Obituary: Margaret Bottrall

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Margaret Bottrall's rare and fastidious spirit is perhaps best expressed in the writers to whom she was drawn, and whom she revealed and wrote about so well: George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins. She praised Herbert for exactly what her friends valued in herself: his sane temper and spiritual wisdom - "a disciplined mind, a firmly tempered spirit, inner integrity and extreme sensitiveness". Margaret Bottrall was also courageous, resourceful, modest and serene. She was both devout and practical - though she once drove from Cambridge to Oxford in first gear, puzzled that the car would not go faster.

She was born in 1909 a Saumarez Smith, in Sydney, where her grandfather was Archbishop. Her background was the Church and the landed gentry, and she no doubt partly owed her strong and independent character to a strict vicarage upbringing at Waldershare in east Kent, where her father was Rector for 30 years, and to the fact that she did not attend school until 13. She had read a great deal at home, and easily won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, where people said she was as good as she was beautiful.

After Oxford she won a Harkness Commonwealth Scholarship to Yale, and seemed set for an academic career; T.S. Eliot accepted an article on Chapman for the Criterion. She came to know another Harkness Fellow, the young poet Ronald Bottrall, who was then at Princeton. Bottrall was at first loudly praised by F.R. Leavis in New Bearings in English Poetry but fell dramatically from favour in the critic's eyes, although he continued to develop most interestingly. He became Raffles Professor of English at Singapore, and there she married him in 1934. They later worked in Florence.

Ronald Bottrall was appointed the British Council Representative in Sweden in 1940, and again in Rome from 1945 to 1950. Margaret relished the latter posting as they helped to reconstruct cultural relations between Italy and Britain after the Second World War, and lived in an apartment in the Palazzo Borghese. In 1946 the Bottralls together published an anthology, Collected English Verse. Their marriage was in some ways one of opposites, and later came to grief: he was self-made, worldly and gregarious, enjoying Fitzrovia; she was aristocratic, unworldly and loved the countryside.

The Bottralls had by now settled in an old and rather beautiful house at Thaxted, called The Priory. Margaret responded to the heady atmosphere of traditional worship and Christian Socialism associated with the Vicar, Conrad Noel, and his successor Jack Putterill. She stood successfully as an Independent for the Dunmow District Council, and was surprised by a cottager whose vote she was soliciting accusing her of Communism: "You go to church, don't you?" Her Anglican faith, which had been shaken in her early undergraduate years, was restored.

She was to retain her love of the Church of England, which she saw - with all its faults - as a via media, and later took great pleasure in attending Richard Crashaw's church in Cambridge, Little St Mary's; she praised Herbert for being so conspicuously English in his common sense and tender sensibility, his moderation and equilibrium in emotional storms. She knew the fascinating artistic community of Great Bardfield, and was a friend of the painter John Aldridge.

Moving to Cambridge, she gradually attained the academic career she had put aside on her marriage. She was Tutor and later Fellow at Hughes Hall, the graduate teacher training school, from 1959; a firm administrator, she later became Vice-President. From 1971 to 1976 she was a member of the English Faculty and a Founding Member and Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College.

The house at Cambridge which she shared with a fellow tutor at Hughes Hall, the cheerful, loyal and kind Doris ("Fanti") Bradshaw seemed pervaded with a cool, pale blue light and was a setting for her fine autumnal face and eyes like the mandarins' in Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli":

Their eyes, mid many wrinkles,

Their glittering eyes, are gay.

Here she studied and wrote on Hopkins, Traherne and 17th-century autobiographies, among other subjects, and wrote many anonymous reviews for the Economist. One pictures her experiencing what she described as Traherne's "sudden sense of wonder at half-glimpsed mysteries or veiled glories" and what she approved in Herbert, "the joy at the cessation of spiritual aridity". On her death-bed she asked her son to read to her from William Law.

Margaret Florence Saumarez Smith, English scholar and teacher: born Sydney, Australia 27 June 1909; Tutor and Fellow, Hughes Hall, Cambridge 1959-70; Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge 1971-76; books include The Divine Image: a study of Blake's Christianity 1950, George Herbert 1954, Traherne's Way of Blessedness 1962; married 1934 Ronald Bottrall (died 1989; one son; marriage dissolved 1954); died Cambridge 21 March 1996.