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A tribute to Elizabeth Warren

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Elizabeth Schafer is Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway. Her work focuses on Shakespeare in production; women’s theatre work; Australian drama and theatre; and Caroline playwright Richard Brome. In this guest post, she pays tribute to her secondary school teacher and the influence that she had on Prof. Schafer’s own personal and professional journey. 

Elizabeth Warren, who died late last year, was an extraordinary Woman in Classics, with a particular passion for teaching Greek. From 1969 onwards, Elizabeth taught Greek, Latin, Ancient History and Classical Civilisation in a wide range of educational contexts including Bristol University and the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT) Greek summer courses at Bryanston school, Blandford Forum.

I first met Elizabeth when she joined the staff of King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, in the mid 1970s. She looked like no other teacher I’d ever met: tall, willowy, with Pre-Raphaelite yellow hair and phenomenal reserves of energy. As my Latin and Greek teacher she helped me navigate Catullus, Virgil, Livy, Homer and Thucydides, but she was also my form teacher for one year, concerned and supportive – often with a twinkle in her eye – as 24 teenagers over-shared their problems. Meanwhile in Latin classes she tactfully steered discussions of Catullus’ poetry, sensitive to her pupils’ different levels of worldly experience, and understanding. She led us through the newly introduced Cambridge Latin course, collapsing with laughter at the howls of protests that erupted when we found out that the irritating Quintus had survived the eruption of Vesuvius, along with boring Grumio, when clearly poor Melissa should have been the one to escape.

Elizabeth’s confidence that girls could achieve what they wanted intellectually was inspirational. Setbacks became challenges, mistakes became learning. She told memorable stories of her solo travel adventures; one came back to me as, around 35 years ago, I was interrailing around Europe and my (very slow) train stopped at Trasimeno. Elizabeth had enlivened Livy’s account of the battle of Lake Trasimeno by telling us how she had once, in her enthusiasm for seeing the site of the battle, jumped off the train at Trasimeno and set off to explore. What she found was very little lake, squadrons of mosquitoes and that there wasn’t another train for days.

My entire class was also convinced that when Elizabeth, aged 20, had married Peter Warren, a research fellow at Corpus Christi, in 1966, they had eloped to Gretna Green. So when Elizabeth brought Peter into school to deliver a sixth form general knowledge lecture on archaeology, there was great interest in seeing this romantic figure. I was entrusted with Peter’s slides, stacked neatly in a carousel. I promptly dropped the lot (I still feel mortified about this). Peter and Elizabeth were totally unfazed and years later when I read Elizabeth’s ‘Memories of Myrtos’ in Aegean Archaeology, I realised why. Archaeologists are used to dealing with stuff scattered all over the floor. What really impressed me, however, as Peter lectured from his unpredictably sequenced slides, illustrating Early Bronze Age Crete and the discovery of the Goddess of Myrtos, was his emphasis on how pivotal Elizabeth had been to the success of the excavations during the two seasons in 1967 and 1968. She managed food and accommodation with no electricity, drains, rubbish collection, or tarmac in 44 degrees centigrade. She also helped carry out study seasons after the excavations had finished, drawing and tracing vases and small objects for subsequent publications.

Elizabeth instilled a passion for the Classics in me, and I continued with Latin as part of my London University English degree, taking an option in the  Classical Background to English Literature which included translating a significant amount of Senenca’s Medea. I lectured on Greek tragedy at La Trobe University and I put Greek drama on the first year core Drama course at Royal Holloway. I love working with the APGRD, and all that Seneca paid off when I was researching Elizabeth Cary and her neo-classical dramaturgy.

Although some of Elizabeth’s achievements were conventional – mayor for five years and deputy mayor for two – Elizabeth’s kind of brilliance, her ability to engage, interest and inspire students was of the sort that can easily be undervalued. When she left KEHS, her then form missed her so much that they hired a bus to go and see her (the catering experience in Myrtos probably came in handy that day). But for me, the most telling tribute to her came from a friend and class mate, Susan Clarke, who was no Classicist and who was ready to drop Latin as soon as she could:

For someone who was really only good at maths and science I remember her lessons being a safe and comfortable place and her making Latin a fun subject.

So vale, Elizabeth, and thank you.

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