MARGARET LUCY LEE
largely based on her own diaries
MARGARET LUCY LEE was born on 14 July 1871, the eldest child of Thomas William Lee, son of Joseph Lee, of Redbrook House, Flint, and Margaret Anne, daughter of Rev. C. H. Lyon, of Glen Ogil, the seat for 500 years of the cadet branch of the Bowes-Lyons of Glamis Castle.
Margaret, who was always called Lucy at home and at school, spent her first four years at her birthplace, Hartford House, Hartley Wintney, where her father had a preparatory school. This he sold for quixotically conscientious reasons in 1875, taking instead the living at Leafield, near Witney, Oxon., with a stipend of only £60 a year. He remained there for the next 46 years.
In a diary written in girlhood at Leafield Margaret described her early years at Hartley Wintney, which she left when she was four years old. ‘From the time of my second birthday, which I very well remember, life seems to be spread out before me as clearly as a well drawn map. The years from ten to twelve or so are the least clear. The earlier ones, though marked by few events, present a continuous series of thoughts and ideas connected with the doings of every day. Looking back to my own thoughts between the ages of two and four, I see that they were always grave, generally, even sad, and often puzzled. One of the first things I learnt was not talk of what I thought, or at least not to expect comprehension from others, which with me came to the same thing.’
She remembers at the age of two being carried on her, father’s shoulder to a little lake at Llandudno and her cousin Robbie Lee falling in. And she kept a keen impression of sunny lanes and little woods in the Isle of Wight, where she went at the age of three, and how she and her nurse fetched water for her mother from a little spring bubbling up among roadside grass. On a drive later, when the spring had run dry, she pointed it out to her mother, who said, ‘Surely that can’t be the place where the delicious water came from I can’t believe it’, and ‘I thought she really disbelieved me.’
Her mother suffered from ill health and Margaret remembers her at this time as a ‘sofa-lady’. She had her a good deal with her and taught her to read, but Margaret’s nurse was the centre of her life. Nana was a young woman devoted to her charge and unable to deny her anything: ‘The only thing she ever forced me to do was to sip her beer at dinner, which I strongly disliked.’
In her delightful nursery Margaret used to open the drawer containing her favourite toys and sit on the edge gazing at them. ‘One day I remember standing on a chair before the glass while Nana brushed my hair, and saying over to myself, “l am three years old, now”, and then suddenly the thought came into my head that I should never be two again, and I said, “Oh, I want to go back! I was so happy before I was three!'”
She remembers her efforts to formulate comprehensible questions, and, being doubtful as to whether afternoon or evening came first, asked: ‘ “Nana, is it evening when you light the gas and afternoon when we go out, or is it evening when we go out and afternoon when you light the gas?” “It’s evening when we light up, my dear”, said Nana: and I have connected the word “evening” with a gas globe ever since.’
She did not enjoy visits from other children because she hated rough play and because they frequently broke her toys. I think it not unusual for young children to prefer older company to that of their contemporaries, but Margaret says later, ‘The truth was I never learnt to get on with other children, or anyone of my own age, till I was nearly grown up. They frightened me and we did not understand each other. A few years later I cared for nothing but books and did not feel the need, which was a very real one nevertheless, for companions of my own age.’
‘At this time The Grange, the house of friends a few miles away, was the only place to which I really cared to go. Ethel and Alice Walkinshaw were nearly grown-up girls, and I liked them much better on that account. They made me tell all my funny thoughts, and did not laugh at them.’
Life in the school was cheerful and Margaret enjoyed watching the boys at cricket and she ‘took a fancy for lying under the hall table, with a huge book, and watching the boys pass into the dining room for meals’. The servants were kind, and the old housekeeper carried her about on her shoulder. And she remembers the coachman, Barker, who ‘used to wear a pink livery when we had dinner parties’.
She had rabbits for pets and also a dormouse but found ‘the frogs in the cellar windows preferable to any of these’. However, when her nurse caught a robin she longed to tame and tend it, and having had to let it go was sent to buy a tame cage-bird as a consolation. A fat thrush was brought home. ‘The very same day, as we were sitting at dinner, the bird’s cage being placed close beside my plate because I would not have it anywhere else, my new pet fell off his perch, quite dead in a moment.’ It was the first time she had witnessed death and she remembers ‘a misery and perplexity in my grief far beyond anything that the loss of the thrush could occasion. From about that time the idea of death was hardly ever absent from me. I expected my own death almost daily, and as a rule looked forward to it just as I looked forward to a great joy long-expected. The thought of dying seldom frightens children, and it never frightened me: but I had an intense horror of outliving all those I loved, which often made me soak my pillow through with tears at night.’ She did in fact outlive all her family and this was an everpresent grief to her.
A few years later the sentiment and poetry of religion appealed to her, but she was taught about the Bible almost before she could speak and she vividly remembers the first time she heard the Redemption story. ‘I remember how Mamma paused just before the climax was reached, and how breathlessly I said, ”And did they kill Him?” and she bowed her head and said, “Yes, they killed Him.” I thought for long after that it must have been a mistake-that no men could really be so cruel.’ .
‘Besides the prayers that I repeated to Mamma I used to have others which I said to myself at night after getting into my cot. They originated in a particular way. One evening Mamma told me a story of how, when she was a little child, she was wandering, among the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Andrews, and saw a white dove perched on a tower above. She tried to reach it, but it flew off and again and again she tried, only to see the dove go farther until at last it soared away altogether. And every day she watched for it, but it never came back any more.
‘Surely it was a simple enough story, told probably to amuse me, with little thought of the torrents of fears I was to shed over it. It was the words “never more” which affected me then as they have done ever since. A few years later, I could not bear to hear them said in connection with the most trivial thing. If anyone said “You must never wear that old frock any more” I rushed away and .cried, or asked in my cowardice whether I might not put it on once again and then take it off to be given away.
‘This was one of my peculiarities which provoked people most, and caused a great deal of the misery of my childhood. They never, to the last, understood the effect wrought by a mere word, or dreamt that when they spoke it they awakened a whole train of almost agonizing, unsolved thoughts in the mind of an almost baby girl.
‘Well, at the time of which I speak, being only four, I struggled against the inevitableness of that “never more”. I resolved to pray every night that Mamma might see the white dove again, and have it for her own; and I kept up the custom for several years. Other prayers were gradually added, and I called them collectively my “little prayers” in contradistinction to the longer ones I said aloud. Of the whole series I now only recollect the first, which was “Please God let nobody ever be deaf, or dumb, or blind, or lame”. Whenever the maids talked in my presence of any horrible disease or other affliction I added a petition that this also might not befall people.’
Margaret describes an experience she had when about three years old. ‘I was lying on my back in the little crib beside Nana’s bed, while the grey dawn of a winter’s morning crept into the room. Straight over my head, on the white ceiling, which looked dim and uncertain in the half dark, I seemed to see a number of angels, their shapes not clearly defined, but crowded, together in a floating throng.
“Nana,” I said, waking her up, “I see angels. Look, they are flying across the room.” Nana appeared startled and said, “Perhaps God sent them.” The ceiling got clearer with the increasing light and the shadowy forms vanished, leaving it white and blank. “Nana”, I said, “They’re all gone! I saw them flyaway; I think they went out at the window. I wish they would come back.” “Perhaps they’ve flown back again to God”, she replied. The answer quite contented me, but I often woke up early, on mornings as dim and shadowy, to watch for the angels. I never, even in my most fanciful moods, saw them again.
‘One day, as I was sitting beside Mamma’s sofa before breakfast, in the drawing-room, she told me that we were going away from Hartford House to a pretty new home a long way off. At this I burst into a perfect passion of tears, for anything new was always, to me, strange and terrible.
‘It seemed to my childish mind a long time before we really came to Leafield. Papa, after he had been there, used to take me on his knee and imitate the sound of the six bells that chimed for service at our new home. Then I used to turn away and hide my face, saying nothing aloud, but whispering to myself, “Papa doesn’t understand.” It was the earliest beginning of reserve.’
And she puzzled her Walkinshaw friends by remaining dumb and apparently sulky in their presence and refusing to go ‘anymore to the Grange because she could not bear the thought of saying good-bye.’
