Obituary of Derek Jarrett: Radical Schoolmaster and Historian





Tim Heald, in the London Independent (April 1, 2004):

DEREK JARRETT was best known to the world at large for his definitive four-volume edition of Horace Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of King George III, for a series of rigorously researched comparative studies of 18th- century England and France, and for his thoughtful and combative reviews in The New York Review of Books.

For a privileged few, however, he will be remembered as a mesmerising schoolteacher at Sherborne School in the 1950s and 1960s. Jarrett's very presence in this ancient and deeply conventional establishment was somewhat baffling even to small boys not much interested in Gibbon and Macaulay. The head of the history department was so obviously not part of the public- school mafia of muscular Christians who had served King and Country during the Second World War and had now settled in a serenely beautiful town in north Dorset to teach cricket, rugby and execrable French.

His appearance, saturnine with a dramatic black widow's peak, an expression of sardonic detachment, blue-ish Jean-Paul Belmondo chin, and definitely no club or old school tie, marked him out from his colleagues. Whereas most of the other masters seemed to have commanded battalions or destroyers he had done his National Service, uncommissioned, in the RAF, which he had loathed.

He had read Modern History at Keble College, Oxford, and then wrote a BLitt thesis which was the basis for a book, published in 1973 as The Begetters of Revolution: England's involvement with France, 1759-1789. Its underlying theme was, in his own words, that "politics in England and France during these 30 years were too closely interwoven for the history of either country to be intelligible on its own". This passionately held belief that you could not understand one country and its revolutions without understanding the other's and, moreover, that the entangled destiny of France and England was about "attraction as well as repulsion" and that "in some respects the two countries were partners rather than rivals" was fundamental to his view of European history.

He was lured to Sherborne by a headmaster who was apparently determined to overthrow the essentially reactionary and philistine atmosphere so devastatingly portrayed by Alec Waugh in The Loom of Youth. Jarrett was told that there would be changes and that the history department would be at the cutting edge. This would not be easy. Only a year or so before Jarrett's arrival, David Sheppard, later an England cricketer and Bishop of Liverpool, was prevented from studying sixth-form history on the grounds that all the masters teaching the subject were "Communists".

To his pupils Jarrett was radical (though never a Communist), exciting, dangerous and, above all, stimulating. His teaching methods were more like those of an Oxford don than an old- fashioned schoolmaster. He liked to hand out such sophisticated essay marks as "alpha gamma" or "beta query alpha"; he took an unfashionable pleasure in informed argument; and he prepared his university scholarship candidates with the enthusiasm and skill of a racehorse trainer entering for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Many of his sixth-formers won Oxbridge awards and it was noticeable that even famous historians such as Christopher Hill at Balliol who used to protest that most of their undergraduates would have been easier to teach if they came up never having done any history would make an exception for proteges of Jarrett.

The prizes were glittering but the rewards proved illusory. In 1964 after a prolonged battle with the Sherborne old guard there was an indignity too far when a Jarrett article was banned from the school magazine and he went off, deeply disillusioned, to Goldsmiths' College in London, where he was based for the rest of his academic life.


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