A MUTUAL friend once told me that when they were both up at Oxford Margaret Lane was 'a toast'. One could well believe it. She was beautiful, and her very large, very blue eyes were filled with intelligence. I knew her in the second half of our lives, when her literary and social fame had long been established; she knew what is called 'everybody', which was natural, as what is called 'everybody' wanted to know her.
Such capacity and such drive, with an uncommon power of saying exactly what she meant, was apt, in spite of her charm, to make her sometimes a little formidable, but all this fitted her exactly for a career of public usefulness: she was, in turn, President of the Dickens Fellowship, the Johnson Society, the Bronte Society, the Jane Austen Society. These were no mere titular distinctions; she wrote for the Dickens Fellowship an article pointing out what no one else had noted, that the boy Dickens's daily journey on foot from Camden Town to the Marshalsea Prison while his parents were lodged there explained his extraordinary familiarity with that range of the London streets, and she gave an address to the Jane Austen Society, emphasising Jane Austen's occult power of setting a scene without relating visual detail, in 'Jane Austen's Sleight of Hand'.
I read, admired and enjoyed her novels, but, to me, her literary distinction rested on her critical and biographical work. Samuel Johnson and his World (1975) is one of the very best modern works on Johnson, combining an estimate of his literary achievement with a most penetrating and sympathetic evocation of his private life; while The Bronte Story (1953) updates Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte with the additions of modern research, forming with that classic work an invaluable whole. Her exquisite sympathy with animals inspires The Tale of Beatrix Potter (1946) and The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter (1978). Her own sympathies extended to cats: a kitten abandoned in the woods round Beaulieu had been rescued, brought home and was almost in charge of the house, and Margaret had built an owl-house in the garden. Her interest in animals, though warm, was not sentimental: it extended to insects; I could not join with her in her admiration and enthusiasm for the giant ant-heaps in the woods.
Her academic standards were obvious in the packed shelves of her work-room, and her elegance in its assortment of gold pens and gold inkwells. The house at Beaulieu was adorned with everything one delighted in, from the portrait of her husband's ancestor, the Lord Huntingdon sent by Queen Elizabeth to deal with the troublesome Mary Queen of Scots, to the range of Regency theatrical prints decorating the loo and the ephemeral reading piled up beside one's bed. Margaret's creative faculty found expression in decorating surfaces: in wool-work and choosing drapery, and in her later life the hobby of covering screens, pasted with a collage of scraps, wonderfully collected, each of them a work of art.
No one who had stayed at Black Bridge House would omit to mention her genius as a cook; it was more than cooking of high professional standard, it was inspirational. Lord Huntingdon once said to me: 'Would you rather have a rose called after you, or a pudding?' I answered unthinkingly, 'A rose', but then I amended this to 'One of Margaret's puddings'.
Her flair for decoration extended beyond the house; in the garden she had a little caravan, its interior jewel-like with cushions spotted with looking-glass and little glowing objets collected from country fairs. The grounds were another field for her activity: the flowers, the vegetables, the greenhouse, were all tended in expensive perfection, but we also picked mushrooms in the paddock for Lord Huntingdon's breakfast.
It is scarcely possible for very intelligent people today not to be sometimes oppressed by the times, and Margaret did seem occasionally harassed. But one morning in her bedroom as we were both looking out of the window at the sloping lawn, the reeds and the river, I said, 'You're like Emma Woodhouse, you 'unite some of the best blessings of existence']' She said: 'Yes, I do.'
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