On Frances Yates

Frances Yates died on September 29, 1981, at the age of eighty-one. The following was given at the memorial meeting at the Warburg Institute last January.

It is a comfort to me to think that the majority of those here assembled to pay tribute to the memory of Dame Frances Yates knew her, as she was in life. For how could I possibly describe her presence, that sibyline figure with the leonine head, those shining eyes and expressive features which would look in turn visionary or kindly, eager or gloomy, but never, never arrogant or affected. We remember that almost childlike unworldliness which yet went together with a soundly practical common sense in her judgment of people and situations, her profound concern for her colleagues and her students, and that good-humored laughter with which she reacted to the follies and pedantries of academic life.

Her intellectual formation was as unique as was her personality. Her father’s position as a chief naval constructor necessitated frequent moves from shipyard to shipyard, and so she had little regular schooling. Instead she was mainly taught by her two remarkable elder sisters, Hannah, who was fourteen years older, and Ruby, more than twelve. The Yateses were certainly an unusual family, in which things of the mind counted for much more than worldly concerns. Hannah became a novelist of no mean gifts; Ruby, who had a talent for painting, became a missionary teacher in South Africa and described her dedicated life there in a book entitled A Garland for Ashes. A brother, James, ten years older than Frances, was killed in the war late in 1915. On our last visit to her house in Claygate my wife and I found Frances busy sorting the letters which her brother had written home week by week throughout his school and university years, and she remarked that the age reflected in these letters seemed to her as remote as that of Elizabethan England.

Frances took an external BA in French at University College* and though her MA was internal, her mind was never ground in the academic mill. I always attributed the complete originality of her approach to this happy escape, and I know that she thought so too. Not that she had not fully mastered all the techniques of research. Her first book, which she published at the age of thirty-four, the biography of John Florio, subtitled “The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England,” certainly succeeded in what she described in the preface as “an attempt at reconstructing, from material collected from many and varied sources, the life and character of Florio as contemporaries saw him.”

Reading with the knowledge of hindsight we can discern in these modest words the first adumbration of her aims as a historian. She saw the past in terms of living human beings rather than of impersonal forces, and it was the way people and events were reflected in the minds of contemporaries that she strove to reconstruct through her…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.