In spite of forebodings, when Margaret arrived at Leafield and walked between her father and mother, who held her hand on each side, from the garden into the churchyard and along the path between the graves ‘from that time I yearned for Hartford no more’. The graves were marked by simple stone crosses and some by none at all because, till the church was built in 1860 and the parish created, all funerals had been at Shipton. Leafield is on a 600 foot ridge between the Windrush and Evenlode valleys. The Vicarage dining-room and drawing-room windows and the broad terrace walk outside them look out across rolling fields to Faringdon Clump, some thirty miles away. At one end of the terrace there was a little fir wood ‘in which I could sleep out unlawfully on a pile of hay’. The kitchen garden and outbuildings behind were separated from the village by an orchard. At the front of the house the mown lawn ran up to the wicket gate leading into the churchyard path to the church.
There were no other educated people in the village and the nearest parsonage was three miles away. The only secular social events during Margaret’s childhood and early girlhood were the fortnightly summer meetings of a tennis club on courts made soon after their arrival by her father on one of the meadows. Carriages drove in across the Home Field, the coachman’s wife presided over a tea-tent, and Margaret, when old enough to play, enjoyed the company and the excitement of the game. Archery was also practised on adjoining ground.
But the intermittent visits of numerous boy and girl cousins compensated for the lack of young neighbours. From the age of ten Leo Lyon, son of her mother’s brother James, spent his holidays at Leafield and became as a brother to Margaret. He was an able boy who later won the Founders’ Scholarship at Hertford, went in for Schools the same year as Margaret, 1892, but alas died of tuberculosis at the age of 27. Another cousin, Robert Lee, her frequent companion from infancy, became a lifelong friend, and in his eighties was still Rhodes Professor of Roman and Dutch Law in the University of Oxford. The vicarage was often overfull of aunts and cousins, Lees and Lyons, and Margaret loved particularly the wife of her mother’s youngest brother, who married at the age of about eighteen. ‘She showed me immense tenderness and understanding, and her visits to my nursery at bedtime supplied something that had been missing all my life.’
On the move to Leafield Nana had been replaced by a nursery governess, rubicund, jolly, and kind, but uncomprehending. At the age of six or so her father had read aloud to her much of Paradise Lost, and later nearly all the Waverley Novels. ‘When he diverged into other poets than Milton I was not so happy: e.g. his evening readings from Crabbe terrified me so much that I added a petition in my prayers that he would forget to read him any more.’
But Margaret writes that she came nearest to being in touch with her father in the Paradise Lost readings, when her habitual fear abated. When, a little later, he tried to teach her Latin she says, ‘my fear increased and I asked my governess what it was that thumped inside me so on Thursdays and nearly choked me.’ The lessons had to be abandoned to her later regret, and years afterwards; when she left school at eighteen ‘a similar attempt was made with Greek, with the same sad result-panic and cessation of lessons’.
This happened in spite of her admiration for her father’s upright character and for his scholarliness. She realized too, as perhaps no one else did, what he suffered for lack of any kindred spirits in the neighbourhood. It is remarkable that a scholarly clergyman at that date should have realized so many social needs and should have provided for them with such generosity. When wells ran dry in summer he hired and sent round a water-cart at his own expense, and later installed underground tanks and water-pipes. Milk was sold at half-price and often given free from the back door each morning. He visited every family at least thrice a year. He started a boot and shoe club and other clubs. These and much else he provided over and above what he spent on the parish, such as the buying of a disused chapel for a Parish Room and the liberal provision of teas to Sunday School teachers and others. Margaret often acted as secretary, copying postcard invitations for the Sunday School Union gatherings and helping in other correspondence.
The poverty in the village was severe, the day labourers earning 10s to 12s a week and getting no pay on wet days. The village originated in ‘squatted’ cottages in a clearing made in Wychwood Forest and the men were still employed on the Crown farms. Apart from their meagre wages they subsisted on small allotment gardens and, in many families, a pig. With a high birth-rate and a low standard of living it is little wonder that the death-rate from tuberculosis was high.
Life in the vicarage itself was spartan, as in most country vicarages in Victorian days. There was no water except from handpumps in the scullery, outside laundry, and stable-yard. The only hot water had to be drawn from the kitchen boiler which itself had to be filled by hand with water fetched from the scullery pump. All water for baths had to be carried upstairs to the bedrooms, her father’s daily and ‘the rest of us had weekly ones at night’, Margaret’s set close to the nursery fire. In it she liked to eat her favourite supper of milk and radishes. There were no bedroom fires except in times of illness.
In 1877 Margaret’s beloved sister, Dora, was born and Margaret wrote: ‘Always do I remember burying my face in an armchair one cold morning on February 20th to give thanks for such an untold mercy.’ Margaret remembers Dora as a lovely child ‘with a mass of really golden hair, always happy and content but never sharing her thoughts and experiences’. Throughout her childhood Margaret was passionately devoted to her. They were close companions and Margaret’s strong affection lasted till Dora’s death on 1 January 1951. Dora spent her life in home and parish duties till the death of her father, after which she cared for her mother and also took training that enabled her to practise massage among the poor of the neighbouring parishes. She had a noble face and nature but remained to the end aloof and reserved.
Margaret’s reading was varied at Christmas by ‘the arrival of a vast package of godly books from the S.P.C.K. which to my father, as a liberal benefactor, sent a copy of each book published during the year. Those included a number of story books for children, such as The Bishop’s Little Daughter and Christie’s Old Organ, which I was supposed to read for Papa, and which formed a welcome change from Mrs. Alexander’s Hymns, Parables from Nature, and later on, Bacon’s Essays, much as I loved learning their wonderful English by heart.’
Later on she and Dora and May Lyon, a cousin who from the age of thirteen shared Dora’s governess and lived with them, went on rare occasions to parties at Ramsden House ‘where there were six little girls, all beautiful and dressed exactly alike’. And twice they went to fancy dress balls at Shipton Court.
For Margaret childhood seemed to end abruptly. She wrote: ‘1880, my ninth year, was one of grief, horror, and after illness a change of governess for me.’
The news of the impending departure of her governess reached her by an inadvertent remark of an aunt and was then confirmed by her father. She was first ‘petrified with horror’ and later burst into passionate tears to the exasperation of her uncomprehending father. While this dread of change was still hovering over her she awoke one night in a fright at the sound of ‘a furious noise, a carriage arriving in the small hours, voices and consultations. The next morning was passed out-doors in suspense till a curt announcement from her father told her of the arrival of a little brother, ‘beautiful, very like Dora’, but born dead. He added ‘Mamma is very ill indeed’. The agonized waiting during the rest of the day, the sight at dark of the gardener carrying out from the house a tiny white coffin and herself kneeling by it in the long grass heavy with dew, all this and the fear that her mother would die were indeed a terrible experience for a child not yet nine years old. It is not surprising that she afterwards, on a holiday with her mother and Dora and a maid, fell ill with sceptic abscesses and that her recovery was long delayed. Her new governess was prim and quiet but had a correct knowledge of French and German and could play the organ.
Margaret when nine years old found other interests. She begged her father to let her have a Sunday School class, saying she meant to become a teacher. He replied, ‘I hope not darling,’ but gave her a bunch of unruly five- and six-year olds. Her rather severe methods of subjugation probably led to her father’s sudden withdrawal of the permission to teach. This, following on her earlier misery, plunged her into despair and ‘Sunday afternoons were now spent in praying to be allowed to teach again, and designing patterns for my tombstone, which I hoped might be required ere long’.
But then she found comfort in the thought of ‘Christus Consolator’ and in the discovery of some ‘everlasting flowers’ in the garden, and in a text in her birthday book ‘Here we have no continuing city but we seek one to come.’
Life at Leafield continued with its routine of pony-riding and lessons, including reading the Bible through and through. First with Leo and then alone Margaret made cottage visits, and her love of little children took her to neighbouring vicarages where she was in demand as a story-teller. She wrote, ‘my love of Leafield and its inhabitants had now become fanatical.’
At the age of twelve she was again allowed to teach in the Sunday School. She knew that to teach was her vocation and a teacher she remained till her eighties.
