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date: 26 November 2020

Battiscombe [née Harwood], (Esther) Georginafree

(1905–2006)
  • Donald Hawes

Battiscombe [née Harwood], (Esther) Georgina (1905–2006), biographer, was born on 21 November 1905 at 68 South Audley Street, Mayfair, London, the elder daughter of George Harwood (1845–1912), a master cotton spinner and Liberal MP for Bolton from 1895 to his death, and his second wife, Ellen, née Hopkinson. Her maternal grandfather, Sir Alfred Hopkinson, was the first vice-chancellor of Manchester University, and her stepfather, John Murray, was principal of the University College of the South-West, Exeter. Like her father both these men and other members of her family were members of parliament. Her father died when she was a child and her family moved first to Chipping Campden and then to Oxford. She was educated at St Michael's School, Oxford, run by the sisters of the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. She went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1924 and gained a second-class degree in modern history in 1927. Her contemporaries at the university included Mary Rosalie Glyn Grylls, Richard Acland, and Dingle Foot. For a time she considered following a political career in line with the family tradition. She married Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Francis Battiscombe (1890–1964), a civil servant and former officer in the Grenadier Guards (and son of Christopher William Battiscombe, brewer), on 1 October 1932 in the Grosvenor Chapel, Hanover Square. After spending two years in Zanzibar, where her husband worked as secretary to the sultan, they moved in 1935 to Durham, where he was appointed chapter clerk and librarian to the cathedral. In 1955 they went to live in the King Henry III tower at Windsor Castle, because of his work as the honorary secretary of the Friends of St George's. They had one daughter, Aurea.

Georgina Battiscombe's literary career began in 1943 with the publication of Charlotte Mary Yonge: the Story of an Uneventful Life. Given wartime conditions and the 'extraordinary paucity of material' (Yonge, 7) that she found, it is hard to differ from E. M. Delafield's opinion in her introduction to the book that she showed 'enterprise and a real appreciation of Charlotte Yonge's importance as a writer' (ibid., 15). At a period when Trollope was enjoying a vogue, the biography was favourably received. Even Q. D. Leavis, despite serious reservations, admitted that it was 'an attractive book' (Leavis, 234). Two on Safari was published in 1946, followed by English Picnics (1949), which she described as a 'gallimaufry' intended 'to amuse rather than to instruct' (Picnics, v). She returned to biography with her focus on a great man's wife: Mrs Gladstone: the Portrait of a Marriage (1956). Acknowledgement of her achievements came with the award of the James Tait Black memorial prize for John Keble: a Study in Limitations (1963). She had already explored Keble's influence on Charlotte Yonge, and now she had been 'fortunate enough to gain access to a great mass of manuscript material, much of it unpublished' (Keble, ix). Further recognition came with her election in 1963 as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

With Marghanita Laski, Georgina Battiscombe edited A Chaplet for Charlotte Yonge (1965), an elegant volume of essays and other material by members of the Charlotte Yonge Society, including Lettice Cooper, Elizabeth Jenkins, Violet Powell, and Kathleen Tillotson. After a brief study of Christina Rossetti (1965), she wrote Queen Alexandra (1969), which was probably her most popular book—it was about the royal family, and it was enthusiastic and colourfully descriptive. Although she was unable to find as much source material as she wanted, she said in the foreword that she was given 'unrestricted access' to Queen Alexandra's correspondence with King George V and Queen Mary and to 'all other relevant material now in the Royal Archives at Windsor'. She interviewed several members of the royal family, including the duke of Windsor. Like Queen Alexandra she suffered from deafness (alleviated in her case from the age of fifty by a hearing aid) and so wrote with sympathetic understanding of the queen's predicament: 'Only those who have been deaf themselves can realise the full meaning of deafness' (Alexandra, 86).

For the next ten years or so Georgina Battiscombe continued to write well-received full-length biographies. Shaftesbury: a Biography of the Seventh Earl, 1801–1885, was published in 1974. She had a grateful regard for the subject of her next book, Reluctant Pioneer: a Life of Elizabeth Wordsworth (1978). Yet again she indicated Charlotte Yonge's influence on a person's life, this time on the thought and conduct of the woman who became the long-serving first principal of Lady Margaret Hall. She included in the book a long account of Elizabeth Wordsworth's childhood and youth written by Evelyn Jamison in the late 1930s. She returned to another of her favourites in Christina Rossetti: a Divided Life (1981). Her last biography was the topical The Spencers of Althorp (1984), appearing three years after the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. In 1992 came Winter Song: an Anthology of Poems on Old Age.

Besides her biographical work Georgina Battiscombe was concerned for many years with the conservation of ecclesiastical buildings, serving, for example, from 1958 to 1981 as a member of the Oxford diocesan advisory committee for the care of churches. In Who's Who she gave 'looking at churches' as her recreation. She always retained a close interest in politics and a fondness for travel. Her daughter, who married George Morshead, son of Sir Owen Morshead, librarian at Windsor, died in 1997, but she had three grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. She died of respiratory failure at Thamesfield nursing home, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, on 26 February 2006.

Sources

  • G. Battiscombe, English picnics (1949)
  • G. Battiscombe, John Keble: a study in limitations (1963), foreword
  • G. Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra (1969), foreword
  • Q. D. Leavis, Collected essays, ed. G. Singh, vol. 3: The novel of religious controversy (1989)
  • The Times (2 March 2006)
  • Daily Telegraph (2 March 2006)
  • The Guardian (2 March 2006)
  • records, Royal Society of Literature, London
  • WW (2006)
  • private information (2010) [archivist, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford]
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in The Times (2 March 2006)
(1849–)