Dom Alberic Stacpoole recalls the life of Dorothy Bednarowska WOMEN OF THE kind and calibre of Dorothy Whitehead who gave their entire life to their College and Faculty — and to the various individuals who came through their hands for a degree or post-graduate work, are the very backbone of Oxbridge women's colleges.
Dorothy was one such, coming in 1933 to St Anne's (Oxford) at 18, a college then known as the Society of Oxford Hume-Students, and admitted in 1959 to full College status. She settled for the rest of her life to learn and teach English Language and Literature, gathering en route a formal First and a MPhil; and finding time to row for her college and cox the Oxford ladies' Boat (achieving her Blue in 1935). In the television age, she never missed creating a gin party to watch Boat Race Day, her comments dismissing those of non-rowers. A natural cox she was diminutive and dapper, witty even when wet, proudly recognised as mascot material with her husky voice and high standards. One was lucky to be good enough for cox.
Born in Ceylon in 1915 far from the Great War, she had behind her a fine father Frederick, a Ceylon engineer, who spent much time away. With her later was an ill and nervous mother living in Chalfont Road who needed much nursing. Dorothy was sent to Oxford High School where she excelled in English and Divinity, the first determining her life work, the second increasingly her purpose for living. Attending to her mother caused her to over-smoke and to take an extra year in 1936 but without loss of life's quality.
In 1938, Dorothy applied to join St Anne's and her Principal's reference described her "as able as I have ever come across...unusual force of character...among fellow students a fine influence for good". Already she had broad but deep religious convictions which led her to the company of Sacred Heart nuns (in Norham Gardens) such as Prue Wilson.
Come the War, Dorothy went to Virginia in the United States pursuing graduate work; but she was soon back to Oxford to "do good for Dominion soldiers" WVA work in Ship Street and work at the Allied Forces Centre in the It was in 1944 that she began to struggle with Polish, marrying a philosopher and for the rest of her life she (slightly disconcertingly) styled herself Mrs Bednarowska. Mr Bednarowski departed for Aberdeen University in the late 40s (he died in 2002).
From 1954, she progressed to College Fellow, then to Dean, then Vice-Principal serving Nancy Treneman ( who became an Honorary Fellow). Her modem English tutoring took her to George Eliot, to Thomas Hardy (though she rarely visited his Wessex world), and to Vuginia Woolf's feminist movement. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were always
in the background. Dorothy's closely cared for under-graduates often proved colourful as well as uncommonly clever. She protected them especially at exam' time when, as well ,she cooked them cheerful breakfasts. These young hopefuls included the later BBC and Tunes journalist Libby Purves, whose books such as Holy Smoke put a spin on religion and the editor of Taller and then of The New Yorker, Tina Brown.
In 1980 20 year-old Simon Rattle, who had just won a prestigious prize for conducting, asked for a year of English at Oxford and selected Mrs Bednarowska as his guide; she was always very private about him. In 1991 he in turn was made a St Anne's Honorary Fellow and in 1999 an Oxford Doctor of Music. She was upset that he didn't visit her
after a 1999 Encaenia.
Grace Hadow, Dorothy's first Principal had noticed her "quiet and attractive manner" and her extraordinary influence for good among fellow students and then fellow dons, such as Ann Bonsor, Anne PasternakSlater, Mrs Ingham and Sisters of the Sacred Heart. She persuaded them to join her in Church work, sharing her far from narrow religious convictions. In later years a fellow senior concerned with St Anne's was Janet Young, (Baroness Young).
Dorothy found friends among the Benedictines and the Jesuits, tutoring at St Benet's and Campion Halls. She dined Hugo Dyson and drove to Scotland with Dick Whitehead of ICI. Yet students came first, her "partridges in a pear tree"; friends second and writing a poor third.
Dorothy began as an Anglican but converted to Catholicism as an under_graduete. Her last 20 years were in retirement where at first she turned to teaching the men of Worcester College to their daunted delight. But by degrees she grew more solitary, gradually losing her contacts with St Anne's. American slimmer schools at Oxford left passing enthusiasms. Later years brought fewer but deeper friendships. She was close to the Devlin family:Patrick, the judge, Christopher the Jesuit priest and Joan, the Sacred Heart sister and others in India.
In her 70s Dorothy came regularly to Ampleforth's crowded Easter Triduum days. At her own request in 1982 she became an Oblate of Ampleforth Abbey with its daily duties of prayer. In 1998, the Abbot called her to become a Consoror (men are. Confraters) in recognition of her support for St Benet's and the teaching of the many monks who majored in English. Her last days were spent quite alone in Oxford's St Luke's Hospice. She died on January 4. This epiphany God welcomed an English monastic Consoror.