Pamela Currie did not live to be a Legenda author: we published her second and, in the event, final book posthumously last week, as one of the inaugural titles in our new Germanic Literatures series. Jim Reed and I had, off and on, worked with Pamela on this project ever since her retirement in 2000: freed from teaching duties, she published what became a series of eight long papers on aspects of the visual in Goethe, and in particular on his still-contentious colour theory. Many of these appeared in the journal Oxford German Studies, under Jim’s editorship, and which I helped out with, so that I would regularly meet up with Pamela to sort out practicalities. She made an elegant, and rather misleading, pose of being a klutz when it came to using a computer: she was in fact something of a virtuoso in getting fiddly diagrams to appear in her word-processor.
When we began talking to Pamela about the idea of consolidating the Goethe articles into a book, we had no idea that she was unwell. She went into the hospice, to the great shock of my Legenda colleagues and myself, only about a week after we gave the project a green light. Her husband Robert Currie intended to take over as editor of the book, but was himself suffering from a misdiagnosed cancer, and in the event he and Pamela died within days of each other. But the text of the book was essentially complete, and Dan and Elizabeth Currie, their children, told us that both Pamela and Robert had talked animatedly about the project in their last time together; and besides, we remained keen to do the book on scholarly grounds, quite apart from personal considerations; so between us we found a way. Lizzy in particular – a historian of Renaissance clothing at the Royal College of Art – spent many evenings and weekends getting the text of the book together. Jim Reed looked after the scholarly side of things and contributed an Introduction, after which Ritchie Robertson, Richard Correll and I all worked on the proofs. Sue Dugen, a deservedly renowned professional indexer, took things from there. It was a poignant business for all concerned, but a happy collaboration, even in the cordially frantic last weeks before press.
Pamela served for many years as the senior Fellow in Modern Languages at Lady Margaret Hall, and LMH kindly scheduled her memorial event towards the end of the summer term, to give the book project time to come to fruition. (We made it with three days to spare.) On Sunday 9 June, well over a hundred of Pamela’s former students and colleagues came together in LMH’s newly built Simpkins Lee Theatre. The speakers alternated with performances of Schubert lieder, intimate drawing-room pieces which gave the day something of the feeling of a literary salon, whose hostess – Pamela – was everywhere and nowhere. Afterwards the youngest Curries ran happily in and out of the cloisters of the Pipe Partridge Building while we had a cheerfully bustling tea.
Many affectionate things were said, and I would like to preserve a few of them here. Peter Hainsworth, another old friend to Legenda, had been one of Pamela’s longest-standing colleagues:
I came to LMH in 1979 as one of the college’s first three male fellows and as the college’s first and probably last fellow in Italian… I had no idea how modern languages worked in a college and certainly no inkling of how delicate and complex a matter it was to hold things together. In those days it tended to be assumed that new arrivals had some innate knowledge of colleges and the Oxford system that they could retrieve by Platonic recollection. One of the people who knew that this was not so was Pamela, and when I arrived she very gently and courteously conveyed to me, not in so many words, I think, but by simple kindness and friendliness that I could ask any questions I wanted of her, however naïve, and that she would do her best to put me right and that if I put a foot wrong or even both feet, it really wouldn’t be a catastrophe.
I worked with Pamela from 1979 until her retirement in 2000. And that first impression of gentleness, courteousness and helpfulness was if anything strengthened. Pamela was a demanding and rigorous tutor and no pushover. But she was patient, understanding and devoted to her pupils, however difficult they turned out to be. The most derogatory term I ever heard her use of anyone she taught was ‘the wretched boy’ or ‘the wretched girl,’ said always with a rueful smile and plainly with an absolute refusal to believe that the boy or girl had put themselves beyond any sort of pale. The affection was patent and she brought out the best in in her students. Where I think they all gained intellectually was in the area of the traditional Oxford virtues – I mean that they learnt to gather and sift evidence, to argue cogently and clearly and to treat all forms of bullshit with the utmost suspicion (and the word was one Pamela was not above using at moments of strong feeling).
The whole interview week was one when Pamela was particularly alive and acute, when her family for once had to fend for themselves. We, the modern language tutors, would meet in the evenings after dinner in the room of one or other of us to exchange views on the day’s candidates. We sometimes complained about how exhausted we were but those discussions were enjoyable and constructive – each of us bouncing impressions and assessments off the others and being gently shepherded by Pamela towards creating a list that we could all feel did justice to the candidates and which we could confidently present to the Principal (who was the admissions supremo in those days). It was the moment when we most worked together as a group and was one of the main reasons why LMH modern languages remained as strong as it did.
