Obituary: Sally Purcell
Thursday 29 January 1998
Sally Purcell died of a lymphoma of the brain cells so rare that only some 100 cases are recorded. She left her body to medical science and died with pounds 200 to her name.
She was born in 1944 into a working-class family, descendants of the composer Henry Purcell's brother, in Aston Fields, Worcestershire, where she attended the village primary school before going to Bromsgrove High School. Inspired by her teacher, the playwright David Rudkin, she excelled in Greek and Latin, though she chose to read Medieval and Modern French at Lady Margaret Hall after becoming the first girl at her school to win an open scholarship to Oxford.
She was much involved with the university's Poetry Society and began publishing her distinctive poems in undergraduate magazines. She remained in Oxford to complete an MA thesis in 1970 and thereafter rarely left its environs.
In her hand-me-down grey Lancing College sports jacket and with her small hippopotamus tucked permanently under her arm, she was the kind of eccentric whom only such university towns can support. In speech, she never used contractions, saying "I do not think", never "I don't", and her delivery was evenly accented, as if English were French.
She lived by and for books. With its libraries and pubs (she worked at the King's Arms for years) Oxford allowed her to scrape a living. Careless of her material well-being and wholly without self-pity, she never complained of her breadline conditions. Her lack of interest in the quotidian meant that she watched no television other than horse-racing and cartoons, did not listen to the radio or read newspapers. She did not understand how bank accounts worked and never had one. Latterly she became partly reconciled to telephones and learned enough word- processing for her freelance bibliographic work.
She was meticulous in all her work. For many years she lived partly from typing: theses, which she admitted to correcting whenever their grammar pained her or she spotted a wrong reference; and several of John Wain's books. Later a mainstay of her income was proof-reading for the Voltaire Foundation, where her deep scholarship was especially appreciated.
With her immersion in the classics and the writers of medieval France, Italy and the early Renaissance, Purcell was always at odds with our time. Vulnerable as she often seemed, she had the inner resources to manage such a straitened way of life. She had a well-developed sense of mischief to go with her sometimes boyishly vulgar streak. But the core of her life was where her mind and spirit engaged with her learning.
Her poems reveal these concerns but give few biographical clues. They are concentrated dramatic lyrics, their matter generally drawn from classical, Arthurian and medieval myth. Cumulatively they create a haunting imaginative context which is still hard to analyse. "Ghostly music" and "diamantine elegance" are suggestive phrases from a review by Clive Wilmer. To the reader prepared to cast aside current preconceptions of what poetry should be, her poems can be enthralling.
She was no more ambitious for her poetry than for her welfare. She would write (or as she put it, "commit") poems only when they came to her, and then she would not think of publishing them unless someone asked for work. Her main collections were The Holly Queen (1971) and Dark of Day (1977) from Anvil; Lake and Labyrinth (1985) from Taxvs, and finally Fossil Unicorn (Anvil, 1997), which was produced just as she went into hospital, too late for her to recognise its publication.
Her translations include a selection of Provencal Poems (1969) and Dante's treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia, published as Literature in the Vernacular (1981), both for Carcanet Press, and Helene Cixous's The Exile of James Joyce (1972). She edited selections of George Peele and Charles of Orleans; an anthology of young poets The Happy Unicorns (with Libby Purves, 1971); and Rossetti's Early Italian Poets.
Her poetry translations are rather plain as she was a confirmed literalist. Only in her version of Nikos Gatsos's long poem Amorgos (Other Poetry Editions, 1980; to be reissued by Anvil) did she allow herself to respond to the poem's sympathetic combination of the classical and the folkloric with a crisp and delicate poetic translation.
She lived with her companion of 22 years William Leaf, the last ten years in Cumnor, Oxfordshire. She was a faithful friend who took pride and joy in the achievements of others and was always supportive of their endeavours.
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