Anne Olivier Bell

b. 1916 – d. 2018

Anne Olivier Bell was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984.

Anne Olivier Bell remembered – by Virginia Nicholson

My favourite image of my mother as a lady of letters takes me back to my teenage years. I get home from school, and head straight for her study. One end of the room is dominated by tottering piles of unironed laundry. In front of the window, Olivier is seated at her desk, and stealthily closes its drawer to disguise her secret stash of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Wholenut chocolate. But order reigns. The desk’s surface is arrayed with disciplined piles of paper: typescript, photocopied manuscript and coloured index cards taken from the extensive boxes which hold what would now be described as her ‘database’. Drawing-pinned to the window frame is a postcard bearing the legend ‘accuracy, relevance, concision, interest’: her four guiding principles in editing Virginia Woolf’s diaries, the twenty-year task that would eventually bring her accolades and two honorary doctorates. As I fling myself into her welcoming armchair she stops what she is doing, and asks me about my day.

Since Olivier’s death a year ago I’ve spent weeks sifting through her papers. It was not entirely a surprise to me that, though the ironing may have been neglected, my mother’s scholarly attention to detail was unfailing. Every deckle-edged picture postcard, every child’s drawing, every packet of black-and-white photographs was inscribed with a pencilled date and often an identification: ‘AOP, Munich, 1933’; ‘Ros, 1951’. Three decades’ worth of papers relating to her unflagging work as a Trustee of Charleston were filed chronologically.

Olivier took documentation seriously. She had grown up as the child of divorced parents, and struggled with her mother’s poverty and early death. Her father, the art historian A.E. Popham, bequeathed her his scholarship and orderliness – but perhaps a tidy mind was also her way of controlling and understanding the world. However, if this makes her sound dry and dusty, think again. The hundreds of friends who arrived for her funeral and memorial services testify to the huge love she inspired. Olivier was a generous cook, a welcoming hostess, a brilliant homemaker. She loved red wine, rejoiced in sharp wit and a good gossip, and was always more interested in other people than she was in herself. Supremely practical, at times fearsomely critical, she believed firmly in her own common sense but undervalued her intellect.

Olivier’s literary work on the Woolf diaries is a beacon of scholarship, and can surely never be superseded. But it is her warm embrace that her family and friends will miss.