Papers of Sir William Empson and Hetta, Lady Empson

Scope and Content

Please note that the original papers were withdrawn in 2005 and photocopies were retained in their place.

Overall, these papers offer a fascinating insight into the unconventional family and social life of the Empsons and their circle. Most of the letters in the collection were either written by or sent to Hetta Empson. The first two sections are chiefly from William Empson (letters from Hetta to William are largely in section 6). They include letters sent to his mother, Laura, whilst he was at Praetoria House School and Winchester College between 1915 and 1923; there are also two school reports on the young Empson. Many of the letters from William to Hetta were sent during his periods away from home, for example when he taught in the United States during the summers of 1948 and 1950, with Hetta remaining in China. There is a great deal of descriptive material relating to their individual and shared experiences in China, including William's account of the day the Communist Government took over in Peking, written on 2 October 1949 [U DEN/1/23-24].

Even on their return to the United Kingdom, they lived apart for much of the time once William became a Professor at Sheffield University, and also during his continued sabbaticals in the United States, so the flow of letters continued. Hetta's departure to the Far East in order to be with Peter Duval Smith led to further exchanges from and to China, Japan, Hong King and Macao during 1957 and 1958. Many of the letters cover personal matters, including the growth and education of their children, the legal complications following the birth of Simon Duval Smith, the death of Peter Duval Smith and his mother in early 1967, and the Empson's rapid purchase and sale of the Stradmore Estate in Wales. The Empsons' family disagreement regarding the Yokefleet Estate during the 1970s is well documented. Section 2 contains further similar letters, but undated and sometimes fragmentary.

The matching letters in section 6, mainly from Hetta to William Empson, also reflect his and her absences, particularly her year or so in China, Japan, Hong Kong and Macao with Peter Duval Smith in 1957-1958. Many of the letters sent from London deal with problems associated with Studio House and its upkeep, and with their numerous and various lodgers.

Section 3 contains letters sent and received by Hetta between the late 1930s and early 1940s, before she met William Empson. The correspondence, some of which is in Afrikaans and High Dutch, begins in South Africa in 1938 and mainly concerns her Voortrekker ties adventure. There is a fascinating series of letters from and to contacts in South Africa following Hetta's departure for Europe, beginning in Paris in April 1939, and then from London. There are sometimes graphic descriptions of her life and work (initially with the ARP) during the Blitz in 1940, plus evidence of her attempts to secure the release of her fiancé Rene Graetz from internment in the Isle of Man and Canada. These letters contain much information about the arts scene in London at the time. Her many contacts included the art historian Francis Klingender, and she describes a visit with him to Hull University College in November 1940 [U DEN/3/73].

Sections 4 and 5 contain letters written by (and to) Hetta mainly whilst in China and Japan in the 1940s and early 1950s, and particularly with Walter Allison Brown, but also David Kidd, Richard Carline, Francis Klingender and, later, David Jones. Though the letters cover a great variety of subjects, Hetta's generally focus on family life, the education of her children, life and travel, her artistic and teaching work, social life and political beliefs. One document, in the form of a diary, describes life and travel in China in about 1949 [U DEN/4/3]. Other letters describe visits to India, Mongolia, the Great Wall of China, contact with the authorities, the theatre, and Hetta's artistic and commercial ventures. There are descriptions of, and comments on, Mao Tse Tung, Chou en Lai, Chiang Kai Shek and others. Her vivid description of the Communist takeover of Peking is given in a letter of 28 August 1949 (in Afrikaans, with an English translation) [U DEN/5/50]. Walter Brown's letters, mainly from Shan-si University, are equally interesting, and include a description of the execution of three railway line saboteurs in May 1950 [U DEN/4/28].

Life after the Communist takeover is well documented, including daily hardships (such as being paid in millet), and travel and visa problems - particularly during William Empson's frequent trips to and from the United States. The Empsons were always largely sympathetic towards the new regime. Hetta was one of 31 British residents in Peking to sign a petition to the British Foreign Office in October 1949 asking for recognition of the new government [U DEN/5/54]. The letters following the Empsons' return to England are of great interest. Individuals featured in the letters include Rene Graetz, Francis Klingender, Richard Carline and members of what would become known as the Camden Town school of art. Her children Mogador and Jacob Empson and Simon Duval Smith are represented, as are her lovers Walter Allison Brown and Peter Duval Smith, along with close friends Irene Nel, Nancy Carline and, in South Africa, Mrs Kibel.