In her early teens, away on a seaside holiday with her family, Margaret met a young woman, Lily Hayter whose beauty and tenderness appealed to her as had the personality of her Aunt Kate Lyon, now far away in Australia. Lily Haytar had with her a Miss Moir, a trained nurse, who took Margaret for a walk on the esplanade and ‘we talked of life and death, and the parting of the soul from body, which she had power to see. She described the shadowy form, horizontal, floating upward above the body till the connecting chain snapped and the freed being floated away leaving the body behind. This – the testimony of an eyewitness whom I much respected and who felt she “had to” tell me this, had a vast effect on all my future life. It gave me what I needed, and I am everlastingly grateful to Nurse Moir, whose word I trusted fully…. From this time the problem of the “resurrection of the body” was solved for me, and the truth of the etherial or “spiritual” body was established. Future influences confirmed me in my belief, which indeed corroborated both the teachings of my religion and all that I had believed as a young child. I owe much to Nurse Moir.’
This strong attachment to Lily Hayter upheld Margaret for some years during which she failed to find friends among her contemporaries. When two girls of her own age (thirteen and fourteen) came to Leafield she walked on the terrace with the younger and asked, , “Do you, Florry, ever see your life in front of you like a long, long road with no end to it-quite hopeless, and feel you can’t enter upon it?” Florry replied, “No, I never think silly things like that”, and I never tried to discuss life with anyone of my own age again.’ Margaret then had little choice of possible friends but she found no difficulty in forming lasting friendships a few years later at school.
She was fortunate in being taken away for happy holiday visits in different places-to Wales, to her Vawdrey cousins at Tushingham Hall, Salop, to other cousins at The Craigan, Sussex, and to Glen Ogil, and the house of the Glen Ogil cousins in Edinburgh, and also to St. Andrews. Sometimes they visited Cousin Helen Symers who lived in a huge mansion neat Dundee, ‘with an orangery and a wild glen sloping down to the shores of the Tay’. Margaret was impressed by the beauty of the place and by all the signs of great wealth such as the plaited borders of straw round each horse’s stall’, but says, ‘I shall never forget the up-turned mutinous faces of the brawling mill-hands as they swarmed round the carriage which met us at the station. They did not, however, make me feel ashamed.’
In her seventeenth year a change of governess to one suitable for Dora but not for Margaret resulted in her being sent in January 1888 to a large fashionable girls’ school kept by two Miss Clarkes in Warrington Crescent, London. There was also a house in Brondesbury for the more advanced pupils.
Margaret suffered the miseries of home-sickness during the first year at school though she soon began to enjoy the good teaching there. She seems to have been on happy, easy terms with all her school-fellows and made her first friendships with contemporaries, a pleasure she had never had before. Margaret, a born teacher, soon began to hold ‘prep classes’ for some of the girls, and feeling that these might be disapproved was joyfully reassured to overhear one of the teachers, Miss Batty, say, ‘Don’t disturb Lucy’s class.’ Margaret was soon very fond of the school, not only because of the good teaching. She loved the school oratory ‘where we had Sext and Compline daily’ and the church of St. Mary Magdalen where they worshipped on Sunday. The garden belonging to Warrington Crescent was big enough for seventeen tennis courts, and there the girls were ‘allowed to walk without gloves if we carried knitting’.
In the spring of 1889 she became more and more attached to Miss A. S. Batty, a very reserved woman noted for ‘justice, remoteness, and impartiality’. Somehow Margaret succeeded in insinuating herself into her affections. It was a gradual process which grew into the most lasting intimate relationship of her life. Though it began as a schoolgirl’s adoration it developed into a mother and daughter relationship, for Miss Batty was her senior by twenty years. Poetry was their first shared interest and Margaret gained much by discussing it with her out of school hours and showing her her own verses. She also found that she could be of practical use in various ways-helping to prepare classroom drawing materials and the like. She also soon realized that Miss Batty, even then frail in health, was overworked, that she suffered from severe headaches that incapacitated her for days, and that she found the twice-a-day walks with a bunch of girls especially fatiguing.
Margaret was soon accepted by Miss Batty as her own special pupil and friend. This attachment, unlike Margaret’s earlier ones, very soon became a relationship of mutual dependence. For after a term or two Margaret was so much concerned about Miss Batty’s ill health that she determined to fit herself to earn her own living as quickly as possible in order to help Miss Batty as a teacher by returning to Warrington Crescent.
After six terms at school, from January 1888 to Christmas 1889, she left. Her father came to fetch her home in time for Christmas 1889. On leaving the school Margaret tried to show him affection ‘by holding his hand. He reciprocated by telling me the village news, i.e. that the corpse of a poor old tramp had been discovered in the Forest near the road. I began to sob, and he said, “Of course, leaving so many kind and friendly people must be hard.” That was an end of our attempt to understand one another.’
On arriving home from school Margaret’s first object was to get her father’s permission to go to Oxford to read for English Honours at the university. When out riding with him one day she determined to wring consent from him before reaching home. This she did and it was soon decided that she should go to the small, newly opened St. Hugh’s Hall, where Miss Maberley was the Principal and where there were only some fifteen students. Having spent two terms at home preparing for the entrance examination, she went up in October 1890 and took her first after only two years in 1892. At that time and until 1898 only women were allowed to read for English Honours. She wrote: ‘There was no Board of Tutors; we were “coached” entirely by Professors, and it was rather like running horses or pigeons for a race.’ Professor Joseph Wright and Professor A. S. Napier taught her, Professor Wright in Philology, with a few other women in his class. Professor Napier coached her in literature free of charge, alone in his Headington Hill House, where she became intimately friendly with him and his family.
Her time at St. Hugh’s was happy and she made good friendships with fellow students. She also had the companionship of her three cousins, Robert Lee, Lawrence Waugh, and Leo Lyon, up at the same time, and sometimes, at the beginning of term all three would meet her at the station. She was not much concerned that ‘Miss Moberley (immersed in books, and in her exposition of the Book of Revelation) had little skill in housekeeping and the practical problems of daily life’.
The ‘English Schools week was gloriously happy . . . and the sense of elation never left me, nor were any of my papers depressing and the whole thing was one rapture in doing what Icould do well, and knowing that it was to support A. S. B.’
Before the examination results were published Margaret had been asked to give her first set of lectures, a short vacation course on nineteenth-century poets for University Extension students. St. Hugh’s being closed she was to go into rooms where Miss Batty would join her in August. But at this moment Miss Batty had news of her brother’s short illness and swift death from typhoid. He had been the prop of the family and the shock and sorrow precipitated a long nervous illness, though with Margaret’s help she managed to carry on her work at school. Even before taking Schools Margaret had had permission to go for a night a week to Warrington Crescent.
She pursued a plan she had made earlier that after graduating she should remain up to study French and German in order to be fitted to teach these subjects. This she succeeded in doing, for in the autumn she returned to St. Hugh’s for one term. She studied with Professor Bue and Professor Bucheim.
After spending the Christmas holidays at home she went back in January 1893 to Warrington Crescent. Miss Batty had been left almost alone to manage the two school-houses with a few girls, the Misses Clarke having taken the rest of the pupils to the other school-house at Brondesbury. Miss Batty was ill paid and so unwell that she could hardly carry on, yet had no means of support should she leave. So Margaret nursed her as a semi-invalid, managing and teaching the girls, and she remained at Warrington Crescent at least till the end of the summer term 1894. A gap in her diary makes it doubtful when she returned to Oxford. She was Vice-Principal of St. Hugh’s from January 1895 to June 1896 and at that time was tutor in English to women ‘and a few odd males’ reading English for pass degrees. Presumably Miss Batty was sufficiently recovered for Margaret to be able to leave her temporarily.
By this time Margaret had made a plan to take rooms in Oxford for both of them and help Miss Batty to establish a school for girls. This plan was successfully carried out. Margaret and Miss Batty established themselves at 41 Banbury Road and in January I897 a few pupils, daughters of Oxford dons, formed a nucleus of what was later to become Wychwood School. The little school flourished, pupils flocked in, more rooms in the house were added till, in 1898, the lease and later the ownership of 77 Banbury Road were acquired. Miss Batty’s health improved marvellously and her wonderful power as a teacher began to be felt.
