Isabel Quigly

b. 1926 – d. 2018

Isabel Quigly was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1989.

Isabel Quigly remembered – by Maggie Fergusson

In 1991, I was sent by The Times to interview the poet Kathleen Raine. She was a formidable character, but when we discovered we both knew Isabel Quigly, things warmed up. Isabel was then working at The Tablet, and Raine was confident that she was the best literary editor in London. Whatever Isabel did, her standards were high. Sue Graham-Dixon, mother of the art historian Andrew, once told me that she couldn’t bear to throw away a letter, or even a postcard, from Isabel, because she wrote so beautifully.

Isabel Madeleine Quigly was born in Spain in 1926, but sent back to school in England. She went first to the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington square, where she had an inspirational English teacher, Mother Margaret McFarlin, the nun responsible for directing Siegfried Sassoon towards the Catholic Church. She moved on to Godolphin School in Salisbury, from where she won five scholarships to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read English. Having taken a first-class degree, she went to work, in its very early days, for Penguin, then housed in shed-like offices in Middlesex. Recalling her time there in a piece to mark Penguin’s 60th anniversary she described her boss, Alan Glover, as ‘the main influence on my intellectual life’, and the atmosphere in the office as ‘fun, eccentric, occasionally dotty’.

In Florence, in 1953, she met the love of her life, Raffaello Salimbeni, a sculptor of aristocratic Sienese descent. they were married and had a son, Crispin. Though they parted soon after – and though Isabel would never countenance Crispin’s meeting his father – they remained devoted to one another until Salimbeni’s death in 1991. Isabel’s semi-autobiographical novel about their passionate romance, The Eye of Heaven (1955), became a bestseller, highly praised by Elizabeth Bowen.

Isabel was the translator – mainly from the Italian, but also Spanish and French – of over a hundred books, and her translation of Silvano Ceccherini’s The Transfer won the John Florio Prize. Her own books included The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story (1982). From 1956 to 1966 she was film critic of The Spectator.

Isabel was a well-loved member of the RSL Council – 1990 to 1997 – and, having done considerable research in the archives, she wrote a history of the society, published in 2000.

Some who knew Isabel well perceived, behind her jollity, sadness – almost certainly rooted in her marriage. she could never, she used to say, return to Florence. Instead, she poured her love into Crispin and his three sons, Hugh, Guy and George. She regarded them, rather than her literary work, as her greatest achievement.