Author: John Stanley Martin
In 2003 the staff and students of University College at the University of Melbourne formerly called Women’s College, celebrated the centenary of the birth of Greta Hort, their the first principal appointed by a process of selection.1 Today, six and a half decades later, her spirit still pervades the college.
On entering University College, one is immediately confronted by Greta Hort in the form of a rather forbidding portrait in the entrance hall. Then, when one passes on out into the courtyard in its beautiful garden setting and enters the buildings on the far side, one is reminded again of the first principal by the fact that the library is named after her. Through further contact with the college and its activities one becomes aware of the Greta Hort Scholarship, which in alternate years sends a young Australian scholar to the University of Aarhus and brings a young Danish scholar to the University of Melbourne. Then at gatherings of college alumni, one can encounter a dwindling number of ageing people, whose eyes brighten at the mention of the name ‘Greta Hort’ and who can recount reminiscences of events of long ago. Even if this remarkable Danish woman was in Melbourne for just a decade, she has certainly left her mark.
Grethe Hjort, to use her original Danish name, was born in Copenhagen on 25 May 1903 to Vilhelm Hjort and Anne Margrethe, née Ulrich. The Hjorts were a typical educated middle-class family unit, her father being the government meteorologist (statsmeteorolog) and her mother an educated and well-read Danish housewife.2 Grethe was a delight to her family, and her friend of her later Australian years, Lady Derham reported that Grethe’s favourite aunt once described her as “an amenable and quiet child, who always did as she was asked in a self-controlled way.”3
The choice of school was an interesting one: the Hjorts selected N. Zahle’s School as the educational institution, which would best suit their obviously gifted daughter.4 Years later she recalled her primary and secondary alma mater with ‘happiness, warmth and some satisfaction as a very good school’5 She always spoke of the school in the possessive form – ‘Zahle’s’. Towards the end of her schooling, Grethe chose the science option and took her studenteksamen (matriculation examination) in 1922 with excellent results.
In 1923, when Grethe Hjort enrolled in a humanities course at the University of Copenhagen, she decided to concentrate on English Language and Literature. She took to her studies as a duck takes to water, and she was fascinated by the nuances of the English language and the richness of its literature. From the very outset she worked with excitement and diligence and already in 1925 (after her second year) she won the university’s highly coveted gold medal for her outstanding paper on the quartos of the first folios of two of Shakespeare’s plays. She argued that the printer had used a revised quarto for the first edition of the text. Even at this early stage of her undergraduate studies, Hjort exhibited that sharpness of intellect, which was far above that of most of her fellow students. She completed her MA in 1927 and was offered a teaching post in the English Department of the University of Copenhagen for the next two years. This, however, was not the start of a teaching career for this brilliant young Dane. Already two years earlier she had been involved in external teaching during her course in the college of interpreters in Copenhagen and continued there until 1929.
From 1927 to 1929 she conducted classes for the unemployed Danes who were keen to advance their education. Gradually Grethe became aware of the problem that in Copenhagen there were many competent teachers whose maturity and experience would give them an advantage over a young graduate. Hence she could see few prospects of an academic career in her native land. After careful consideration she decided to investigate prospects in England. She was well conscious of the fact that re-location in another country with a different educational system would necessitate further studies. After pondering on what such a move would entail, Grethe Hjort decided to move to Cambridge.
In 1929 Grethe Hjort became a research student at Newnham College, one of the two women’s colleges in Cambridge. At first she funded her own studies and board at the college. The following year she received a grant and then in 1931 she was awarded a PhD. She was fortunate that the stipulated period of three years at Cambridge was reduced to two in view of the exceptional standard of the research she had already carried out in Copenhagen before she left for England.
In 1931 Grethe Hjort moved to Girton College, the other women’s college in Cambridge, where she was appointed the Pfeiffer Research Fellow for three years. It was at this time of her life that she took out British nationality and presumably after that she was officially known as Hort, which was much easier for English-speakers to handle. But whenever she was back in Denmark, she reverted to her original name.
At Girton College Hort immersed herself in the mediaeval world. Not content to research the literature, with which she began, she went further to explore mediaeval history, theology and philosophy. Two Middle English works in particular fascinated her: Piers Plowman and The Cloud of Unknowing, both of these works introducing her to mysticism, the study of which dominated her years in Cambridge. Hort was captivated by the long poem, Piers Plowman, and her thorough investigation of it culminated in a book on the topic in 1937 entitled Piers Plowman and Contemporary Religious Thought.
In her research on mediaeval mysticism Hort received solid support of Dr Helen Wodehouse, the mistress of Girton. Together they investigated the world of the mystics and sought a key to its understanding in the then popular extra-sensory perception. Lady Derham wrote, “In latter years they carried out experiments with ESP, especially with regard to the letters they wrote to each other. They claimed that they seemed to know on the day, that a letter did arrive that it would arrive.”6 Hort’s interest in mysticism led to the publication of Sense and Thought in 1936.
During her Cambridge years Hort was involved in numerous activities, which indicted that her feet were also very much posited in this world. Even before she transferred to Cambridge, she had spent her summer months teaching in summer courses for primary teachers at the State Training College in Copenhagen. She returned to Denmark for the summer break to continue this teaching in 1930 and 1931. During term in Cambridge she supervised students of Girton and Newnham Colleges enrolled in Moral Science and English.
In the summer of 1935 Hort joined a three-month course in Institutional Management at Hopkinson House in London, a residential club for professional women. This course gave the participants a detailed knowledge of the domestic side of a residential institution. Her intention was to prepare herself for the post of sub-warden; little did she know that one day it would be of great help to her at Women’s College in Melbourne.
Australia became the scene of the third period in Hort’s adult life. Through Dr Helen Wodehouse of Girton College she heard of an advertisement of an interesting position of principal of the recently established University Women’s College in Melbourne. In 1937 this residential university college for women had been opened on the triangular site north of Ormond College after two decades of hard work of a dedicated committee and band of helpers. Miss Susie Williams, a classical scholar and former head of the Sydney Women’s College, had agreed to act as principal until a permanent appointment was made. That year the fledgling college comprised seven resident students and two non-residents. Meanwhile the College Council was undertaking the search for a principal with both high academic qualifications and administrative skills. From the outset the councillors were aware that this was no easy undertaking. Therefore, they sought the advice of Dr Helen Wodehouse of Cambridge, and she strongly recommended Greta Hort. After careful consideration, Hort applied for the position and the councillors were favourably impressed by her references. The committee in England which interviewed her was also highly impressed, and consequently, on this recommendation, Hort was named as the successful applicant, arriving in Melbourne in 1938.
From the beginning Hort made a radical resolution. She decided to run her college on lines very different from those of the other two colleges for women connected with the University of Melbourne, Janet Clarke Hall and St Mary’s Hall. She was adamant that it was not be a glorified girls’ boarding school.7 Her experience of the two women’s colleges at Cambridge was of inestimable benefit in planning the operation of University Women’s College.
When she encountered the College Council shortly after her arrival in Melbourne, Hort grasped from the beginning that some of the councillors were incapable of understanding the form she dreamed the college might take and the role that she wished that it could play. They could not see beyond the private girls’ school model and from the beginning some of the councillors were more of a hindrance than a help.
On Saturday 2 June 1938 Hort had morning tea with Raymond Priestley, the first vice-chancellor of the modern type at the University of Melbourne.8 The newly arrived principal opened her heart to him and he was totally on her wavelength. He too had unimaginative and troublesome councillors; indeed they were the cause of his resignation in the end and his return to England. The vice-chancellor and the principal chatted for an hour, during which Hort outlined her plans for University Women’s College. She summarised her proposal for an immediate extension of the college, and Raymond Priestley recorded in his diary that he thought that she was right. She discussed enthusiastically her plans for resident tutors, an improved library and other cultural and educational improvements. She admitted that she was aware that a considerable section of her Council was not sympathetic to her plans, but was more concerned with student amenities. Raymond Priestley counselled her to act cautiously and, in the case of the library, to make it the best room in the college. She explained that, whereas she thought of the institution as a ‘College’, her opponents were thinking of it rather as a ‘home’. Raymond Priestley summed up his impression of Hort and her plans in the words, “She is evidently going to be a very energetic head, and is equally likely not to have an entirely untroubled time.”9
Hort aimed to train her residents as responsible young adults by granting them a degree of freedom, unimaginable at the time in Melbourne’s other two women’s colleges, Janet Clark Hall and St Mary’s Hall, whose principals and staff watched this innovation with deep suspicion. The students were free to come and go and to have male and female friends visit them in their rooms. Diana ‘Ding’ Dyason wrote:
Nevertheless she (Hort) came with very up to date ideas on discipline. Students were to take full responsibility. Behaviour was to be completely ‘open’ until 10.00 every night, i.e. we could entertain men in our own rooms until that time. Even the most avant garde of the other Melbourne colleges at that time were limited to certain solemnly declared, open days... Under the new regime we helped ourselves to one of the numbered front door keys; entered the number in the book along with our name, destination, and time of return. On return we ‘signed off’. Last person in checked the book, and then took it with the keys to the tutor on duty. On the very rare occasions when someone was overdue that too was reported to the tutor, and the next day the delinquent was subjected to very strong social disproval by her peers... Because the system was rational (and worked well) we did not appreciate just how advanced it was.10
Lady Derham gave another perceptive insight into the way in which the college was managed by Hort:
During her time as principal, Greta Hort took a great interest in her students, especially the ones who were having difficulties in their lives. She concentrated on them a great deal, trying to untangle their troubles and interest them once again in their life and activities. She had the sad task of informing several students that they had lost their fiancés in the war, and of telling me that my father had been killed in the Canberra air disaster in 1940. She herself lost first her sister and then her mother in Denmark during the war.11
Hort was not a distant and unapproachable head of college. Elaine Chong, an overseas student from Singapore, commented that “she took the trouble to get to know us individually.”12 Again we are indebted to Lady Derham, whose account takes us back to the day-by-day routine in the college, which other former residents have later recalled with a sense of nostalgia:
In the everyday life in the college she was almost always in hall for lunch and dinner, seated in her place at the centre of the high table with the tutors and any visitors that she had invited, which often included several students. I well remember Rabbi Sanger, seated on her right, tall and imposing with his lean, dark Sephardic features lending him the look of the philosopher, which indeed he was. Then after dinner was over, students were often invited in twos and threes to have coffee with the principal in her small office-study and to discuss with her and any visitor all manner of things. Having studied philosophy, she was the college tutor for philosophy students and she gave us some very stimulating tutorials, but there were times, if I remember rightly, when her thoughts were too advanced for our efforts to grasp.13
Diana Dyason, on then other hand, had certain reservations about some aspects of Hort’s administration of the college. She wrote:
Although Greta certainly had some very good ideas and fostered high academic standards – U.W.C. (University Women’s College) achieved between two and eight exhibitions or prizes each year – most of her students have some reservations about describing her as a ‘good principal’. Indeed, during her time there were rumblings of student revolt, mostly the result of arbitrariness, use of pressure tactics, and what are best termed personality problems.14
From interviewing some older women, who were residents at University Women’s College at the time, my impression is that Ms Dyason was rather severe in her assessment, even if there were a grain of truth in her appraisal.
Lady Derham indicated that Hort found life as principal difficult at times. In 1944 she said repeatedly, “After all, I am the principal.” She understood that the proper way of treating those in authority with deference and respect. That was the way in which she had been brought up. Lady Derham suggested that she was probably having difficulty with the Council, adding, “She could be too dominating, and perhaps she had become a little autocratic and even arrogant as so often happens to those who are in some sort of authority.”15
As can be well understood, Hort was rather a lonely person in Melbourne. She confided in her friends that there was no one in Melbourne with whom she could talk about her own subject and in a letter dated 23 December 1946 she wrote that there was “no scholarship and no one in my subject”.16
There was one person with whom she could communicate, a person whom she had met in a strange way. One day while walking along Royal Parade near Trinity College, about 300 metres from the University Women’s College, she met a bedraggled woman dressed in the garb of a peasant; this encounter was the beginning of a deep friendship. Julie Moscheles, born in Prague in 1892, had been a professor of Geography at the Charles University of Prague. When the German troops marched in to Czechoslovakia, Julie Moscheles’ life was in danger because of her Jewish background. She was fortunate that a lifeline was thrown to her from an unexpected foreign source. In the 1930s Le Play House, a group of British sociologists, built up an enormous number of foreign contacts, which had direct and in some cases immediate political consequences. Some members of this organisation had come into contact with Julie Moscheles, particularly Margaret Tatton, who assisted her to flee from Czechoslovakia in 1938 after the German occupation of her country.17 She had been advised to escape in the disguise of a beggar woman, carrying an old bag of rags and crusts of bread in which were hidden jewels and money. She managed to flee, eluding the German border-guards, and finally ended up in Melbourne. The late Joyce Wood, a cartographer in the Economics and Commerce Faculty at the University of Melbourne, once described Julie Moscheles as a poor, forlorn person, totally disrupted because of the sudden flight from her homeland and of the grief of leaving her family and friends to an unimaginably terrible fate. Joyce Wood’s father, Professor Wood of Economic Geography, took pity on Julie and tried to employ her as a cartographer. The disoriented exile found this work impossible.
Hort befriended the Czechoslovakian refugee and helped her find a stable life in the new world. The principal had deep sympathy for the Jews and the plight of their co-religionists in areas under Nazi control. She loved the Old Testament and had been deeply moved by the writings of Martin Buber. The friendship of these two women, both academics but from milieux far apart from each other, developed into a close relationship. Hort took on the role of carer in the rehabilitation of this brilliant woman cast adrift from her family, her friends, her country and her beloved university by the Nazi occupation of her country. Caring for Moscheles was able to soften Hort’s sense of loneliness as principal of a college and of isolation from the rich culture and libraries of Europe and later of her homeland after its occupation by the Germans.
Hort’s university interests were not limited to college matters. Within the university she sought out people who were on a similar wave-length to her own in some way or another. There were a handful of professors, whose friendship she cultivated, including Professors Ian Maxwell of English, Alexander Boyce Gibson of Philosophy and A.R. Chisholm of French. Maxwell had been docent in English at the University of Copenhagen from 1934 to 1936, some years after Hort had moved to Cambridge. While in Denmark he had worked closely with Professor C.A. Bodelsen and developed his life-long interest in precision in language. This common interest in Copenhagen and links with Professor Otto Jespersen created a strong bond between them. Hume Dow wrote of Maxwell in Copenhagen:
His prescriptive, Johnsonian attitude to correctness in grammar and usage, as opposed to the description approach of Otto Jespersen did not interfere with his respect for that distinguished (by then, retired colleague) … Jespersen once said to him: ‘You are a moralist; I am an observer’ 18
On another occasion Jespersen said of Maxwell that he (Jespersen) had for many years been analysing how English-speakers spoke their mother-tongue, but that he at last had met someone who could tell him how English ought to be spoken. It not surprising, therefore, that Hort should delight in her contact with Ian Maxwell.
Boyce Gibson, the professor of Philosophy, was an institution at the University of Melbourne, where he enthralled generations of students with his lectures. Moreover, his writings won him renown in overseas circles. With him she could share her own deep interest in philosophy; her philosophical pursuits were not confined to mediaeval thinkers, but during the years she had immersed herself in modern European philosophy.
A.R. Chisholm, the professor of French, was highly versatile in many fields besides the language and culture of his expertise. Whenever Professor Augustin Lodewyckx of Germanic Languages was on leave, Chisholm ably deputised for him. He could have done the same in the fields of English Literature, History and Philosophy. He revolutionised the teaching of French throughout Australia, perceiving university language teaching not as a celestial algebra with deep moral significance, but as a confrontation of the students with both a nation’s classical culture and its current cultural, intellectual and literary debates.
