Obituary: Georgiana Blakiston

Click to follow
The Independent Online
One day as a child Georgiana Russell took a book from the shelves at her parents' house and found that someone had written "EAR" on the flyleaf. "I was impressed by the boldness of the writing, and the singularity of the word," she wrote 60 years later, "for had 'EYE' or 'LEG' been inscribed it could not have seemed stranger."

Her father told her that they were the initials of her grandmother Elizabeth Anne Russell - "that she had been able to read in eight languages and had bought most of the books in the house". Elizabeth Anne Russell was the dominant of the two leading characters in Georgiana Blakiston's first book, Lord William Russell and his Wife 1815-1846 (1972), which with Woburn and the Russells (1980) and Letters of Conrad Russell 1897-1947 (1987) forms the corpus of her work, coolly observed and deftly expressed, on a family that has cut a sometimes radical swathe through British political and intellectual life over four centuries.

Georgiana Blakiston's father, Harold Russell, was a lawyer and country gentleman; her mother, Lady Victoria Leveson-Gower, from whom she inherited a delicious calmness of voice and manner, was a daughter of the second Earl Granville. "Giana" was the youngest of their three children and her early years were spent between London and The Ridgeway, a substantial Victorian villa near Shere, in Surrey.

Giana was educated at home by tutors and governesses before taking a domestic science diploma at Bedford College, London University; but much of her taste for flora and fauna, history, languages and the classics was imbibed from the conversational air breathed by her parents and her father's legion brothers and sisters. As a group, these uncles and aunts were shy to the point of speechlessness: and characteristically thought it better to remain silent if they had nothing worthwhile to say.

Giana Russell was introduced to Noel Blakiston when he was fresh from taking Classics at Cambridge. A photograph taken at the time of their engagement shows Noel in a high buttoned jacket, his round eyes and fine, prominent cheekbones suggesting the handsome looks for which he was so admired, and Giana sporting a beret and stylish scarf showing off her broad features and her arresting eyes, which even into her 10th decade seemed to see into and beyond the subject of their gentle gaze. They were married in 1929 and moved into a house in Chelsea, west London - where they lived for the rest of their lives - from which Noel went daily to his work in the Public Record Office, in Chancery Lane, where he became head of the Search Room.

The Blakistons had two daughters in the 1930s - Rachel and Caroline, now well known as an actress on stage and television. With the coming of war, part of the Public Record Office was evacuated to Clandon Park, in Surrey. The Blakistons moved into the house, and during air raids they slept in the basement, stacked high with deeds and case indexes from Chancery Lane. Their home in London was lived in meanwhile by the artist Anthony Devas and his wife Nicolette (nee Macnamara), the sister of Dylan Thomas's wife, Caitlin.

After the war, the Blakistons resumed their London life, making themselves a centre for writers and artists, taking in lodgers, including the young Laurie Lee, and bringing people together over unpretentious and interesting food, cooked by Giana, who kept up the tradition as a widow into her nineties. Noel Blakiston, who had been Cyril Connolly's best friend at Eton, contributed to Connolly's Horizon, while Giana printed fabrics and painted tiles for her kitchen.

The Blakistons were never very well off but the situation was eased when a maiden aunt, Diana Russell, died in 1971, aged 97, leaving her house and possessions to Giana. From her and from her other Russell aunt, Flora (who died in 1967, aged 98), she inherited a mass of family correspondence which was the spur for her book on her great-grandparents. Blakiston lets the characters in this family saga tell the story through pages from their letters and diaries - interspersed with her own pithy linking passages, which pass the tests triumphantly of making such a book work. Most telling is the way in which it ends. The fascinating intellectual Lady William Russell - admired by Byron when a girl; a possessive mother exasperating to her husband's family - spent the last 25 years of her life as a widow in London, a convert to Roman Catholicism, surrounded by a new circle of companions that took in Robert Browning and the Thomas Carlyles. This quarter-century is dealt with in one paragraph. The wit and decidedness of such brevity shows the author as more than worthy of her great-grandmother's independence of outlook.

Blakiston's researches for her first two books took her to the British Museum and to the Russell Archives at Woburn Abbey and at the Bedford estate office in London. Her third volume, an edition of her uncle Conrad's letters, took her back over the early part of her life, and there is an easy authoritativeness in the short biographies devoted to Conrad Russell's correspondents from the worlds of literature and intellectual society: Maurice Baring, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Raymond Asquith, Edward Marsh and, the star of the book, the celebrated beauty Lady Diana Cooper, the subject of Conrad Russell's chaste adoration.

The volume, which appeared in Blakiston's 85th year, won her renewed and deserved eclat in the world of 20th-century literary biography. She never wrote her own autobiography but, for all her shrewdness in looking at the past, she lived determinedly in the present, concerned with the lives of her children, her grandchildren and her friends (ultimately spread across four generations), and in her 92nd year thought nothing of travelling to Florence.

Louis Jebb

Rachel Georgiana Russell, historian: born London 28 January 1903; married 1929 Noel Blakiston (died 1985; two daughters); died London 15 November 1995.

Comments