Remembering Jenny Wormald
E-mail is such an impersonal way to learn of someone’s death. The very distance it creates makes the realisation of the loss of a human – someone you heard speak and laugh – all the more bitter. It was by opening of my inbox this morning that I learnt of the death of Jenny Wormald.
Jenny Wormald, historian of Scotland and of early modern Britain, tutor at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – I owe her so much. I remember the seminars I had with her in my final year as an undergraduate: one set in Cliff Davies’s rooms in Wadham, the other looking out over the gardens in her own college. What was a constant in those sessions was her willingness to provoke, to encourage reticent students into conversation and debate. I was to learn that this was a characteristic of her scholarship, a gift of making us continually re-think our assumptions, much as she insisted she herself must do. One of the last times I heard her speak I remember the author of the justly celebrated ‘James VI and I, one king or two?’ shock her audience by announcing that she had changed her mind: ‘he was a terrible king’.
It is also to Jenny that I owe my first job, standing in for her at St Hilda’s for a term. I remember well her room there, which I occupied for that Michaelmas, and its impressive range of books. My knowledge of her – I can hear her now being strident with me when I hesitate to assume it was friendship – was deepened by the fact that I was also at Christ Church with her then husband, Patrick. As that marriage collapsed, I heard both sides. And, at Patrick’s untimely funeral in Oxford’s Catholic Chaplaincy, I – like so many – could not hold back the tears as Jenny gave the eulogy with such eloquence and dignity.
It is perhaps that event which I remember most, though it was not the last time I saw her. I think that was in the run-up to the 2010 General Election when she was in Oxford for a while, and was palpably excited about the prospect of a LibDem break-through in the forthcoming vote. She was, I fear, disappointed both with the outcome and with the inglorious aftermath. Perhaps, though, there is something fitting about that memory and fear: she would be the first to remind us (as she took a drag on her cigarette and eyed you sideways) that you have to take all that comes and, through it all, survive. She no longer does but, in us, the memory of her and the traits we learnt from her will live. That is, I hope, no small legacy.