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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Venetia Newall (1935-2017)

Thursday, September 21, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson
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By Elizabeth (Libby) Tucker (Binghamton University) — 

Venetia Newall was born in London in 1935 and passed away there in April of 2017. Throughout her long and accomplished life, she made many contributions to British and American folklore studies. Her mother was British, but her father was American. During World War II she stayed with her grandmother in the United States, who helped her learn about American culture. Later, feeling equally at home in England and America, she became a highly valued member and Fellow of the American Folklore Society.

Venetia flew from London to America on the Concorde, spoke many languages, and had friends and associates all over the world. She had a deeply kind heart, fought for social justice, and supported her fellow folklorists in numerous ways. Besides all of these endearing qualities, she had a wicked wit and loved to have fun with fellow folklorists. Although she was primarily a leader of the British Folklore Society, she had a special fondness for AFS, as memories of her participation in early meetings show.  

At AFS’s annual meeting in New Orleans in 1975, the hotel where we were all staying caught fire; an alarm blared and people poured out into the street, worrying about what would happen next. Venetia, however, didn’t seem worried at all. Hurrying out of the hotel to have dinner on Bourbon Street with her friend Dick Dorson, she laughed and told several of us not to worry. We were in New Orleans, one of the best cities in the world, with our good friends! All would be well. And of course it was.

In 1971 Venetia won the Chicago Folklore Prize for her masterwork, An Egg at Easter. Her research on Easter eggs began when she was traveling through central Europe with her husband to write articles for the Times of London. Talking with market women who were selling beautifully decorated eggs for the celebration of Easter, she thought about the eggs’ origins. Later, while living in Asia, she noticed that eggs often appeared as offerings at temples. How, she wondered, did ritual and symbolism explain the eggs’ enduring meaning? Her book, which discusses creation myths, sacrifice, magic, witchcraft, fertility, purity, resurrection, and many other aspects of egg traditions, answers that question in marvelous depth.

Venetia’s other publications include her edited book The Witch Figure (1973), which sheds light upon the complex history and interpretation of witchcraft. Newly issued as The Witch in History (1996), this book has continued to be a valuable resource for scholars. Her delightful book Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts, first published in 1971, was reissued in 2008. Since An Egg at Easter was reprinted in 1989, she continues to have a lively presence on amazon.com.

As a lecturer at the University of London, Venetia inspired students and helped them find resources for their research. Eventually, deciding that her students and folklore colleagues needed an internationally based journal, she founded International Folklore Review in 1981. This journal, which continued through 1989, published significant articles from around the world and helped young folklorists become known as serious scholars.

It is important to recognize how much Venetia contributed to the Folklore Society in England. From 1967 to 1980 she served as the Folklore Society’s Honorary Secretary, and from 1985 to 1987 she served as its President; afterwards she became Vice-President. Since she excelled at drawing people together, she succeeded in organizing two ambitious conferences: the Anglo-American Folklore Conference at Ditchley Park (1969) and the Folklore Society Centenary at Royal Holloway College (1978).

It is also important to remember how hard Venetia worked for social justice. As a member of the Wolfenden Society, she helped to facilitate reform of laws regarding LGBT rights. She had become interested in this subject after the suicide of a gay friend who had been blackmailed. She also worked toward improvement in women’s rights, as well as the rights of other stigmatized groups of people.

Venetia was famous for her beautiful Christmas cards. Every year she printed a card with a full-color photo of one of the icons in her collection of sacred art. In addition to the photo, she included four pages of erudite commentary that traced the art object back to early times. Her card in 2002, for example, explained the early Judeo-Christian ritual of the presentation of the first-born male child and mentioned a dog-headed Saint Christopher. Those of us who were lucky enough to receive her Christmas cards will always treasure them.

When Venetia welcomed American folklore friends to London, she was always gracious and kind. It was a treat to visit her flat in Sloane Terrace Mansions, which was filled with gorgeous Easter eggs, icons, and other works of art. Occasionally one of the eggs that had been hollowed out would explode suddenly, creating a moment of drama. Venetia took her guests out to eat in wonderful restaurants that served purple pheasant and other special dishes. She was always truly interested in her friends’ families, research subjects, and other pursuits.

Feeling sad about the loss of Venetia, we can find comfort in knowing that she had an Easter egg and an icon on her casket during her requiem mass. We can also picture Venetia stepping out on Bourbon Street at AFS, ready for an evening of fun. It’s all right, she would tell us; all will be well. What is remembered, lives.


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