Baroness Shirley Williams visited Somerville on Friday to open the Brittain-Williams Room, unveil her portrait, and deliver a talk on the life of her mother Vera Brittain, renowned for her memoir of personal tragedy during the First World War, Testament of Youth (published in 1933) and subsequently well known as a writer, peace campaigner and as a leading feminist.
The portrait of Lady Williams now hangs in the Brittain-Williams Room, which spans the full width of the Wolfson Building, enclosing the western end of the College quad.
Williams, an alumna of Somerville College and the first woman to chair the University of Oxford Labour Club, started her parliamentary life as a Labour MP and served as Secretary of State for Education in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet before becoming a founding member of the Social Democratic Party, and the first SDP Member of Parliament. She later served as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and also became a professor of Politics at Harvard. She is the author of several books, including the 2009 publication Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams.
In her talk, Lady Williams described Vera Brittain’s time at Somerville, and the disapproval she met with when, in 1915, she left the college in order to work as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Vera Brittain returned to Somerville to complete her studies after the war.
Shirley Williams ended by recounting the extreme opposition experienced by her mother following the 1944 publication of her booklet, Massacre by Bombing, which criticised the saturation (or ‘carpet’) bombing of German cities in World War Two as both excessively destructive and strategically ineffective.
The Principal, Alice Prochaska, welcomed Baroness Williams and referred to her and her mother as two of the most illustrious alumnae to have attended Somerville during the past century. Although Shirley Williams’s public career needed no introduction, she reminded the audience that before becoming a famous politician, Shirley Williams had quite a career as an actress, both at Oxford, where she did too much acting for the liking of her PPE tutor, who pleaded for her to produce her essays on time, and where she figured in Isis magazine as the Isis Idol; and earlier in America during the war, when she auditioned for the film of National Velvet, coming a close second to Elizabeth Taylor.