Shiela Grant Duff

Pre-war correspondent in Prague and author of a classic memoir of the dilemmas of the 1930s
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The Independent Online

Shiela Grant Duff, journalist, farmer and writer: born London 11 May 1913; twice married (three sons, two daughters); died 19 March 2004.

Shiela Grant Duff not only lived with passion the experience of watching the shadow of Hitler spread over Europe, and felt its impact on her emotional life. She was able to recapture that experience in a classic memoir, The Parting of Ways (1982).

She was never tempted by the absolutist solutions in which many of her most gifted contemporaries took refuge: Communism, Fascism or the certainties of formal religion. Instead, she chose freedom.

Her memoir revealed how her friends at Oxford in the early 1930s, who included Isaiah Berlin, Douglas Jay and his future wife Peggy Garnett, Goronwy Rees and the German Rhodes Scholar Adam von Trott, were torn apart by the dilemmas of a Europe menaced by dictatorship and war. Few young Englishwomen threw themselves with such emotional intensity into the political tragedy of the 1930s, and none wrote about it with greater lucidity.

After Oxford, Grant Duff, armed with a PPE degree and a private income of £3 a week, travelled in Germany and then went to Paris, where she worked for the Chicago Daily News and came under the influence of its Paris correspondent, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who had been expelled from Germany as soon as Hitler took power. He taught her the rudiments of journalism and soon converted her to his conviction that Hitler meant to destroy the peace of Europe unless Britain and France resisted by supporting the Czechoslovakian republic.

Her first assignment, to cover the German victory in the plebiscite in the Saarland in early 1935, gave her a lasting fear of Nazi Germany. Back in England, she worked briefly for the Labour Party and for Krishna Menon, who introduced her to Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1936 she set up as a correspondent for The Observer in Prague, where her reporting was deeply unwelcome to the paper's then editor, the pro-appeasement Conservative J.L. Garvin.

She made friends with the Czech journalist Hubert Ripka, subsequently a leading member of the Czech government in exile in London. Eventually she used a remote family connection to put Ripka in contact with Winston Churchill in an attempt to reverse the Chamberlain government's appeasement of Hitler.

She undertook, as a favour to Mowrer, a hair-raising assignment to Malaga, ostensibly to find out what had happened to Arthur Koestler (then working for the News Chronicle), who had been imprisoned as a Republican spy by the Franco forces, but in reality on a kind of intelligence mission, commissioned - unknown to her - by a Comintern agent.

She then agreed to write a Penguin Special for Allen Lane on the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia. The book, written in haste, came out, as Europe and the Czechs (1938), at precisely the moment when Czechoslovakia was doomed. She arrived at Victoria on the boat train to see her book on the news-stand for the first time, alongside headlines announcing the Munich pact.

This story of journalism and political intrigue under the shadow of Fascism, like a real-life story by Graham Greene or Eric Ambler, with a hint of Casablanca, was the backdrop to Shiela Grant Duff's intense emotional life. Born in London in 1913, she was brought up in the heart of the Edwardian ruling class. Her father, Adrian Grant Duff, was in command of the first battalion of the Black Watch when he was killed in September 1914. His death gave her a peculiarly intense hatred of war.

Her paternal grandfather, Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff, had been a Member of Parliament and Governor of Madras. Her mother Ursula's father was the Victorian banker and polymath, friend and neighbour of Charles Darwin Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury; and her maternal grandmother was the daughter of the archaeologist, and owner of 25,000 acres in Dorset, Lt-Gen Augustus Pitt-Rivers.

It was daring of Shiela's mother at the time to send a girl from that background to such a middle-class school as St Paul's, and even more so to send her to Oxford. Her years there, at Lady Margaret Hall, plunged her into painful emotional conflicts. She fell in love with Goronwy Rees, the brilliant child of a Welsh Methodist minister, but eventually broke with him, partly because of his friendship with Guy Burgess, the Soviet agent. She also became involved in a passionate friendship with the magnetic and enigmatic Adam von Trott zu Stolz, who was to be martyred by the Nazis for his involvement in the plot of 20 July 1944 to assassinate Hitler.

Trott, as she called him in her long and anguished letters about love and politics, came from a family that had had a forest in Hesse called after it since the 13th century; his father had been a minister in the Kaiser's government. She was enchanted by his personality but infuriated by his patriotism. She was mystified by his complicated attempts to prevent war between the two countries he loved. In the end, her friend Ripka reported to Churchill a proposition von Trott had made, hinting that independence might be restored to Czechoslovakia in return for concessions to Germany by Poland. War broke out between Shiela and Adam, she wrote, before it broke out between their two countries. The fear of war "froze all hearts".

Shiela Grant Duff once wrote to Adam von Trott that what she really wanted was to have children and "live in the country somewhere very remote and read books and bathe and have a farm", and finally that came about. She worked for the BBC, and in 1942 married Noel Newsome, the creator of the BBC's European Service. They were divorced in 1950 and she married Micheal Sokolov Grant, a White Russian who had been an officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. They farmed together in England and later in Ireland. He died in 1998.

Godfrey Hodgson