Mary McGowan

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The Independent Online

Mary Teresa Delahunty, English scholar and teacher: born Manchester 18 February 1916; OBE 2000; married 1939 Luke McGowan (two sons); died Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire 22 August 2001.

Mary McGowan had a genius for friendship, a lifelong passion for the theatre, for literature and for literary scholarship, and a remarkable gift for the inspiring teaching of adult students.

She was born Mary Delahunty, one of six children, in Manchester in 1916; her formal education was broken off at the age of 15 when her father, a builder, died and she had to go out to work. A practising Roman Catholic with a strong streak of social idealism, she later joined a Distributist community in Northamptonshire. Then came the Second World War, marriage and service in the Land Army.

After the war, however, she was left to bring up two sons single-handed, having often a hard struggle to make ends meet. In the mid-1950s she returned to formal education, taking her O levels at the same time as her elder son, John, then going on to A levels and teacher training. In 1962, while teaching for the Inner London Education Authority in Tower Hamlets, she began studying part-time for a BA in English at Birkbeck College, successfully completing the course in 1966 aged 50. After a year's teaching at a Catholic school in Kenya, she became a lecturer in English at Shenstone Teachers' Training College in Worcestershire – later incorporated into North Worcestershire College, Bromsgrove – and continued there until she retired from full-time teaching in 1979.

During her time at Bromsgrove she managed, with characteristic energy, to complete, as a part-time graduate student at Birkbeck, her doctoral thesis "Pickwick and the Pirates" (on contemporary plagiarisms of Dickens).

In 1977 she moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire and her book-crammed flat overlooking the High Street became a hospitable venue both for her own extended family and for an ever-growing band of friends (her "pals") of many kinds – students, colleagues, neighbours, academics, actors. To quite a few younger actors she became a sort of combined mother/mentor figure, following their developing careers with the keenest interest. She took an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute (submitting a thesis, "Charles Knight's Pictorial Edition of Shakespeare") and from 1983 to 1997 was a very active Secretary of the Shakespeare Club. She was also a long-serving member of the Birthday Celebrations Committee.

McGowan's personal educational history, together with the invigorating vitality of her personality, her infectious enthusiasm for literature, and her strong interest in people as individuals, made her exceptionally successful as a teacher of mature part-time students. The classes on Shakespeare, poetry and the Victorian novel that she taught, over many years, initially for Birmingham University's Extra-Mural Department and then for Warwick University's Department of Continuing Education, were invariably bursting at the seams with delighted students.

She also tutored for many years on London University's Summer School for American, Commonwealth and European Students and was particularly good at nurturing and guiding students unfamilar with British culture and whose first language in many cases was not English.

McGowan went on teaching in Stratford for Warwick's Continuing Education Department well into her eighties, attracting and retaining classes of upwards of 40 strongly committed students. In the Millennium New Year Honours List she was appointed OBE for her outstanding services to adult education over more than 30 years.

Despite failing health (after 1999 she was largely confined to a wheelchair) she continued to be a zestful theatre-goer, Peter Barnes's Jubilee being the last RSC production she attended, and she continued also to be sought after by devoted students. Only 10 days or so before she died she chaired, in the sheltered-accommodation flat to which she had moved some time before, a discussion group on the poetry of D.H. Lawrence.

In her later years she became happily associated with Auberon Waugh's Literary Review, serving for 10 years as a member of the poetry-judging panel and, in keeping with her festive nature, greatly enjoying the convivial lunches at which the judging took place. In this connection, as in her Stratford life, she numbered among her closest "pals" some highly distinguished people but in her readiness to be sympathetically interested, and her genuine loving-kindness, she was the same to everyone, never mind how famous or obscure.

Michael Slater