Obituary: Jacqueline Wheldon
Monday 28 June 1993
Few of Jay Wheldon's friends had any doubt that she was a rare woman. Quite simply she was one of the very few clever people who was also good.
Born Jacqueline Clarke in Fulham, west London, in 1924, she had one brother, Ken. Her father died when she was six and her mother was always working. Jay often said, and always cheerfully, that she had 'brought herself up'.
She won a scholarship to Carlyle School, Chelsea, and was doing well there until the pupils were moved during the Second World War. She hated being out of London, several times stole bicycles to get back there and was eventually expelled.
After a stretch in a munitions factory and another as a clerk in Fulham Town Hall, she had a lucky encounter with Harold Laski, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. By then she had joined the Labour Party and she organised a meeting for Laski. Much impressed, he encouraged her to work for a scholarship to LSE. This took her three years, during which she supported herself by secretarial work. At LSE she was taught not only by Laski but also by Michael Oakeshott, and she loved the intellectual range of both men. At LSE too she met such lifetime friends as Claus Moser, Morris Jones and Joan Murphy.
She began a PhD, which included a study on the deleterious effects of television on children. It left her with a deep suspicion of statistics. It was ironic that she abandoned this to marry Huw Wheldon, who was just moving from All Your Own, a children's programme, to become editor of Monitor. At that stage she was offered a post at the Cabinet Office as a permanent historian, but, partly on Huw's advice, turned it down. Later she would sometimes regret not having taken up an independent career.
With Huw she settled in Kew, and while he blazed away at the BBC Jay brought up three children, provided what seemed continuous hospitality for a variety of friends and acquaintances, and began to write. Her appreciation of fiction, particularly the novels of ideas, was profound. Mrs Bratbe's August Picnic, published in 1965, reflected that. Anthony Burgess, one of several appreciative reviewers, wrote: 'Mrs Wheldon's Mrs Bratbe is as outrageous a prodigy as we have had this side of the war.'
She then began work on a novel entitled Daughters of the Flood. During the next 15 years this spread to nine volumes and upwards of two million words. Those who have read parts of it, including James Hale, her editor, and Richard Simon, her agent, are emphatic about its force and originality. Hale pleaded with her to let him bring it out one volume at a time, but she was consumed with the idea of its wholeness and would not let it go. It obsessed her during those years, but after the death of her mother she lost interest in publishing it.
From then on she was either content or self-condemned to write for writing's sake. The family moved to a magnificent house on Richmond Hill. The hospitality continued but Jay withdrew a little, sadly driven to this by an increasing deafness. For one as brilliant in conversation as she was, it was a cruel affliction. She wrote plays - one of which the Royal Court wanted to do but she preferred not to make the changes they suggested - poems, critical essays and long, Hertzogian letters.
In the early 1980s her friends Norman and Midge Podhoretz asked her to become the UK executive director of the Committee for the Free World, briefly the intellectual opposition to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Its members were few, about 150, but distinguished: Bellow in the US, Stoppard in the UK. By that time her thinking was more Oakeshott than Laski.
The death of Huw in 1986 affected her badly. He had always been entranced by her and while his career of bustle was at odds with her preference for a quiet life of the mind they appeared devoted to each other and touchingly reliant on the other's support and warmth.
Jay Wheldon had an extraordinary gift for friendships and for keeping them in good repair. She appreciated talent and virtue wherever she saw it and was the very best person to talk to about any sort of problem. The increasing illnesses of her last few years were a burden, but one much lightened by the love and support of her three children. She was truly a woman who brought light into the lives of all of us fortunate enough to know her.
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