Mavis Batey is, I am sure, a name that will be familiar to many of you, especially those who love, as I do, her 1996 book, Jane Austen and the English Landscape. Her death, at the age of 92 was sadly announced last week.
This book truly was revelatory and, for me, it opened up another aspect of Jane Austen’s world to discover in detail : the landscape, and, in particular, that very 18th century aristocratic pursuit of changing it. Or improving it, as the practice was known. Mavis Batey’s beautifully written and illustrated book gives detailed explanations of how Jane Austen studied the appearance of natural and man-made landscape, and, importantly, how to critically view both. Austen’s knowledge of the subject is shown to have been a vital part of her compositions, especially in Mansfield Park. The book demonstrated exactly how Jane Austen’s critical attitude to landscape played an important part in her personal reading habits, and how her attitude toward “improvements” and “improvers” differed from that of the richer sections of her family. One of my favourite books about Jane Austen, it lives on my bedroom library shelves.
Mavis Batey’s knowledge of this subject was such that she acted as an advisor on gardens and landscape to the BBC for their popular 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.
The study of the historical landscape was an important part of Mavis Batey’s life and living with her husband in Capability Brown’s park at Nuneham Courtney, after the war, was the spur. She played a vital part in the park’s restoration. She was a prominent and very valued member of the Garden History Society for many years. She became Honorary Secretary of the Society in 1971, a post she held until 1985 when she was elected President. She was President for 15 years, and, during her time with the Society, led its campaign on the plight of urban parks. She worked with the Historic Buildings Council to instigate the formal recording of historic gardens which, eventually, led to the publication of English Heritage’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England in 1983. Her achievements in this field were recognised by The Royal Horticultural Society which awarded her the prestigious Veitch Memorial Medal in 1985, and in 1987 she was appointed MBE for services to the preservation and conservation of historic gardens.
Mavis Batey also shared her love for the subject through by her many publications. Other than her Jane Austen book, my favourites include The Regency Garden published by Shire and especially, The English Garden Tour, which she co-authored with David Lambert.
These achievements would seem enough for one lifetime. But in 1998 it emerged that Mavis Batey had, during the Second World War, been part of the vital war work at Bletchley Park, as a codebraker. She had been recruited to serve in the Government Code and Cypher School at the outbreak of the war in 1939 and in 1940 began to work at Bletchley. At Bletchley teams studied and devised methods to enable the Allied forces to decipher the military codes and ciphers that secured German, Japanese, and other Axis nation’s communications. Her work there included working on Dilwyn Knox’s team deciphering messages sent by the Italian Naval Enigma machine. In 1941 she managed to decode a message which read “ Today’s the day minus three” and after much hard work she decoded an exceptionally long message which detailed the Italian plan to intercept a British naval convoy en route from Egypt to Greece. The British success under the command of Admiral Collingwood in the resulting Battle of Matapan ensured that the Italians never sailed close to the Royal Navy again until their surrender in 1943.
It was at Bletchley that she met and married her husband, Keith, also a mathematician and fellow codebreaker.
They married in 1942 after having worked together deciphering codes. Keith Batey died in 2010, and together they had a son and two daughters.
Their work at Bletchley remained a secret until 1974 when wartime information was declassified. In the intervening years we have become, almost daily, astonished at the stories that have emerged of the work undertaken here, especially regarding the Enigma machines, and of the advances in computing that resulting from it. In 1999 Mavis Batey appeared in the Channel 4 television series, Station X , describing her work there. In 2010 she eventually wrote a book on her code master, Dilwyn Knox, Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas:
Here is a link to a fascinating video of Mavis Batey talking about her book, which I’m sure you will enjoy. Her intelligence and humour, not to mention her modesty, are apparent.
Her love of landscape became united with her work at Bletchley when she created a garden trail there to commemorate the Anglo-American special relationship in intelligence sharing during World War II, which started at Bletchley Park during the war and which still continues today. This was opened in August 2004 by Minister David T. Johnson of the American Embassy. The American Garden Trail starts at the giant sequoia tree which can be seen directly in front of the mansion, and which was planted in the Victorian era. The tree is better known, perhaps, as the Californian Redwood and is, of course, one of the state emblems of California. During the war the tree played an important part at Bletchley: an aerial was placed at the top of the tree so that it could transmit radio signals for Station X. The Trail then continues through the grounds of Bletchley featuring many other horticultural emblems of the American states, including a cactus which is one of the state emblems for Arizona and a lilac tree representing New Hampshire.
Mavis Batey died on the 12th November, aged 92. What an amazing life: well lived, in a gracious, modest and intelligent way, and most importantly, with humour, as evidenced by her reaction, below, to being recruited to join the code breakers:
So I thought, great. This is going to be an interesting job, Mata Hari, seducing Prussian officers. But I don’t think either my legs or my German were good enough because they sent me to the Government Code & Cipher School.
I can only imagine that Jane Austen would have approved of her, her writings, wartime work and attitude.