Pauline Neville (1924 – 2015)

Pauline Neville, who has died aged 91, was a writer and founder of English PEN’s books to prisoners programme.

As a writer she achieved greatest success with In My Father’s House (1969), a moving memoir of a childhood spent with her brother Michael in a Kirkcudbrightshire manse between the wars, under the joint aegis of an intellectual Irish Protestant clergyman father and his inimitable dog, Oats. The book was described by Richard Church in Country Life as a ‘little gem of personal revelation’.

Over the next 35 years Pauline Neville wrote several novels which won favourable reviews, although she firmly resisted the entreaties of editors and publishers to popularise them for a wider readership. Francis King saw her 1973 novel The Cousins as having a ‘style of unshowy distinction and penetrating insights into female psychology’.

Pauline Neville

Peggy (1999) evoked Pauline Neville’s lifelong friendship with a Northern Irish cousin in a book that conveyed both the romance and intractability of the troubled province, where she had spent many childhood holidays. In a review of the book, Michael Holroyd described Pauline Neville as ‘an Aladdin. She rubs her lamp of memory, and scenes from a vanished past, both happy and painful, miraculously reappear.’ The book was short-listed for the 1999 J R Ackerley Prize for autobiography

Her last book, Double Vision (2002), was a novel about a girl who sets sail through the Aegean Sea on a journey to what she believes is her ancient past: the Minoan civilization of Crete. The book was praised by Raleigh Trevelyan as ‘compulsive and vivid, strongly atmospheric, at times dream-like’.

Pauline Margaret Clara Fisher was born on April 23 1924 to the Reverend James and Mrs Fisher at the Manse at Crossmichael, a small village on the east side of Loch Ken, north of Castle Douglas in Scotland. She was educated at the real St Trinnean’s Girls’ School in Edinburgh followed by Queen Anne’s Caversham. After school she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs) as an ambulance driver for the last years of the war. There followed a spell as a model and a course at Farnham Art College.

Her first marriage in 1947 to Michael (later General) Forrester led to postings to Washington, Cyprus and Kenya. But the marriage was later dissolved and in 1960 she married Richard Neville.

In the 1970s Pauline Neville became an ambassador for the British Council and became involved in PEN, serving from 1985 on the executive committee of the English Centre of International PEN. It was while she was serving on the PEN Writers in Prison Committee that she founded the books to prisoners scheme, which PEN’s president Lady Antonia Fraser proposed that she run. Recipients of books during her period of leadership included Václav Havel and Ken Saro-Wiwa. She also contributed articles and appeared on Scottish Television.

One of her last responsibilities for English PEN was to report on the Writers for Peace Committee Conference in Bled, Slovenia in January 2004.

Pauline Neville’s husband died in 1980. She is survived by two sons.

With thanks to Pauline’s son Simon Forrester for allowing us to repost this tribute which originally appeared in The Telegraph (15 October)

Pauline Neville in Ghana 

In the spring of 1995 Pauline Neville and I were invited to go to Accra to help inaugurate the new PEN centre there. Pauline was invited because she had corresponded with George Nakene when he was in prison, and when he expressed his gratitude to English PEN she suggested that he start a PEN centre in Ghana. I was invited because I was the one-woman committee for sending Christmas cards to writers in prison (including George Nakene) on behalf of English PEN. Pauline must have been about seventy at the time and I was fiftyish.

We were installed in a small hotel on the outskirts of the city and taken everywhere in a car George had arranged for our stay. Pauline’s travel priorities became clear when I found that she had brought three smart summer hats but had to borrow a toothbrush.

When we weren’t attending to formalities at the British Council and meeting the other members of the new Ghanaian PEN, we were entertained with excursions to Kumasa and to a very impressive arboretum, high enough up to be a bit cooler than the city. Although I was wilting in the heat and kept taking my straw hat off, Pauline wore her selection of hats with aplomb.

As our visit coincided with Palm Sunday, we were taken to a service at a local Methodist church. When I learned that the church service would last for four hours, I prepared myself for a very lengthy sermon, but that wasn’t what took up all the time, after all.

The church building had sides that could be rolled up to accommodate pews outside its walls. The church was full when we got there, and so we took our places in the external seating. As it was Palm Sunday in the tropics, we were all issued with long palm fronds, which we were to wave from time to time. It soon appeared that most of the church service would consist of everyone in the congregation, row by row, going to the front of the church to deposit an offering in a large clay urn. To accompany this there was a little band—saxophone and drums were prominent—playing a lively jig, and as they processed up and down the aisles of the church the members of the congregation did a graceful little dance step while waving their palm fronds in time. It was quite entertaining for the first half hour or so. Eventually it was the turn of our pew, and as there was no escape, we moved out into our aisle and followed the last pew-full on a slow but melodic trip around the church to the large pottery receptacle and then an even longer trip back to our seats.

Up until now Pauline had been something of a grande dame, impressive in her dignity and seniority and hats, but now I suddenly saw a new side of her. While I felt ridiculous and self-conscious in trying to bop along with my palm frond, Pauline took to it as though she always celebrated Palm Sunday in this way, and perhaps even other occasions as well. She gamely waved her frond and devised a little step in imitation of the others and did it with such skill and nonchalance that I felt a real sense of admiration. Inspired by her, I too wafted my frond about and improvised a little step of my own. Sometimes as we passed a pew there would be a ripple of surprise, and I think that was a response to our white faces, the only ones in the church, rather than our panache with the frond dance.

So my abiding memory of Pauline Neville is the way she took this unfamiliar occasion in her stride, literally. She observed the people around us and understood what was expected and fell in perfectly with the custom of the country.

Sarah Lawson

If you would like to pay tribute to Pauline, please send your memories to cat@englishpen.org and we will post them here and share them with her family. Please also consider making a donation to Alzheimer’s Research UK in her memory.

English PEN continues to send books to prisoners around the world and here in the UK. If you are interested in supporting this work, do get in touch. cat@englishpen.org

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

View all posts by Cat Lucas →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *