EVEN WHEN a student at Oxford University, Elizabeth Howe had a reputation for never missing a deadline or leaving an essay unfinished. From then on she juggled research, teaching, and family life, in such a way as never to let anyone down. Her first book, The First English Actresses, dealing with the Restoration period, was published six weeks ago.
Lizzie Howe came late to teaching. She was born Elizabeth Milicevic in 1958. After taking an English degree at Oxford she worked briefly in publishing and the Health Service, before finding a job teaching A-level English in a 'crammer' to support herself while writing her Ph D.
Her students at the crammer were literally failures: they had failed to pass the exams they needed and had to try again. So too were many of the Open University students she later taught, first in Belfast and then Oxford. She had travelled to York University on Saturday to teach at an Open University summer school there and was found stabbed to death shortly after arriving.
Open University students often return to learning years after having been written off at school as incapable of studying anything, let alone Shakespeare. Lizzie taught them Shakespeare and other more obscure Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, not as textual meat for scholarship but plays to be peformed on stage. Her own slightly stammering speech and diffidence helped her understand her students' lack of confidence: she had the gift of making them believe she understood their difficulties, but also that she knew and would rigorously encourage their potential.
A student in The Maze Prison in Belfast - she taught in several prisons - wrote an essay she treasured on King Lear: it was not great literary criticism, but the deepest appreciation of King Lear's suffering she had ever encountered.
Her Ph D research on 17th-century drama, and The First English Actresses, took an equally clear-sighted view of the plays as they would appear on stage. Although she read hundreds of little-known plays, her argument was a theatrical one: the actresses were both the focus for the writers' exploitation, and their dramatic inspiration.
Early chapters of this thesis were written with her first baby, Jessica, curled on her shoulder. By the time it was finished, she was living and teaching in Belfast, where her husband, Jeremy Howe, now editor of Radio 3 Drama, was a BBC drama producer. She was called for a viva (oral examination) back to Queen Mary College, London, when her second daughter, Lucy, was just born.
Characteristically, she and the four-week-old baby flew to London, and began the viva with the baby howling outside the examination room. Shortly after, the exam ended with the board of elderly academics congratulating her on her work, and taking it in turn to hold the baby. Last year, she began teaching Oxford University students too. She enjoyed the academic recognition and stimulus this teaching gave, but made clear her first love was the opportunity in Open University teaching to train untrained minds.
She also began work on two more books: an edition of William Wycherley's play The Country Wife, and a study of 18th-century actresses, the flashy, temperamental mega-stars with whom the self-effacing, generous Lizzie would seem to have nothing in common - except her love of the theatre and her determination.Reuse content