Obituary: Mary Moorman
Tuesday 01 February 1994
MARY MOORMAN and I were the new trustees at the annual meeting of the Wordsworth Trust in September 1960. She was 55 and in her prime. I came away with the impression that she didn't like meetings, didn't like small talk, and knew a great deal about Wordsworth and the Lake District. There was about her a decidedness, a forthrightness that had something to do with the blood of the Arnolds and the Huxleys, and being GM Trevelyan's daughter, but which I came later to think of as a shielding of vulnerability. It was oddly clear what she must have been like in her Edwardian nursery: clever, awkward, sensitive, a little too big, already more at home with things of the mind.
Childhood was the key to Mary's love of poetry and kinship with Wordsworth. We hear of her at the age of six reciting 'Poor Susan' (appropriately about birdsong and a country girl's imaginings in London) to her great-aunt Fan, youngest sister of Matthew Arnold. But she came to love Wordsworth through exploring Langdale from Robin Ghyll, the Trevelyan cottage. Like the poet she had unusual freedom, and like him she hid a childhood marked by sadness. In 1911, when she was six, her four-and-a- half-year-old brother Theo died of appendicitis. He was evidently a brilliant and attractive child, and he was Mary's closest sibling.
Her loss was compounded by the obsessional grief of her mother, who began work on a book about Theo (published privately) and, though by all accounts kind and attentive, emotionally withdrew from her daughter. At the age of 12 Mary became secretly a Christian, and at 16 was bold enough to face her sceptical parents with the fact that she was being baptised at St Martin-in- the-Fields. At Somerville College, Oxford, where the teaching of history did not live up to the Trevelyan breakfast-table, she became interested in William III. The resulting book, William III and the Defence of Holland, 1672-44 by Mary Caroline Trevelyan, published in 1930, was the product of going to Holland, learning Dutch, and tramping round the defences in a characteristically practical way.
In 1930 Mary married John Moorman and took on the role of vicar's wife. Looking back, she felt that conversation had been easier in their first, working-class, parish near Leeds, than in later more aspiring congregations. The war years were spent in Manchester, where the Moormans survived some heavy bombing and ran a school for non- evacuees. In 1944 John became Principal of Chichester Theological College (where Mary started a poetry club), and in 1959 he was appointed Bishop of Ripon. Particularly enjoyable for Mary was his time as Anglican Observer at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, where his work on the Franciscans and his ability to speak Latin made him a success. The two were not alike, but they enjoyed each other. The marriage was saddened only by lack of children. There was to be no assuaging of earlier sorrows.
The first volume of Mary Moorman's great biography of William Wordsworth came out in 1957, the second in 1966. Early Years, 1770-1803, though we owe to it many insights that have become part of our awareness of the poet, has been overtaken by time and 40 years of intensive scholarship. Later Years is another matter. There has been far less scholarly movement in the period that it covers, but it is in any case one of those books that last by virtue of the author's special relationship to the subject.
The death of William and Dorothy's beloved younger brother, John, in 1805; the breakdown of the poet's relationship with Coleridge in 1810; the deaths of the children in 1812 were all of them things that touched Mary deeply, bringing out some of her finest and most sympathetic writing. The historian in her too found scope in Wordsworth's response - sometimes surprising (as in his advocating of worker-
capitalism in 1835) - to events and political trends. The ageing poet emerges from her narrative as stronger, more human, suffering, resilient than we had supposed. Her handling of the 'Close of the Day' is not likely to be bettered.
The close of Mary's day was peaceful. She became first Secretary, then Chairman, of the Wordsworth Trust, and retired in 1977. She lost John in 1989, living on good-humouredly like her namesake, the poet's wife, about whom she had written so well. Lovingly tended to, she died at home two weeks before her 89th birthday. Over Christmas she had enjoyed being read to from Dorothy's Journal, and discovered new inspiration in the dream of Prelude Book Five.
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