Monday 20 June 1994
KITTY MUGGERIDGE once remarked, while seriously ill from typhus in the Soviet Union in 1932, that there was nothing in life except love and work. Over the succeeding six decades she was to make these two themes synonymous through her talents as a mother and home-maker, as the devoted wife of the celebrated author Malcolm Muggeridge, and as a gifted writer and translator.
Kitty's mother, Rosalind Potter (a sister of Beatrice Webb the Fabian reformer and sociologist), was the ninth and youngest daughter of Lawrencina Heyworth and Richard Potter, a wealthy timber merchant and speculator. The Potters were both of well-to-do Lancashire stock with 'enlightened views', a tendency which Rosalind developed into an inveterate and individual form of Bohemianism. She married George Dobbs, who worked for the Dent publishing company, in 1899. After which the speedy collapse of a private business venture led to bankruptcy and the newly married couple's withdrawal to Switzerland at the behest of Rosalind's disapproving sisters in return for payment of outstanding debts.
While George Dobbs became a director of Lunns tours, settling down to a peaceful, if unprofitable existence entertaining wealthy tourists, his wife paid the family bills, pursued her passion for painting and, according to her censorious sister Beatrice, her 'insane desire for flattery and for physical indulgence', thereby torturing her unfortunate husband with jealousy.
Into this unusual menage Kathleen Dobbs was born in 1903. She later described her early years of domestic upheaval as 'a way of life which meant - complete disorder, and the dropping of anything at any time of day or night to consider a metaphysical point. We shambled round after my father in disarray, renting chalets as we moved from winter to summer resort.'
This chaotic existence was punctuated annually by a holiday in England when Kitty stayed with her uncle Alfred Cripps, the father of Stafford, the future socialist and Labour MP. On these visits her subsequent interest in mysticism was perhaps not yet discernible. Kitty recalled, 'I did not conform easily to the well-regulated household, and on one occasion dismayed the company by kicking my cousin Stafford during afternoon tea, for trying to make me say grace.'
The family returned to Britain in 1914 on the outbreak of the First World War and Kitty was enrolled in the co-educational school Bedales. Upon completing her education and abandoning an early project to become 'a shopkeeper or an actress' she trained as a secretary. She became ladies' ski champion of Great Britain in 1924 and in 1925 attended the London School of Economics which, although founded by the Webbs, proved unprofitable and uncongenial to Kitty.
In 1927 Kitty married Malcolm Muggeridge. He had shared a room with her brother Leonard at Cambridge and had recently returned from teaching in Alwaye, in India. While the match delighted Kitty's mother and aunt Beatrice - Malcolm being the son of the remarkable early socialist HT Muggeridge, who became Labour MP for Romford in 1929 - Mr Dobbs, far from pleased, called out during the service, 'You can still get away, Kit.'
Not surprisingly, given the pervading atmosphere of free thinking and their casual approach to the union (they asked the registrar how one got a divorce), stresses and infidelities did ensue. Kitty later wrote, 'It is inevitable that in the course of time trouble and strife between man and wife should occur. This is for the most part due to our human vanity and egotism; but these differences can be overcome and every reconciliation strengthens the bond of love.' That their bond of love grew to be something as beautiful as it is rare could not be doubted by anyone who shared the pleasure of their company.
Following a brief stay in Birmingham the couple sailed for Egypt where Malcolm succeeded Robert Graves in a teaching post at Cairo University. These were the first of many moves. Kitty estimated that she set up home for them no less than 23 times.
Their first son was born in 1928 and, upon Malcolm's obtaining a post on the Manchester Guardian, they returned to England in 1930 only to leave for the Soviet Union in September 1932. This last flirtation with Utopianism proved to be pivotal for both of them. On leaving England Kitty symbolically threw away her evening dress as did Malcolm his dinner suit. Eight months later he effectively threw away much of his earning potential in the left-wing dominated literary world by writing his courageous articles denouncing Stalin's collectivisation in Ukraine.
In the spring he joined Kitty in Switzerland where she had gone the previous December to have their second son. There followed long periods of separation as Kitty kept their growing family together (a daughter was born in 1934 and another son in 1936) while her husband worked in India on the Calcutta Statesman. After a brief period together in Whatlington, in Sussex, he once more went overseas to serve as a member of the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War.
Over the next two decades Kitty continued to keep home fires burning alternately in Sussex and London as Malcolm's fame increased due to his editorship of Punch and immense exposure on radio and television as a brilliant commentator and controversialist. This brought many brick-bats down upon their heads, the most notable and contemptible instance being the row that followed a much misquoted article on the monarchy. At this time they received excrement and razor blades through the post, plus a triumphant note proclaiming 'One Muggeridge less' after the tragic death of their youngest son in a skiing accident.
Throughout this period the Muggeridges' mutual dissatisfaction with political solutions solidified into a deep spiritual awareness and insight. Malcolm's television documentary and book Something Beautiful for God was complemented by Kitty's essay on Mother Teresa in the book Bright Legacy (1983). Earlier, in 1981, she had produced the first English translation of Jean-Pierre De Caussade's Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence. This was followed by a further volume, Spiritual Letters of Jean-Pierre De Caussade (1986). Other books were a translation of The Fables of La Fontaine (1973), Beatrice Webb: a life (1967, with Ruth Adam), and Gazing on Truth (1985).
In 1982 Kitty and Malcolm Muggeridge were received into the Roman Catholic church by Father Paul Bidone, whose work with handicapped children in Sussex had earned their support. This no doubt happy and much-publicised event did tend to obscure the intensity and depth of their long-held Christian beliefs, its being naturally interpreted as a Damascus Road reversal. Their conversion should, perhaps, be seen more as a protest against the arrogance, cruelty and collectivisation of modern man playing God rather than as an uncritical endorsement of organised religion.
The courage for which Kitty Muggeridge was known throughout her life was not weakened by the advances of old age and death about which she wrote:
Seeing the world through dimming eyes we see ever more clearly the ravishing beauty of God's creation. If, when we reach the end, we have learnt to live in the spirit - we shall meet death with hope, crying out like Bunyan's pilgrim, 'Welcome Life.'
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