Obituary: Caroline Senator

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Caroline Senator, schoolmistress: born London 24 January 1896; teacher of French, German and Spanish, North London Collegiate School for Girls, 1919-58; died London 28 February 1994.

CAROLINE SENATOR belonged to a generation in which women of outstanding abilities not only had to struggle hard to acquire professional qualifications and recognition, but were often obliged to sacrifice the personal satisfactions that today's professional women expect to achieve and retain. Very few of that race of giants remain with us now, and Caroline Senator deserves to be commemorated not only for her own remarkable achievements as a teacher at the North London Collegiate School for Girls but also for what she represented.

She was born in 1896 into a Jewish family (her father was a hairdresser) and brought up in that atmosphere of respect for learning that characterises Jewish family life at its best. In 1915 she entered the Intermediate Arts course at King's College London (Ladies' Department) to study English, Latin, French and German. In 1916 she was admitted to the Honours course in French with subsidiary German of King's College for Women, and studied under Andre Salmon, Victor Spiers and CD Webb.

Prospective teachers were expected to work doubly hard: joining the college's Day Training section, she followed the first year of the secondary training diploma course concurrently with her final Honours year. Yet she came top of the university in French. When she applied for a post at NLCS, her tutors at King's wrote glowing testimonials of her abilities, and she once confessed that they had tried to persuade her to take up a career in the university.

Caroline Senator did not instruct in any narrow sense; she educated. She was an exceptionally gifted linguist, with an acute sense of the nuances of both French and English, and equally at home in German. She had moreover a scholar's penetrating critical judgement, a clear and logical mind, and a sensitive response to both literary and moral values that made her teaching of literature an experience of a uniquely educative and thrilling kind. When we followed her through the intricacies of plot and passion of a tragedy by Racine, we learnt a great deal more than was required to pass examinations; listening to her reading a poem by a difficult modern French poet, we could experience the wild surmise that Keats knew on looking into Chapman's Homer: a sense of worlds to be conquered that were just beyond one's present reach and that it would be sad indeed to miss for want of trying.

Examinations did not loom large in our lives, but learning and enjoying did. All the same, Senator did not tolerate the stinted effort or the lazy response, and even those who were weak in other subjects never failed to do remarkably well in French, while every year her best pupils won Open and State Scholarships. She challenged us, and we recognised the challenge (however unconsciously) for what it was: a lesson in self-respect and self-determination, that she had had to learn very early in life. She was unfailingly serious, but not at all solemn; when she laughed it was at the absurdities of human behaviour, and though she could make one feel foolish, she was never unkind.

Caroline Senator was a member of the Staff of NLCS for 39 years of tireless and innovative activity, never seeming to get any older, constantly renewing her intellectual gifts: she learnt Spanish late in her career and taught it with the same brilliant success that she had achieved in French and German. She took very seriously her responsibilities as a Jewish teacher in a non-Jewish school, leading morning assembly for the Jewish girls and inspiring them to form their own choir, and after her retirement returning weekly to organise Jewish studies. She was both indefatigable and brave. When she herself was suffering from painful arthritis she still, aged over 90, made weekly visits to hospitals to teach children who were long-stay patients.

Like many women of her generation, she did not regard her sense of duty as anything out of the ordinary, but fretted that she could not do more as she grew older. She was a truly great woman, who touched the lives of her pupils in a lasting and entirely beneficial way. In later years one often imagined the ironically raised eyebrow that would have greeted one's sillier words or actions; that presence at least remains with us.