PENELOPE ANNE FAIRBAIRN (Fairbairn-1144)
BIRTH.13 Jun 1927, St. George Hanover Square, London, England
MARRIAGE. 1948, Westminster, London, England
MARRIAGE. 1948, Michael Wyndham Norton Hughes-Hallett, son of James Vavasour Hughes-Hallett & Marjorie Eliza (Collard) Hughes-Hallett
Children: Not known
DEATH. 1 Apr 2010, England
OBITUARY. Penelope Hughes-Hallettt, who died on April 1 aged 82, was the author of books on Jane Austen and the Lake poets, and most notably of The Immortal Dinner, a strikingly original work taking as its starting point a dinner-party given in 1817 by the painter Benjamin Haydon.
The guests included Wordsworth and Keats (dining together for the first and only time) and Charles Lamb, but it was not solely a literary gathering. Also at Haydon's table was Joseph Ritchie, shortly to embark on an expedition to Timbuktu.
The conversation turned as much on science as on art, while the room was dominated by Haydon's recently completed painting Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem. The book was at once a group biography and a microcosmic account of England's intellectual culture at a time of political uncertainty and social change.
It was also a vivid evocation of early 19th-century London life. Following her characters wherever their thoughts at the time of the dinner party led, Penelope Hughes-Hallett wrote about lunatic asylums and market gardens, the Elgin marbles and the physics of the rainbow, anatomy lessons and the proper method for making a life-mask.
Her prose was elegant, her humour sympathetic. On its publication in 2000, The Immortal Dinner was widely praised for its inventive structure and warm humour, as well as for the breadth of vision it brought to the cultural life of the period.
Penelope Hughes-Hallett's emergence as a writer owed much to the Open University, with which she was associated initially as a student (gaining first-class honours), subsequently as a tutor and lecturer, and eventually as a governor.
Her early education had been abruptly curtailed. Only in middle age, when her three children were ready to leave home, was she able to pursue her academic bent, and through the Open University gain the confidence to embark on a literary career.
She was born Penelope Anne Fairbairn in London on June 13 1927, the eldest of three children, and spent her childhood at Steventon, Hampshire, where Jane Austen had been brought up.
Penelope's father, a former Guards' officer and African explorer, had turned to stockbroking in peacetime, but with the outbreak of the Second World War he re-enlisted and took charge of troop movements through London. He was on duty in Liverpool Street Station in 1943 when he died suddenly, apparently from the delayed after-effects of having been gassed during the First World War.
Penelope, then 15 and doing well at school, felt unable to leave her mother to cope alone with the two younger children in their newly-straitened circumstances. She was to remember all her life the disappointment with which she unpacked the trunk which had been already waiting in the hall for the start of the new term.
Her life for the next three decades was essentially a private one. As young women, she and her sister Miranda were society beauties, albeit of slender means, attending deb dances in ball gowns improvised by their mother from curtain material.
Still hoping for a literary career, Penelope took a job as a secretary at Faber & Faber, where TS Eliot was an editorial director, but her time there was cut short – happily – by an early marriage.
Michael Hughes-Hallett, after an apprenticeship at Sandringham, was to become land agent at Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire, and subsequently at Batsford in Gloucestershire. When he and Penelope met they were both still in their teens.
They married in 1948. Penelope Hughes-Hallett moved to the country, had three children, and led the life of a "provincial lady" (her favourite light reading was EM Delafield's book of that name) until, in her mid-forties, she set to work to complete her schooling, first by correspondence course, and then with the Open University.
Penelope Hughes-Hallett had never ceased to be a tireless reader, at once keeping up to date with new writing, and pursuing her own taste for the 19th- and early 20th-century women's fiction which was only just beginning, in the 1970s and 1980s, to be rediscovered by feminist publishers.
Her mind was already unusually well-furnished: the discipline she gained from her studies enabled her to embark, in midlife, on several parallel careers. Re-establishing contact with Faber & Faber, she assisted TS Eliot's widow Valerie in the editing of Eliot's letters.
At the same time she taught literature, both within the Open University and at the Oxford University department of external studies. And she began writing books of her own.
Penelope Hughes-Hallett's first publication was an anthology, Childhood (1988), enriched by her knowledge of 19th-century children's literature, of which she had an exceptional collection.
This was followed by My Dear Cassandra (1990), an account of Jane Austen's relationship with her sister; and At Home in Grasmere (1993), about Wordsworth and his circle.
As Penelope Hughes-Hallett's writing developed, so did her other public roles. She was a trustee of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation (set up by her uncle), and pressed consistently for funds to be made available for literary and educational causes.
Through this work she came into contact with the Wordsworth Trust, based at Dove Cottage, an institution she greatly admired and of which she became a patron. She was also a hard-working member of the London Library's governing committee, and become a member of the board of the Open University.
A delightful conversationalist, full of droll anecdotes and lucid comments, in each capacity she made new friends, and won respect and affection in equal measure.
Unfailingly sensitive to others' needs, her wit and sweetness of manner gilded, without blunting, her determination and intelligence.
She is survived by her husband, Michael, and their three children.
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