• Joanna Seldon

  • Lady Joanna Seldon

    Author, poet and teacher, who was the forbearing wife of the public school headmaster and writer Sir Anthony Seldon.

    Friday 16th of December 2016 | The Times

    Joanna and Anthony Seldon
    Joanna with her husband. Anthony Seldon, the former master of Wellington College, where she taught creative writing.

    Much like Kitty Pakenham, the wife of the Duke of Wellington, Lady Joanna Seldon was cognisant of the great duty attached to the role of master's wife. In her case she entered into a marriage with someone who was a workaholic, one who combined the demanding role of being the headmaster of a leading public school with being a prolific author and journalist.

    She was not lacking in fortitude, however. Her book Waterloo to Wellington: From Iron Duke to Enlightened College was published last year. It explored the founding of one of Britain's grandest public schools and the duke in whose name it was founded. It was also the last school she uprooted her life for, as she had done every few years to support Sir Anthony Seldon, who took the role of master of Wellington College in 2006. She would find the positive in each move, taking pleasure in what the unknown would bring. She was completely devoted to him and him to her, and her illness was a key role in his resignation from the position, stating that he had done all for Wellington, but not for Joanna.

    The two met at the University of Oxford in the Seventies. Anthony said he had been drawn to a vulnerability and sensitivity about her. Although, directing her in the play The Seven Sisters he would have to bide his time. As an English undergraduate she was dating Alex Cox, who went on to become something of an enfant terrible of British film, directing Sid & Nancy and Repo Man, and Seldon was in a relationship with her best friend. It was not until they went on a group holiday to Florence in 1978 that the pair struck up a partnership that lent itself to each other's strengths. Joanna was the practical one who kept things ticking over at home so that Anthony could get on with his work.

    She adored Brighton and would go swimming in the sea in winter.

    They grew together, with her quietly balancing his ideas and visions with an understanding of what was achievable. "She read, edited and proofed every book and every article I ever wrote," Anthony said. This level of dedication began when Anthony, now vice-chancellor at the University of Buckingham, and Joanna moved to London where she helped him with his doctorate on the 1951-55 Churchill government at the London School of Economics. It was published as Churchill's Indian Summer in 1981 and, after Anthony converted to Judaism, they married the following year.

    Joanna Pappworth was born in London in 1954 to Maurice and Jean. She was described as quirky and never bothered with what was mainstream. She graduated from Oxford in 1976 with the top first for her subject in her year. Professor Marilyn Butler, her PhD supervisor, said that she was the finest research student she had known. After finishing her doctorate she took her first job as a teacher of English at the Aylesbury Grammar School. In 1983, when Anthony was made head of politics at Whitgift School in Croydon, she followed. In the same year they published their co-authored book, By Word of Mouth: Elite Oral History.

    After a number of years teaching at different schools, Joanna took time out of her career to have their three children, Jessica and Susannah, who both work in the civil service, and Adam, now a teacher. When Anthony became headmaster of Brighton College she returned to work. She adored the coastal town and would go swimming in the sea in winter.

    Ever selfless, when the opportunity arose for Anthony to become master of Wellington in Crowthorne, Berkshire, she supported his decision to move. A parent at the school observed: "It was clear and evident to us all at Wellington that given Anthony's legendary work rate and manic enthusiasm for all aspects of college life, he could only have sustained his extraordinary efforts over ten years with the support and counsel of an extraordinary partner."

    She was often spotted around the grounds walking her beloved golden retriever, Toby. Although shy and reserved in many ways, she stood out with her dark hair, love of colourful clothing and bright lipstick. She believed in making education enjoyable. One warm summer's day she decided to teach outside and gave her students Kit Kats and lemonade as they sat on the grass. She led the school's creative writing course and founded its Jewish society.

    In the summer of 20ll, she was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour. Anthony was working on a book about Gordon Brown's tenure at 10 Downing Street at the time. After publication he promised that he would not write about another prime minister. However, unable to resist, he found himself writing about David Cameron, with his "ever forgiving" wife poised to read the proofs. She also began to write more and self-published a series of poems. In one, Prayer, she writes to her late father, the doctor and medical ethicist who investigated and exposed experimentation on humans in medicine, describing him as "now too far away to heal me". She asks him: "Stir your spirit to remind me what it is to live." Anthony told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs that if he could take one luxury item if he were stranded, it would be his wife's poetry. She also worked on one last book, The Whistle blower, a biography of her father that will be published next year.

    Seldon never expressed pity when she fell ill. Speaking about her cancer she said the experience had not been "wholly negative". "I found amazing strength in myself, which I just didn't know was there," she said. "It's brought me closer to my family, to my husband, to our three children, my sisters."

    Despite the chronic pain, Seldon retained her positive mindset. "I start each morning when I get out of bed with the words 'I am grateful' in Hebrew," she said.

    Joanna Seldon, teacher and writer, was born on August 4, 1954. She died of cancer on December 6, 2016, aged 62