Amongst the college heads there were the rector of Newman College, the Rev’d Father Murphy S.J., and the mother superior of St Mary’s Hall, the Rev’d Mother Patrick, who - true to ecclesiastical title as the head of a Roman Catholic religious house - mothered Greta in a non-possessive way and took an interest in her well-being.19 In Ormond College there was Rev’d Professor Hector McLean, a noted Old Testament scholar at Ormond College, who imparted his enthusiasm for the prophets of Israel, not only to generations of theological students, but to many young students at the university. Hort was able to share her love of the Old Testament with him and sought his advice on various points in her studies and translations.
Above all there was Rabbi Dr Herman Max Sanger - a gifted linguist, scholar and speaker, and a supporter of Progressive Judaism in the European tradition. He had arrived in Melbourne in August 1936, just two years before Hort. He had come to take control of the Temple Beth Israel congregation as it was being formed. His induction as a rabbi of the Progressive Jewish community in Berlin fell on a fateful day – 1 April 1933. It was ‘Boycott Day’ when Jewish businesses were ordered by the Nazis to be avoided – the first of the tragic events to befall the Jewish community in Germany. The learned rabbi and the College principal formed a strong friendship and Sanger was a source of information and inspiration for Hort as her interest in the Old Testament and the Jewish people grew. Sanger opened new vistas for Hort with his vast knowledge of Jewish history, theology, liturgy, mysticism and literature. The brilliant notes she added to her translation of Martin Buber’s Mamre bear witness to the rabbi’s profound influence and encouragement.
Hort did not limit her interests to academia. She was only peripherally involved in the Danish community. Six months after she arrived, the 50-year old Danish Club Dannebrog moved from its inadequate premises in the city to ‘Hughenden’, a mansion by the sea in Beaconsfield Parade in the Melbourne suburb of Middle Park.20 But the distance from the college and the ladies’ nights at this boisterously convivial men’s club did not appeal to the refined principal. She did, however, attend cultural events occasionally, but was more involved Frit Danmark (The Free Denmark Association) which supported Danes stranded in Australia and sent help to Denmark after its liberation.21
Hort was involved in a number of professional, charitable and cultural organisations, which throws light on the scope of her fascination for ideas, culture and causes. On the professional side she was involved in the Australasian Society of Psychology and Philosophy and was elected president of the Victorian branch in 1943. On the practical side she became president of the Czechoslovakian Branch of the Australian Red Cross Society, in which Moscheles was also involved. Then on the cultural side she was patron of the Australia-Indian Society, vice-president of the Australia-China Society and an executive member of the Pro-Palestine Association of Victoria.22
In 1946 the college Council granted Greta Hort leave to travel to Europe. While on leave she at last had the time to reflect on her future and became convinced that it would be to her advantage not to return to Australia. The pull of her friendship with Julie Moscheles proved far stronger than that of Women’s College at the now far distant University of Melbourne. Somewhat sadly she submitted her resignation as principal of University Women’s College as from March 1947. She decided to accompany Moscheles to Prague and to remain there. In a letter to the president of the Council of Univeristy Women’s College of 31 August 1946 in which she tendered her resignation as from 1 March 1947, the day after her leave from the college finished, she wrote:
The main reason for my resignation is the increasingly common reason for resignations within the University of Melbourne, viz the lack of material for serious research and the isolation to which it exposes scholars and their several subjects.23
Hort could not have chosen a worse time to relocate to Czechoslovakia. President Benes had been working on plans of post-war reconstruction towards the end of the war. He returned to Prague on 16 May 1945 to run a provisional government. In the subsequent elections of 26 May 1946 the Communists polled the largest number of votes and Klement Gottwald, a Communist, was appointed prime minister. A two-year economic plan came into operation on 1 January 1947. During that year the country was ravaged by a relentless drought. Keen to accept an offer of aid made by the European Recovery Programme, the Czechoslovakian government was vetoed by the Soviet government, which claimed that acceptance of this aid would contravene the alliance between Prague and Moscow. In early 1948 the minister for the Interior, Vaclav Nosek, whose brief also included control of the police, started replacing non-Communists in the police force by loyal Communists. The eleven anti-Communist ministers in the cabinet resigned on 20 February. After much activity of the Communists within and outside the parliament, including the arrest of many Czech citizens, Benes yielded on 25 February to pressure to accept a new ministry under Gottwald comprising only Communists. The notable foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, remained in his office and on 10 March his dead body was discovered. Hort, who had earlier exhibited such discernment, had made the worst possible choice to move to Prague. Her loyalty to Julie Moscheles had blinded her to the political reality staring at her in the face.
Hort soon found that living in a Communist country was a great burden. As a foreigner, who had recently moved to the country and who was obviously not a supporter of Communism, she could not easily gain employment. Because of the strict censorship in the Soviet satellite, she was unable to correspond as freely as she would have wished with her friends and family in Denmark and with her friends in Australia, England and elsewhere. Her letters to her Australian friends in the archives at University College indicate that she led a very secluded life in the Czechoslovakian capital. In them she remembers nostalgically the Australian landscape and obviously misses the good friends she had made in the antipodes. But she was unable to make social or political comment on what was going on around her. She indicates that her life revolved around such innocent topics as domestic duties, horticulture, translating and research. She found it hard to cook the food that Czech housewives excelled in producing, but impressed them with her scones, shortbread and Christmas cake. Obviously Moscheles could not cook or keep house. All these housewifely chores, which Hort had hitherto avoided and eschewed, fell on her shoulders.