Section 8 is effectively a separate deposit from David Jones and contains correspondence with William Empson regarding their collaboration on Marlowe's Faustus between 1976 and 1982, when he was a sometime resident of Studio House. Correspondence between Hetta and David Jones for the same period is to be found at U DEN/4/74-86.

The extensive correspondence between Hetta and her friend and lover Walter Allison Brown is completed by the contents of the second deposit, U DEN(2), which also includes a small number of letters to and from the Empson children, and mutual friends, such as David Kidd and Max Bickerton. One particular episode shows Hetta's highly impulsive character when, in August 1954 she, in effect, announced to Walter Brown, who was then in Japan, that she was departing to Tangier and would he care to meet her there in the next few days [U DEN(2)/22-24].

A final batch of material gathered from various sources was received in October 2003, and highlights include a series of letters from William Empson to Alice Stewart over the period 1955 to 1970 [U DEN(3)/3-36]; a few letters from and to William and Hetta Empson in China in the late 1940s and early 1950s [U DEN(3)/41-44, 78-89], and love letters sent to Hetta from Michael Avery [U DEN(3)/96-100]. Amongst the miscellanea there are two photographs of William Empson, including one by Jane Bown [U DEN(3)/134-135].

Overall, this is a unique and most unusual collection. The two main individuals, William and Hetta Empson, were outstanding in their respective fields, and their lives took them to places and events at crucial historical moments.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Empson - university teacher, poet, and literary analyst and critic - was born on 27 September 1906 at Yokefleet Hall, near Howden, East Yorkshire, and was the youngest son of Arthur Reginald Empson and his wife Laura, daughter of Richard Micklethwaite, of Ardsley House, Yorkshire. The Empson family had lived in East Yorkshire since at least the mid-17th century, building the Tudor-style Yokefleet Hall in about 1870. The Estate remained in the family until the late 1970s, with successive generations of close relatives visiting the Hall during vacations.

Empson's father died when William was ten. The boy's formal education began at Pretoria (or Praetoria) House, West Folkestone, and in 1920 he won a scholarship to Winchester College. In 1925 he progressed to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he excelled, first in mathematics, then in English, studying under I.A. Richards. Much of his first book, Seven types of ambiguity (1930), a study of poetic language, was written whilst an undergraduate: such was its impact that it soon came to be regarded as one of the most influential critical works of the century. He also quickly established himself as a poet, with contributions to Cambridge review, and Cambridge poetry 1929. Much of the content of Poems (1935) was written whilst he was an undergraduate. Having been elected to a research fellowship at Magdalene, his Cambridge career unfortunately ended abruptly when a servant reported the discovery of contraceptives in Empson's jacket pocket to the prudish College authorities.

By the time of his appointment in 1931 as professor of English Literature at Tokyo University of Literature and Science (Bunrika Daigaku) he had already published numerous poems and review articles. Japan and eastern religions, especially Buddhism, strongly influenced his next major work, Some versions of Pastoral (1935). Between 1934 and 1937 he lived in Bloomsbury, London, working as a writer and reviewer, but surviving on a small private income, until he was offered the professorship in English at Peking National University. This led to a rather makeshift, and exhilarating existence, as the University and its dons fled before invading Japanese forces, ending up in Kunming. Empson identified strongly with the Chinese, and 'Chinese ballad' (1952) was the last of his poems to be published during his lifetime.

However, with the outbreak of war in Europe he returned to England, to work in support of Allied propaganda at the BBC in London. He was editor of the BBC Monitoring Department between 1940 and 1941, and from then until 1946 Chinese editor in the Far Eastern Section. This work brought him into contact with a wide literary and artistic circle, including George Orwell and Dylan Thomas. He also met and married Hetta Crouse, who was then also working for the BBC.

Hester Henrietta (Hetta) Crouse - described in her obituary in The Times as 'sculptor, political activist, adventurer and socialite' - was born on 18 September 1915 in Kroonstad, a small town in the Orange Free State, South Africa. Her father, Johannes Jacobus Crouse, was a cattle dealer whose family had originally arrived in South Africa in the late 17th century. Hetta's Bohemian lifestyle began early. She studied humanities at Bloemfontein University, and then moved to Cape Town to work as an apprentice sculptor. After studying art in Germany, she returned to South Africa to work as publicity manager for a newspaper. She became involved in left-wing politics, was a trade union organiser, and supported Black and Jewish causes.

