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Behrens, (Catherine) Betty Abigail (1904–1989), historian, was born on 24 April 1904 in London, the elder of two children of Noel Edward Behrens (1879–1967), a civil servant until his retirement in 1921 and banker, and his wife, Vivien (1880–1961), daughter of . It is characteristic of her complex identity that she had three forenames: to the family she was Kate or Jane, to her undergraduate friends Abi, and to colleagues and the public Betty. She had a double identity from birth, half-Jewish, half-Christian. In her unpublished ‘Notes for an autobiography’ written in her eighties, she explains that her Behrens grandfather, Edward (d. 1905), already a millionaire, bequeathed a large capital sum to her father. Betty attributed her brains to her father and her ambivalent Jewishness. Her mother, Vivien, had in Betty's eyes a ‘disadvantage’ worse than her father's Jewishness; she was ‘stupid’. Her mother once warned her that intellectual interests might make her ‘clever and want to go to college and be like a man’ (‘Notes for an autobiography’, Behrens MSS).

Betty Behrens grew up with governesses, private tutors, and holidays abroad. She could not remember a time when she had not spoken French and in due course her German became as fluent. She often said that her first proper school was Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to which she was admitted to read modern history in 1923; she went down with a first (1926) and the award of a Commonwealth fellowship to Radcliffe College in the United States. On her return she began research in English history at Bedford College, London. In 1935 she was elected a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, and in 1938 took up a university assistant lectureship in the faculty of history. She published four articles in the mid-1930s which dealt with Henry VIII and his divorce, and the evolution of resident diplomats in that reign. After her appointment in Cambridge her interests changed to a later period of English history and in 1941 ‘The whig theory of the constitution in the reign of Charles II’ appeared in the Cambridge Historical Journal.

The war took Betty Behrens away from academic history and helped her to understand the workings of the Ministry of War Transport, of which she became in time the official historian. As she wrote to a former pupil, ‘you could see the machine from the inside, every historian should do that once’ (letter to Mrs M. Cox, 1944, in private possession). Her Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War, published by HMSO in 1955, cost a decade of her life and, though it is a brilliant analysis, scarcely got a notice in the press. Later she said bitterly, ‘I should never have accepted it if I had known before hand what I was in for’ (‘Notes for an autobiography’, Behrens MSS).

Gradually, even while working on her history of merchant shipping, Betty Behrens began to ponder the theme which was to occupy the rest of her intellectual life and which made her for a decade famous throughout the literary world: the nature of the French ancien régime and the causes of the French Revolution. In her fifties and early sixties she began to write powerful, incisive, and increasingly influential attacks on the Marxist view of that revolution, and in 1967 she published The Ancien Régime, an illustrated and handsomely produced short history of France in the eighteenth century. In the preface she thanked Cambridge University and Newnham College, ‘whose ways of proceeding have made certain aspects of the Ancien Régime intelligible which otherwise might not have been so’. The university did not mind, but the governing body of Newnham was not amused and refused to renew her fellowship. She moved to Clare Hall, where she remained as fellow and then fellow emerita until her death. During this period she began to review regularly in the New York Review of Books and for a while belonged to the Anglo-American intellectual élite. As quickly as fame came, it went. Her last book and undoubtedly her greatest, Society, government and the Enlightenment: the experiences of eighteenth-century France and Prussia, was published by Thames and Hudson in 1985 when she was eighty-one. It received good reviews but nobody bought it. She was shattered.

In 1966 Betty Behrens married the historian, diplomatist, and journalist and for a time tried to live the role of married woman. Deep incompatibilities drove them apart, and by the time E. H. Carr died Betty and ‘Ted’ lived separately in some bitterness of spirit.

Betty Behrens was a formidable figure, a slender, elegant woman with her hair always immaculately coiffed and her clothes and possessions in perfect taste. She inspired awe as well as affection. She had a sharp, rather penetrating voice, a loud explosive laugh, and an ability to deal out crushing judgements. Her vocabulary contained too many ‘absurds’ and ‘nonsenses’ for easy popularity. Throughout her life Betty read fiction voraciously in three languages and kept vivid notes on her reactions. She was an acute critic.

There was, on the other hand, a curious unworldliness. Betty Behrens had no idea how to promote herself. She assumed that one wrote brilliant books showing how everybody else had been wrong and the world said ‘Amen’. It refused to do so and she never received the conventional rewards of academic achievement which lesser intellects collect as a matter of course. She loved beautiful things and spent her last years in an apartment in Swallowfield Park, near Reading, once Lord Clarendon's country home, where she died on 3 January 1989.

Jonathan Steinberg

Sources  

J. Steinberg, Based on fact but told like a novel: the historical legacy of C. B. A. Behrens (1989) [memorial lecture, Newnham College] · CAC Cam., Behrens MSS · The Times (17 Jan 1989) · Daily Telegraph (18 Jan 1989) · The Independent (17 Jan 1989) · priv. coll. · private information (2004) · WW · Times index

Archives  

CAC Cam., corresp., lecture notes, and research papers


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Steinberg, Based on fact but told like a novel

Wealth at death  

£526,345: probate, 18 May 1989, CGPLA Eng. & Wales