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Stawell, Florence Melian (1869–1936)

by Gilbert Murray

from Times (London)

Miss Florence Melian Stawell, who died at Oxford on Tuesday at the age of 69, was perhaps the most remarkable member of a remarkable family.

Her father, Sir William Foster Stawell, after a degree at Dublin, went from the Irish Bar to Melbourne, and there became the first Attorney-General and later the first Chief-Justice, of the new State of Victoria. Her brother, Sir Richard, a doctor of singular acuteness and charm, was to have presided over the International Medical Congress at Melbourne, but died a few months before it met. One of her sisters married “Rolf Boldrewood”, author of one of the few Australian classics, “Robbery Under Arms.” Melian Stawell was born in Melbourne on May 2, 1869, and after two years at the University of Melbourne, where she showed her special devotion to Greek and philosophy, entered at Newnham College, Cambridge, in May term, 1889. She was placed in Class I, Division I, in the Classical Tripos of 1892 and stayed up a fourth year but did not take Part II of the Tripos.

Essentially she was one of those in whom “The fiery soul … fretted the fragile body to decay And o’er informed the tenement of clay.” For a year, 1894-95, she was a classical don at Newnham, and then had to resign on the grounds of health, and lived most of her life in London, doing such literary work as her strength permitted, often in collaboration with friends. With Lowes Dickinson she wrote an important work on Faust, to which she contributed a translation. With F. S. Marvin she wrote abbreviated translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which many Greekless boys have read and reread with avidity. She also gave criticism and help on philosophical subjects to Andrew Bradley. She published a verse translation of the Iphigenia in Aulis, with a preface by Gilbert Murray, and contributed a volume on “The Growth of International Thought” (1929) to the Home University Library. After the war she worked for the League of Nations Union in London.

Her later years were largely devoted to a valiant and most ingenious effort at interpreting the Minoan Script, which she assumed to be written in Greek. One of her best books was “Homer and the Iliad” (1909), written with that delicacy of literary feeling which marked all her work, and proving that the final reconciliation in Book XXIV was essential to the plot of the whole poem – as it now stands – and not by any means an inorganic addition. This book was an important step towards the concordat of “Separatists” and “Unitarians” now generally accepted, based on the recognition that a remaniement of old material may well be a creative artistic unity.

No-one who knew Miss Stawell could fail to be impressed by her vivid interest in people and things, her courage under pain and bad health, the keenness of her intellectual life, and the impetuosity of her intellectual life.

Original publication

  • Times (London), 11 June 1936, p 18

Other Obituaries for Florence Melian Stawell

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Citation details

Gilbert Murray, 'Stawell, Florence Melian (1869–1936)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 September 2020.

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