I said to my cousin, Sophy Newton, that I would like to publish the obituary she wrote of her mother, Jane de Falbe, when it appeared in print in the so-called Brown Book of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, because I liked and admired Jane who was married to my father’s first cousin and because it successfully documents her vanished social world:-
JANE DE FALBE (née MARRIOTT), 1927–2019
On 19 October 1953, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh went to tea with the Australian High Commissioner and his wife, Sir Thomas and Lady Vera White. Four months after the Coronation, the purpose of their visit would have been to seek advice and introductions for their upcoming state visit. But the Whites had been left in the lurch by an unreliable parlour maid, so they were attended upon by an Oxford graduate, Jane Marriott, who had accepted the temporary post and whose heavily scribbled line around ‘Queen – tea’ on that day in her diary also marked, as she recalled years later on, her ‘First Encounter with Australia Fair’. Her second encounter, less than three weeks later, was with Bill de Falbe, great-great-grandson of Governor Philip Gidley King of the First Fleet, who shortly thereafter became her husband: ‘The Whites,’ she writes, ‘were thrilled.’ One can well imagine the truth of this, for Jane made genuine friends wherever life led her. Upheavals, encounters and dramas in early years nurtured her curiosity for people and places. Born in Bishops Stortford in October 1927, Jane was taught ballet by Tamara Karsarvina in London in the early 1930s; she met W. B. Yeats when the family lived at Steyning next to the poet’s last mistress, Edith Heald; and when her father, Rowley Marriott, was sent by MI5 to Northern Command in Leeds and the family evacuated to a remote farm cottage, she remembered driving a tank on Lindley Moor with soldiers from the regiment at Farnley Hall. Downe House was an educational milestone, with the influence of Olive Willis providing anchor, resilience and a sense of aspiration, and helping to secure her place at LMH to read Modern Languages (French and Russian) in 1946. Undergraduate life after the war burst with colour and connections. Tutorial appointments seem noticeably sparse in her diaries, otherwise teeming with names and social engagements. Life now alternated between Oxford and Cotesbach, Leicestershire, where the Marriotts had moved back to their roots: hunting, cousins and aunts now entered the mix. Jane made lifelong friends. Two of them, Pam Blackmore (Maxwell Fyfe 1946 PPE) and Biddy Wells (Haydon 1946 History), in recent conversation, both remember her vivaciousness, illegal alcohol smuggled in for Biddy’s 21st, her peers Jamie (Jennifer Robinson, née Ramage, 1946 Modern Languages) and Jo (Joanna Langlais, née Money-Coutts, 1946 PPE), their boyfriends, and others who mingled on the fringes of the ETC and OUDS in non-speaking roles, with eccentrics, thespians and musicians who later became household names: Sandy Wilson, Ken Tynan, Donald Swann. It provided a cultural panorama, and stories for life. Resisting parental expectations of finding a suitor, she became sub-editor to the fashion editor of Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal intending to pursue a career in fashion journalism. The parlour maid episode demonstrates things didn’t exactly go according to plan! Following her marriage to Bill de Falbe and their move to Thundridge, Hertfordshire, in 1961, Jane adapted to the complexities of family life, educating her children in subjects she loved – reading, music, riding, gardening – while maintaining her friendships and cultural pursuits. She took a PGCE as a mature student in the 1970s and taught French privately and in state schools. She went travelling to exotic places: Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Archangel, China, Iran, fascinated by connections, by change, and by people. Family associations with the Australiana at home became a bridge to historical research, a reason to journey to Australia with Bill and, after he took early retirement due to a war wound and they moved to Somerset, the opportunity to work on family papers. Her book My Dear Miss Macarthur (1988) is based on memoirs of Emmeline de Falbe (1828–1911), née Macarthur, granddaughter of Philip Gidley King, and Bill’s grandmother. Emmie’s first husband George Leslie and his brothers’ settlement of the Darling Downs is a cornerstone of Queensland history, and their story became her own, shedding barriers of time as she became involved with these people through her research. As Alan Atkinson (University of Sydney) describes: ‘There is a wonderful balance of liveliness and rigour, humankindness and detachment. I like the unapologetic way she deals with the vital small detail of people’s lives. That shows real delicacy and skill. What mattered to them mattered to her, which makes her a true historian’.
Returning to Cotesbach in 2008 she adapted to family and community in true party spirit, yet continued her historic and personal quest, ever the intrepid traveller, to St Helena, aged 88, leaving everyone nail-biting to see her safe return. Fresh clues would surface daily, like Thomas White’s book Guests of the Unspeakable left nonchalantly at the top of a pile eliciting a question, and her reply: ‘Oh, someone I did a job for once.’ She played her pieces confidently as she would in her notorious game of Scrabble, waiting patiently for others to play theirs, for all would fit together in the end.
She had an eye for beauty and a nerve of steel, never took things for granted, and displayed courage and determination to her last breath of rose-scented June air.