Obituary of Françoise Harris | History books


Frances Harris, who died aged 71, made a name for herself as the author of three remarkable studies of late Stuart Britain figures. Her first book, A Biography of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1991), announced to the world the arrival of an important historian as well as an excellent writer. Determined that Sarah be seen as a major political figure in her own right rather than a wife and favorite, Frances insisted, somewhat to the publisher’s dismay, that the book be titled A Passion for Government, although she is forced to admit that the Duchess herself often showed too much passion and too little government.

It’s no surprise that Frances, as part of a rising generation of feminist historians, was drawn to such a figure, a woman who had no difficulty navigating her way in a world of men. For her sources, she was able to make full use of the Blenheim papers from the British Library which she herself helped catalog. She had joined the manuscripts department of the British Library, where we were colleagues for over 20 years, in 1979. Given her period as a specialist, she was fortunate in the time of her appointment. The acquisition of the Marlborough Papers by the Library was quickly followed by the arrival of a rich succession of other archives from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Portrait by Charles Jervas of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, which was the subject of Frances Harris’ first book. Photograph: Alamy

It was the Library’s purchase of the Evelyn Papers in 1995 that inspired what is almost certainly Frances’ best book, Transformations of Love (2002). Columnist John Evelyn’s friendship with the much younger Margaret Blagge, a bridesmaid at court and later wife of Sidney Godolphin, had been interpreted in crude Freudian terms in the 1950s as a predominantly sexual infatuation. Although this approach has been discredited, it was up to Frances to describe the theological context in which Blagge and Evelyn sought, through their friendship, to find spiritual fulfillment and to unravel a relationship familiar to their contemporaries but quite alien to the modern world.

Frances was only too aware that feminist history had not been comfortable in the past in dealing with the religious life of women. However, regardless of her intimate knowledge of the time, she herself was well equipped to understand and describe them. Although no longer a practitioner, she had been brought up in a strict Anglican and knew the liturgy before she could read. The book received a Wolfson History Award in 2004.

The writing of this one had been assisted by an Arts and Humanities Research Board exchange program which enabled Frances to spend three months at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2000. This was by no means her only connection with academia. When Lisa Jardine established the Lives and Letters Publishing Center (Cell) at University College London in 2001, Frances joined the Steering Group until 2007. She also acted as co-supervisor doctorates for the University of Sheffield and as an examiner for the University of London.

Frances Harris Book Cover
Transformations of Love, 2002, by Frances Harris, describes the friendship between John Evelyn and Margaret Blagge

Evelyn was well known during her lifetime for her garden at Sayes Court and her treatise on trees, Sylva (1664). Therefore, Frances’ work on him led to a growing interest in the history of gardens. She started publishing on the subject and in 2004 co-organized the British Library’s exhibition The Writer in the Garden.

Frances retired from the British Library in 2010 as Head of Modern Historical Manuscripts. In addition to being honorary secretary of the Friends of National Libraries (2013-18), she was able to focus on another book, The General in Winter (2017). She returned there to the Churchills to describe the relationship between John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough, and the Lord Treasurer, Sidney Godolphin. In an autobiographical essay published in 2012, she wrote that two of the themes that interested her most in the story were the role of friendship and the impact of “the right person” on the world. It is no accident that “friendship” appears in the subtitles of two of his books. For her, Churchill’s close bond with Godolphin and the latter’s quiet heroism as he sought to defend her friend from his enemies in Britain were powerful illustrations of these two themes.

Born in Australia, in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, southeast of Melbourne, Victoria, Frances was the daughter of Esther (née Hall), a commercial artist, and Laurence Harris, a public servant. She grew up in the nearby town of Burwood and attended Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne.

A Passion for Government, Frances Harris Book Cover
A Passion for Government, 1991, by Frances Harris, considered the Duchess of Marlborough to be a major political figure

In 1967, Frances and her mother traveled to Britain to join her father, who had been assigned to the Australian High Commission. When her parents returned to Australia in 1971, Frances stayed and studied English at Westfield College at the University of London, where she graduated in 1971 and received her doctorate in 1975. She went on to earn a postgraduate degree in Library and Information Science at UCL, and in 1976 was recruited to join the group that had just started working at the British Library under the supervision of Robin Alston on the catalog of 18th century abbreviated titles.

Frances attributed her intellectual awakening to a Christmas present from her parents when she was nine years old. It was Kipling’s children’s short story book, Puck of Pook’s Hill. For one who was growing up in “a new home in a new suburb”, it opened her eyes to the fact that there was a place much richer in history than the one she knew and that the past could be so real. than the present.

Just before Christmas 2020, she was diagnosed with myeloma. She is survived by her longtime partner, Elfrida Roberts, with whom she entered into a civil partnership shortly before her death, and her brother, Laurie.

Frances Marjorie Harris, manuscript curator and biographer, born January 8, 1950; passed away on February 17, 2021


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