Sheila Fletcher

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Sheila Margaret Lerpinière, historian: born Mansfield, Nottinghamshire 19 January 1924; married 1948 Ralph Fletcher (died 1974; three daughters); died Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 3 July 2001.

Sheila Fletcher was an outstanding and highly original historian of women's education and of women's lives. She came late to her subject (her first historical work was published at the age of 56), but her books combine scholarship, wit and readability. Her lifelong fascination with other people's lives, a remarkable ability to portray historical character and a born writer's artistry in words made her books not only important contributions to their subject but also works of literature.

The elder of two sisters, she was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, in 1924. Her father, Bill Lerpinière, of Huguenot descent, had built up a road-haulage business between the wars; her mother, Margaret (née Scott), was Scottish in origin. While not highly educated herself, Margaret was determined that her daughters should receive the best education available. From Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Mansfield, where she showed both literary and musical abilities, Sheila went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to read History. Because of the Second World War, she was only at LMH for two years, before being sent to the Ministry of Education, where she worked from 1944 to 1951.

It was there that she met her husband, Ralph Fletcher. They married in Oxford in 1948. Ralph was the very model of a career civil servant: having won a double First in classics at Balliol, he was a born administrator, with an incisive mind and an unrivalled capacity to get things done. His distinguished career culminated in his appointment as the Secretary of the University Grants Committee in 1970.

After three years in St John's Wood, north London, they moved in 1951 to Berkhamsted, in Hertfordshire, where Sheila was to remain for the rest of her life. There their three daughters, Meg, Emma and Katharine, were born. Despite the demands of family life, Sheila found time to write and publish two novels, Another Shore (1955) and Out of the Rain (1956). Although she had been determined to be a writer since childhood, she was later to see these novels as unsatisfying; a third novel was abandoned.

With the children in their teens and with Ralph's encouragement, she decided to take up teaching. She applied for a history lectureship at Wall Hall College of Education, where she taught from 1968 to 1984, and started on a PhD at London University. Then, in 1974, tragedy struck. On holiday in Cornwall, Ralph, as he often did, set out by himself for a walk on the nearby cliffs. He never returned. He had fallen from the cliffs and drowned.

It was a mark of Sheila Fletcher's inner strength that she responded to this devastating blow by refusing to let it stop her academic work. She continued to teach and completed her doctorate in 1976. Subsequently published as Feminists and Bureaucrats (1980), it dealt with the contribution of the Endowed Schools Commissioners to the creation of a structure of formal secondary schooling for girls in the last third of the 19th century, a hugely important step for the future of British society.

Her next book, Women First: the female tradition in English physical education 1880-1980 (1984), was on the bodily emancipation of the English girl. This was followed by Maude Royden (1989), the extraordinary story of a woman who made a courageous and sustained attempt to win ordination as an Anglican priest in the early years of the 20th century.

Her long-term interest in women's education, her sense of character and her sheer writing ability came together in the book for which she is likely to be remembered, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttelton's daughters (1997). The fourth Lord Lyttelton, of Hagley Hall near Stourbridge in Worcestershire, a notable reformer of women's education, had married Mary Glynne in a double ceremony at Hawarden at which the future prime minister William Gladstone also married Mary's sister Catherine. Of 12 Lyttelton children, the eight sons were exceptionally able, both as cricketers and in their careers.

Fletcher, allowed a full run of the Hagley archives, took a typically original line in looking not at the boys but at the girls, Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May, all of whom kept diaries and wrote copious letters. The wonderfully rich sources and Fletcher's remarkable eye for detail led to a compelling book. The reader, as in a novel, becomes deeply immersed in the lives and feelings of the girls. Following a superb set piece describing the death of Lady Lyttelton ("I am going away from you. I did not think it would have been so soon"), six months after the birth of her last son, we see the girls growing up, courting and marrying, only for tragedy to strike again: May dies of typhoid, Lord Lyttelton commits suicide and Lucy's husband, Fred (Lord Frederick Cavendish) is murdered by Irish terrorists in Phoenix Park in Dublin. Yet Victorian Girls is by no means a gloomy book. The girls, though religious, are full of zest and vitality.

Wherever she was, Sheila Fletcher could be relied upon for lively conversation. She literally made friends wherever she went, striking up conversations with strangers (sometimes to the embarrassment of her children). She was adept at asking disarming questions and managed to transcend differences of age, gender, social background, politics, interests and outlook.

She was an extremely energetic and engaged grandmother. At the age of 75 she could be seen demonstrating to a grandchild, aged five, how to roll down the grass slope at Berkhamsted Castle. She also loved her small house at Le Tronchet in Brittany, where she became a well-liked member of the village community.

In her final illness, she remained resolutely herself, full of interest in other people and working on her final book, on Mary Gladstone, the daughter of the prime minister.

Martin Sheppard