Celestria Parfit

Culture could not survive without such austere archivists

Arty Types

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

You might not think that here in the third decade of the twenty-first century there was anyone left in the world like Celestria Parfitt, but nevertheless there she is: an austere, unmarried, elderly woman, daughter of a long-dead baronet, with a hard grey eye and a hairstyle like a 1920s dowager, who for the last 30 years has overseen the archive of one of the smaller Oxford colleges.

It was a very long time ago that Celestria — “Miss Parfitt” to her colleagues — first put her aquiline nose into the front quadrangle of St Bede’s. Mrs Thatcher was in her first term then, Lord Fawning, the current warden, the most juvenile of junior research fellows, and Celestria’s monthly salary was remitted to her in the form of a Coutts & Co. cheque. 

If a great deal of water has flowed under the bridge in the fellows’ garden since these far-off days, then Celestria’s role in the running of the college has reached well-nigh legendary status. Curiously, the legend has nothing to do with her efficiency and the briskness of her personal manner (although these are considerable), but rests entirely on the inflexibility of her professional approach.

The St Bede’s collections are not extensive, yet amid the row of medieval psalters and some court papers left behind by Charles I in the 1640s are a shelf of box-files relating to the inter-war era poet, Hugo Lazenby. 

To suggest, as scholars sometimes do, that their highlight is a series of immensely revealing, if not downright compromising letters sent to the wife of one of his great literary rivals, is the merest speculation, as for the last two decades Celestria has barred the door to practically every researcher bent on examining them. A Harvard professor with a commission to write Lazenby’s biography was absolutely forbidden to consult the archive and messrs Faber & Faber’s plans for a Collected Letters have been treading water since the millennium.

It was the same with the Malahide Papers, a vast collection of diaries belonging to a former alumnus who had provided medical advice to T.S. Eliot in the 1940s. It might be thought, on the strength of these manoeuvrings, that Celestria is simply an interfering bureaucrat, drunk on the exercise of petty administrative power. 

Nothing could be further from the case. As she frequently explains, Dr Malahide’s diaries describe a number of visits to small children who may possibly still be alive, and it is the archivist’s duty to ensure that their confidentiality is maintained. Meanwhile, the rumour that Hugo Lazenby’s mistress was in fact her maternal great-aunt may be dismissed as the merest tittle-tattle.

It goes without saying that St Bede’s thinks very highly of Celestria

It goes without saying that St Bede’s thinks very highly of Celestria, who, in any discussion of her duties, is fond of representing them as a kind of sacred trust. Lord Fawning won’t hear of her retirement, and there is even talk of giving the old gorgon an honorary fellowship. For the moment, Hugo Lazenby’s adventures in the Spanish Civil War will have to wait. 

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