77 Banbury Road, a charming Regency house with a little garden stretching along North Parade, swarmed with school-children by day, and there were usually a few young women living there while reading for various examinations. The school soon overflowed and moved to Park Crescent in 1906, to Bradmore Road in 1912, and was finally established as Wychwood at 74 Banbury Road in 1918. Margaret taught English at the school from its earliest days till 1952, holding, until her superannuation, her university appointments at the same time.
In 1917 Miss Geraldine Coster was asked to give a weekly lecture in Geography to the School Certificate class. She writes: ‘after a year’s teaching in a conventional High School, very conventional indeed in those days, I had resolved never again to teach in a school and I felt very unwilling to bother with “the little Battys” as I rudely called them. But I was soon won round by a class of well mannered, intelligent girls, eager to learn and without any tiresome schoolgirl tricks. I came to know Miss Batty and Miss Lee as personal friends and when the school moved to 74 Banbury Road I decided to throw in my lot with it.
‘As Margaret was, owing to the 1914-1918 war, still too deeply engrossed in university work to give much time to the school, it was run by Miss Batty and myself, with Miss Elizabeth Rendall as its very able and versatile house-mistress and teacher.’
Except in the difficult war years the school flourished. In 1939 it was recognized by the Board of Education. In 1944 it became, as an independent school, a non-profit-making company. In very early days it was known as ‘the don’s school’, or simply ‘Miss Batty’s’, but when it moved to Banbury Road it was called ‘Wychwood’ after the forest which at one time almost surrounded the village of Leafield. Miss Snodgrass, the present co-Principal with Miss Coster, came as a History specialist in 1936.
Again to quote Geraldine Coster, ‘Margaret had the great gift of never being defeated by obstacles and without her determination and persistence the school would gradually have died after Miss Batty’s retirement. Soon after the move to Banbury Road she built and presented to the school the small gymnasium in the garden which is still in use. As time went on she invested money in two more large houses, and later made a gift of the house that had been used for the teaching of Domestic Science for much-needed extra rooms for the school. Shortly before her death she also gave a substantial sum of money to the school. In her spare moments Margaret did all the school correspondence with parents and in her later years she spent more and more time at Wychwood.
Kathleen Gibberd, who was second mistress and virtually co Principal of Wychwood from 1930 to 1935, gives a full and lively account of Margaret, whom she here calls Miss Lyons, in her book Politics on the Blackboard.I She describes her as seen in a first interview: ‘The senior principal was a university lecturer whom I knew by repute and I expected to be intimidated. In the event I was both alarmed and reassured. It was alarming, in a sense, to see the William Morris wallpaper, the Victorian furniture, and the way Miss Lyons piled her hair on her head with a comb near the top. It was reassuring, on the other hand, to be told that if I was interested in citizenship I really ought to read the book that Miss Lyons was taking with her senior girls on Sunday nights. It was a book that I had written myself.
‘Miss Lyons was full of contrasts. Although she relentlessly maintained a social outlook suited to a well-connected parson’s daughter of the last century, there was no modern cause for the betterment of mankind that did not get her support. Little piles of pamphlets lying neatly on a Victorian couch testified to the manner in which she was helping to preserve peace, rebuild old houses, rehabilitate the aged, encourage right posture, and save rural England. New editions of the pamphlets would appear as months went by and they were read and annotated before they replaced their forerunners. What Miss Lyons did she did tirelessly and all time, beginning early in the morning and driving herself relentlessly. through the day with thirty letters written in the intervals of teaching and lecturing and private conversations. When you first met her she might seem to be wholly academic and serious, but suddenly a shaft of mockery would illuminate the precision of her grave remarks, to be followed by another and another, until solemnity was punctured utterly and Miss Lyons herself was shaking with silent laughter. She would laugh at herself as much as others, and her irony harmed no one. Behind her composed demeanour there were deep affections as well as unsuspected frailties, and although she collected and wore the most abominable hats, bought because· they were bargains, she liked to see other women well-dressed. She also greatly admired any skillfully made-up face, insisting that it must· be the owner’s natural complexion.’
Miss Snodgrass writes about Monday Morning Talks at Wychwood: ‘It is the amusing touches that first spring to my mind, and they were very typical of Miss Lee’s humour. In a talk on Christmas Cards she urged us to exercise our imagination in choosing the right card for each recipient. Do not, she said, follow the example of the Wychwood child who sent to me, an old woman who is both a vegetarian and a teetotaller, a card with the slogan “Plenty of Beef and Beer, old Bean”. I remember a talk on honesty when she said that even fibs of politeness could be avoided: when a mother showed you her baby-fat, red-faced, and wrinkled-there was no need to say anything more than “WHAT a baby! WHAT a baby!” thus serving both politeness and honesty. And there was the never-to-beforgotten advice on How to Choose your Husband: suitors who had shown themselves good to their mothers, considerate to servants and wise with children, had to face a last hurdle, for “When you have found your man, SEE HIM WITH A COLD !'”
‘Some of Miss Lee’s similes must still be familiar to many generations. There was the Spiral Staircase, and the House of Life; both of these came into many talks. In case you have forgotten I will remind you about your House of Life: You can choose whether you will spend your time in your cellars, the dark unknown regions of the body and the animal instincts; or on the ground floor where you live at the emotional level; or among the things of the mind on the first floor. And you may from time to time go higher still into your secret attics where you can be alone and from the little window see so far all over the country round about.
‘I liked the talks on Ash Wednesday, crisp and hardy, showing a Victorian contempt for hot-water bottles. Especially I admired the Ascension Day talk. Such a difficult festival to talk about to children, but Miss Lee faced the whole problem, physical (I might say geographical) as well as spiritual. On the other hand I never liked the Pentecost talk for I was never convinced by her views on “speaking with tongues”. Again a difficult problem to tackle, but Miss Lee never shirked difficulties.
‘It was this refusal to shirk that was so splendid about the talks.
I remember most vividly a series on the Ten Commandments. The day that we finished with the seventh I wondered curiously what the next Monday would bring forth. At least there would be no hedging. And there was none. Bang into the heart of the matter went Miss Lee, right into the question of faithfulness in love and friendship, of the place of physical feeling in the relations of men and women, in words which were as clear as crystal for staff and seniors, and gave something that the youngest could grasp. I never admired her more than that Monday.
‘There may have been funny bits in the talk on How to Choose a Husband but much of it was serious and not to be forgotten. When you choose your husband, she said, you must remember that your House of Life must connect with his on all levels. It is usually easy to find the connecting door on the two bottom floors: and rightly, for bodily love is real and not to be ignored, and it is often on the level of the emotions that lovers are first drawn together. But you must remember the need to go higher and share mental sympathies. As for the top attic-most often you are alone in your attic but if you can share your aspirations and spiritual experiences with a lover or friend then you have found the best kind of human relationship.
‘None of us can have agreed with everything Miss Lee said, or liked all the talks. I always felt she was rather too contemptuous of the body. Surely my body is very much part of me; but Miss Lee spoke of the body as nothing but a tiresome prison house the sooner done with the better-and there was no partnership between body and spirit. Also, as I personally do not believe in rebirth or reincarnation, all that side of Miss Lee’s thought was alien to me. But these are personal differences. A more general criticism is that though I and the staff rejoiced in her bluntness I doubt whether it was always a success with the children. I think Miss Lee sometimes ignored the fact that adolescents are much more afraid of sentiment than adults, and that some of their inner feelings they are shy of hearing put into words-in front of the whole school in the Hut. Whether Miss Lee recognized this reticence or not she felt, I think, that Wychwood girls must learn to face the deep things of life without either giggles or embarrassment. Giggle they never did, nor was there any danger of that kind of silliness; Miss Lee’s approach was too bold and awe-inspiring.’
To return to Margaret’s academic career at Oxford: she held her teaching appointments under the Association for the Education of Women and in 1913 was appointed Tutor to the Oxford Home Students (later St. Anne’s College) and she held this until she retired· in 1936 when Miss Kirsten Morrison became her successor. When degrees were first conferred on women Margaret was one of the few to receive the M.A. degree by decree in 1920. On her retirement it was stated that she had done university teaching in Oxford for over forty years.
