Last Victorian

Jose Harris

  • Selected Writings. Vol. I: Crime and the Penal System 1 by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 158 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56676 9
  • Selected Writings. Vol. II: Crime and the Penal System 2 by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 185 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56677 7
  • Selected Writings. Vol. III: Social and Political Thought by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 195 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56678 5
  • Selected Writings. Vol. IV: Economic and Methodological Thought by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 199 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56679 3

Eminent social scientists are not normally household names, but in the middle decades of the 20th century Barbara Wootton was well-known far outside the dim corridors of universities. Paradoxically for one who lived an intensely private life, she was perhaps best known as the lady professor who had flashed across the tabloid headlines by marrying a taxi-driver. Less sensationally, she sat as a lay magistrate for more than forty years, was a sparkling panelist on popular radio programmes, and contributed to numerous select committees and public enquiries. In her role as director of London University’s adult education services and mentor of mature students she was believed by many to be personally responsible for the marked swing to the left in British public opinion that took place during the early Forties. In 1964 she entered the House of Lords as the first Labour life peeress, and eventually became the first woman to ‘sit on the Woolsack’ as deputy speaker. She was a leading participant in debates that led to relaxation of the laws relating to divorce, homosexuality and the age of majority. She wrote books on social questions in crisp, ironic, jargon-free prose that were printed and reprinted in popular editions. Though she had been rigorously trained in Latin and Greek and had achieved a first with distinction in the Cambridge Economics Tripos, she always insisted that her ideas about society came from practical experience and direct observation and not from abstract reasoning or academic study. Her autobiography, In a World I Never Made (1967), gave a moving account of the intellectual and emotional cross-currents that had fashioned her lifelong beliefs. Loss of a much-loved father, followed by the deaths of her brother and first husband in the First World War (the latter after one night of marriage), nausea at the cultural dominance of ‘dead civilinations’, and gross maltreatment by the Cambridge male economics establishment, left her with a lifelong passion to ‘remake’ the world in a more humane, rational and scientific mould.

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