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Camden New Journal - OBITUARY
Published: 13 March 2008

Joanna Richardson to the left
The literary lioness with a penchant for French culture

JOANNA Richardson, one of Hampstead’s literary lionesses, died in the early hours of Friday morning following a stroke. She was 82.
A lioness in every sense of the word, fiercely combative, ruthless in the hunt for literary excellence, and with a sharp nose for scholarly prey – a forgotten letter or a missing document – she was not always an easy neighbour.
From her terrace cottage in Flask Walk, she was ready for nearly 50 years to pounce on anything she disapproved of: the state of Hampstead streets, the running down of libraries, noisy builders, the decay of Keats House (something she was partly responsible for remedying), poor refuse collection, New (and indeed Old) Labour. She made many enemies but found and kept some steadfast friends.
Her two great loves were Oxford (she studied English and French at St Anne’s, wrote a biography of her charismatic teacher, Enid Starkie, and was given – perhaps her proudest moment – a DLitt in 2004) and France.
This was the country that supplied her with her richest literary achievements, as she wrote wittily and passionately about, among others, Théopile Gautier, Victor Hugo, Colette, Stendahl, Verlaine, Baudelaire, a history of 19th-century French courtesans, and her beloved Flaubert, whose biography she was working on at her death.
France honoured her in return by making her a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1987 and giving her a Prix Goncourt in 1989 for her biography of Judith Gautier.
But the lioness prowled the English literary forests too with portraits of Keats and his great love Fanny Brawne, of Edward Fitzgerald, George IV, Edward Lear and Tennyson, as well as numerous scholarly articles and editions of letters. She also played a prominent part in the business of the Royal Society of Literature where she was a fellow.
I met her through another aspect of her talent and energy, her work for BBC Radio, and I have a vivid memory of a gossip-and-ideas-full morning and afternoon in Oxford, one brilliant St George’s Day in the mid-1980s, when we interviewed all the women stars of literature, science, the Secret Service and medicine we could lay our hands on, including Helen Gardner, Dorothy Hodgkin, Janet Vaughan and Daphne Park. Joanna was in heaven: her favourite city and her favourite people on a perfect spring day.
The last years of her life became increasingly difficult with failing sight and hearing, the onset of Parkinson’s Disease and gathering immobility. But she remained cheerful, intrigued by the Princess Diana inquest and horrified by the Iraq war.
Food and wine still meant a great deal to her and her weekly jaunt to the shops, pushed by her caring and practical neighbour Mark Nevard – the loss of Steele’s the Butcher earlier this year was a great blow.
She still managed, with the help of her niece, nephew-in-law and old friends to get to Oxford for feast days and ceremonies.
Her memory too was sharp as ever, neither friend nor foe escaping. One particular friend had been the legendary publisher, another neighbour, Jock Murray.
He was perhaps the only person who could persuade her to cut her work. “Ah! Joanna,” he would say, “the echo of it will remain.”
I think the echo of Joanna Richardson will float over Hampstead for a long time to come.
piers plowright

* Piers Plowright is an award-winning BBC drama and documentary producer who lives in Hamsptead


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