Her teaching in London began unexpectedly. One morning in the summer vacation of 1898 she returned home to find Miss Lilian Faithfull, Principal of King’s College for Women at 13 Kensington Square, London, awaiting her. She had a gifted group of students reading (as they could in those days without residence in Oxford) for English Honours; and their lecturer, an Oxford don, had left the College suddenly. Would Margaret take over temporarily for one academic year to see the trio through the Schools in 1899? The trio were Edith Morley, Caroline Spurgeon, and M. Constance Dodd. At last Margaret was persuaded to consent to spend the necessary one day a week in London, where she lectured on literature in the morning and philology in the afternoon. Edith Morley and Caroline Spurgeon got firsts and Margaret became too’ deeply interested in the London students and King’s College to leave and remained there till the College moved to the Strand in 1914. There she was one of the first women lecturers at a time when there was among many of the men a prejudice against women university teachers. She had not the slightest difficulty in holding the attention and interest of her class, the only exception a few moments during a course for ‘the Pass men in Old English’. “.
On a later occasion she was lecturing to a mixed class in Oxford and when her back was turned while she wrote Germanic roots on the blackboard an undergraduate began chasing an imaginary mouse said to be running about among the women. Margaret turned round and said, ‘Does Mr. X wish me to suspend the class while he fetches cheese for the mouse?’ Order was instantly restored. Margaret was then a recognized teacher of the University of London, a member of the Faculty of Arts and Board of Studies in Modern and Mediaeval Languages. As Geraldine Coster writes: ‘In Margaret’s hey-day her lectures were almost a cult with men undergraduates here. It has often been the Oxford “done thing” to despise lectures, so that even famous scholars sometimes lectured to rows of empty chairs. But Margaret’s lectures were an exception, and were crammed to the doors.’
Hugh Pollard, M.A., Lecturer in English at Chester College, writes: ‘I have the strongest recollections of Miss Lee as one of the most vital personalities in the English School during my Oxford days. I attended three series of lectures by her from 1934 to 1936 at the top of the Clarendon Building in a little-used, rickety attic, and hung on her every word. Whatever her subject-be it The Romantic Movement, Browning’s Philosophy, or The English Novel, Past and Present-she invariably began her lecture as she entered the room dragging behind her a distinctly moth-eaten gown. Thus, by the time she had reached the rostrum, we were all scribbling like mad folk and so we continued for three-quarters of an hour when, as abruptly as she had entered, she would depart and we would be left scribbling down some obscure statement from the Eastern Scriptures such as “God sleeps in the mineral, dreams in the plant, wakes in the animal and is made conscious in man”.
‘Miss Lee always attracted a large audience for she was possessed of a clear voice, superb diction, a trenchant wit: and, at times, a remarkable sense of oratory. Browning, it seems to me, more than any other poet stimulated her to real eloquence”. And I have a ‘clear vision of the way in which she would throw back her head whilst proclaiming such passages from her well-Ioved “Paracelsus”~s the following:
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.
all tended to mankind,
And, man produced, all has its end thus far:
But in completed man begins anew
A tendency to God.’
Mr. Pollard adds that he thinks of Margaret as one ‘whose know- ” ledge of English literature immeasurably enriched my Oxford ” studies and whose friendship sustained me during many trying times’.
Her success as a lecturer was not confined to literature. She was a scholarly philologist, and Professor Edith Morley writes: ‘She was a brilliant teacher of Old and Middle English, especially to beginners in these languages, and succeeded in making light to them the dark mazes of philology and sound-changes.’ Edith Morley, one of her most distinguished students at King’s, later Professor of English Language at Reading, published several works and specialized in eighteenth-century literature and in the study of Wordsworth and his circle. Her main publications were connected with Crabb Robinson, whose MSS. she indexed and selections in part edited. There were also Eleanor Plumer, later Principal of the Oxford Home Students (afterwards St. Anne’s College), Shelley’s niece Ruth Scarlett, and Kathleen Locock, who collaborated with her in editing ‘Paracelsus’ (Methuen, 1909). Among others at King’s College for Women at this time was Edith Thompson, whose diverse public work afterwards needs no description.
George Vallins, whose books Good English, An A.R.C. of English Usage (with H. A. Treble), and Spelling, are well known, writes: ‘Her lectures were always an inspiration; they had, as it were, an edge to them. Truth to tell, they made me a little frightened at my own ignorance. But Miss Lee was more than a lecturer; she was, in the true sense, a tutor, and a candid but ·generous friend. I well remember with what trepidation I handed her my essays, and how I pictured the red pencil flying over the crumpled sheets as the train sped towards Oxford. Her criticism was always pertinent and valuable, her praise discriminating.’ After he had taken his Finals Mr. Vallins says: ‘She wrote me a letter. I have it still. It reminds me of a scholar and a friend; and of a debt I cannot pay.’
Miss Keays-Young, another old student, Principal of Beechlawn Tutorial Establishment, writes that her sympathy with other people was her most striking characteristic. She cared about other people’s interests so much that she made them her own. She very seldom talked about herself; she was rather shy and silent at a party and was often unnoticeable.
Indeed Margaret’s life was always interlaced with that of her many friends. To Oxford came her cousin, Lilian Bowes-Lyon, to read English and much later Margaret was instrumental in getting her volume of collected poems published in time for her to see it before her death in 1949.
Another cousin, May Lyon, ever since she first came to Leafield as a child had intermittently come over from Australia to spend long periods in England. In early days she helped Margaret and Miss Batty with the school, and later lived at Greenacre, Shillingford, with Dora.
Margaret continued her university work both at Oxford and King’s College until in 1919 she was asked to give her full time to King’s. This she declined to do because she did not want to sacrifice her Oxford life, including as it did both university and school work. So with many regrets on her own part and wild demonstrations of regret and anger from some of her own students, who were under the misapprehension that she was being unfairly dismissed, she left.
She lectured at University College, Reading, from 1915 to 1926.
She originally went to help Professor Edith Morley when she was the only remaining member of the English Department after her colleagues had both joined the army soon after the outbreak of war. Miss Lee continued her work at Reading until it obtained its charter as a university and was able to appoint a full-time” lecturer in language to assist Professor Morley.
Margaret also gave for many years a course of weekly lectures in the Foreign School organized in Oxford by Mrs Bucrh, and later by Margaret’s friend and former student, F.H.Cutcliffe. She und ertook W.E.A. classes-at Watlington for a group of:teachers and others, and at Swindon for a group of railwaymen organized by an enthusiast, Reuben George, with whom she read In Memoriam.
On a holiday at Aldeburgh, where Edith Thompson lived, Margaret met Mrs. Hervey, Principal of Belstead, a flourishing boarding-school for girls; and here Margaret went for a week or two in successive seasons in summer terms to give a short series of lectures to older girls and staff.
Caroline Spurgeon, who obtained her Doctorat de l’Universite at the Sorbonne, the D.Litt., London, and an Honorary Doctorate at Michigan, and was Professor of English Literature at Bedford College, University of London, published among other books her well-known work on Shakespeare’s Imagery and became a close friend. With her Margaret read Dr. Buck’s Cosmic Consciousness, joined the Theosophical Society and met Annie Besant and Maude Sharpe and Edward and Adelaide Gardner. She lectured in many places for the Society and was for a time President of the Oxford Lodge. Many years later some change of conviction led her to give up active work for the Society though she still remained a member.
In later years she became interested in Spiritualism and took comfort after the death of Miss Batty, and later of Dora, in feeling herself put into touch with them through the automatic writing of Hester Dowden, daughter of the Shakespearian scholar, and also in private appointments through one or two other honest and reliable mediums. She disliked and avoided the sensationalism of public seances.
Margaret refreshed herself by staying in the country and occasionally by going abroad to Switzerland or Italy with Miss Batty or with her former pupil and for many years her most intimate friend, Kathleen Locock. She was a real Victorian tourist and disliked foreign trains, foreign food, and hotels. Being a vegetarian and a total abstainer did not make it any easier.
