Obituary: Lettice Cooper

Lettice Cooper, novelist: born Eccles, Lancashire 3 September 1897; died Coltishall, Norfolk 24 July 1994.

IN THE EARLY years of a long friendship with the novelist Lettice Cooper, I used to think of her as a brisk, sensible and sympathetic aunt, indulgent to some of my follies and outspoken about others. Then there was a period when she became a favourite cousin, to whom I could always turn for help and advice. Finally, despite her being 26 years my senior, I came to regard her as a high-spirited niece, whose optimism, zest for life and radical opinions often made me feel intellectually musty and emotionally stiff-jointed.

That she had spent a long period undergoing psychoanalysis never ceased to astonish me, since I have rarely met anyone more firmly in control both of herself and her circumstances. Either her analyst was a remarkable man or she herself was possessed of remarkable powers of self-healing.

For many years, until his death, she was the devoted friend of Lionel Fielden, creator of All India Radio, friend of JR Ackerley and EM Forster, and a man with the dark, aristocratic good looks and graceful physique of some cricket-playing maharajah. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when I was also resident in Florence, Cooper used to visit Fielden at his beautiful villa in Antella, a few miles outside the city. At a period when a homosexual, even a charming, intelligent, Rolls-Royce-owning, English one, tended to be mal vu in Florentine society, Fielden more than once referred to Cooper, in my presence but not of course in hers, as 'my cover girl'. That this was her role, I never imagined that she realised. But years later, talking to me about the relationship, she made it clear that she had never for a moment deceived herself about its nature. She had known Fielden's terms and she had been willing to accept them, such was her love and admiration for a not wholly lovable or admirable man.

From this friendship, probably the most important of her life, came what is one of her three best novels, Fenny (1953), about an English girl who, in the Thirties, goes out to Florence to be a governess in a house not unlike Fielden's, somehow survives there during the war, and then continues there after it. The book is not strictly an autobiography, since Fenny is a victim of circumstance in a way in which Cooper never allowed herself to be. But, among many echoes from Cooper's own experiences, there is one scene that has always stuck in my mind, since it is so moving. Fenny, now middle-aged and suffering from vague feelings of illness, consults a doctor. He reassures her: all that is wrong with her is the onset of the menopause. She then goes into a cafe and, sitting alone, is overcome by sadness. There is now no possibility that she will ever have a child. Lettice Cooper would have liked to have children. She would have been as near perfect a mother as is possible.

If one were to look for a title for her whole oeuvre of 20 novels, it would have to be Mrs Gaskell's 'North and South'. Born in Yorkshire but resident in London for more than 50 years, she returned again and again to the theme of the contrast between the people of her origins and those of her adoption. She was also fascinated, as in Fenny, by the contrast between the English and the Italians. The contrast in each case represented one within her own self. She had a northern forthrightness, sincerity and toughness. But she had a southern charm, wit and capacity for enjoyment.

Another theme of hers was that of fresh starts, best expressed in her The New House (1936). To start afresh was, like the breaking and resetting of a deformed limb, something painful. But it was something that must be endured for the greater mobility and straightness to follow. She would often tease me about my hatred of a change - 'I think that for you all changes are bad.' Into her nineties she believed in change, sticking to her socialist beliefs despite a growing disillusion with the Labour Party.

It was largely because of this openness to change that she got on so well with the young, enjoying their company as they enjoyed hers. At literary parties, writers tend to congregate with writers of their own generation. This was not Cooper's way. If some young writer was standing self-consciously alone in a corner, she would at once walk over, to start a conversation totally without any condescension on her side or any embarrassment on the other.

After the death of her sister, Barbara, with whom she had lived for so many years in an always hospitable flat at the top of a north London house, many of her friends feared that she would lose the will to continue. But, although obviously bereft, she was soon talking of another novel, of the future work of International PEN (she had been a notably capable and yet self-effacing President of the English Centre from 1977 to 1979), and of how to help friends or neighbours, far younger than herself, who were ill or in financial or emotional trouble.

At a PEN Congress in Stockholm, a Swedish writer remarked of Lettice Cooper: 'She is what we expect English people to be but what they so seldom are.' That is a fitting epitaph for her.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week