OBITUARY: Mary Lascelles
Thursday 14 December 1995
"I was born on the slopes of an extinct volcano in the Caribbean. I am bound to admit that this is the most remarkable fact I shall have to record: from now on the tale must grow more commonplace." So begins Mary Lascelles's Memoir of her life, printed privately in 1989. Commonplace, however, is not the adjective that her pupils or colleagues at Somerville normally applied to her. Mary Lascelles was a great teacher, and to all who knew her a great personality. Her standards of politeness, punctuality and integrity were as formidable as her scholarship, and almost everyone remained in awe of her long after the moment when it was indicated that they might call her Mary.
No two of her former students can meet without an exchange of stories about her. Most of them have paced the street outside her little house in North Oxford to ensure that they arrived exactly on time, and the story goes that Esther Rantzen rang her bell a polite three minutes late to be greeted with the words: "Ah, you have come at last. I shall just go and re-heat the scones."
Tea-parties and tutorials alike were memorable rather than relaxed occasions. Her neatness and precision seemed to make others more prone than usual to clumsiness and faux pas. Rugs and occasional tables became hazards. "Books and food on the same table: that is my definition of squalor," she told a student who incautiously placed a book beside his tea plate. A friend recalls saying to her, at the time when the law was changed to allow cheques to be dated on Sundays, that she still felt inclined to put in Monday's date. "If I were to write a cheque on a Sunday," responded Mary, "I should, I think, be truthful about the date."
If conversation was sometimes inhibited it was because you lived in terror of splitting an infinitive in her hearing or using a slang phrase of which she would disapprove. Slovenly English was painful to her. She took great delight in telling how an earnest German student had come up to her after a lecture and said, "I seek and I seek for the language of the common people, and I find it in you." He was some way from the mark. He simply meant, Mary explained, that there was no jargon.
There was mercifully no jargon in her scholarly works. "Interpretation and appreciation" were her declared aims, achieved so successfully that the book with which she made her name in 1939, Jane Austen and her Art, is still selling well in a paperback edition. R.W. Chapman, whose edition of the novels inspired her to write on Jane Austen, became her friend and mentor. Later she took over from him the editing of Johnson's Journey to the Western Isles for Yale. Johnson may seem an incongruous subject for a lady scholar of Mary Lascelles's fastidious tastes. His table manners would have been found wanting, but in conversation they would have exchanged aphorisms on nearly equal terms. She also turned her attention illuminatingly to Shakespeare and Scott.
Rigorous and readable as her scholarly works were, it was none the less as Tutor and Fellow of Somerville that Mary Lascelles was at her best. Her pupils of the 1940s admired the elegance and beauty of "The Lass" but above all her teachings. "She gave an overpowering, a lasting impression," wrote one, "that literature was exciting. She was a great teacher." She was also a great influence within the college. Janet Vaughan, the Principal, discussed everything with her and could rely on her impeccable judgement. She made no parade of her kindnesses, but they were many. Generations of undergraduates, like her colleagues, came to sense her affection for them and her interest in what they were doing. That interest continued long after they went down and she took a quiet pride in their success.
Increasing blindness finally drove her in 1990 from retirement in Oxford to her sister's home in Norfolk.
Her death severs one of the last links with what she called that "smaller and more friendly world, gone beyond recall" whose values she upheld unwaveringly.
Mary Madge Lascelles, English scholar and teacher: born Granada, West Indies 7 February 1900; Tutor in English Language and Literature, Somerville College, Oxford 1931-60, Fellow 1932-67, Vice-Principal 1947-60, Honorary Fellow 1967-95; Lecturer in English Literature, Oxford University 1960- 66, Reader 1966-67; FBA 1962; books include Jane Austen and her Art 1939, Notions and Facts 1973, Selected Poems 1990; died Cromer, Norfolk 10 December 1995.
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