Perhaps there are anecdotes are to be told which embody Pamela’s character and achievements. Perhaps there are others which are simply amusing, which bring out the smiling, relaxed side of Pamela that was definitely there and which we used to see most in evidence at Schools’ Dinners (these were one of her innovations in Modern Languages – in my first few years at LMH a long tradition was continued of holding a drinks party for students a couple of days before they started their final exams, the atmosphere of which I felt was a bit like the day before the Battle of the Somme). But for me Pamela is not the stuff of stories, any more than than she was a flag-bearer or preacher. She was rather the sort of being who has in a quite understated but actually impressive and graceful way moral and intellectual qualities that you find yourself touched by and would like to have yourself.
Jim Reed recalled the time of Pamela’s election as a Fellow of LMH in 1966, when German was expanding with appointments across Oxford’s colleges:
The new generation were committed university teachers, believing that what they had to offer society was the forming of young minds (and not just in matters German), rather than specialised research. This in contrast to the regime now determining university teachers’ work which sees research as the overriding priority, even though it largely reaches and affects a far smaller and less important audience.
Pam devoted her energies to her work as a tutor, publishing only a single article in her early years, but steadily building her own scholarship. This in due time bore fruit of quality in her first book, Literature as Social Action (1995). Since then, in retirement and till very shortly before her death, she pursued a programme of research into Goethe’s visual world (thus the title of her new book), which ranged impressively across literature, art history, light and colour theory and cognitive science. It was in every way an exemplary scholar’s career.
Lizzy concluded with a personal remembrance:
My mother was, as some of you might agree, rather reserved and so it felt odd when I started trying to write about her. I think her calm nature – and the strength of character that went with it – was shaped early on in her life… Mum was born in Huddersfield but moved to London after the war. Her father was a salesman for Standard Fireworks and her mother a housewife with an artistic side. A skilled gardener, she won prizes for her flower arranging. So it is not surprising that light, colour, and nature were all things that Mum cared deeply about. Mum went to North London Collegiate School, where she eventually became head girl. She was obviously a natural student and over the last few months I have come across several books awarded to her as school prizes from the age of 5 upwards. I remember hearing about Miss Buss and Miss Beale as a child, so I was amused when one of Mum’s students recalled an end-of-year recital at LMH that included a song set to Schubert with the line: “No more need to rush and hurry from Mrs Crow to Mrs Currie”.
Mum came up to LMH in 1960 with a scholarship to read French and German and a few months after she graduated – with a double First – she married my father, Robert Currie. Five years later my brother Dan was born. Since last September several people have said to me that Mum was a role model for them as a working mother. Apart from a few friendly LMH students who would sometimes pick us up from school, Mum and Dad somehow organised childcare between them. This was all made easier by the fact that we lived so close by, at 1 Fyfield Road. Showing an admirable degree of stamina, Mum would return to her room in college most evenings after dinner to get through a couple of hours more work.
I was interested to see that students’ recollections of Mum very much mirrored my own experience of her. At college, as at home, it seems Mum was always very straightforward: she did not put on a performance and she had no airs or graces. She was also very practical. I still recall her walking up the hill to our house in Somerset carrying the Christmas tree on her back. She was happy to roll up her sleeves and fix things herself. Dan and I remember being amused by her line ‘a bradawl is a girl’s best friend’! To us children, Mum was also a teacher – she loved sharing knowledge. Childhood holidays were generally exhaustive tours of cultural sites. One of my holiday diaries, written aged 6, complains about how many churches we had been dragged around in Germany!
The different spheres in Mum’s life overlapped in other ways. Her research reflected her own values and concerns. There was a political element to her work on German 18th-century literature, which was partly influenced by my father’s field of research, but she had her own, keenly felt, convictions. She believed strongly in equality: as my parents were in the same field of work, she could not overlook the small ways in which their experiences differed. If she believed in something she spoke up about it, pursuing written campaigns about rights of way, public transport, and towards the end of her life the NHS. When I listen to the news today I often think of her and imagine her reactions: compassionate or disapproving, perhaps, but certainly always heartfelt.
Her later research into colour theory evolved out of her interest in the natural world. Mum and Dad loved walking in Somerset, bird watching, and recording and sometimes reporting rare species of Exmoor flora and fauna. At one stage she took geology evening classes and experimented with stone polishing, creating a collection of beautiful specimens that some of you might have noticed in her college rooms. These stones also made wonderful playthings, for me and my brother, and since then for Mum’s much-loved grandchildren, Arianna and Alessandro.
At one point Mum said she didn’t want a memorial service, I think mainly because she never felt comfortable being the centre of attention. But I know she would have approved of today’s event. She would have been very pleased at the publication of her book – something that gave my parents great comfort to think about last summer. And although she hadn’t been keen to share the news about how far her health had declined, eventually when she did begin to receive some messages of support, it was evident how much they meant to her. One of the last days I spent with Mum some bouquets arrived and she gave me instructions on how to arrange them in vases until they looked perfect. It is a moment I like to think about now: for her calmness, the pleasure she derived from the vivid flowers, and because it was the last time she showed me how to do something.