Later, when Greenacre, Shillingford, a lovely old eighteenth century red brick house, was bought by her father, who died before occupying it, she was frequently there at week-ends and in vacation time. The house had no name and Margaret and Dora racked their brains for weeks trying to think of one. Then one morning Margaret awoke after a dream and announced “that it was to be called Greenacre. She meant it to be a reminder of the Greens, the two old Quaker ladies who had lived and died there. She obtained photographs of them and hung them up and always remembered them and loved them though she had never actually seen them. Here Dora lived with her mother (who died in 1926) and later with May Lyon; and Miss Batty retired here in her last long illness. The shock of Miss Batty’s first illness in 1932, the long anxiety, her partial recovery, and finally her death in 1934 were borne by Margaret with the greatest courage and without cessation of her many usual activities. Greenacre was used as a refuge and place of refreshment for all kinds of people, students, German and Russian refugees. Dr. Eden Paul and his wife, the well-known translators of Jung’s books, were there for some time and a wonderful saintly German, Professor Ewald, formerly lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Vienna and author of many philosophical works, who had escaped from Dachau concentration camp, spent the last years of his shattered life at Greenacre. One summer the house was let by Margaret, as always for a trifling rent, to Evelyn Underhill, a very appreciative tenant. With its secluded little garden within the garden, Greenacre became more and more a place of peace and refreshment to Margaret though she frequently returned to ’77’ to be in touch with the school, even after giving up teaching.
Her many other interests and activities included work for the Noise Abatement League, and the Oxfordshire Housing Society through which she helped to preserve from destruction some lovely old cottages at Bletchingdon. And for many years on Sunday afternoons she went with a few students to give an address and play for hymn-singing in a ward at the Radcliffe Infirmary. Eventually changes in the hospital routine made it impossible to continue, to Margaret’s lasting regret.
Throughout her life one of Margaret’s greatest gifts was her sympathy with others and her remarkable ingenuity and generosity in expressing it in practical ways. The numerous :children; ‘semi-adopted’, she took free into the school, even in early years before it was financially well established, are one instance. She enabled many young people to get a university education. One of them, W. Pratley, a choir-boy from Leafield, later became proof-reader in Oriental Languages to the Clarendon Press and was till ms death one of her most intimate friends. (She had begun to help him in early years by getting him to the school at Warrington Crescent as a boot-boy where she could supervise and help him with his studies.) She also delighted in making anonymous gifts, ‘surprises’, to needy students, who had no idea from whom they came.
Hers has been a full, busy, and happy life. ‘I hope I shall die in harness and I think I shall’, she said many years ago. And when she had her first slight stroke she called it a ‘happy presage’. But, alas, she had to suffer two years of incapacity and illness.
Throughout the last decade Geraldine Coster, in Margaret’s words ‘my closest living friend’, has been the mainstay of her existence and in later years took over the management of the household at ’77’ and of all Margaret’s private and business affairs. She sustained her to the end. Margaret died peacefully on 26 December 1955·
I hope the above memoir tells its own story, but as one of the few surviving friends who knew Margaret Lee in her early thirties I can perhaps help her friends of later years to see her as a young woman. I first knew her as a lecturer at King’s College for Women, then in Kensington Square. Her working manner was brisk and businesslike, sometimes intimidatory, but she had a happy habit of getting to know her students, often by asking us one at a time to go out to lunch in the High Street with her and Kathleen Locock and others of her friends. Here she was gay and amusing. She would for instance expand on the possible bargains to be found at the summer sales. When Kathleen Locock praised some cheap skirts she had seen in the department below the restaurant where we ate she retorted: ‘But I don’t want a Line I want a Sacrifice’, and we all laughed. In those early days of the century few women wore tailor-made suits except in the country and she was no exception. She dressed prettily and neatly in well-fitting coat and skirt with feminine blouse, wide-brimmed, beflowered or beribboned hat, and particularly nice shoes. It is true that she spent very little money on anything for herself, and especially little money, thought, or time on clothes, but in those days pleasant and attractive clothes were comparatively cheap. She delighted in the good looks of other women, whom she liked to see well and becomingly dressed, seeming unaware of herself in her utter lack of self-consciousness, unaware of the pleasing effect of her own lively, intelligent face with its expressive bright blue eyes.
Perhaps few except her most intimate friends, and she made lasting friendships with both men and women, were aware of the passionate depths of her nature. What is remarkable is the way in which she always seemed able to detach herself and, against her background of incessant intellectual work, to find time and sympathy for those with whom she was less intimate. She was of such a loving, understanding and generous nature, and at the same time so practically efficient and economical in the conduct of her affairs, that she was able to help more people than I can count, many of them in ways that affected the course of their lives.
Probably the overriding importance for her of personal relations and her gift for teaching, which she regarded as her life work, absorbed her creative powers and she never published original literary or philological work. From childhood she habitually expressed herself in verse, but with the exception of one or two poems in magazines they were not published. Two of her sonnets were printed in her memoir of Miss Batty. Poetry, especially that of the English Romantic period, was her staple reading. She liked listening to music. She had a good sense of form, as can be seen by her early vivid little portraits scribbled on diaries or the margin of exercise books. She had not much appreciation of colour and had little understanding of pictures. Indeed, neither music nor the visual arts had for her anything like the significance of the written or the spoken word.
Fundamentally until her incapacitating illness in 1953 Margaret seemed to me unchanged in outlook and interests. Visiting her at Oxford I was always struck by her ability even after long intervals between our meetings to plunge into talk as though we had parted but yesterday. After a rapid exchange of greetings one was cosily settled by the fire in her room upstairs at ’77’ and deep in discussion on perhaps the use of the supernatural by English poets and the distinction between the attitude of these poets .and that of the mystics. Not that Margaret was oblivious of the needs of the hour. What pleasant, practical thoughtfulness there was in her entertainment when one stayed at ’77’. I remember the unexpected plate of cherries in June after sight-seeing the colleges. She had indeed a very vivid sense of both Time and Eternity.
MILLICENT M. FALK
I wish to thank not only those whose names are mentioned in the text but also the following who have kindly provided material:
Miss Margaret Acheson.
Miss Mary Banbury, St. Anne’s College. Miss E. Beere, St. Hugh’s College.
Mr. R. E. Clifford, Oxford University Registry.
Mr. L. C. W. Phillips.
Above all I am indebted to Miss Geraldine Coster for her invaluable help and counsel throughout. M. M. F.
EXTRACTS FROM LETTERS TO GERALDINE COSTER FROM FORMER PUPILS OF WYCHWOOD SCHOOL
From Mary EIsden (nee Fitch)
All the reminiscences you get will be coloured by whichever light from Miss Lee shone upon the individual and for me, of course, it was her English teaching which in fact directed the course of my life. So, as I look back, I realize how for me Wednesday morning was the centre of the week. It was different from all other mornings – Miss Lee’s day …. No class I have ever attended has evinced quite the quality of hushed awe which I connect with ‘Miss Lee’s Literature’ …. Once she was in the room our attention was focused upon her and I don’t think it entered anyone’s head to misbehave in the slightest way. Besides, we were kept hard at it! It was only one hour in the week, and looking back now, it seems extraordinary the amount she got into us!
… Cowper, Crabbe, Blake, Bums, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson and Browning, and Matthew Arnold. Here she was in her element and to her teaching those of us who could respond owe an understanding and love of nineteenth century poets and poetry …. And perhaps especially we should be grateful for her teaching of Browning. When I read now I can still hear many poems in her voice-and it wasn’t only in class, but on Sunday evenings too, when we went over to ‘77’ that she read poetry to us. It was more often the then moderns that she read. I remember the whole of Dauber and many other Masefield poems in her voice. .
… We were lucky, too, to have someone who knew the poets who were writing at the time. Miss Lee knew Yeats and De la Mare; she could tell us about them; how she tried to persuade Mr. De la Mare to deliver his lectures without reading them; when she took some of us to hear Yeats speak at an English-Speaking Union meeting (or something of the sort) she marched us up to him afterwards and said, ‘Mr. Yeats, these girls would be so pleased if you would shake hands with them’ -and he did!