For both intellectual variation and for a sorely needed income, she laboriously translated from German a book of over 500 pages on prehistoric animals. She found it totally boring, but was impelled by the expectation that an English translation would cause great excitement in the palaeontological world and might even become a classic.24 She jokingly named this project after the main mental hospital in Prague. In a letter to lady white in Melbourne she wrote about this translation project:
The prehistoric animals I deal with are nice little things, described by their fond scientific parents as “fairly considerable large’ when they “attain” a size of 0.5 millimetre; they are also quite considerably boring when they spread themselves over 500 pp. in “impermissible detail” – an expression I have stolen from an English scientist speaking of the work of a German scientist. The book I translate at present will cause great excitement in the palaeontological world, it will be a classic. The only reason why I can take some interest in the work of translating it. I call it irreverently Bochnice, the name of the local lunatic asylum, because I should long ago have been ripe for that place, had I had to write it. Its author is a very charming man, much liked by his students. Beats me how one can study these things, and lots of people do in lots of countries. 25
While in Prague she turned with deep and ardent intensity to her studies of the Old Testament and the fruits of her research appeared in two articles, “The Plagues of Egypt” and “The Death of Korah”.26 These two articles are discussed later in a survey of her contribution to scholarship.
When Julie Moscheles died of cancer on 7 January 1956, Hort was grief-stricken. She was alone in the gloom of a Communist country and had no further reason to remain there. However, as a foreigner with a permanent residence permit, she could not easily obtain an exit-visa. Not to be intimidated by the censorship of mail, she to managed to smuggle out a message out to Aarhus University and was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to fill a vacant lectureship in English Philology with a special emphasis on literature.
It was with delight and a large measure of relief that Hort returned to her native Denmark. She had been residing abroad in England, Australia and Czechoslovakia for 25 years and this long period had a profound effect on her outlook and even her language. Torsten Dahl commented on her mentality by writing that she was “Danish in mind and English in thought”. He also commented certain linguistic idiosyncrasies, which she had acquired. When she was talking “on the telephone” (as one generally says today in English, but 60 years ago it was more common to say “over the telephone”), the Danes would say “i telefonen” (in the telephone), but Hort would say in Danish “over telefonen” as was the current expression In English.
All of these experiences abroad enriched the contribution she was to make at the University of Aarhus. She began the academic year of 1957 as lecturer in English and the following year was appointed professor. She soon introduced literature from the British Commonwealth, with a special emphasis on Australia, as that was the country with which she was intimately connected with a deep knowledge of its literature, ballads and bush songs.27 She worked hard to build up a library collection of literature from Commonwealth countries. Moreover, she produced a collection of Australian literature for use in Danish secondary schools.28
Again in this vibrant academic environment, Hort moved into this new field of endeavour – Commonwealth Literature, which later became Post-Colonial Literature. She was able to encourage and inspire others to take an interest in this field, deliver lectures in Scandinavian, Continental and British universities and at conferences. It is not an exaggeration to say that she helped lay the foundations of this new discipline in literary scholarship. It is interesting to note that when Hort started lecturing on Australian literature at the University of Aarhus, there was no Australian literature in English departments at Australian universities. If Australians wanted to study their own literature at tertiary level they were forced to go to such places as Aarhus, Leeds and Leningrad. She would be delighted to see how things have changed in English departments throughout Australia, where Australian literature has a major place.
In the field of scholarship Hort was precise and fastidious. In an undated letter to Lady White in the archives of University College she wrote:
If I am to contribute anything worthwhile to human thought – and through that to human life – I have got to do it within the subjects which I know and know so well that I can play with them, that I am not ‘under’ them but ‘master’ them, have the feel of them in my fingertips is what I really mean, and within he subjects or sphere for which I have been trained.
An extract from the prize paper on the quartos of the first folios of two of Shakespeare’s plays, which she wrote as a student, was published in 1926.29 This early research did not go unnoticed in the academic world.30
Hort’s study of mediaeval literature and the world out of which it arose kindled what was to become an intense interest in mysticism. Her thorough research led to the publication in 1936 of Sense and Thought: A Study in Mysticism. The point of departure was the anonymous 14th century Middle English poem, The Cloud of Unknowing, and from there she moved on to consider other mystics to anchor her findings on a firm basis.
