Jenifer Hart

Oxford historian who was accused of being a Russian spy
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The Independent Online

Jenifer Margaret Williams, historian: born 31 January 1914; Research Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1951-52; Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, St Anne's College, Oxford 1952-81; married 1941 Herbert Hart (died 1992; three sons, one daughter); died Oxford 19 March 2005.

With the death of Jenifer Hart in Oxford at the age of 91 a line has been drawn under a period when for some at least it felt reasonable and possible to lead an unworldly and serious-minded life based on liberal principles, progressive politics, love and friendship.

This was the life Jenifer Hart aimed at and which, as much as anyone, she achieved. Her conscious life was shaped by the aftermath of the First World War and the setting-up of the League of Nations (in whose values she had an abiding belief), the desperate politics of the Thirties, the Second World War, and afterwards, more parochially, the struggles to extend an Oxford education to more women.

She was born in 1914, the second of four daughters of John Fischer Williams, an outstanding barrister (later knighted) from a prosperous family of Far Eastern traders, and his wife Eleanor Hay Murray, a descendant of the third Duke of Atholl, artistic, emotional and strongly conventional. Jenifer revered her father, as did many others, "for his brain, his learning, his integrity and his conversation", and was permanently influenced by his post-Gladstonian liberalism; like him, she took up the cause of proportional representation. From 1920 to 1930 John Williams worked in Paris on the Reparations Commission, so Jenifer's formal education began at a French lycée. From 1927 she boarded at Downe House, a school which produced at that time many distinguished women.

Before going up to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1932 she spent nine months in Geneva at the time of the Disarmament Conference, and it was here that she adopted a "humanistic hedonism" that owed much to Bloomsbury. In 1935 she went down from Oxford with a first class degree in History and joined the Communist Party. Disturbed by social injustice and unemployment, as many were, she had come to believe that only the Communists cared enough about these things.

Having passed the Civil Service entrance examination third from the top of the list, the first woman to pass so high, she was assigned to the Home Office, thus gratifying the Party, which wanted her to act as a secret agent. In fact she never gave them any information and by 1939, uneasy about the pressure to tread the Party line, had ceased to regard herself as a member.

In 1936 she met Herbert Hart, who had been an outstanding student of philosophy at New College, Oxford, and was now a rising barrister, and in 1937 they began to live together. The Civil Service of those days operated a marriage bar for women but Jenifer was, exceptionally, allowed to marry in 1941.

Herbert, descended from Polish and German Jewish immigrants, was good-looking and immensely clever. They spent the war years in London but in 1945 Herbert was elected to a Fellowship in Philosophy at New College, and lived there during the week. Jenifer resigned in 1947 and joined him in Oxford, by which time they had a daughter and a son.

In 1951 she published The British Police, describing the history and organisation of the police service, and was elected to a Research Fellowship at Nuffield College. (A second book, Proportional Representation: critics of the British electoral system 1820-1945, was published in 1992, after her retirement, and in 1998 an autobiography, Ask Me No More.) The following year saw the beginning of the most fulfilling period of the Harts' life, when Herbert was appointed to the Professorship of Jurisprudence at the university and Jenifer to a Fellowship in Modern History at St Anne's College, where she remained until her retirement in 1981, tutoring and lecturing on mainly 19th-century history and politics. This was the period of liberalising change at Oxford as elsewhere, culminating, to her satisfaction, in the opening of all but one of the Oxford colleges to men and women.

Jenifer Hart's pupils were much in awe of her. She presented a striking appearance: a tall, lean figure, an austerely beautiful face framed by straight red-gold hair, an abrupt and imperious manner. She loved bright, clear colours and her clothes were of a style all her own. Being fiercely interviewed by a middle-aged tutor wearing a leather mini-skirt over hooped stockings of green and yellow has become part of the St Anne's entrance-examination myth. Those fortunate enough to be taught by her and having survived the unrelenting demands to think and express themselves with the greatest possible clarity - her watchword - still stand out.