… There is one very special thing which Miss Lee did for me that I must remember for you, she cured me of biting my nails. ‘How?’ everyone asks when I confess to having been a nail-biter in childhood. As far as I can remember, Miss Lee, then at the height of her busy life in Oxford and London Universities and as a head of Wychwood, found time to spare ten minutes a week to a thirteen-or fourteen-year-old who bit her nails. Every week I went over to ’77’ at a stated time and showed my hands to Miss Lee. I think it must have broken into a precious rest hour because I remember going to her room and sitting on a stool. I had to show her my hands and then we talked. Alas, I can remember nothing. What I told her about, what knots she untied for me, I don’t know, but I am quite sure in the light of what we have all learned since, that she who, with yourself, was in the forefront of the understanding of psychological treatment probably helped me in some inward way; other people had tried to stop me from biting my nails and it wasn’t only because I had to show them once a week that I stopped.
… All of us who are writing will, I am sure, put foremost among her virtues as a headmistress her never-failing, sympathetic, and active interest and affection for her old girls. In all the thirty years since I left school I have never felt out of touch with Miss Lee, although it has often been a considerable stretch of years between one meeting and the next.
From Carola Lenanton (nee Oman)
Certain passages of poetry are still associated in my memory, for ever, with Miss Lee. There is the Keats’ ‘magic casements’ verse. Miss Lee did indeed open magic casements for us. Several Shakespeare speeches, and plenty of Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, I still hear in her voice. So far as I can remember, except on some special occasion, she never addressed us on anything else, though, looking back, I can see that her Literature included Grammar and even Manners …. She was a first-class disciplinarian. She was terrible as an army with banners, but her reproofs left no sting. Fanny once presumed to ask a question from Miss Lee, in class, while ferreting in her desk. ‘Close your desk and sit up and answer me properly, child. It is very bad manners to speak with your head inside your desk.’
. .. My sister }oanna said: ‘Everything that Miss Lee said, stuck’ … and Beatrice (nee Madan) said: ‘Do you remember Miss Lee’s handwriting as well as her voice?’ Of course I should have remembered that, for it, too, was quite beautiful. Miss Lee’s handwriting had two essentials which she was always commending to us. It had clarity and it had strength.
… I must add a word about the School Treat. How we looked forward to it! Miss Lee was our hostess, at her home, Leafield. We went by train from Oxford station to Charlbury. There we were met by open brakes, with two horses, driven by men in billycock hats, and proceeded in unbroken sunshine to a house and garden where we played games and had tea. We visited the church, which was practically in the garden, and sometimes we climbed up to a hill girdled by ancient fortifications. I still have some snapshots of those days, very yellow now. One shows a long trestle table, set close to a cedar of Lebanon, where girls and mistresses are being waited upon by maids in black dresses and white caps and aprons, as they partake of a country house tea. Another is of some of us in the brakes.
‘It began to be dusk, and cold and mysterious as we drove back to the station, and we used to sing songs in chorus; but not to keep up our spirits, for these were always very high. We were so happy.’
From Mariel Cardew (nee Russell)
The earliest clear picture is of a day in 1914 when I came home for lunch from my day school to find Miss Lee (whom we had first met at Aldeburgh in the summer holiday) and my mother in deep consultation about-me! The point at issue was:Is Mariel to go back to Oxford with me today as I intend-or-the abyss? Miss Lee had decided (by impulse or intuition?) that I was to be educated at her school. So I was swept off to Oxford to a new and thrilling life, and because of that amazing obedience of Miss Lee’s to her inner convictions I owe a most tremendous debt of gratitude; Now it is in the garden at ’77’ and having just got back from church I arrive clutching the little purple book in which I inscribed all my own poetry. I was to read it to Miss Lee and she was to criticize it (it is now 1915). We have hardly begun the momentous work when there is a cry of horror from Miss Lee-‘Dear child’ ghastly pause-‘Look at your nails!! Go upstairs at once and scrub them thoroughly.’ Crushed and humiliated, yes, but afterwards it was made as if such a shameful affair had never taken place and we discussed Poetry and the search for Beauty in that dear and remote-feeling garden.
Much later: it is perhaps 1918 or 1919, summer, and we juniors are in bed when suddenly we hear with joy the voice of Miss Lee coming upstairs. Is she coming to say good night to us? Yes. In she,comes, with a very friendly friend, and life is wonderful for a few minutes.
‘Seventy-seven’ as soon as I first went there became a home to me in a special sense. A place where I need not be afraid to express ideas-a place too where in a cupboard there were fascinating books and objects, seeming to come not only from another generation but from another world, strange packs of cards, a crystal ball, and things that fitted wonderfully together, and a wonderful book of pictures in which you moved something behind and the picture mysteriously and marvellously changed. It was from Miss Lee that I first began to realize a feeling of seeking for some great answer or purpose in life.
Miss Lee’s readings on Sundays at ‘77’, reading and occasionally comments: and long pondering silences followed by hymn singing with Miss Lee at her piano and us asking for our favourite hymns. It was as if there was there and at that time infinite possibility for growing life; die world seemed mysterious; beautiful, frightening, but above all worth while.
Miss Lee’s hats! My own favourite was the one made of black and white straw, trimmed with naturalistic marguerites entangled in black velvet ribbon descending down the back to the waist. Later on I came to realize that hats were not bought for what they were but for what they cost; the cheapest was .invariably the best hat. No room for compromise. Yes, and of course the clothes altogether -sometimes three dresses on top of one another, each with its quota of handkerchiefs tucked into the front, while her stockings seemed to gyrate spontaneously round the ankles. All these things I took happily for granted as nothing unusual, until I was much older.
Reciting the ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ to Miss Lee. Each of us went separately into her little room from the senior schoolroom to say it, Miss Lee sitting with her rapt look, but passing over no errors of word or emphasis. A very enriching experience. I went on after that and learned nearly half the ‘Hail holy light offspring of Heaven first-born’ book of Paradise Lost and used to say it to myself each night before going to sleep-all these things are comprised when one says that Miss Lee’s personality was an inspiration to us at that time: there was a feeling of awe, not of Miss Lee personally (because Miss Lee never in any way that I can ever remember put her own person forward) but for life. I wonder how many generations will have felt this too?
From DorotheaJohnson (nee Cannan)
History, scripture, and grammar were taught by Miss Batty in the Upper Room, and English-or literature as we called it-by Miss Lee, then, as ever, the most brilliant of teachers, possessing that gift from heaven, the spark which lights ‘the dusty corridors of learning’ …. Always Miss Lee dealt tenderly with ignorance, but – she did not, in those days, suffer fools gladly.
In 1903 the shadow of Victorianism lay heavy on our childhood. We knew how to behave, and, alas, we behaved, and between us and our teachers there existed a barbed-wire entanglement of implacable reserve. But gradually the shadow receded and we stepped out into the sunshine.
From Hilda Cash (nee Napier)
I now realize what an immense debt I owe Miss Lee for the love for and understanding of our own language and literature which I then imbibed.
… My pictures of Miss Lee date far back from my ‘N.o. 77.’ days; for she was a favourite pupil of my Father’s, and used to come out to our Headington home for coachings. My brothers and I on those occasions used to hide in a dark corner under the staircase in the hall, to peer out eagerly at the men and women undergraduates!
From Mary Ley (nee Walford)
My sister and I were very little girls when we first met Miss Lee. Her parents at Leafield and our parents at Ascot were neighbours …Till I was thirteen we were taught by a governess. I can remember my father very reluctantly admitting to my mother that it was time to think about school. ..Miss Lee remembered that there were two little girls at Ascot, probably in need of education, and she came to see if she could help. Most generously she explained to my father that she and Miss Batty were willing to make it possible for both of us to become weekly boarders in Bradmore Road, and needless to say such kindness was at once accepted. But Miss Lee also noticed what shy children we were, and to make our introduction to school life a little easier she invited us to meet our future school-fellows at the tea-party at Leafield Vicarage which followed the summer picnic in Wychwood Forest. .
… At school I picture Miss Lee now, coming into the big schoolroom, brown leather bag in hand, going straight to the windows, which she always opened a little wider, and settling herself at the desk to begin the literature lesson.
She was always a most popular guest at such private functions as the midnight feast, originally planned as a clandestine function for the dormitory, and later transferred to the Red Room by the advice of authority.
