Sir Anthony Seldon on his late wife: 'She was spectacular, ferociously intelligent - I was in awe of her'
Friday 27th of January 2017 | The Evening Standard
Joanna Seldon had just finished a book about her father when she died last month. Her husband Sir Anthony tells Susannah Butter about the woman who ‘revealed the magic in the everyday’
However much you love your partner, it’s easy to take them for granted, put them in the bank and know they are there.” Sir Anthony Seldon is reflecting on his 34-year marriage to Joanna, who died last month from neuroendocrine cancer. She was 62. “When Joanna became ill I realised she wouldn’t always be there,” says Anthony. “That brought us much closer. Those last five years were like falling in love with her again.”
Anthony, 63, is a self-confessed workaholic. He’s a prolific writer, penning award-winning biographies of prime ministers, and last year he became Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University after nine years as Master of boarding school Wellington College, where Joanna taught English.
Folded onto a yellow sofa in his office at the university, prints by Klee and Matisse on the walls, Anthony is a neat figure who stands on his head every morning as part of his yoga practice.
His latest project is for Joanna. After her diagnosis she decided to write a biography of her late father, Dr Maurice Pappworth. She wanted it to be published this year to mark the 50th anniversary of his campaign to stop medical experiments on humans, and now Anthony is overseeing the final edits and publication, which is scheduled for this autumn.
“The book is very Joanna,” says Anthony. “Strong and direct. It’s powerful because it’s about a phenomenal figure fighting against a powerful establishment. Her father was a strict Jewish man who didn’t like me to begin with, which is why I converted to Judaism.”
Working in London in the Fifties and Sixties, Pappworth was rejected from jobs because of his religion. His campaign against medical testing did nothing to further his popularity. Joanna “revered him”.
“She was without ego and wrote the book for her father,” says Anthony. “I wondered if she was trying to gain acceptance for his work. She was happy that senior medics talked to her for the book. That his work is seen as having value now gave her peace.”
Anthony met Joanna on a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters when they were in their final year at Oxford and says: “I came across this spectacular, dark-eyed, ferociously intelligent and beautiful, unusual-looking girl.”
He was going out with her best friend and she was seeing Alex Cox, now a film director. “I’d endlessly talk to Joanna about the ups and downs I had with this girl,” he remembers. “I did notice that she started getting a bit cross that I was talking about that.”
Two years after graduating they went on a group holiday to Tuscany. “I was still going out with Joanna’s best friend and I don’t quite know how it happened but Joanna and I came back together as an item,” he says with a smile.
Joanna was awarded the top first in her year reading English and went on to complete a doctorate on American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, while Seldon was at LSE researching Churchill.
“I was in awe of her,” says Anthony. “She helped me structure my work and could’ve gone on and taken any job she wanted in academia, it was all so effortless for her. She just knew what people were saying and what she wanted to say, never using jargon.”
He admits they were “quite earnest”. “Recently I found the birthday card she wrote me when I turned 25. She kept everything. She’d divided a circle into quarters, scrubbed one out and said ‘there you are, a quarter gone’.”
It was while the couple were studying for their doctorates in America that Anthony came to rely on Joanna. “It was just about the hardest time of my life. Joanna was soothing, indescribably loving and helped me find my way forward, not just with work. I started meditating, doing yoga, rebuilt my life in a more spiritual way.”
On their return to the UK they moved to Archway Road in Highgate, where Joanna “would play all kinds of music all the time, we went to endless plays”. Frustrated by the theory-based world of literary studies in the early Eighties, they decided to teach in the state sector, although Anthony didn’t get a job there. “Joanna loved teaching, and teaching is so underrated,” he says, showing me one of hundreds of emails from her former students, talking about how Joanna revealed the “magic in everyday life”.
It took two proposals for her to agree to marry him. He first broached the question by Cleopatra’s needle in summer 1980. “She didn’t reply, and I still don’t know whether she didn’t want to say yes or didn’t hear me. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve that year, after a carol service in St Albans, that I proposed again. Two swans went past and she said that swans mate for life.”
Anthony was appointed headmaster of Brighton College in 1997. By this point they had three children: Jessica, Susannah and Adam, who now work in the civil service, advertising and teaching respectively — and they all moved to live by the sea. Joanna swam all year round. They went to Wellington in 2006 and made a home there, “bang in the middle of the school, where everyone could see into our house”.
“Joanna followed me around the country,” says Anthony. “My life took precedence over hers even though she was much more brilliant, sensitive and cleverer than I was. She probably would’ve preferred a slightly quieter life but she went along with it and was wonderful as a head’s wife.”
It was Anthony who told Joanna she had cancer. He returned from a dinner to a note from the school doctor saying he needed to speak to them urgently. Joanna had a rare neuroendocrine tumour, the same type that Steve Jobs had. “She was often significantly ill, suffering attacks called carcinoid crises and had to spend several weeks at a time at the Royal Marsden hospital. She had a colourful mobile above her bed.”
When she was ill one of her first thoughts was that she wouldn’t see her grandchildren. It was an incredible source of sadness for her, which is why she wanted to live on in her writing for them. She worried how I would cope without her.”
Joanna called her funeral “my last lesson plan” and wrote an “ethical will” for her children, with advice on how to make the most of their lives.
After she was diagnosed, she became more interested in writing. “It was as if she’d put it to the back of her mind, thinking there would be time later in her life to do it.” She made a website, despite not being good at technology (“few things would make her cross but lugging her heavy laptop around would”), to upload her poetry and self-published Kindle books for any future grandchildren.
Now their children are looking after Anthony, filling the fridge at Buckingham, where he’s on a mission to put the students back at the centre of the University experience. He has four books out this year, including one about the special relationship with America (he thinks we will work closely with Trump), and a film script about Parliament’s vote not to strike Syria. He sleeps for four hours a night when he’s writing “because I can’t be seen to be missing an iota at work”.
Will he write about any more prime ministers? “I said I’d stop, but then I did Cameron so I can’t say I won’t write about May. I think about her in relation to my own children because she lost her mother at a similar age.”
While not generally in favour of educational selection, he has his own version of the plan to bring back grammar schools, 100 May Schools, “targeted at the bottom 25 per cent of socioeconomic backgrounds. That gets over the problem of grammars, which is that they are middle-class enclaves. A hundred is big enough to make an impact but small enough not to damage other schools.”
Would he consider a career in politics? “I’m too much of a unifier; my heart is on the Left but my mind is often more on the Right. I’m on the side of whoever I think is doing well.”
Joanna used to proof-read his work and he says: “This is my first year in my life since I was 24 without Joanna in it so I have no idea whether I’m going to be able to write at the same rate.”
“Before she died we wrote our wish lists of what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. She said she would just love to have the book about her father published and hold it in her hand.”