Sunday 10 July 2016

Goodbye to My Mother the Indexer

A forlorn week in which my mother died. She was ninety and had been ill for some months. But it has knocked me sideways.

My Grandmother & mother in 1926
Brenda Mary Henderson Hall was born into a cheerless haute-bourgeois Scottish family. An isolated only child, she struggled with her unfeeling father and depressive mother Edith, who eventually committed suicide in the 1960s. But my mother’s gutsy response to this early domestic misery was to avoid replicating it at all costs. 

This is not to say that one part of her did not remain, for me at least, closed off and mystifying. There were things about her background she flatly refused to discuss. What was admirable was the way she hurled herself into wifehood and motherhood, having four children and nine grandchildren on whom she lavished smiles and delicious meals, always with the fullest-fat ingredients.  

She was an old-fashioned Scottish Liberal to the core. She was furious when she appeared in a novel called The Cellar at the Top of the Stairs written by an alleged friend of mine. He had modelled its classically educated detective Ethel on his psychedelic impressions of me.  He portrayed Ethel’s mother as a keen flower arranger (which she was) but also as a supporter of the Conservative Party (which was unthinkable).

May 2016 in Hospital
Her death has come as I struggle to make the index for an OUP feminist history book I'm co-editing with Rosie Wyles, Women Classical Scholars: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly. My mother would have revelled in the subject-matter.

I have no idea how to make an index beyond word-searching proper names, and find myself sobbing all over the pdf. She was a world-class professional indexer and is no longer sitting by her computer at the end of the phone. From my first book in 1989 to Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris just two years ago, my mother created brilliant, detailed, thematic, conceptual, intellectually sophisticated and unbelievably useful indexes to almost every book I have published, especially most of the string of collaborative volumes which have come out of the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama at Oxford.

Prizewinning Index!
She was the Best Indexer of Humanities books ever. She won a National Prize Commendation for the sophisticated research tool which is her index to the enormous Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914 which I co-authored with Fiona Macintosh in 2005. Mum transformed a monster volume crammed with wildly unfamiliar data into a usable document enhanced by an index of intellectual and aesthetic beauty.

In honour of her I always comment on the quality of indexes in books I review. I hate the mediocrity of the one I'm failing now to compile. She was correct that nobody should index their own books. Like the insightful indexer Claire Minton in Kurt Vonnegut’s Hiroshima novel Cat’s Cradle (1963), she could psychoanalyse any author who indexed their own book just by looking at the concepts they chose to feature.
Commendation for Wheatley Medal

She was many things to many people, but in adulthood I forged a new collegial bond with her in discussing the minutiae of dating conventions and sub-headings. I doubt if her indexing will feature much in other funeral tributes. So this is my way of saying thanks, mum, and good-bye.


  1. My dear Edith,

    I still find myself sobbing over my pdfs when I think of my mum who died nearly two years ago. Your mother must have been a remarkable woman; and I am sure that she was very proud of you, for you are a remarkable woman too.
    My deepest sympathies go out to you and your family.

  2. Dear E. K.
    Thank you for your kind words in reaction to the Edithorial - you should know here that I am Edith's "big" (i.e. elder) brother, and I am only too happy to set on public record in this forum that our mother, Brenda Mary, was indeed a remarkable woman. But I can reassure everyone who may read this blog that among the numerous tributes which have rightly been offered, Mum's contributions to scholarship have by no means been neglected.