THE SENSE of grief and shock with which the friends of the Countess of Caithness have greeted her death last Saturday, at the age of 40, is a tribute to her character and to her nature. She possessed life-enhancing qualities. Red-haired, clear-skinned, active, she was certainly a countrywoman. She had courage, energy and a resourcefulness for the loss of which we are all the poorer.
There is a creative, sensitive side to the Coke family of which she had her share. In addition to its hereditary concern with agriculture and country pursuits (her great-great- grandfather was the Norfolk agriculturist Thomas William Coke, first Earl of Leicester), an interest in the arts was combined with her love for dogs and horses.
Soon after her marriage to Malcy Caithness in 1975, she worked as a volunteer in the Ashmolean Museum, dealing with the drawings by JRR Tolkien which had been placed on deposit by his son Christopher and the family's trustees. The drawings, which were subsequently transferred to the Bodleian Library, had never been seen in public before. To Diana Caithness's lot fell the work of ordering and listing the very extensive collection, preparing the formal receipt, and then organising the first exhibition (together with the catalogue), which was held in the Ashmolean from December 1976 until February 1977. It was a great success. The Father Christmas Letters, written to Tolkien's children, were then published for the first time.
She drove, fast, into Oxford from Ranger's Lodge, on the Cornbury estate, where she lived before moving to Finstock and ultimately to Chadlington. (It was a chilly house, heated with Super Sers, and surrounded by pheasants.) She worked efficiently, as briskly as she drove, and without reward. She was delightful company, never self-seeking or assertive but a contributor, acute and discerning: 'the delicious red cabbage has been a source of conversation ever since,' she wrote after one dinner party.
To those who knew Di Caithness in North Oxfordshire, in Norfolk, and elsewhere, is left the memory of a brave and vital spirit.