Woodham-Smith, Cecil (1896–1977)

views updated

Woodham-Smith, Cecil (1896–1977)

British biographer and historian. Name variations: (pseudonym) Janet Gordon. Born Cecil Blanche FitzGerald on April 29, 1896, in Tenby, Wales; died on March 16, 1977, in London, England; daughter of James FitzGerald (an army colonel) and Blanche Elizabeth Philipps FitzGerald; educated at the Royal School for Officers' Daughters in Bath, a French convent school, and at St. Hilda's College, Oxford; married George Ivon Woodham-Smith (an attorney), in 1928 (died 1968); children: Elizabeth Sarah Woodham-Smith; Charles James Woodham-Smith.

Selected writings:

(under pseudonym Janet Gordon) April Sky (1938); Tennis Star (1939), Just Off Bond Street (1940); (as Cecil Woodham-Smith) Florence Nightingale, 1820–1910 (1950), The Reason Why (1953), The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 (1962), Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times (1972).

Born in 1896 in Tenby, Wales, Cecil Woodham-Smith was the daughter of James FitzGerald, a British army officer of Irish descent, and Blanche Philipps FitzGerald , from Wales. Expelled from the Royal School for Officers' Daughters in Bath, England, for traveling to France without permission, Woodham-Smith then enrolled at a French convent before entering St. Hilda's College at Oxford University. She graduated in 1917, and supported herself for the next decade as a typist and copywriter for a London advertising firm. In 1928, she quit working when she married George Ivon Woodham-Smith, a prosperous attorney. She then devoted herself to caring for her two children, but when they were old enough to enter boarding school, Woodham-Smith used her new leisure time to begin writing seriously. She published three novels under the pseudonym "Janet Gordon," beginning with April Sky in 1938.

Drawn to the challenges of biography, in 1941 Woodham-Smith began research for her first nonfiction work, a life of the pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale . Published under her own name in 1950 as Florence Nightingale: 1820–1910, it was hailed as a scholarly, witty, and sympathetic work, brought Woodham-Smith considerable acclaim among critics, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Woodham-Smith continued her work on the 19th century with her next book about the British Light Brigade. The Reason Why, examining the intrigues and poor planning which sent 600 British soldiers charging into a death trap of Russian artillery forces during the Crimean War, appeared in 1953. Again Woodham-Smith earned critical and popular acclaim for her lively detail and thorough research; such was its success with scholarly readers that a television program planned as a discussion of the book, "Author Meets the Critics," had to be canceled when the producers could find no historian willing to attack the work.

Cecil Woodham-Smith, who always considered herself Irish, then turned to an investigation of the tragedy of the Irish potato famine. The result, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 (1962), remained in print for decades and is still considered the classic work on the forces that led to the death or emigration of millions of Irish men and women.

Woodham-Smith was honored in 1960 when she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire; she also received honorary doctorates from the National University of Ireland in 1964 and St. Andrews in 1965. In 1967, St. Hilda's College named her an honorary fellow; two years later, she received the A.C. Benson Medal for her contributions to British literature.

When she was widowed in 1968, Woodham-Smith lost much of her impetus and inspiration as a writer. Nevertheless, she continued researching her biography of Queen Victoria . She gained access to the archives of the Windsors, which allowed her to draw complex portraits of the queen and her family. The first volume of the planned multivolume biography was published as Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times, in 1972. Woodham-Smith did not live to complete the work, however, dying at age 80 in March 1977.


Blake, Lord, and C.S. Nicholls, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography 1971–1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Current Biography 1955. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1955.

Locher, Frances Carol, ed. Contemporary Authors. Vols. 77–80. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1979.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California