Obituary: Dame Veronica Wedgwood

Veronica Wedgwood was the daughter of Sir Ralph Wedgwood Bt, for 16 years chief general manager of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and briefly, before rail nationalisation, a wartime chairman of the Railway Executive, and a great-great-great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous 18th- century potter of "Etruria" in Staffordshire, whence the family originated. His descendant inherited her full share of the family ability, its public spirit and philanthropic bent. She added to it a literary and scholarly gift to become the most distinguished woman historian of her time.

She belonged by birth to the most eminent intellectual cousinage of the past century - out of which shone Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf, Vaughan Williams and H.A.L. Fisher. Veronica was born in 1910 and well educated privately, at home under the supervision of her father - to whom his cousin Vaughan Williams dedicated his London Symphony - and her mother, who was also a writer, and at Norland Place School, in London. Proceeding to Oxford, where from Lady Margaret Hall she was my first outstanding pupil, she gained a First in the school of Modern History.

She was indeed precocious, publishing her first historical biography, Strafford, in 1935, revised and rewritten (as Thomas Wentworth) in 1961. More remarkable was her big book The Thirty Years' War (1938), covering a large canvas. The historian Sir George Clark was accustomed to say that no first-class work of historical research was ever written by anyone under 30. C. V. Wedgwood (her nom de plume) was an exception.

A notable biography of the great leader of Dutch independence and the founder of the modern state of Holland, William the Silent (1944), followed, a book which displayed not only a mastery of research but maturity of judgement, with a literary capacity not common in academic writing. She wrote indeed to be read, and not surprisingly the book began for her a long procession of prizes and honours, appropriately that of the Order of Orange-Nassau from the Netherlands.

Meanwhile she had written a short biography of Oliver Cromwell in 1939 (revised in 1973). Ten years later came another biography, Richelieu and the French Monarchy (1949), written for my series "Men and Their Times". One could rely on her to turn out a good job without parti pris. This was noticeably true of two major books on the Civil War period, The King's Peace (1955) and The King's War (1958). She had intended a trilogy, but never completed it, probably discouraged, if not intimidated, by the envenomed controversy with which academics surrounded the subject. Always avoiding controversy herself, she was probably put off by the sheer scholasticism into which the treatment of the subject had degenerated, the rudeness with which academics treated each other over it, when she herself was always courteous and lady-like.

What was remarkable about Wedgwood's view of the Civil War was the way in which she depicted the sheer confusion of it all, the impossibility of co- ordinating events in three countries, once order from the centre had broken down. This may be regarded as a bonus for imposing no sharp-angled interpretation of her own that might invite more controversy. But it was a pity that what would have been her magnum opus remained incomplete.

A by-product of this concern was Montrose (1952), a short biography of the gallant general, a sympathetic character to her, as also was Prince Rupert from early days. Various volumes followed, essays collected in Velvet Studies (1946) and Truth and Opinion (1960). More significant were her Cambridge lectures on literature and politics in the 17th century (published as Poetry and Politics, 1960). For these brought out the fact that in her mind history and literature are closely associated, as with all the best and great historians. Independent-minded, as her circumstances enabled her to be independent, she belonged to no "school", though this inflexion affiliated her to the work of G.M. Trevelyan, head of the profession in her time.

She moved out from her chosen period to write the life of her uncle Colonel Josiah Wedgwood MP, another independent, initiator of the scheme of the History of Parliament. She was also the author of two translations - Charles V (by Carl Brandi, 1939) and Auto da Fe (by Elias Canetti, 1946). Her last undertaking was as bold and brave as it was unexpected, a two- volume introduction to world history, of which she completed the first volume, The Spoils of Time (1984), up to 1550. Ill-health prevented her from going on with it.

All Wedgwood's writing was accompanied by a prodigious amount of public work, indeed we may say "good works", in keeping with the tradition of her family, for in person she was benevolent and a generous giver. She took her stint of academic lecturing in her stride, for many years a "Special Lecturer" at University College London, 1962-91, though giving time and service readily elsewhere. In return she was awarded many honorary degrees, and was elected an honorary Fellow of her Oxford college.

For years she worked hard for the Pen Club in London, becoming its president and attending its conferences at home and abroad. She worked similarly for the Society of Authors, the London Library, and the Arts Council. Her membership of public bodies too numerous to specify included serving on the Advisory Council of the Victoria & Albert Museum and twice as trustee of the National Gallery.

She enjoyed, in addition, an American career. For 15 years, from 1953 to 1968, she was a member of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, which had been founded on the model of All Souls College, Oxford. This gave her a shelter from the burden of so much public work at home, in which she could concentrate on research and writing. She was rewarded with numerous American honours, membership of the Academies of Arts and Letters, and Arts and Sciences, and the Philosophical and Historical Societies.

At a time when women were coming to the fore in so many walks of life Veronica Wedgwood may be regarded as something of a front-runner. As such she was phenomenally rewarded: Commander of the British Empire, then Dame, the Goethe Prize, eventually (though early - she was still in her fifties) the Order of Merit. She herself said it was "excessive". But her awards were well earned, for public work as much as for her writing, which was as prolific as it was of high quality.

Cicely Veronica Wedgwood, historian: born Stocksfield, Northumberland 20 July 1910; FRSL 1947; President, English Centre, International Pen Club 1951-57; member, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts 1953- 78; President, English Association 1955-56; CBE 1956, DBE 1968; member, Arts Council 1958-61; member, Advisory Council, Victoria & Albert Museum 1960-69; trustee, National Gallery 1962-68, 1969-76; OM 1969; President, Society of Authors 1972-77; FBA 1975; died London 9 March 1997.

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