Obituary: Betty Sandars

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There was such a sweetness and modesty about Betty Sandars, and she was so very much loved, that it is hard now to distinguish her from that amazingly beautiful house and wonderland of garden with which she was so closely identified. She lived with her sister Nancy until her death at the age of 88, in the house renamed by her parents the Manor House at Little Tew, in Oxfordshire, which was once the village bakery. Her father was a county councillor of the generation of honest and capable paternalists produced only by the Victorian age.

About Betty's early life we have only crumbs of information, but it is important that her twin, Hugh, died around their eighth birthday. There was a schoolroom, but she learnt French and dancing from tutors shared between country houses: a lot of bicycling was necessary. She grew up scholarly, and devoted herself to completing a multi-volume work on the lives of the Marshals of France under Napoleon, left unfinished by a favourite uncle. When she had finished that she happily retired to country life and gardening. A walk around her garden was always conducted like a visit to old friends, flower by flower.

When I first met the two sisters 35 years ago at an attic flat in Oxford I was set the puzzle of guessing, by a peep from the window as they arrived, which was the famous archaeologist and which one made jam, but I could not tell. In some ways they turned out on close acquaintance to be very different, but in another way sufficiently deep, that they seemed one flame from two candles or one fruit from two branches, like sisters in Shakespeare.

Betty was simply and seriously religious; if no vicar was available she would all but take the services herself. She was an assiduous cleaner and tidier and collector-up of hymnbooks, and yet the least assertive of human beings and the least like the conventional church mouse. It is amazing how utterly unconventional she was without ever disturbing the surface of the water.

She hated the day when after 60 or 70 years she had to start locking her front door because a thief had called. She could not ever really enjoy long journeys overseas, though she was wildly adventurous about obscure railway lines and remote country hotels in England. It seemed that she very greatly enjoyed her life. She drank rather little but she knew the quality of every glass, and cheerfully ate what was in season. She was devoted to the festivals of the year, and to things like a curious sphere of greenery in which she nourished an advent candle. She was on intimate terms with the birds in her garden, who would come to her plate when she ate out of doors, as she did at every opportunity.

The amount she knew and the range of her interests were impressive but not in the least intimidating: you felt that the conversation had been continuous for many years, and that its roots were in a country house somewhere in the Irish provinces in the 1840s. The two sisters read aloud to one another for most of their lives. They entertained warmly and endlessly and read as Odysseus sailed.

Every blessing including human love seemed to be showered on Betty Sandars: she was an icon of happiness.

Peter Levi

Elizabeth Alys Sandars: born Little Tew, Oxfordshire 15 April 1907; died Banbury 16 July 1995.