Lady Anne Hill

Bookseller wife of Heywood
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The Independent Online

Anne Catherine Dorothy Gathorne-Hardy, bookseller: born Glenalmond, Perthshire 12 October 1911; married 1938 Heywood Hill (died 1986; two daughters); died Darsham, Suffolk 22 October 2006.

Anne Hill was married for nearly 50 years to Heywood Hill, founder of the London bookshop that still bears his name in Curzon Street; and it was largely due to her personality that the shop acquired a reputation as a meeting place of the social and literary élite which it retains to this day.

She was working as Heywood Hill's assistant when he opened his shop in 1936, and married him two years later. For three chaotic years during the Second World War, while he was in the Army, she ran the shop herself with assistance from the novelist Nancy Mitford, an episode she later recalled in A Bookseller's War (1997), based on her correspondence with her absent husband. As the bombs rained down, G. Heywood Hill Ltd established itself as a literary salon.

After 1943, when her first daughter was born, she ceased to be actively involved in the shop's management, but continued frequently to enliven it with her cheerful and idiosyncratic presence.

She was born Lady Anne Gathorne-Hardy in 1911, only daughter of the third Earl of Cranbrook. The Gathorne-Hardys - ennobled in the 1870s after Anne's great-grandfather served in Disraeli's cabinet - were a rather intellectual and distinctly unconventional family, with a characteristic rapid, affected speaking style. Anne had four older brothers, whom she adored - Jock (who succeeded in 1915 as fourth Earl), Eddie, Bob and Anthony. Eddie and Bob were experts in the rare book world, though best known to their contemporaries for their flagrant and rackety homosexuality. (Miles Malpractice, the outrageous "queer" in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, is based on Eddie.)

Their father died of tuberculosis when Anne was three, and she was brought up by her mother, the Dowager Countess, at Snape Priory, a rambling Victorian house near Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Dorothy Cranbrook was a woman of advanced views. She considered homosexuality to be perfectly normal, and she was a socialist, her daughter taking after her in both respects.

While suffering from the usual lack of education of women of her generation, and from shyness, Anne was a clever and quick-witted girl, who could be extremely funny. From her earliest years, books were her principal delight and recreation.

In April 1935 she met the then unknown James Lees-Milne, later to achieve renown as the country-house expert of the National Trust and a diarist. They fell in love at first sight, and were engaged for nine months; but eventually agreed that they were not well matched (she was untidy by nature, while he was fastidious), and did not marry. In 1943, he wrote some words about her in his diary which probably reflect his earlier feelings for her:

She is truly one of the world's worthwhile women, so intelligent, male-minded and deliciously humorous. She is "a dark mare" and worth a million more than the glittering women . . .

She then gravitated towards another handsome and sexually ambiguous literary man, Heywood Hill, a cousin of her sister-in-law Fidelity Cranbrook. Though there was no coup de foudre, they became deeply fond of one another and their marriage, which produced two daughters, was very happy. They lived first in Warwick Avenue, Maida Vale (then a thriving colony of artistic personalities such as the Lennox Berkeleys and Feliks Topolski), later in Richmond.

After the war, when not involved in family life and the bookshop, she became absorbed in researching her genealogy and the lives of her more unconventional family connections. She was especially interested in Byron's rascally friend Captain Edward Trelawny, about whom she wrote several articles.

She was appreciated by her contemporaries for her spontaneity, originality, warm-heartedness and sense of the absurd, and features entertainingly in several published collections of letters and diaries, including those of Nancy Mitford and Frances Partridge.

After selling the bookshop in 1965, Anne and Heywood retired to her childhood home, Snape Priory, where they looked after Anne's mother until her death in 1969. Following Heywood's death in 1986, after he had suffered for some years from Parkinson's disease, her daughter and son-in-law Harriet and Simon Frazer came to live with her.

She enjoyed a happy old age in her beloved Suffolk countryside, keeping up a large correspondence with friends (including her sometime fiancé Jim Lees-Milne) in her characteristic spidery handwriting.

Michael Bloch