Hermione Lee

1. O Pioneers!

Dame Hermione Lee and I are walking down Banbury Road, a chestnut-bordered thoroughfare at the north end of Oxford, after a companionable lunch spent discussing biography, barges, Bloomsbury, and the great, enigmatic fiction of Penelope Fitzgerald, the subject of Lee’s most recent book.

Cycling toward us is an angular, elegant blonde figure who stops, removes her helmet, and exchanges a fond greeting with Lee. The two women make a plan to meet sometime in the following few days, before Lee’s colleague rides off down a side street.

“That’s Margaret MacMillan,” Lee tells me. In our conversations about her own work, Lee has found every opportunity to celebrate too the work of other people: photographers, historians, scientists, novelists. “Margaret runs St. Anthony’s,” she explains as we make our way toward St. Giles, a broad street that has a monument to Protestant martyrs at one end and a pub where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien used to meet at the other. “And she is a brilliant historian.”

The friendly cyclist, I discover later, is the author of a major recent book on the First World War and along with Lee is one of eight women heads of the forty Oxford colleges that make up the centuries-old university. What strikes me about this sidewalk encounter is the lightness with which these two eminent scholars wear their erudition and their status, like the most comfortable of university gowns.

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