Long after I left school Miss Lee continued to help me with advice and encouragement .. I never could regard her as only my headmistress. More often I thought of her as a family friend, and I still do.
From Seringa Coates (nee Arkell)
One knows the people in one’s life from whom one catches some quality, though they may never actually talk about it, be it goodness, or be it courage …. I know that the most valuable thing Miss Lee gave me I caught-perhaps one might call it a sensibility to beauty, or more than that. I think a sort of quest for wisdom and beauty so occupied Miss Lee that one could not help but catch something of this quality in her…. What an exciting world she was able to introduce us to as we explored with her plays and books, poems and words. ‘Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one’, ‘the moth time of the evening dim’, ‘He guides me and the bird’ all leap to one’s mind as one thinks of it …. So that although when Miss Lee met my mother outside Elliston’s during my first term and told her that I was not only backward but that I seemed to know nothing, she managed to give me an interest that will last for more than a lifetime.
From Sylvia Austin (nee Green)
In my memories of Wychwood days Miss Lee is bracketed with open windows. Nor am I talking only of the windows of the mind. In Miss Lee’s classroom it was ordained that fresh air-the French would say ‘currents of air’ -must play around our physical forms while she strove to set ajar our mental casements. I deeply’ appreciated the new horizons laid open to my mind’s eye, but, if at all possible, chose the desk farthest from the classroom window; not, however, without a sense of guilt that persisted far into my adult life. I felt that I ought to like icy air-and oh, how icy the winter airs of Oxford can be-rushing unceasingly in on my cringing form.
But, to be serious, what a thing it was to come to Wychwood
(though it was the Bradder in those days) and to Oxford in one’s immensely impressionable early teens. I shall always maintain that that is the best time of one’s life to come to Oxford-as generations of earlier scholars did-rather than; as now, in the late teens, At that moment of uprush of spirit, of intellect, of imagination, Oxford came to me as a revelation. It was an experience so precious that it is almost if not quite incommunicable, and yet so strong that it has stayed with me through life and has finally now brought me back full circle to Oxford. It was my incredible, my stupendous good fortune that the beauty of Oxford and the splendour of words burst upon me at one and the same moment, and that the most impressionable moment af my life. ’77’ was especially bound up in my mind with all this. Its particular atmosphere; its Morris wallpapers, like no others I had then seen; the almost functional character of its rooms which seemed geared for learning (again remember I had no’ previous experience of a ‘city of bed-sitters’), all these impressed and interested me enormously and made those after-tea visits to Miss Lee an Sundays memorable occasions.
From Mary Smith (nee Macbain)
- .. We regarded Miss Lee with amused affection as someone only , to, be taken very seriously in English lectures. This sounds almost. sacrilegious I imagine, but in same ways she was not of this world. Her dress was always a source af great interest to, adolescent children , beginning to, take an interest in fashion (I remember a younger member of the staff commenting to another that Miss Lee might have used smaller safety-pins at the Encaenia). As Miss Lee came into the sunny English room one morning we gasped and daren’t look round for fear of catching an eye, far Miss Lee was wearing a most fashionable jersey with a straight neckline. As the lecture proceeded we relaxed but remained mystified until Miss Lee turned to, write an the blackboard. At the back of her neck was the V which should have been at the front .
. . . All this sounds frivalous; but my recollection is that in adolescence we were alternately frivolous and intense and it is only now that I realize how shrewd as well as spiritual Miss Lee was.
… We were very privileged to have Miss Lee’s English lectures.
To hear Miss Lee speak was such a delight to me and seemed magic to, one who’ always had to, fumble far a word and then be conscious of only finding the second best …. My children love to, hear about ‘the olden days and Miss Lee’ -someone who had tea with the Brownings and had been warned off poisonous berries by Tennysan.
From Mary Robinson
- .. Now that I am teaching I know that it is her lave of poetry and English that has made it possible for me to try to pass an that love.’
From Mrs. de S. Dewar (nee de Vere Beauclerk)
… I am old enough now to, see many people and ideas who’ were very ‘modern’ in my youth … shown up as hopelessly outdated …. Why then wasn’t Miss Lee, who’ seemed to, me, a teenager, pretty oId twenty-five years ago’, or the ideas an which her school was founded … out-dated in the same way? … The ‘up-to-dateness’ one ‘smelt’ about Wychwood was not of rebellion, frustration, or revolt … I can’t guess how revolutionary Miss Batty and Miss Lee were, but the very essence of Wychwood’s climate was not disgruntlement or desperate remedy but of evolution and sweet reasonableness ..•. I am quite certain of one thing, and that is that where one has said of lesser creators ‘I can’t imagine how the place will get an without her’, of Miss Lee one knows that her creation was so strong a plant, so well and carefully nurtured, that it will not suffer for her death.
From Edith Arnold-Baker (nee Woods)
Unique in many ways, Miss Lee is also rather uncommonly a teacher who realizes that children grow up. You go to, see her same time after leaving school with the thought of past misdeeds all too fresh in your memory and therefore, you are sure, in hers also ····You find to, your surprise that she is admiring your hair-style (or hating it). After a few minutes by the dining-room fire at ’77’ you are talking freely and as naturally as to, a contemporary who’ does not know how few books you have really read. Miss Lee has paid you the compliment of treating you as a grown woman-possibly the first person who ever has.
… Nor is she always soft-spoken. If she appreciated that the chrysalis had been cast, she was not content that a Wychwood girl should be a mere butterfly. In the full glary of my academic dress I was hauled aver the coals far my sins. What more shaming?
… Her English lessons were a delight to the least intellectual among us and often now W.O.G.S. tell me how much they learned and how many more doors were opened for them in that room in Number Two which whatever it is used far must always, please, be Miss Lee’s English Room…
I sometimes think that you cannot love properly those whom affectionate laughter offends-isn’t God sometimes made too solemn? Miss Lee would not like to be mentioned in the same breath; but certainly she knew all about her entertainment value. Her wonderful hats have been described elsewhere. Then there was always a capacious bag in which Netball Colours and Honours lists could easily hide away. School watched in fascination while she searched and somebody who had done a ‘Wychwood bob’ too soon stood on one leg on the platform. At last the award was found and presented amid relieved applause intended as much for Miss Lee as anybody. As I search for my Iibrary tickets I feel alas! that this is the only way in which I shall ever resemble her-unless! learn to drive a car. We were often given a lift down to her University English lectures. Sometimes we tried not to be seen, for these rides were hair-raising affairs, M. L. L. discoursing on local history while pointing out buildings of interest (this is Oxford remember) with a hand better employed on the steering wheel. We would shoot round the corner into Radcliffe Square with alarming suddenness and be decanted to climb the hundred or so stairs to the top of the Clarendon Building. There, exhausted, by the intellectual and nervous strain, we would still be panting in our seats when Miss Lee began her lecture unruffled and obviously with plenty of breath to spare. We put it down to vegetarianism, Miss Lee probably to correct breathing, which none of her pupils ever seemed to achieve.
Some lecturers like a full house even if it is asleep. Not so M. L. L. Sent to her in my first term by my tutor, she told me not to waste my time listening to her all over again; I ‘Would be better employed reading the books she was talking about. I rather wish I had disregarded this advice .
. . M. L. L. and ’77’ are inextricably mixed; Sometimes indeed we would ‘go over to Greenacre’, view the Lyon family tree in the hall, swim or walk and always eat an enormous tea (she had a realistic view of children’s appetites).
But best of all was the evening towards Christmas when we went carol-singing …. Last carols were sung for Miss Lee and G. C. and then-never has cocoa -tasted so good, never had cakes so many currants. I don’t think I ever met real plum cake before or since I can believe that Miss Lee’s old housekeeper was one of the last people who knew how to make it.
Miss Lee alone is best of all, but since her illness I have missed her at W.O.G.S. committee meetings, where she always knew what you were trying to say and said it much better for you. And whatever the occasion you knew that nobody would be allowed to lose their sense of proportion if she were there.
‘Has she no faults then (Envy says), Sir?’
‘Yes, she has one, I must aver:
When all the world conspires to praise her,
The woman’s deaf and does not hear.’