Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser

My Hero: Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM

Antonia Fraser
Saturday 24 October 2009 00.05 BST

hat fires up a love of history in a young person? I have come to the conclusion that for every celebrated historian who sets the youthful imagination ablaze, there are quite as many quirky individuals, in my case a Catholic nun at a convent school to which I was sent, initially as a Protestant, at the age of 14. It is true that I had already discovered history for myself. I regarded it as a private, even secret pleasure; my parents had both been classicists at university. As a romantic eldest child, I dreamed of castles and queens – and of course knights and princes, princes charming. But oddly enough no history was officially taught at the Dragon School, Oxford, which I had attended for four years, something I have recently checked from the printed reports, in case I had, in that useful modern phrase, misremembered.

It was not until I reached St Mary's Convent, Ascot, that I encountered an inspired teacher of history who was as entranced by the subject as I was. Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM had educational qualifications summed up in the official history of the school as follows: she "sort of blew in from Ireland". But she had the supreme qualification of enthusiasm: suddenly history was no longer private but an exciting public topic on which we were all entitled – no, encouraged – to have views. I can still see her now, her cheerful, slightly rubicund face (the stiff white coifs and black habits of the 1940s tended to exaggerate the colours of the complexion) and soft Irish accent as she began with the words she pronounced as often as possible: "The Empress Maria Theresa . . ." Many years later, writing about Marie Antoinette, I criticised the empress quite strongly as a mother. For Marie Antoinette, unlike me, was 15th out of a family of 16, and also unlike me had a mother who paid little attention to her education. Suddenly I could hear Mother Mercedes's reproachful words in my ear and for a moment it seemed ungrateful to criticise the woman she admired, when she herself had done so much for me.


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