The following year she published another outstanding work, Piers Plowman and Contemporary Religious Thought. Again her work received most positive praise from R.W. Chambers, who called it an “excellent work”.31
In Prague Hort spent much time on Biblical studies, immersing herself in the Old Testament. Out of this research there came two articles. In 1959 the first article entitled “The Death of Qorah” was published in the Australian Biblical Review.32 It is interesting that this profound analysis of the figure in Korah, as the name is spelt in the Authorized Version of the Bible, was published in an Australian biblical journal. In her second article on the ten plagues, which afflicted the Egyptians through the medium of Moses as recorded in Exodus chapters 7 to 12, Hort briefly summarises various theories of their causation and then states her aim as being, “to re-examine the Biblical account as it stands in order to see whether this should not after all be rooted in a sequence of actual occurrences.” In her treatment if each plague, she draws a “preliminary distinction between the events given in the account and the narrators’ handing and arrangement of these events”. Then she goes into a most elaborate analysis of each plague, delving into geographical, geological, climatological and other aspects in order to find a natural causation. She comes up with a theory of chain-reaction, by which each plague causes the next. Hence the basis of her theory is that the ten Biblical plagues occur in a ‘natural’ sequence and that all of them are activated by one causal occurrence, the flooding of the Nile flood in July, which then led to a chain reaction. One of the keys to the plagues is the existence of anthrax.33
In the already mentioned letter to Lady White, Hort obviously bristles against her correspondent’s jibe that she was wasting her efforts on useless questions, such as “finding where the ark really rested”. Hort explained that she looked behind such issues in an attempt to ascertain how they contribute “firstly to the solution of the problem of the composition of the Bible and the handing down of tradition and secondly to the whole question of miracles, which is important from the already mentioned point of view of both past and present human thinking and view of the world.” She continues to propound her thesis that many miracles are not contrary to the laws of nature, but find their meaning in physical phenomena.
Nevertheless, in retrospect, Lady White was more right in her words of caution than Hort gave her credit. It was tragic that this woman with a brilliant mind, living under an atheistic Communist dictatorship, which crushed the Roman Catholic and Hussite Churches, was forced to work alone and isolated on this futile investigation, without the communication, encouragement and criticism from fellow scholars with similar interests. It was a pity that she did not investigate other fascinating Old Testament themes, on which she would have been able to make a significant contribution to scholarship.
Let us consider some of the comments by people who knew Greta Hort. Dr Ursula Hoff, her good friend wrote of her as being “brilliant but eccentric”34. The ever-perceptive Lady Derham described Hort in a few words:35
To look at, Greta was short and round, rather than dumpy, and mostly she dressed in a variety of shapeless clothes, though sometimes in evening dress she could look quite good. But her big head and face rather dominated her body that was what you saw first, her big face, rather round with big eyes and wispy brown hair parted in the middle and drawn back into a small bun that didn’t stay together for long. She wasn’t good looking, she wasn’t plain – she was compelling.
A not dissimilar portrait is painted by Diana Dyason:36
Dr Hort, the next principal was almost a caricature of the Girton bluestocking, sparse hair drawn into a wispy bun from which it always was escaping, little dress sense and a penchant for thick grey, often holey, stockings. Her main interest (apart from cats) lay in the remoter philosophical reaches of the mediaeval world, especially in Piers Plowman. Nevertheless she came with very up to date ideas on discipline.
In his eulogy to Hort in the Annual Report of the University of Aarhus after her death Torsten Dahl concludes with some comments from her colleagues in the Department of English, which he has put together as a continuous passage:37
(1) Greta Hort went along on her own way; she lived alone, but was always seeking contact. She was ‘self-assertive’ in her speech, but in her conduct she was eager to help and be of use to others. She loved her home with its furniture and silverware, which reminded her of her large, old family. At home her thoughts were always travelling to those countries in which she had lived, mainly England and Australia, and it was a delight for her when travels could be combined with guest-lectures. In this way she enjoyed seeing those districts in Germany, to which she paid academic visits in her last years.
(2) Greta Hort was lively, alert and active. She shortened her night’s sleep in order to write. Work was an essential part of her life and, while at the same time she readily sought the company of others, either at home or beyond, it was not to be wondered at that the flame of her life’s candle made heavy demands. Hort required much of herself and she expected that other students – in the widest sense of the term – were just as demanding with themselves. It could not be avoided that she met with disappointment in this regard, disappointments that she could not shrug off with a smile. Greta Hort’s sensitivities were also evident in her sympathy when she witnessed the good or bad fortunes of other people. To the lighter elements of her disposition belonged cheerfulness and a humour, which attracted attention in both the lecture theatre and in private life. She often used her pen as a satirical sword; she mastered both prose and verse.
(3) The ‘self-assertiveness’ which Hort undeniably possessed can be partly explained when one considers that in her career she had to make a special effort to forge ahead. This energetic ‘ego’ wanted a place to which her abilities and education entitled her; but she was not ‘aggressive’. She was prepared to co-operate positively in negotiations in order to attain a result, and she did not tire. Under a picture of Hort one could place the words, “She was steadfast”. In her work and friendship she was steadfast and oblivion will not be her fate.
Greta Hort was very busy during the last years of her life. In 1964 she took part in a conference on Commonwealth literature at the University of Leeds. In April 1966 she made journey back to Australia, delivering a lecture at the University of Melbourne and travelling to various parts of the country. She rejoiced again in the great variety of the Australian landscape Back in Denmark she made several visits to German cities, lecturing on Australian literature at the universities. She delighted in the stimulation of her new colleague, Anna Rutherford. In 1965 she was presented with the prize for outstanding scholarship. The same year she was awarded an honour, which gave the greatest delight; she was appointed to the Royal Danish Order of Dannebrog. The same year she was presented with the Tagea Brandt Prize for her exceptional scholarship.
