Magdalen Goffin

b. 1925 – d. 2015

Magdalen Goffin was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1980.

Magdalen Goffin has written biographies of her grandmother, Maria Pasqua, and her father, E. I. Watkin, and edited the diaries of another ancestor Absalom Watkin. She also wrote numerous articles and reviews for the New York Review of Books (1966–69).

Magdalen Goffin remembered – by Jeremy Lewis

Magdalen Goffin, who has died at the age of 90, wrote a very short biography of her grandmother called Maria Pasqua, which Hilary Spurling described as a ‘classic of its kind’, comparable to Vita Sackville-West’s Pepita. First published by Oxford University Press in 1979, its slow gestation is almost as riveting as its heroine’s melancholy life.

Born in 1856, the disconcertingly beautiful daughter of impoverished peasants from the Abruzzi, Maria Pasqua posed from an early age as an artists’ model. At the age of six she was taken by her father to Paris, where she achieved instant success with fashionable Salon painters. The Comtesse de Noailles, a rich, childless and extremely eccentric Englishwoman with a firm belief in the health-giving properties of cows’ breath, then bought her from her father for the price of a vineyard, and she exchanged a childhood of grinding poverty for an adolescence of extreme luxury. She was educated in France and in England, and it was in England that she met Philip Shepheard, a widower and a doctor turned country gentleman, who lived in a remote corner of Norfolk and was twenty years her senior. He was a decent, honourable man and a good father, but unimaginative, penny-pinching and devoted to routine. Still as beautiful as ever, Maria Pasqua found herself leading a life of provincial and domestic tedium. She longed, in vain, to revisit Italy and the scenes of her childhood, wishing against all her better instincts that le vieux would die before her, so setting her free. But he lived on till he was 94, and she never realised her dream.

In 1953 Magdalen Goffin’s brother, Dom Aelred Watkin, the headmaster of Downside, sent Evelyn Waugh an account of Maria Pasqua’s sad life, written by her daughter. Waugh thought it ‘a tale of haunting beauty and pathos’, but unpublishable as it stood. ‘Can’t you take a deep breath & invoke Virginia Woolf and Max Beerbohm and start again with the aim of creating a literary masterpiece?’ he asked. ‘It is a most moving story of Beauty in captivity, very sad and full of authentic, bizarre detail,’ Waugh told Nancy Mitford. ‘It could be made a great work of art by someone. Who?’

Dom Aelred died in 1972, and his sister Magdalen not only inherited a mass of family papers, but set about rewriting Maria Pasqua. I was working as an editor at oup at the time. I loved it from the very first page, and although some of my more academic colleagues were fairly sniffy about it, no doubt finding it over-sentimental or insufficiently austere, I persuaded the powers that be to publish it. Of all the books I looked after in my twenty-plus years as a publisher’s editor, it is the one I love most, and although I well remember how much Auberon Waugh and Richard Ingrams liked it, I still long for it to get the credit it deserves. (Thirteen years after its first publication I wrote a long piece about it for the very first issue of The Oldie.)

I never knew Magdalen Goffin as well as I would have liked. I remember that one of her grandfathers had founded the Illustrated London News. She was educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton and St Anne’s College, Oxford, and was an occasional contributor to The Tablet and the New York Review of Books. Her husband, Richard Goffin, was for many years the head of book promotion at the British Council. But, for the reading public, she should be best remembered for Maria Pasqua, a small masterpiece of which her shade and her family should be immensely proud.

Jeremy Lewis’s most recent book, a biography of David Astor, is published by Jonathan Cape.