Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Kathleen Herbert

Kathleen Herbert (b. Old Portsmouth, Hampshire, 23 November 1924; d. England, 31 July 2016)

Kathleen Herbert c. 1986
Kathleen May Herbert was the daughter of Edgar George Herbert (1899-1977), who served in the Royal Navy for many years, and his wife Kathleen, nee Bailey (1900-1968), who were married in Islington, London, in late 1923.

She was educated at Hendon County School, and matriculated at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1943. She was awarded a First in English Language and Literature in 1946. She took the Education Diploma the following year, and spent most of her career as a teacher, including time at the Gowerston Girls' Grammar School near Swansea (1948-50), the East Ham Girls' Grammar School (1950-1974), resigning when her father became incurably ill from cancer (as had her mother some years earlier). Later she took a post at St. James' Catholic High School in Edgeware. 

She heard J.R.R. Tolkien lecture for the first time in 1943, inspiring her lifelong interest in Old English lore and legendry. Herbert clearly kept up with Tolkien scholarship. When Tolkien's book of lectures from the 1930s and 1940s, Finn and Hengest, edited by Alan Bliss, were published in 1982, Herbert reviewed the volume for Mallorn, the journal of the Tolkien Society, issue 20 (September 1983). Her review shows intimate familiarity with Tolkien's fiction, including The Silmarillion (1977) and Unfinished Tales (1980), along with recent scholarship, like Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien (1977) and his edition of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981), along with T.A. Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth (1982). She found Finn and Hengest to be "a valuable and fascinating work."

Her first novel suffered from large cuts in order to be of publishable size for a small press.  It was called Lady of the Fountain (Frome, Somerset: Bran's Head Books, 1982). It is based on the medieval Welsh Arthurian romance, Owein: Chwedyl Iarlles y Ffynnawn.  She secured publication for subsequent books with the Bodley Head in London and St. Martin's Press in New York, and these were translated into several languages. First came Queen of the Lightning (1983), followed by Ghost in the Sunlight (1986). A revised version of her first novel (with a few cut parts restored), in essence a prologue to the other two, appeared as Bride of the Spear (1989). All three novels are set in the sixth and seventh centuries in the northern kingdoms of Britain. Queen of the Lightning won the annual Historical Novel Prize given in memory of Georgette Heyer. In 1984 Herbert retired completely from teaching, and was remembered fondly as an inspirational teacher.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, she wrote another novel, Moon in Leo, but though her publisher the Bodley Head thought it her best, they declined it for economic reasons. The manuscript languished for years. Herbert turned to writing a number of nonfiction books, on specialized historical topics, for a small press, Anglo-Saxon Books.  These book are not scholarship per se (the scholar Carole M. Cusack noted in 2011 that "Herbert aims to raise popular awareness of Anglo-Saxon and British Celtic culture, but despite her knowledge and love of the subject fails to meet academic standards of probity"). The first was Spellcraft: Old English Heroic Legends (1993); it was retitled more simply as English Heroic Legends when reissued in 2000.  Other titles include the small volumes Looking for the Lost Gods of England (1994), a transcription of a talk given to The English Companions in March 1994; and Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society (1997), another talk given to the same organization in the winter of 1994-95. Some extracts from Looking for the Lost Gods of England appear under the title "The Early English" in the collection Our Englishness (2000), edited by Tony Linsell.

On 20 May 1991, Herbert gave a long and interesting interview to Raymond H. Thompson of The Camelot Project about her writings and her interests.  It can be read in full here. Here she comments on Tolkien: 
I was one of Tolkien's students, although I must admit that as far as I was concerned at that time, he was the man who lectured on Beowulf and The Fight at Finsburgh. Reading The Lord of the Rings, however, is like reading The Iliad. Just as every other epic poem seems a little bit pale by comparison, so every other fantasy novel seems to be watered-down Tolkien. He was a tremendous influence on me—linguistically, I would say, more than artistically—because of his utter integrity, his refusal to pass any word without a full consideration of its meaning and its history. Though I loved The Lord of the Rings, to me he is the editor of Finn and Hengest. That is the supreme experience for me, reading his work on that text. It opened a window into a whole period in the life of the English.
Herbert had a massive stroke in April 1994, and had a long decline physically and mentally through her remaining years. A close friend of more than four decades, Connie Jensen, founded the small press Trifolium Books in order to publish Herbert's novel Moon in Leo, set in the time of the Restoration of King Charles II in the seventeenth century. It came out in 2011. A short story found in her papers, "The Once and Future Queen," appeared as an ebook in 2013. Since 2013 Trifolium Books has announced several times the imminent republication of Bride of the Spear, with additional material and notes, but as of this writing (May 2020) it still hasn't appeared.

Another fairly large work left by Herbert (incomplete) was to have been titled Ghosts of Camelot. Herbert discussed it at the end of her 1991 Camelot Project interview referenced above. It concerned the use of the Arthurian legend in fourteenth century England, in which an Oxford scholar and poet sees a copy of the manuscript of Layamon's Brut. The main character of the novel was a skeptical Welsh girl. Herbert wrote some "50,000 words, and left lots of research notes, plot lines and incidents" according to an editor at Trifolium in 2013 who hoped to complete the work. 

Kathleen Herbert died in her sleep on 31 July 2016.

Note: This Kathleen Herbert should not be confused with the British poet Kathleen [Valerie] Herbert (1905-1996), author of Here and Now: Selected Poems 1928-1988 (1989) and other works, including her first book, No Return (1937), which was published under her maiden name, K.V. Chevis.

*I'm grateful to Kate O'Donnell, Assistant Archivist at Somerville College, Oxford, for providing information.


  1. Happy that you are posting more regularly nowadays. Always a pleasure to read your posts.

  2. Thanks! Regularity is nice, but (sadly) too often affected by outside things beyond one's control!

  3. I came across Queen of the Lightning many years ago because at the time St. Martin's was a reliable source of good historical fiction (they published Pamela Belle too, whose books I love). I thought it was excellent and have a paperback copy somewhere. I read her other two but don't remember them as well. I have a weird recollection that someone tried to interest me in a later book when I worked in publishing but don't have any records from then.

  4. I met Kathleen Herbert in the eighties when I was a member of the Oxford Arthurian Society and she was an absolute hoot. I am sorry to say that until now, I hadn't read any of her work. I am now halfway through English Heroic Legends and it's a fantastic retelling of stories that I had not come across before - despite my Arthurian interests, I knew little of Old English stories other than Beowulf.

    1. Thanks for writing. I wonder if there are any recordings of her talks at such meetings. They would be interesting!

  5. Gosh- this have me a pang of guilt! Not that I have been idle- I have been much occupied by my local theatre for several years now- but Bride of the Spear is so nearly ready. I really must nail myself down to proof reading the last twenty or so pages, and launch it. Thank you for this appreciative bio of dear Kathleen!

  6. Thanks for writing. Good luck with the new edition of Bride of the Spear!