In 1973 she welcomed Herbert's appointment as Principal of Brasenose College, largely on the grounds that it gave her a whole new set of people to get to know, and was sad when it ended. In St Anne's, meanwhile, not all aspects of her involvement were to her liking. She viewed the college finances, for example, with her natural frugality and asceticism, but her dogmatic preaching, as it seemed, of economy and retrenchment, highly principled though it was, exasperated the Principal and college officers, who accused her of short-termism and saving candle-ends. They had ambitious schemes for improving the college's endowment and were steering the college in the direction it has since followed. Jenifer had hoped that colleagues might propose her as Principal when a vacancy occurred, but that never happened.

A second son had been born in 1948, and in 1959 Jenifer gave birth to her youngest child, Jacob, a beautiful and in his way gifted child, whose brain was damaged by an accident at birth. The love and devotion of both parents and especially Jenifer's gradual discovery of ways of reaching Jacob, giving him security and a worthwhile and happy life, won unqualified admiration. A touching picture of the chaotic life at this time in the Hart household, presided over for 36 years by ever-devoted Nanny, is presented in Karen Armstrong's memoir The Spiral Staircase (2004).

The counter-culture of the Sixties was testing for liberal parents, and the Harts' three older children, then teenagers, rejected their elders' view of achievement and, more painfully for the parents, the high value they put on rationality (Jenifer never had much time for the unconscious). Remorseful at the wilful unkindness with which she had treated her mother, Jenifer strove for better relations with her own children.

When in the 1960s there was concern about Communist infiltration of the Civil Service, Jenifer was interviewed twice by MI5, one of the interviewers being Peter Wright, author of Spycatcher (1987), and comments stressing Herbert's war work in counter-intelligence started to appear in the press. Her natural frankness in an interview for BBC TV's Timewatch in 1983 resulted in headlines that put a sinister slant on her words - "I Was Russian Spy, Says M15 Man's Wife," reported the Sunday Times.

The Harts were appalled, and by threatening a libel action forced the Sunday Times to publish a brief and in their view grudging apology. Jenifer felt that she had been pilloried as dishonourable and Herbert, who had always been strongly opposed to Communism, suffered a severe nervous breakdown. It was a bitter episode that shook their confidence in the integrity of institutions, and one from which they never recovered.

Apart from work and family, Jenifer Hart's other passion was for the large, romantic house, Lamledra, on the south coast of Cornwall, built by her father at the time of his marriage in 1911, standing 200ft above the sea, with spectacular views. After the death of her parents she kept possession of the house: "My socialist principles as regards inheritance . . . evaporated." Here the family spent idyllic holidays, enlivened by the addition of large numbers of friends and pupils. The living was austere - not much hot water, 40-watt light bulbs, chilly bathing in the sea, thistles and gorse to be hacked at in the garden under Jenifer's unflagging supervision. All this was endured, and gladly, for the rewards were priceless: invigorating surroundings, the amiable companionship of dons and hippies, intelligent and amusing debate - all that Jenifer loved best. A vignette of Lamledra affectionately recalled by habitués depicts a line of guests toiling up the cliff path bent double under backpacks half-filled with pebbles from the beach to replace the gravel that was blown away in the gales. "There goes the chain-gang," remarked Herbert.

In December 1992 Herbert, who had retired from Brasenose in 1978, died. The marriage had been one of incompatible personalities. He once remarked to their daughter, "The trouble with this marriage is that one of us doesn't like sex and the other doesn't like food."

Nevertheless, they were united by respect each for the other's individual life and most especially by their shared intellectual and moral values. Jenifer was attracted to men with brilliant minds - Isaiah Berlin, Douglas Jay, Michael Oakeshott. She had the kind of honesty that is usually called brutal (she described herself, correctly, as "ultra-critical and disparaging"). But where her emotions were deeply involved her honesty could be tempered with reticence. When she shared confidences with friends she expected not to be betrayed.

Margaret Howatson