Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog - Week 26 - M for Katharine Moore

Katharine Moore in 1989
Katharine Moore was one of the most inspirational teachers I have ever encountered. I sat in the front row of her lessons on Blake and Jane Austen when I was 16 or 17 and felt my mind almost physically stretched by her erudition and enthusiasm. She spoke to her pupils on equal terms and demanded an equal engagement in return. At the time I did not know anything about her life or that she was a Quaker but over the years I learned more about this extraordinary woman. I am glad that many years later I wrote her a letter acknowledging my debt of gratitude and this blog post is a way of continuing that.

Una Katharine Yeo was born in 1898 in Reigate, Surrey. Her father, a rigorous Presbyterian, worked in London in insurance. In her memoir Queen Victoria is very ill (1988) Katharine summarises the religious atmosphere in which she was brought up. 'God and Jesus . . . roughly corresponded to my father and mother. God and my father were all-powerful and all-knowing: they gave orders and had to be obeyed; sometimes they shouted. My father could not shout so loudly as God when it thundered, but he had a good try. Jesus and my mother never shouted, and they loved me whatever I did, though they too liked to be obeyed.' 

Lady Margaret Hall today
However certain he was of his own beliefs Katharine's father was not narrow minded when it came to his daughter's education. She was sent to Wycombe Abbey school and from there her father encouraged her to gain a place at Oxford in the first exhilarating period of women's acceptance as full members of the university. Katharine spent three very happy years (1918-1921) reading English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford inspired by teachers such as Janet Spens, the Elizabethan scholar, Walter Raleigh, first Oxford professor of English literature, and Gilbert Murray, regius professor of Greek. 

Her degree equipped Katharine for her future work as a teacher and writer and a short interlude after university, working in the Lady Margaret Hall Settlement in Lambeth, was an eyeopener about poverty for a middle-class girl. Very shortly afterwards, however, Katharine's time was to be fully taken up by different responsibilities. In 1922, she married Dr Harold Moore, a widower twenty years her senior with three young girls, and soon she herself had twins, Jane and Christopher, for whom she wrote her first children's book, Moog, in 1936, with illustrations by Jane. This was followed by a series of educational books for children. Her marriage was very happy and her husband - later a CBE and the first president of the Institution of Metallurgists - continued the supportive tradition of the men in her family. 

Walthamstow Hall school
In her 30s Katharine Moore discovered Quakerism and with it a belief in a gentler, more compassionate God than that epitomised by her father. As her children grew older she looked for employment and in 1943 was offered a part-time teaching post at Walthamstow Hall school for girls in Sevenoaks, Kent where the family then lived. She wrote an account of her wartime experiences in another memoir A Family Life 1939-45 published in 1989. After the war she was offered a full-time post at Walthamstow Hall and remained there until her retirement (and afterwards when she returned to teach one day a week and I was one of her pupils).

In 1947 Katharine and Harold's son Christopher, then 23, was drowned in a holiday accident. Katharine spoke of the terrible loss as dividing her life in two, but she strove for, and ultimately attained, the goal of turning suffering to good account, gaining a depth of understanding of other people's tragedies. She was very busy with her family but always found time for teaching, reading and writing - the life of the mind balanced with domestic life.

Joyce Grenfell
In 1957, in answer to a perceived slight to her beloved Oxford professor, Walter Raleigh, Katherine Moore wrote to the entertainer Joyce Grenfell and this began a 22-year pen friendship which ended only with Joyce's death in 1979. They agreed never to meet in order to express themselves with greater freedom and this resulted in an unusually satisfying exchange of ideas, the record of an extraordinary companionship of minds, particularly in spiritual and religious matters. As it went on the correspondence did contain personal matters too, especially after the death of Katharine's husband Harold in 1972. Some of their letters were published in 1981 under the title An Invisible Friendship.

Katharine Moore's first book for adult readers, influenced by her Quakerism, was an anthology, The Spirit of Tolerance, commissioned by Victor Gollancz in 1964. The titles and subjects of Katharine's later non-fiction books reflect her preoccupation with women's need for independence and her religious development - Cordial Relations: The Maiden Aunt In Fact And Fiction (1966); Victorian Wives (1974); and She For God: Aspects Of Women And Christianity (1978). 

 As she grew older Katharine continued to develop her writing and thinking. She published her first novel,Summer at the Haven (1983), set in an old people's home with an old lady as its central character, at the age of 85 and received the Authors' Club Silver Quill Award for the most promising first novel of 1984. Her unusual subject came from her own experience - old age and its unacknowledged fears, pleasures and trials - and another two novels on the same theme followed, The Lotus House (1984) and Moving House (1986). Critics were enthusiastic, comparing her to Elizabeth Gaskell, and she gained a devoted following among readers of all ages. After her three full-length novels, she produced a witty and humane collection of short stories, Six Gentle Criminals (1990), and an exercise in historical recreation, A Particular Glory (1994) the fictional biography of Damaris, daughter of John Wesley's friend and mentor Vincent Perronet, vicar of Shoreham, Kent, where Katharine lived. 

Katharine Moore remained always involved with life, family, friends, Quakers and the life of the mind, living on until 2001 when she died at the age of 103. "I never had much time for old people," she said in her later years, "so, perhaps, this long life is God teaching me a lesson." Her whole life was a lesson to those who read her books, were inspired by her teaching or knew her as a friend and I am grateful to have been one of that number.


Wendrie Heywood said...

Fascinating - thank you for this introduction to her. I'm off to see if the library has any of her books.

Chassidy said...

This is gorgeous!

Quillyk8 said...

What a joy to stumble upon this appreciation of Katharine Moore.I was so fortunate to have spent time with her in her latter years. She was over 100 when I first met her, very frail in body but sharp and focused in mind and heart. It is too little to say that she had a profound effect on me, her generosity of spirit and her encouragement for me to continue to write has enhanced my experience of life endlessly. I am warmed by the realisation that others hold her as closely in their hearts.