Obituary: Rachel Trickett

Michael Gearin-Tosh
Tuesday 29 June 1999 23:02

A DAY or so before her death, and surrounded by cards from former pupils - many now very distinguished - Rachel Trickett was laughing with delight at Halifax's remark that "the vanity of teaching often tempts a man to forget he is a blockhead".

This was the real Rachel Trickett. She loved Oxford, to which she had given her life, she loved literature and true learning, she loved teaching and she would fight for a colleague in trouble. But she had a wicked eye for the conceit of academics, their insularity and devious manipulations. She saw no need to tell. Like her hero Queen Elizabeth I, her motto was video et taceo, I see and I am silent - unless you were privileged to share delicious conversations. Or when she was provoked. Then she gave a reprimand, which no self-importance could evade. She was a regal head of house - 18 years Principal of St Hugh's College - and chairman of committees.

Halifax was a favourite author of David Cecil. Trickett regarded Cecil and Kate Lea as her formative tutors when she was an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, between 1942 and 1945. Both became lifelong friends. They were so dissimilar as to be near opposites. She loved Cecil for his writing on mainstream authors and Lea for her unusual and massive erudition. She loved Cecil's sense of family and Lea's reclusiveness, which went with a huge dedication to the disabled and deprived. She would contrast their methods: "I was an over-voluble student. David would epitomise what I was struggling to say, Kate would tirelessly dissect it. They could not have been more courteous, but each method was devastating. And I am only half cured."

Her own discourse had an "infinite variety" - like Cleopatra, a heroine to whom she was always indulgent: "Hopeless case, Antony: and do I know them." In debate, she was a double- handed tennis player: as well as everything else, there was concealment, finesse, sudden drive and ambush. But the rest was there too. Her Wigan upbringing went with a Northern grit over detail and preparation.

Her passion was imagination in the university. "Imagination, a licentious and vagrant faculty, impatient of restraint," as Dr Johnson wrote, "has always endeavoured to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction and burst the inclosures of regularity." She could see why Oxford had expelled Shelley but she was on guard to see it did not happen again. When examining, she fought for the left-of-centre candidate. She defended the Oxford college system because its diversity gave imagination a chance against the pressures of conformity and centralisation.

She rejoiced in the Oxford which commissioned Wren and Hawksmoor: she felt that less happy choices were made now. She was a Visitor of the Ashmolean Museum (her first job had been as an assistant to the Curator at Manchester City Art Galleries). She was especially proud that, as Principal of St Hugh's, she had commissioned her old friend Laurence Whistler to decorate the chapel and design the wonderful swan gates in Canterbury Road.

As for imagination in intellectual life, Trickett had no doubt that she lived in one of the great ages of Oxford. She singled out - but always said you could make the list five times over - E.R. Dodds, Christopher Hill, Nicholas Kurti, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, John McManners, R.W. Southern, Ronald Syme, J.R.R. Tolkien, Geoffrey Warnock, Edgar Wind and her own dear friend Rosemary Woolf. It delighted her that a Professor of Medicine should write like David Weatherall.

In the English Faculty, it gave her joy that poets of the stature of John Fuller and Craig Raine were college tutors. She played an important part in the election of John Bayley to the Warton Chair, she was confident of the leadership of John Carey, and it lifted her heart that so many former pupils were now members of Faculty. Her last weeks were saddened by the death of Graham Midgley but cheered by the return of their joint pupil Gabriel Josipovici.

She was also a trustee of the Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust and of the Wordsworth Trust, frequently lecturing at Dove Cottage for Jonathan Wordsworth.

When she became a tutor at St Hugh's in 1954, her academic writing was overshadowed by her first novel, The Return Home (1952), which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and was hailed throughout the press: Joyce Cary reviewed it as "truly original". She had also written the libretto for Joubert's opera Antigone. None of this was to the taste of the Principal of St Hugh's, an historian of Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries: "Let us have no more, Miss Trickett, in these lower forms."

Fate put them in the same house and, as Evelyn Procter in the flat below reflected on King Alphonso IV, she could hear the life of her young colleague. There were five more novels. And another libretto.

Trickett was also preparing a major academic work. The Honest Muse: a study in Augustan verse (1967) argued that 19th- and 20th-century critics had focused on the style of Augustan poets rather than their cast of mind, an error for which Dryden himself had attacked Hobbes. Her guide was Quintilian, the favourite rhetorician of Pope, and in particular his account of ethos and moral goodness whose pleasure is rooted in sober truth. There followed discerning and brilliant readings.

Joyce Cary also wrote that Rachel Trickett "disdained the least concession to what is supposed popular taste". It was not that her novels lacked plot: Frederic Raphael reviewing A Changing Place (1962) judged that "she handles narrative with an effortless flexibility". What she disdained was sensationalism. The ethos of The Honest Muse was of a piece with her own imaginative dynamic. Her novels move to a point where home truths are articulated, or nearly articulated, by characters who are not larger than life, pointedly not. "I wanted him to be happy, but I wanted him to understand too," says Elizabeth in The Course of Love (1954) and that is the author's wish for her characters as well. There is then a chance for love to "mend and straighten and construct".

The ordinariness of her characters' lessons does not make them less tough. "I loved him," cries the heroine of The Return Home. "He has left me nothing." Her anguished father can only reply, "If you have nothing left, you had nothing to start with."

That love should straighten went with Rachel Trickett's very firm religious faith. Her childhood was nonconformist but she became an Anglican, devoted to the 1662 Prayer Book and deploring some trends in the Church today - the Church failed in its duty to teach, and in particular to teach that evil sprung from disobedience to our creator. There was an occasion when she was an elector to a theological post. The favoured candidate had advanced views. Who but Trickett would dig out the original 18th-century endowment? The stipulated purpose of the post, she read, was to combat "heresy". So the candidate must be ruled out. And he was. The startled electors might have been facing Miss Procter. Or, in Byron's words, "the most Gothic gentlemen of Spain".

If there was a paradox here, or near paradox, there were others. Carlyle was a favourite author but she relished Gibbon. Her pupils were not allowed to shirk major authors but she could not quite face The Faerie Queene. In describing imagination as he did, Dr Johnson might have added that it made for a remarkable tutor: too alive to be cosy, far more concerned with literature than herself or you, yet so much her own woman that you had better become yourself also.

Mabel Rachel Trickett, English scholar and novelist: born Wigan, Lancashire 20 December 1921; Assistant Lecturer in English, Hull University 1946- 49, Lecturer 1950-54; Fellow and Tutor in English, St Hugh's College, Oxford 1954-73, Principal 1973-91, Honorary Fellow 1991-99; died Oxford 24 June 1999.

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