Obituary: Barbara Kaye

Nicolas Barker
Thursday 12 March 1998 01:02

"MINDING My Own Business" was the title of her bookseller husband's memoirs, and it might have been Barbara Kaye's motto in her long and courageous life.

Percy Muir was still a junior director of the great firm of Elkin Mathews (founded in 1885) when they married in March 1937, but had become de facto its manager. He was 42, she was 28. Almost at once they were plunged into the nightmare of a lost libel case, from which they were only rescued by her small savings. But she was too realistic and too fond of Percy to be put off by this inauspicious beginning, and was soon plunged into the last excitements of bookselling in London before the Second World War.

They shared a house in St John's Wood, north London, with S.S. Koteliansky, the friend of Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, who planted a pear- tree in their garden. She helped Percy, taking part in the task of smuggling the manuscript of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony to safety, and organised the move of the firm to the country, when Ian Fleming, its newest director and already at the Admiralty, warned them that war was imminent.

She settled down to life in the rambling old house at Takeley, near Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, which now became the Elkin Mathews premises. She had been born in Suffolk, the daughter of a professional writer, and begun a career as a journalist. Now, despite having to maintain a household that now included two small children as well as her husband and Elisabeth, the German girl who was the sole relic of the bookshop staff, she found time to write and to start a canteen for evacuees. When peace returned (though not plenty), she met a new challenge, helping Percy rebuild old links with his continental colleagues and heal the wounds of war. He was largely responsible for putting these relationships on a formal basis through the foundation of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. She contrived, despite rationing, to entertain his colleagues, new and old, and the trade owes her a great debt for her part in this post-war revival.

Little of this is reflected in the novels that she wrote now and later, 13 in all, under the pen name Barbara Kaye. They all dealt with contemporary life and its problems, seen very much in a local context. Blackmarket Green (1950) was a portrait of a village in wartime, Festival at Froke (1951) reflects the impact of the Festival of Britain and Champion's Mead (1951) the foundation of Harlow New Town, not far away. All this was observed at first hand, for she was always in the thick of things, sitting on the district council, presiding over the local Women's Institute and organising entertainments for the village fete, besides doing all sorts of good that her energetic and gregarious temperament suggested to her. To be a friend of hers was to be a friend for life.

The growth of Stansted airport finally made life at Takeley no longer bearable, and they moved to Blakeney in Norfolk. There Percy died in 1979. It was the end of an era in the history of Elkin Mathews. By now Barbara was the sole member of its staff, and might well have accepted a good offer for the stock and wound up the business. But giving up was not in her nature. With her usual courage and tenacity, she kept it going, did up the premises and took to going to book fairs and auctions. To her delight, her son David, already a bookseller, came to join her in 1987.

She went on writing, publishing a continuation of Minding My Own Business (1956), aptly titled The Company We Kept (1986), and a sequel, Second Impression (1995). She sailed her dinghy off the Norfolk coast into her eighties, gardened indefatigably, and would go halfway across England to the Wordsworth Trust book-collectors' weekends until last year. She faced the ills of old age when they came without complaint and, as always, with courage.

Barbara Kenrick Gowing (Barbara Kaye), writer and bookseller: born Saxmundham, Suffolk 4 August 1908; married 1937 P.H. Muir (died 1979; one son, one daughter); died Blakeney, Norfolk 21 February 1998.

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