Obituary: Isobel English

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The Independent Online
June Guesdon Jolliffe (Isobel English), writer: born London 9 June 1920; married 1941 Donald Orr-Ewing (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1953 Neville Braybrooke; author of The Key That Rusts 1954, Every Eye 1956, Four Voices 1961, After All and other stories 1973; died London 30 May 1994.

WHEN June Braybrooke - who wrote under the pseudonymn Isobel English - lay dying of leukaemia in the Royal Free Hospital, her husband Neville Braybrooke read to her from a volume of Herrick's collected poems which only a short time before she had given to him for his birthday. After he had read the last lines of Herrick's 'His Request to Julia'

Better 'twere my Book were dead

Than to live not perfected

June commented 'Absolutely right'. She herself had always been a perfectionist.

Had she been less of one and had her health been more robust, she would no doubt have written far more than her three novels and her one volume of short stories and now be better known to the public at large. Whereas the first of her short stories, 'Feuille Morte', was completed in a week - and accepted by the New Statesman by return of post - another of her stories, 'One of the Family', a marvel of concision, was seven years in the writing, page after page being endlessly revised.

My first recollection of her, dating from more than 40 years ago, is of her singing folk-songs, unaccompanied, in the sitting-room of my mother's London flat. Her voice always seemed to me perfectly expressive of her character. There was a childlike sweetness and purity about her even into old age, and she always wanted to be wholly in tune with the world around her.

Many writers - Stevie Smith, Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Thomas Ellis, Olivia Manning, Edward Upward, David Gascoyne, Kay Dick - cherished her as a friend. But she shrank from jostling for position in the literary world - refusing, after a single interview in 1960, ever to appear on television, to lecture or to read from her work. It was Stevie Smith who best described her authorial voice: 'Very sagacious and very original - a voice of our times, ironical and involved'.

In 1941 she married Donald Orr-Ewing, then employed at Scotland Yard, by whom in 1942 she had a daughter, Victoria. Divorced from him after some 10 years, she in 1953 married the writer Neville Braybrooke, with whom she enjoyed an ideal partnership up to the time of her death. Like him, she was totally unworldly; and, like him, she was extremely wise. I never heard her pass a malicious judgement on anyone; and yet she had an uncanny and disconcerting ability to see through any prevarication or sham.

At the time of her death, she was collaborating with Neville on a biography of Olivia Manning, which he will now complete alone. 'I always feel safe with June,' Olivia Manning once commented to me. It was June's great gift that she made so many people feel safe in her company.

When she won the Kathleen Mansfield Short Story Prize, someone from the BBC came to interview her. Eventually he said, 'You've spoken for almost an hour about what a wonderful poet David Gascoyne is. But you've told me nothing about yourself]'

That was typical of her self-effacement - a quality all too rare in writers.

(Photograph omitted)

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