Dorothy Bednarowska

Charismatic and painstaking Oxford English tutor

Friday 17 January 2003 01:00
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Dorothy Mary Whitehead, English scholar: born Colombo, Ceylon 6 January 1915; Lecturer, St Anne's Society (from 1952 St Anne's College), Oxford 1946-54, Fellow 1954-82 (Emeritus), Dean 1961-69; married 1944 Wladek Bednarowski (died 2001); died Oxford 4 January 2003.

Dorothy Bednarowska was one of the most influential English academics of her generation: this she achieved not through publishing scholarly articles, though scholarly she undoubtedly was, but by means of a penetrating intelligence, a charismatic personality and unremitting devotion to her students.

Though she was born in Ceylon, where her father, Fred Whitehead, was an engineer, a family house in Oxford enabled her to attend Oxford High School, and progress, in 1933, to the Society of Oxford Home Students (the future St Anne's College). Graduating with a First in 1937, she started a BLitt on Herbert and Donne, but the Second World War intervened and she became the Organising Secretary to the Allied Forces Centre in Oxford.

By 1944 she had married a Polish philosopher, Wladek Bednarowski, 11 years her senior (who subsequently settled in Aberdeen, where, with Professor Robert Cross, he modernised the university's philosophy course), and, after a year at Wychwood School, she found her vocation as an Oxford don, first as a temporary tutor at St Hilda's College, and then at St Anne's, where she was appointed Lecturer in 1946, Fellow in 1954 and Dean from 1961 to 1969; she retired as an Emeritus Fellow in 1982.

It was perhaps her understanding of her charism as a talent bestowed by God that led her to devote her formidable energy to teaching rather than to the stage: her racy performance of Chaucer's "Wife of Bath" was legendary and my children could not have been alone in adoring the full range of sound effects she would bring to bedtime stories. Her faith, which had a mystical element, but manifested itself in a very practical piety, led her from ardent undergraduate commitment to Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism. She counted many Catholic priests among her close friends and had particularly strong links with St Benet's Hall, Oxford; a queue of willing contenders formed when the opportunity arose for the blessing of a new car.

Her pupils will best remember her silhouetted against the bay window of her college sitting-room, in feline repose reminiscent of her Siamese cat, a mentholated cigarette in hand, ready to spring into animated debate, or launch upon an illustrative anecdote: as a witty raconteur she had few rivals. Like many dons of her generation she actively enjoyed teaching across a wide range, which started for her with Chaucer, and the gradual extension of the Oxford syllabus into the Victorian period and beyond had few more active advocates.

She attracted a growing band of research students and her total involvement in their projects made her remarkably receptive to new discourses such as the post-colonial, to which her own birth, as a child of Empire, inclined her. The liberal range of her own interests allowed her to delight in the variety of careers in which her pupils of both sexes achieved eminence, as writers (Elizabeth Jennings, Andrew Motion, Jennifer Uglow); broadcasters (Libby Purves); journalists (Tina Brown); teachers, headmistreses, heads of Oxbridge colleges (Dame Gillian Beer); and as academics throughout the discipline of English Studies. Simon Rattle, as a young conductor, was so attracted by her reputation that he spent a sabbatical studying with her.

Her passion for teaching embraced the world of continuing education, where she had a devoted band of mature students, some of whom followed her courses for almost two decades; and six weeks each summer were spent as Director of the International Graduate Summer School at Exeter College, which recruited students from every quarter of the globe. These students, like her Oxford pupils and those whom she encountered during teaching spells in the United States soon succumbed to the mystique of Bednarowska's teaching.

What made her so exceptional a teacher? Her ability to make weekly tutorials into social occasions certainly helped – she must have taught generations of female undergraduates to hold their liquor while pursuing an argument – but social interchange was never permitted to interfere with the real business of dissecting the weekly essay. Her seemingly total recall of every fact concerning those in whom she took an interest underwrote this sense of personal engagement. When in "retirement" she took a lectureship at Worcester College she was not a whit daunted by a period of semi-blindness, knowing that she could rely on her unrivalled memory of the texts.

In the days before Oxford colleges became co-educational the extensive network of friends she had made in the English Faculty allowed her to operate an exchange system that provided her undergraduates with wider academic opportunities and won her many loyal male pupils. Spurring all her pupils to strive for the best of which they were capable, she was always available to dispense whisky, wisdom, wit, and very practical help to those in difficulties.

Inevitably such painstaking patronage occasionally led to fallings-out and there were others who regretted that they seemed never to advance into what they perceived as a charmed circle: for the majority of her former pupils, however, the greatest sadness was the increasing reclusiveness she practised in latter years as she grew frailer.

Elisabeth Jay

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