OBITUARIES: Kathleen Lea
Friday 27 January 1995
Kathleen Lea never lost any of her sharp, precise intelligence, her interest in others and her wit, even in the last painful days of her dying. The Vice-Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, for nearly a quarter of a century, she was a woman whose influence on others was lasting and penetrating. To know and love her was more than ``a liberal education''; it was a lesson, rarely encountered, in the irresistible attraction of wit and wisdom and the old virtue of courtesy, her favourite Renaissance theme.
Kate Lea was born at Chorley, Lancashire, in 1903, the elder daughter of a practising GP in the town, and his wife, a Dubliner who came to England. The family lived in Chorley until 1936, when they moved to Beaconsfield to be nearer to Mrs Lea's family and to Kate herself, who was then librarian and lecturer at Westfield College, London. She was educated at Wycombe Abbey School and in 1921 won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall. After taking a first in English she returned to Wycombe Abbey to teach for a year, and was then awarded a Suzette Taylor Research Travelling Fellowship which enabled her to spend two years in Italy perfecting her knowledge of Italian Renaissance poetry and painting, and the Commedia del Arte, a foundation for her first publish ed book, Italian Popular Comedy (1934). For 11 years, from 1926 to 1937, she was at Westfield College as Lecturer, and she returned to Lady Margaret Hall as Tutor and Fellow in 1936. She held the position of Vice-Principal from 1947 to her retirement in 1971.
Her academic brilliance and her administrative competence were characteristic of the mixture of subtle judgement and a tenacious memory, inherited, she believed from her father, together with a marked practicality. When I first went to lunch with her in her retirement at Beckley, outside Oxford, she produced an excellent meal and, noticing my surprise, said briskly, ``I've never been one of those academic women who think there's some distinction in not knowing how to boil an egg.''
It was her Lancastrian good sense, combined with great courtesy and sweetness of nature, that endeared her to this particular candidate for entry to Lady Margaret Hall in early spring 1942. After an uncomfortable session with the Principal, and the shockof finding that I was expected to change for dinner which I had never eaten in the evening before, I found myself with a sinking heart on High Table next to a woman who turned to say ``You're the girl from Wigan, aren't you? I was brought up and lived for many years very near there.'' So, gradually, with Lancastrian chat she coaxed me out of my misery and took me upstairs for our formal interview. Hers was a long and lovely room full of books and beautiful things: a Phaidon Pr ess Leonardo open on a book rest, a vase of chestnut buds about to burst, white and blue carpets. How well all her pupils grew to know that room where, in the depths of wartime winter, she provided us with blankets and stone hot- water bottles before we began tutorials or classes. She had a rare gift of kindness with no trace of sentimentality and a style of life beautiful without ostentation.
I remember how, on her retirement, she said to her audience of old pupils and colleagues, ``People often ask me what I will do without the Hall which has been my life for so long, but must tell you that, though I love this college, other things have meant more to me - Italian literature, and English poetry especially.'' She took up a volume of Cowper's poems, one of our farewell gifts, and she had inevitably turned to "Retirement". ``And what do I find? `Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness!' But I amnot going to some vast wilderness, only to a very beautiful and comfortable thatched cottage in Beckley where I hope you will all come and visit me.''
And there she went, and there we visited her. Again, the beautiful surroundings, the well- ordered household, the beloved cats; here, a deeply devout Christian, she acted as Verger and Chronicler of the church in Beckley, helped at the village school, loved her neighbours and was loved by them in return. She voluntarily relinquished the meticulous editing of Renaissance texts which was her main scholarly achievement, but was always interested in the academic work of her pupils.
When her eyesight began to fail, she told me that she could barely see now except in silhouette, but added that there were compensations. I asked her what they were, thinking she was now deprived of her lifelong resource of reading. She parried this - ``If it happens to you, you'll discover what they are.''
Kathleen Marguerite Lea, scholar of English literature: born Chorley, Lancashire 1 November 1903; Lecturer, Westfield College, London 1926-37; Fellow, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford 1937-71 (Emeritus), Vice-Principal 1947-71; died High Wycombe 23 January 1995.
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