MARY MOORMAN was a deeply generous, kind, and witty person, with a formidable presence and a rare sensitivity to literature and history, writes Park Honan. She had an impassioned intellect, and a fondness for plain speech.
When I was working on a life of Matthew Arnold and staying at Fox How, the Arnolds' house in the Lake District, Mary came up to see the home of her ancestors. On entering, she withered its owners. 'Where', she said, 'did you get these carpets?' And turning to a miniature of Jane Arnold on a wall, 'Where did you get that?' But by teatime they were fond of her.
In response to a note I had written about a remote ancestor of hers for my book, she supplied a briefer text: 'Drowned 1820'. Though she quoted Cowper, Wordsworth, Arnold, and other classic poets aptly, not showily, in her talk, one of her favourite texts was a simple one that harks back to 1588:
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven
An' drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.
Her two-volume William Wordsworth in its warmth, style, insight and objectivity is one of the great biographies of our time. She felt that form, for biographers, is as important as substance; every sentence characterises and narrates. Her 1980 memoir of her father GM Trevelyan, to whom she was close, is cool, compassionate and searching, but not awed. He was related to Macaulay. Her mother, Jane Penrose, was a daughter of the novelist Mrs Humphry Ward, who was a niece of Arnold the poet and critic and a granddaughter of Dr Arnold of Rugby. In most ways, she was the equal of any of her forebears, and her comment on the American diseuse Ruth Draper might apply to her own life: 'There goes goodness, courage, generosity]'