My best teacher

21st February 2003 at 00:00
She encouraged me to argue and implied that it is all right to be bold and brave and express enthusiasms and opinions

Miss Woods was the sister of Peter Woods, the BBC newsreader, who had a rather long, lugubrious face. She didn't have a lugubrious face, she had a sweet round one, and she taught me A-level English with such passion that I blossomed.

Until I reached the sixth form I had been deeply average, so much so that Miss Williams, the very nice headmistress at Reigate county school for girls, called my parents in and said: "I do hope you're not hoping for university for Joanna, because if you are your hopes will be most surely dashed."

Miss Woods inspired in me such extraordinary enthusiasm that for S-level I wrote a long, over-excited essay about Wordsworth's "Prelude", which made Oxford and Cambridge look at me in a way they would never have contemplated before. Lower down the school I'd been quite good at English, but not outstanding, and I remember being told not to let my imagination run away with me. Miss Woods, however, encouraged me to use my imagination. She encouraged me to speak out and to argue and implied that it is all right to dare, to be bold and brave and express enthusiasms and opinions.

She had this extraordinary ability of getting you inside what you were studying. For instance, with King Lear she would make us visualise why Lear was behaving as he did and the jealousy the elder daughters would have felt for his adoration of Cordelia. She made us read Shakespeare aloud and took us on theatre trips. We saw Paul Robeson and Mary Ure in Othello at Stratford, and a very young Judi Dench as Juliet at the Old Vic.

I can remember getting very excited about English classes. Miss Woods was probably in her fifties then, a spinster with a precise, old-fashioned delivery. I visualise her as being plump and buttoned into unremarkable grey flannel suits - but there was an inner fire. She made me, and everyone in the class, feel special.

I started writing huge adolescent novels when I was 14. I wrote furtively and endlessly in notebooks and nobody was allowed to see them, and they remain under lock and key. Not until I was pregnant with my first daughter, who is now 35, did I write my first adult novel. Miss Woods's attitude that there is no such thing as an ordinary life or a dull person was seminal in my growth as a novelist.

Another influential teacher was Miss Walters, who taught Latin. I was terrible at it, but she was very persevering. I longed to be good at Latin.

I think if I'd got her going on Catullus or Virgil it would have released her passion. I think, like Miss Woods, there was a banked fire within. I think, too, that if the curriculum had permitted her to teach me Greek we would have done much better together.

I had enormous respect for both women's intelligence. There was a kind of dignity in the classroom then; teachers weren't trying to be your mates.

They were there because of the distinction of their minds and their commitment to imparting what was in their minds with a degree of stoicism and unselfishness which is rare now.

When I got to Oxford my moral and English tutor was Rachel Trickett, who rose to be principal of St Hugh's. She was absolutely the most charismatic teacher you could imagine. There was also an extraordinary, very sophisticated Polish woman called Mrs Bedronovska who taught Chaucer and gave my tutorial partner and me glasses of sherry.

It is an enormous regret that I never expressed my incredible gratitude to my teachers. It is only years afterwards that you realise how much you owe to someone as generous and inspirational as they were.

Novelist Joanna Trollope was talking to THE STORY SO FAR

1943 Born in Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire

1955-61 Reigate county school for girls

1962-65 Oxford University

1965-67 Works in information and research department of Foreign Office

1967-69 Teaches English at Farnham girls' grammar school, Surrey

1974 First book, Eliza Stanhope, published

1992 First number one bestseller, The Rector's Wife, stays at the top for a year

1994 The Rector's Wife adapted for TV

1996 Awarded the OBE

2002 Appointed deputy lieutenant of Gloucestershire

February 2003 Girl from the South published in paperback by Black Swan

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