In August 1967, during a holiday in Italy, Hort broke her thigh. She began to make a quick recovery, but suddenly suffered a serious blood clot. Returning to her home at Risskov, she died of post-operative thrombosis on 16 August 1967. At her burial in Copenhagen the funeral service was conducted according to Anglican rites by the chaplain to the British Embassy.
Dr Greta Hort was a remarkable woman. Her life falls into six periods:
Greta Hort has left behind her many testimonials to the varied contributions she made to learning and administration. In general, her studies in mysticism, in mediaeval literature, in Australian and Commonwealth literature and in the Jewish heritage have enriched the world of learning. In particular, there is University Women’s College, which later became a college for both sexes and changed its name to University College. The very structure of the college as well as the culture and tradition that it has maintained and developed over the years bears her mark. Moreover there are in University College two special memorials: one is the Hort Library and the other the Hort Scholarship, which sends alternately an Australian student to the University of Aarhus and a Danish student to University College and the University of Melbourne.
The Melbourne Greta Hort Scholarship Committee was formed in 1992 at the instigation of Consul-General Erik Jensen and Lady Derham. The meetings were held at Unviersity College and contact was immediately made with Aarhus University. Plans for the structure of the scholarship, the methods of selection and accommodation at Unviersity College were made as well as strategies for fund-raising.
An agreement to establish the Greta Hort Scholarship was signed in Melbourne on 2 July 1993, and in Denmark after five months of discussion it was signed in Aarhus in December 1993.
The scholars from Australia on the Greta Hort Scholarship have been Ronnith Morris in 1996, Timothy Szlachetko in 1998, Kate Murphy (née McDowell) in 2001 and Mindy Macleod (who will take up her scholarship in 2005). The scholars from Denmark have been Lars Jensen 1994, Karin Christiansen 1997, Thomas Grann 1999, and Mads Clausen 2003 (a non-resident at University College). It has been agreed by all involved as scholarship-holders and as their mentors that the Greta Hort Scholarship had been of great value.
As the late Lady Derham, a dear friend of Greta Hort, and until her death chairperson of the Hort Scholarship Committee, once said jokingly, “She was a Great Dane”. Like her contemporary in Melbourne, Raymond Priestley, the first vice-chancellor of the modern type at the University of Melbourne, Greta Hort was an innovative and visionary administrator who left a heritage which will still blossom in decades yet to come.
Buber, Martin, Mamre: Essays in Religion, trans Greta Hort, Melbourne 1945.
Cambers, R. W., Man’s Unconquerable Mind, London, 1939.
Derham, Lady (Rosemary), The Life of Greta Hort, (an unpublished document in the Archives of University College), 1987.
Dow, Hume, ‘Ian Ramsay Maxwell’ in Iceland and the Mediaeval World: Studies in Honour of Ian Maxwell, ed. Gabriel Turville-Petre and John Stanley Martin, 1974.
Dyason, Diana, ‘Memories of Melbourne University’ in Memories of Melbourne University: Undergraduate Life in the Years since 1917, ed. Hume Dow, 1983.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, in Solid Bluestone Foundations and Other Memories of Melbourne Girlhood 1908-1928, South Melbourne, 1983.
Hoff, Ursula, “Greta Hort”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 14 1940-1980, Carlton South, 1996, pp. 499-500.
Hort, Greta, Sense and Thought: A Study in Mysticism, London, 1936.
Hort, Greta, Piers Plowman and contemporary Religious Thought, London, 1937.
Hort, Greta, Article on Shakespeare’s folios The Modern Language Review, vol. XXI, 1926, pp. 140-6.
Hort, Greta, “The Plagues of Egypt”, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 69 (1957) pp. 84-103; vol. 70 (1958) pp. 48-59.
Hort, Greta, “The Death of Qorah”, The Australian Biblical Review, vol. 7, December 1959, pp. 2-26.
Koivukangas, Olavi and Martin, John S., The Scandinavians in Australia, Melbourne 1986.
Macintyre, Stuart and Selleck, R. J. W., A Short History of the University of Melbourne, Carlton, 2003.
Martin, John Stanley, The Danish Club Dannebrog in Melbourne 1889-1989, Melbourne, 1989.
Martin, John Stanley, Greta Hort: Scholar, Educationalist and Pioneer Bridge-Builder between Jews and Christians, Scandinavian-Australian Migration Project, Monograph no. 3, Melbourne 2003.
Priestley, Raymond, The Diary of a Vice-Chancellor: University of Melbourne 1935-1938, Carlton South, 2002.
This study is based on a talk given at University College at the University of Melbourne entitled “Greta Hort: Scholar, Educationalist and Pioneer Bridge-Builder between Jews and Christians” on November 2003. The author would like gratefully to acknowledge the assistance in the research Dr Deborah Seifert, the principal of University College; Mr Ian Forster archivist at University College; Ms Maureen Harvey, marketing and development officer at University College; Ms Cheryl Day, University College; Professor Vagn Wåhlin, History Department, University of Aarhus; Ambassador Jørgen Korsgaard-Pedersen, formerly Danish ambassador to Australia; Mrs Mette Korsgaard-Pedersen, a relative of Greta Hort; Ms Kate Perry, archivist at Girton College, Cambridge University; the late Professor Jan Havranek of the Charles University in Prague; Ms Šachová Blanka, Archive of the Institute for the Charles University, Prague; Dr Ursula Hoff, University of Melbourne; Dr Cecily Close, formerly of the University Archives, University of Melbourne; Dr Erik Jensen, formerly Danish consul-general, Melbourne. Moreover, acknowledgement must be made of the help of three friends, now deceased, who in the past gave valuable information about Greta Hort - Lady (Rosemary) Derham, formerly chairperson of the Greta Hort Scholarship Committee, Dr Diana Dyason, formerly of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne and Ms Joyce Wood, formerly cartographer in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Melbourne.
