Obituary: Shirley Robin Letwin
Tuesday 22 June 1993
SHIRLEY Robin Letwin, the philosopher and critic, embodied the unfashionable precept that if something is worth doing it is worth doing well - or at any rate to the best of one's ability.
This applied not only to her scholarship, about which endless care was taken - with fine and memorable results - but to every other aspect of her life: entertaining, cooking and all forms of hospitality, giving presents, dressing, dancing - she trained as a ballerina - and above all human relationships. In all these activities she sought strenuously to achieve the highest possible standards and achieved them, naturally enough, in some areas more than others.
To the game of tennis, too, she gave her all, taking lessons from professionals almost to the end. I remember, not all that long ago, partnering her in a doubles match, in midwinter, against her beloved husband, Professor William Letwin, and the Nobel prizewinning economist Professor Milton Friedman, who always took two aspirins before going on court to steady his nerve. Long before the match was over it began to snow. But this did not deter Shirley from keeping the diminutive and bespectacled Nobel prizewinner, who had just flown in from California and could hardly see over the net in the best of conditions, playing until the very last call.
In small things and great she was a perfectionist. Her letters of thanks to friends for any services done, or on occasions when congratulations, censure or commiseration were due, were always carefully wrought and beautifully polished. Never in 40 years of friendship can I recall Shirley Letwin doing anything that was slapdash, slack or second-rate, except occasionally in argument when carried away by passion.
Her telephone calls to me on Sunday morning, after she had had time to read the Sunday papers, were always eagerly awaited. More often than not they were to tell me where my column had gone wrong. Never for a moment did she try to mince words or cushion blows. But this made the occasional commendation all the sweeter. Just as she was unrestrained and uninhibited in her criticisms, so she was also in her praise.
She was born Shirley Robin in Chicago in 1924, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and educated at Chicago University, where she was something of an intellectual prodigy. But soon after the war she came to England, where she studied at the LSE and only returned to the United States for a spell before deciding to settle here for good. England was not only the place she lived in; it was also the place she came to love, with a fierce maternal passion.
If de Gaulle had a certain idea of France, she had a certain idea of England. Hers was no romantic, touristic idea Ebut one based on a deep study of its history, literature and culTHER write errorture. Here, and only here, did the Letwins want to bring up their only son, Oliver, in the belief that there was nowhere else on earth where life was more truly civilised. Nor did Shirley ever abandon this belief. Much as she deplored many aspects of modernity - particularly socialism - she never wavered in her conviction that the forms they took in England were less vile than those they took anywhere else on earth. This was because of England's particular and invaluable saving grace: the quality of gentlemanliness which had nothing to do with class or status or snobbery and everything to do with character.
In her best book, The Gentleman in Trollope: individuality and moral conduct (1982), she sought to capture the moral essence of what she had in mind through a study of Trollope's novels, singling out Madam Max rather than the Duke of Omnium as its most exemplary embodiment. What constituted moral behaviour, and how social arrangements could help to promote it - that was what fascinated Shirley Letwin. She was convinced that England had once had the answer here, and however much obscured it might have been in recent years by utopianism and collectivism, it could have the answer again if only it were true to itself.
This was the spring behind her intellectual work for the Conservative Party and for Margaret Thatcher, whom she got to know through her friend Keith Joseph; and also of her work for the 'think-tank', the Centre of Policy Studies. It was also the quality that made her so much more than a free-marketeer. What she was seeking to conserve, or recover, was an English culture that had once flourished and could flourish again, if only the right policies were pursued. The great Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott was her friend and mentor.
His last book, On Human Conduct, was dedicated to her and he would always stay under her roof when in London.
Shirley Letwin loved social life and was the most generous of hostesses. Each Sunday, after tennis, there was a lunch party in her house overlooking Regent's Park. Writers, dons, journalists, of every generation, but all kindred spirits, were entertained stylishly. Endless trouble was taken to make everything just right. Shirley was no mere bluestocking. Although her intellect was as formidable as Beatrice Webb's, her heart was twice the size.
At a party she gave for her last book, The Anatomy of Thatcherism (1992), all the best and brightest of the young Tory ministers - some of whom she had taught - came to pay their tributes. No one did more than she to raise their sights and test their mettle. With all this she was intensely lovable. It is unbearable to think of her gone for ever, and so suddenly. But the memories she leaves behind will not fade in my heart, so deep are the wells of gratitude and admiration in reserve to keep them fresh and vibrant.
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