Jean Field: Expert on the poet Walter Savage Landor
Wednesday 20 June 2012
Jean Field was an expert on the 19th-century poet Walter Savage Landor, whom she felt had been much maligned by earlier biographers and whose standing she aimed to rescue with her magnum opus Landor: a Biography of Walter Savage Landor (2000). In this book, in which she concentrated on his Warwickshire background – which she herself shared – she unearthed new material, particularly regarding his friendships with other writers such as Charles Dickens, who based the character of Boythorn in Bleak House on him, and Robert and Elizabeth Browning, who took care of him during his last years in Florence.
Field portrayed the fierce individualism of his character, which was in sharp contrast to his imaginative prose and sensitive poetry. She was persuasive in presenting him as being a more amiable character than previous biographers had supposed, despite various murky episodes which included firing off a shotgun in his Oxford rooms, and several affairs and libel actions.
The book represented the culmination of a fascination with Landor that had begun early in life. Jean Box was born in Leamington Spa in 1938. In 1949 she won a scholarship to her local grammar school, King's High School for Girls, which stands in the antique heart of Warwick town, occupying buildings which include the imposing 17th-century mansion Landor House, where Walter Savage Landor had been born and raised. Captivated by the historical atmosphere, studying in the rooms where Landor's family had lived for over 80 years, Jean fell under his spell.
In 1956 she undertook teaching training at Ripon College, choosing Landor as the subject for her finals thesis. Thus began her lifelong study into all aspects of the life and works of this celebrated Victorian poet, who, in the latter half of the 20th century had somewhat fallen out of literary favour.
During the 1950s and '60s, Jean worked as an English teacher in Warwickshire and east London. She also spent periods as a nursery teacher on cruise liners including Cunard's Queen Mary, and P&O's Oronsay, which allowed her to sail several times around the world. During this time she met Stanley Field, who was working as a drayman for the Watney Manns brewery – some days he would collect her from school in his lorry, much to the headmaster's dismay (he later worked as a progress chaser in a factory). They were married in 1966 in St Margaret's Church, Whitnash, her beloved village, and the subject of several historical books including Beneath the Great Elms (1993); The Ash Grove (1996).
Bringing up children and teaching occupied her fully throughout the 1970s and '80s, but on taking early retirement in 1990, she seized the opportunity to fulfill her dream of writing, and within 16 years she had published 10 books, all on themes near and dear to her. These included She Dyed About Midnight (1992), a history of Landor House; Kings of Warwick (1995), an illustrated history of the Henry VIII Charity in Warwick; Acorns, Oaks and Squirrels (1996), the history of Warwick Preparatory School; The Ilex and the Mulberry Tree (1997), an illustrated history of Kings High School; Mary Dormer Harris (2002) the first biography of the notable Warwickshire historian; and Rangemaster (2006), a history of Flavels of Leamington Spa, one of the oldest companies in Europe still making domestic appliances and the company where her father, Hurban William Box, had worked all his life.
On 30 January 2000 Field held the founding meeting of the Landor Society, on the anniversary of the poet's birthday. The society thrived and members continue to meet to study Landor's poetry and prose; and there is a bi-annual newsletter Gebir, named for Landor's blank-verse epic. The Society was enrolled into the Alliance of Literary Societies, where BBC Radio 4 spotted it as a suitable subject for its short series on newly formed literary societies. In 2003 a programme featuring readings of Landor's poems was broadcast in the UK and overseas, which led to descendants of the Landor family in Europe and the US enthusiastically joining the society. This led in turn to a large donation being raised towards the restoration of Landor's tomb in the English cemetery in Florence.
An annual Walter Savage Landor memorial poetry prize was established for the pupils of King's High School and it is to this, her old school, that Field has donated her extensive, personal collection of Landor books and papers.
Jean Margaret Box, teacher and writer: born Leamington Spa 15 March 1938; married 1966 Stanley Field (died 2005; one daughter, one son); died 3 May 2012.
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