Teacher and late-flowering novelist
Wednesday 19 April 2006
June Mary Barraclough, writer and teacher: born Brighouse, Yorkshire 2 December 1930; married 1959 David Wedgwood Benn (one son, one daughter); died London 25 March 2006.
At the age of 55, with The Heart of the Rose (1985), June Benn began a new career as a novelist under her maiden name, June Barraclough. A former teacher, she published 25 novels, which she once modestly described to a journalist as "popular genre romances and family sagas". She wrote to hold the readers by a plainness of style and plotting that moved them, lifted or dashed them in their eagerness to reach the next page. She had no need for exaggeration either of subject-matter or language.
A young woman falls in love with a young man; she says nothing to him or to anyone; he goes out of her life. She grieves as one would, never forgets him, but later marries a widower with young children and brings up a largish family. Simple? I think not. Not as she wrote it.
Her first published novel was the favourite, but I would recommend a later novel, Portrait of Maud (1994), which contains a remarkable account of a highly intelligent 16-year-old schoolgirl's love for one of her teachers. The girl is obsessed, but her observation and judgement are not diminished. The teacher, Q, is a doctor of philosophy and obviously excellent in the classroom, but in many ways a foolish woman. Benn balances the contradictions so that our sympathies are aroused and bruised. The writing is, as always, direct. It made me, an old man, feel as a 16-year-old felt in a rather puritanical society all those years ago. A remarkable achievement.
I never saw a single review of this book, but the libraries took it up; and Benn's Public Lending Right figures show the extent to which she captivated her readers. That is the reward this clever, independent woman would have wanted.
June Barraclough was born in Brighouse, Yorkshire, in 1930. Educated at Whitcliffe Mount school in Cleckheaton, she spent a term in Paris before going on to Somerville College, Oxford, where she graduated with honours in Modern Languages in 1952. In 1959 she married David Wedgwood Benn, most of whose career was spent in the BBC World Service.
She was by now a teacher of great experience and energy and had further qualified herself with a postgraduate certificate, gained with distinction, at London University's Institute of Education. Shortly afterwards, she gave birth to her children, Piers and Frances, and cared for her family until they were able to look after themselves, when she returned to teaching "to get out of the house".
She gained her expertise in teaching and teaching teachers at several London schools and colleges. When she left one of them, Kidbrooke Comprehensive in Blackheath, to have her son, a group of her pupils rang from a public call-box to beg, "Mrs Benn, please come back."
June Benn was not afraid to defend unpopular causes. She deplored the running down of the grammar schools and, though she approved the motives of the promoters of the policy, she argued that the change did not achieve its end - to give working-class children the chance to profit educationally at the highest levels.
What one noticed at once about June Benn was her tremendous energy. Whatever she did, she gave the task her full power and concentration. If she had to visit London for a medical or dental appointment, she would always manage to fit in an exhibition. She read with the same ferocious relish to the end of her life.
She could be sharply critical: my own first contact with her was a letter correcting an error in one of my novels. She felt that the public library was Everyman's university, used it herself regularly from early childhood and was influenced by what she read there. Vera Brittain's 1933 Testament of Youth had determined her to complete her general education at Somerville.
June Benn was not only energetic but careful, scholarly and diligent. As quite a young girl she kept a "writer's notebook". In 1955, at the request of Richard Wollheim, she translated Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. She published an anthology of feminist writings, The Woman's View, in 1967 and in 1986 the excellent Memorials, a selection of verse and prose suitable for use at funerals by agnostics and non-believers.
Her most remarkable achievement, the writing of novels, came late in her life. She had the true novelist's assiduity and nothing, until the final illness, was allowed to interfere. She never slackened once she had found her true métier. She did not neglect her other concerns, her family, her garden, her many friends and her foreign languages, but in writing fiction she felt fulfilled.
She never lost her novelist's touch, even at the end. Two and a half weeks before her death, she was brought back home from hospital, and as the ambulance-men carried her up past her beloved garden, she took note of the flowers and their slow struggle towards maturity in this cold year. As she described the terminal illness to me over the phone, she spoke in a strong, clear voice, displaying a mastery of the emotions and language that I could only envy.
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