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Mary Bennett: an Autobiography

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by Mary Bennett

Mary Laetitia Bennett was destined for a career as an academic almost the moment she was born. When I knew her, later in her life, as principal of the college where I studied, it was without any notion of the background from which she had originated. Although I might have hazarded a guess at the ideas and principles by which her long and illustrious life was governed, I had no idea how she had developed them.

She was born in 1913, the daughter of distinguished historian and Liberal politician, H. A. L. Fisher, and his wife, Lettice Ilbert, herself a tutor at the all-female St Hugh’s College, Oxford. For a married woman to hold such a position was remarkable. The Bennetts’ home welcomed such visitors as Lloyd George, Hilaire Belloc and General Smuts, names mentioned in this autobiography with a matter-of-factness that was typical of the Mary Bennett I knew.

After reading Classics at Somerville College (where she "scraped" a first), Mary took various jobs that sound quite high-powered, yet seem to have fallen into her lap. She ended up in a senior position within the Colonial Office, despite, she assures us, knowing little about any of the places whose future she had a hand in deciding. The effect of this modesty is double-edged. It leaves the average reader with an impression of someone who got on in the world purely because of her connections. (Her relations included Virginia Woolf and Ralph Vaughan-Williams.) She would have us believe that her appointment to the post of Principal of St Hilda’s College was little more than a n accident and certainly nothing to do with her abilities and experience, and they are of a dignified, kindly and highly intelligent woman who showed as much respect for undergraduates as she did for her peers, and commanded a comparable respect from all around her.

St Hilda's College, 2006
109pp, paperback
Retail price 10

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

Mary Bennett
(not book cover)

The target audience for this book is the large number of ex-St Hilda’s students who passed through Mrs Bennett’s guiding hands. They will be disappointed that it does not place any more weight on the St Hilda’s years than it does on any other period of her life. This is not because the author did not think those years important, but because she was simply setting down a summary of her life and had no plans for publication. It is clear that on completing it in 1997 (when she was already in her eighties) she did not anticipate it being of much interest to anyone else.

This partly explains the poor typesetting and proof-reading of the finished product. My suspicion is that St Hilda’s took the manuscript as they found it, typos and spelling mistakes included, and merely re-formatted it (not very well) to prepare it for publication. This suggests that the academic body did not have much to do with the production, which is both ironic and regrettable.

They were right, however, if they felt this autobiography would not attract a major publisher or a wider audience. Mary Bennett was not famous, nor did she lead a scandalous or particularly thrilling life Neither does she talk down to her reader. She assumes we can understand foreign phrases and academic terms, and that we have an understanding of the workings of government departments and Oxford colleges. Because I knew her, I find this little book both interesting and entertaining. Many another reader will get nothing from it.

What, then, was her purpose in writing it? I think she must have been urged to do so, by friends, relations and colleagues. It may have been a pastime and a therapy in the years following the death of her beloved husband John. Its publication is a tribute to her rather than a commercial enterprise. Seen in this light, it was well worth doing.