Audrey Donnithorne, one of the true greats, died today at the age of 97. When she was two years old, she was kidnapped by bandits along with her parents in Sichuan and promptly disarmed her captors (but, sadly, only metaphorically) by chatting away to them in Chinese. This incident (which ended happily when all the hostages were released) set the pattern for the rest of Audrey’s extraordinary life.
The daughter of evangelical missionaries, Audrey grew up in Sichuan but was educated mainly in the UK. However, when World War II broke out, she knew that she had to be with her family, so, when everyone else was fleeing the continent, Audrey headed for France and, from there, sailed to China. However, as the Japanese forces advanced on Sichuan, she had to go on another incredible journey, flying out of China to India in a rickety plane that rose far above its ideal height in order to escape anti-aircraft fire.
Back in the UK, Audrey worked for the War Office where she once received a gruff phone call from Winston Churchill: “On what grounds do you refer to Myitkyina as a city?” he asked. Audrey was clearly impressed by this attention to detail on the PM’s part, though she also pointed out in her memoirs that there was, in fact, an argument to be made for her designation of Myitkyina as a city, her attention to detail certainly matching Churchill’s.
From the War Office, she moved to Somerville College, Oxford where she studied PPE, “a mish-mash of ill-assorted chunks of information, often at cross-purposes. … I left without any idea of how a firm actually works or even how to run the financial affairs of a middle-class family.” At Somerville she babysat for Elizabeth Anscombe and was a contemporary of Margaret Roberts (later Margaret Thatcher), taking over from her as College Secretary for the Conservatives. A few years later, when Margaret Roberts was out campaigning, Audrey cooked her a meal in her London flat because she couldn’t afford to take her out for a meal. I wish I could have been there to see the future Prime Minister’s reaction because, for all her many talents, Audrey was not known for her culinary expertise.
Audrey then became a highly successful academic in London, Australia and Hong Kong. Her magnum opus was China’s Economic System, a book she had to research entirely outside China itself. China may have been closed to foreigners but Audrey was not held back, hunting down crucial information in various places behind the Iron Curtain.
And so her life went on. She was in Israel when the Yom Kippur war broke out. She handed over her Australian house to Vietnamese refugees (the Boat People whom most of us knew about only from news reports), and then she retired to Hong Kong.
Except, of course, she didn’t retire at all. She did heroic work with earthquake victims and with the Church in China (she had converted to Catholicism during World War II), some of which is outlined in her memoirs, China in Life’s Foreground. Much of this story is still untold.
There is much, much more that could be said about Audrey, but I want to finish for the moment with a few comments about her extraordinary dedication to family and friends. Audrey strongly believed that the crucial role of the godmother was neglected in most discussions of the family, but she certainly never neglected her own godmotherly duties. She had one of the sharpest critical minds you could ever expect to meet and yet she was able to inspire people of every age. She will be greatly missed.