress of Girton praised her administrative skill and efficiency and added, "Efficiency as such is not a thing she has any temptation to overestimate . . . Academic and human interests have always really come first with her." Generations of students in tutorials were grateful for that humanity. Her pleasure in some point or observation that hadn't occurred to her before and her obvious love of works under discussion had a way of bringing out the best in undergraduates without resorting to the intellectual demolition work in which some more flamboyant tutors indulged.

Her successor as Tutorial Fellow in English Literature at Somerville, Katherine Duncan-Jones, remembers, "She had a wonderfully generous and refreshing attitude to students. There was a readiness to cross boundaries." On one occasion, she even presented a student with an old car for which she had no further use. The then Principal of Somerville, Dame Janet Vaughan, said simply, "When she walks into a room one realises her quality. She has a certain richness of personality which it is hard to define."

In 1966, towards the end of her academic career, Rosemary Syfret published a book of selections from Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, with an introductory essay. Even if it broke little new ground academically, it was typical of her love for the subject and ability to communicate to other people. After retiring from Somerville she shared a house at Limpsfield in Surrey with Robin Hammond, a fellow academic and friend from undergraduate days at Girton onwards.

Gillian Linscott

Rosemary Syfret, English scholar and university administrator: born London 14 June 1914; Tutor and Registrar, Girton College, Cambridge 1944- 50, Fellow 1946-50; Lecturer, Queen Mary College, London University 1950- 51; Lecturer in English, Somerville College, Oxford 1952-66, Treasurer 1952-57, Fellow 1953-66, Honorary Research Fellow 1967-98; Lecturer in English, St Hugh's College, Oxford 1968-74; died Oxted, Surrey 6 September 1998.

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