1 The founding principal, Miss Susie Williams, had been appointed to begin University Women’s College and superintend the operation until a permanent head could be chosen by a process of advertising and selection.
2 In Australia Hort later delighted in describing his occupation as being “the director of the Magnetic Observatory of Denmark”. Who’s Who in Australia, 1941.
3 Lady (Rosemary) Derham, The Life of Hort, (an unpublished document in the Archives of University College), 1987, p. 1.
4 Natalie Zahle founded her first school for girls in 1851, now called N. Zahles Gymnasieskole (N. Zahle’s Secondary School), then in 1860 she founded N. Zahles Seminarium (N. Zahle’s Teachers’ College) and finally in 1895 N. Zahles Seminarieskole (N. Zahle’s Training School). The training school was founded as a practice institution for trainees in her training college because she did not want to inflict trainees on the refined young ladies in her secondary school. By Hort’s time a girl could undergo her complete schooling in N. Zahle’s School.
5 Lady Derham, op.cit. p. 3.
6 Lady Derham, op. cit, p. 4.
7 Stuart Macintyre and R. J. W. Selleck comment in their history to celebrate Sesquicentenary of the University of Melbourne (A Short History of the University of Melbourne, 2003) comment on p. 87 on the “boarding-school regime of the colleges” in the period before the Second World War.
8Raymond Priestley, The Diary of a Vice-Chancellor, 2002, pp. 476-477.
10 Diana Dyason in Memories of Melbourne University, ed. Hume Dow, 1983, pp. 91-93; see also Lady Derham, op. cit., p. 6.
11 Lady Derham, op. cit., p.8.
12 Ursula Hoff, “Greta Hort”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 14, 1996, pp. 499-500
13 Lady Derham, op. cit., p. 8.
14 Dianna Dyason, op. cit., p. 93.
15 Lady Derham, op. cit. p. 11.
17 The Institute of Sociology came into being on January 24 1930, as a result of the merger of the Le Play House organisation and the Sociological Society, with the objects "To promote the study of Sociology and the sociological study of human communities; to encourage the use of such studies in education; and to advance the application of such studies to urban and rural development." (The Institute of Sociology website)
18 Hume Dow, “Ian Ramsay Maxwell” in Iceland and the Mediaeval World, 1974, p.p. 3-4.
19 Lady Derham, op. cit., p. 9.
20 See John Stanley Martin, The Danish Club Dannebrog in Melbourne, 1989, pp. 52-59. “Hughenden” was built by John Robert Buxton, a noted estate-agent in South Melbourne and life in the house has been described by his granddaughter, Mrs Kathleen Fitzpatrick in Solid Bluestone Foundations and Other Memories of Melbourne Girlhood 1908-1928, 1983, pp. 1-3.
21 John Stanley Martin, op. cit., pp. 59-61.
22 Ursula Hoff, Australian Dictionary of Biography, p. 500.
23 Greta Hort’s letter to the Council of University Women’s College of 31st August 1946 in the archives of the College. She wrote to others that she deeply felt the lack of research material and people with whom she could discuss her interests in Melbourne. Macintyre and Selleck in their A Short History of the University of Melbourne, 2003, p. 85 describe the perception of the limitations of the University of Melbourne of Professor John Medley, Priestley’s successor as vice-chancellor (1938-1950) in the following words, “The Australian university, he wrote in retirement, struggled with poverty and isolation. A narrow homogeneity, for there was not enough money for ‘bold experiment’ and with just one university in very capital city there was not enough competition to stimulate variation.”
24 An undated letter to Lady White in the archives of University College.
26 Hort, "The Plagues of Egypt," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 69 (1957) pp. 84-103; vol. 70 (1958) pp. 48-59.) and “The Death of Korah”
27 Ursula Hoff, op. cit. p. 500.
28 Hort’s book, An Australian Anthology, was published by Gyldendal in Copenhagen in 1946.
29 The Modern Language Review, vol. XXI, 1926, pp. 140-6.
30 R. W. Cambers, Man’s Unconquerable Mind, London 1939, p. 243.
31 R. W. Chambers, loc.cit.
32 The reference to Korah’s death is in Numbers XXVI: 9-11, “And the sons of Eliah; Nemuel, and Dathan, and Abiram. This is that Dathan and Abiram, which were famous in the congregation, who strove against Moses and against Aaron in the company of Korah, when they strove against the Lord. And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died, what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty me: and they became a sign. Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.”
33 Brad Sparkes in a website of 14th March 2002 disputes Hort’s arguments about anthrax in the summary of an article entitled “Did anthrax plague the Egyptians?”, to be published in a future issue of the magazine, Bible and Spade.
34 Ursula Hoff, “Greta Hort”, op. cit., p.500.
35 Lady Derham, op. cit., pp. 9-10.
36 Diana Dyason, ‘Memories of Melbourne University’, p. 92.
37 Torsten Dahl, pp. 9-10.