Eminent academic devoted years to Somerville College

Oxford Mail: Dr Roaf in 1979 Dr Roaf in 1979

A SOMERVILLE College academic and linguist who held a long association with the establishment, has died aged 96.

Dr Christina Roaf was an emeritus fellow in Italian at the college and devoted years of her life to teaching there, later generously supporting it with funds and exhibitions.

During the Second World War she was part of an eccentric group, along with a philosopher and a poet, put together by British officials to produce a guide to Italy for Allied troops tasked with invading the country. Unfortunately, the Allied forces landed on the continent before the work was complete.

At her funeral at St Giles’ Church on June 30, her stepson, Michael Roaf said: “Christina was one of the kindest people I have ever known. She had an immense capacity for enjoyment and always looked on the bright side of life.”

A foundation fellow of Somerville, Dr Roaf was also a member of the vice-chancellor’s circle which recognises benefactors who have provided generous support.

Evelyn Christina Mervyn Drake was born on November 17, 1917 to parents Mervyn Drake, an early electrical engineer, and Vera Waddington, an artist.

For most of her childhood she travelled Europe with her mother, who was largely responsible for her education. She and her younger sister Veronica were taught to speak foreign languages and life in England was often interrupted each year by visits to schools in Italy, France and Germany.

She read modern languages, speaking French and Italian, at Somerville and gained a first in 1937.

During the Second World War she worked for the Political Warfare Executive, a body established to spread British propaganda among troops, on a project to put together a guide to Italy for the Allies.

The team assembled for the task included philosopher Raymond Klibansky, alphabet expert David Diringer, whose handwriting was ironically “illegible”, and poet Stephen Spender. Unfortunately, the Allies landed in Italy before the group’s guide was finished.

After the war, Dr Roaf worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, establishing libraries in Italy for the use of Italian journalists.

She was first a researcher in the British Consulate in Milan in 1945 and then at the embassy in Rome in 1946.

In 1949 she returned to Oxford and began teaching. She also began working on her doctorate, a two-volume biographical study of the 16th century Florentine scholar and diplomat Bartolomeo Cavalcanti.

Though she stopped teaching in 1952, there were many interruptions to her doctorate. But she finally completed it in 1959 and copies still exist in the college library.

Dr Roaf went to Leeds to work as an assistant lecturer in the university’s department of Italian in 1952, but after two years she came back to the University of Oxford, also lecturing Italian.

On June 30, 1955, she married widower Douglas Roaf at St Giles’ Church and afterwards their reception was held in Somerville.

Mr Roaf had five young children and they lived in Woodstock Road for many years.

Holidays were taken abroad in European countries such as Italy and Malta, as well as British spots along the Oxford Canal and the Norfolk Broads.

In 1965 she became a college fellow at Somerville and published her first major academic work, a collection of letters written by Cavalcanti, in 1967.

Dr Roaf became a senior research fellow in 1979. At one point she was also the college wine steward.

She retired in 1985 and was made an emeritus fellow, but kept up her involvement with the college and also over the years started a number of charitable causes for art exhibitions, Italian books in the library and the teaching of modern languages.

Christina Roaf died on June 18, while living in St Luke’s care home in Oxford, after a period of failing health. Her husband died in 1996.

A memorial service will be held for her at Somerville College’s chapel on Saturday, October 25.



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