OBITUARY. The Times
Linda Kelly obituary
Aristocratic historian and biographer of the Romantic poets whose motto was ‘keep punching’
Linda Kelly once said that the guests she would most like to invite to a dinner party would be the subjects of her books: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Talleyrand, Madame de Staël, George Sand and Victor Hugo. “The question is,” she added, “how would they all get a word in?”
Over the course of five decades, Kelly not only acquired a reputation as a distinguished historian, but also an intimate knowledge of the romantic period and the predilections and foibles of its characters. Her books, which included Women of the French Revolution and The Young Romantics, were remarkable for combining a light and readable style with heavy erudition.
A slender 5ft 3in, with a heart-shaped face, violet-blue eyes and thick, curly hair cut short to frame her face, she once said that she enjoyed the late 18th and early 19th centuries so much because of the way the people she wrote about used English. “Even the simplest letters have a zest and style which seems to vanish once one enters the Victorian age,” she said.
She relished the tumultuous background of war and revolution. “And what wonderful people it threw up, from Byron to Madame de Staël.” One reviewer wrote: “Most of her books could be scenarios for a well-made play. There is always deft description of place — a recent title, Holland House, was devoted to it — but place is never other than a setting for conversation, interchange of personality and reflection.”
Alison Linda McNair Scott was born in 1936 at her parents’ house near Westerham in Kent, the third sibling in a family of five. Her father, Ronald McNair Scott, had written poetry at Oxford and then worked on JC Squire’s literary review, The London Mercury. Linda’s mother was Mary Berry, the eldest daughter of the first Lord Camrose. Starting from nothing, he was a brilliant journalist, later becoming a newspaper magnate who owned The Daily Telegraph.
In 1940 Linda’s father, having narrowly escaped capture at Dunkirk, was posted to the Middle East and his family were evacuated to America on what proved to be one of the last sailings for evacuees: the next ship to attempt the journey was torpedoed. The next three years were spent in Boston and Philadelphia, a period she often said was among the happiest of her life. The family returned to England in 1943 on an aircraft carrier, a perilous crossing during which several submarines were spotted, much to the delight of the children.
Back in England, she attended a Parents’ National Educational Union school in Kent. In 1946 her father bought a farm in Hampshire, outside Old Basing, and, at the age of 11, she was sent to a boarding school, Southover Manor in Lewes, East Sussex, which prided itself on preparing girls for suitable marriages rather than academic achievements. She remembered “long acres of boredom”, relieved by reading Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, and by lessons in the art school with Quentin Bell. Her parents then sent her to Cuffy’s Tutorial College in Oxford.
Pretty and vivacious, she enjoyed a “season” as a debutante, with strings of admirers. It is said that when she came into the room, the bandleader Tommy Kinsman would stop and softly begin playing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. From the ballrooms of London, she went on to attend the Byam Shaw art school, before joining Vogue as a junior copywriter on fashion in 1956. She worked there for seven years, eventually becoming travel editor. Among other adventures, she was on the first commercial flight to Pakistan, in 1961, where she visited the markets of Karachi and the Khyber Pass.
In 1963 she married the businessman and biographer Laurence Kelly, who was the son of a former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir David Kelly. Their lives took a difficult turn when he suffered a stroke in his fifties, but their partnership never faltered. They had three children: Rosanna, a translator and artist; Rachel, a writer in turn; and Nicky, who works as a lawyer.
Her first book was The Marvellous Boy: the Life and Myth of Thomas Chatterton (1971), the romantic poet who killed himself aged 17, immortalised in Henry Wallis’s picture. It was acclaimed by critics, including Graham Greene. In 2005 she and Laurence were elected to the Royal Society of Literature. She was a member of several distinguished dining clubs, including Grillion’s and the Literary Society. Writing was always a pleasure for her and she wrote almost every day. “I go through many drafts, but usually try to get the main outline down in the first. I can then fiddle around till I think I’ve got it right.”
Never an exercise enthusiast, she confined herself mainly to walking with her husband and children and their miniature Shetland sheep dog around the communal garden behind their large Victorian house in Ladbroke Grove, west London. The Kellys later developed an enthusiasm for the Lake District, where they bought a house in 1987. She became a fellow of the Wordsworth Trust. She said her idea of happiness was “reading a Victorian novel by the fire on a cold November day, with a cat asleep on my knee”.
In early 2018, after she became ill, she published her private commonplace book, Consolations, with a lifetime’s harvest of her favourite poems, literary anecdotes and quotations. One of her own mottos was “Keep punching”.
Oct 1st, 1936 – Jan 12th, 2019