However, her overwhelming interest was art, and her burning desire was to visit the galleries of Europe. She and fellow artist, Rene Graetz, raised funds to this end by designing and selling a tie commemorating the centenary of the Great Trek of 1836. Having enjoyed some success, they promptly departed for Europe, staying first in France and Switzerland. Hetta, alone, then moved to London where she had a series of menial jobs. On the outbreak of war, she drove an ambulance for the ARP and remained in London throughout the Blitz of 1940. Meanwhile her fiancé, Graetz, had joined her in England, but was interned, first on the Isle of Man, before being deported to a labour camp in Canada. Hetta then joined the BBC as a propagandist in Afrikaans, working on a women's magazine, and an anti-German programme. She met Empson at the BBC's training unit, and became engaged to him within a few weeks, despite the rival attentions of George Orwell.

Empson's warning that if they married she would have to join him in China was probably a further attraction. The Empsons, now with two sons William Hendrick Mogador ('Mog') and Jacobus Arthur Calais ('Jake') departed for China in 1947, with William Empson returning as professor to Peking University, where he remained for five years. Hetta supported the Communist side in the civil war, helping some students to escape Nationalist Government purges. During the siege of Peking, which lasted for six weeks in 1948, Hetta was accredited as a correspondent of The Observer. In the meantime she continued her work as an artist and sculptor. By 1952 the Empsons were eventually the only European foreigners in Peking and, though sympathetic towards the Chinese government, with the uncertainty of the international situation following the outbreak of the Korean War, decided to return to England.

They had previously bought the spacious Studio House in Hampstead, London. William Empson was almost immediately offered a chair in English at Sheffield University, where he remained, living in lodgings, until his 'retirement' in 1971. Hetta stayed in London, with a succession of lodgers to help with the finances, including the anarchist and author A.G. (Dinah) Stock, the puppeteer John Wright, the biologist Lewis Wolpert and, briefly, the artist, painter and graphic designer Kate Hepburn. She also owned a property in Hares Creek, Shotley, Suffolk, where she, William and others in their circle frequently stayed. This circle included a wide range of writers, artists and politicians, including Tambimuttu and Samekula Mulumba, Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Smart. The Empsons also had a fairly open marriage: Hetta had a number of lovers and close male friends, and in 1956 had a third son, Simon, during an affair with Peter Duval Smith, a journalist and television producer, whom she joined for about a year in Peking, Hong Kong, Macao and Japan during 1957-1958. Empson did not bear grudges, and supplied Duval Smith with the reference that got him his lectureship at a university in Peking. He also had a long-standing relationship with Alice Stewart in Sheffield. Hetta's preferred surname was seldom consistent, changing from Crouse to Empson to Crouse to Duval Smith and back to Empson at regular intervals. However, she was definitely Lady Empson after William was Knighted in 1979.

Meanwhile, Empson's career went from strength to strength, and he was in much demand as a teacher, writer and speaker both in Britain and the United States, where he often spent vacations as a visiting lecturer or scholar. The entry for him in the Dictionary of National Biography asserts that 'of all modern writers, he comes closest to the idea of a universally competent intelligence'. Major works on Milton, Shakespeare, and Faust - a late collaboration with David Jones - were evidence of this. Honours were heaped upon him: apart from the Knighthood, he became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1976, and received honorary doctorates from the universities of East Anglia, Bristol, Sheffield and Cambridge. He died in London on 15 April 1984. Hetta died on 22 December 1996, aged 81.

Access Information

Access will be granted to any accredited reader

Other Finding Aids

Entry in Modern English literature and drama subject guide

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright is held by Jacob and Mogador Empson. Please note we cannot provide copies of items within this collection

Custodial History

The first collection, U DEN, was deposited by Dr Jacob Empson on 30 May 1997, with a final batch in October 2000. The second deposit of papers, U DEN2, was received from Walter Allison Brown in December 2000. The third deposit, U DEN3, was deposited by Dr Jacob Empson on 30 October 2003. The whole collection was withdrawn by Jacob and Mogador Empson on 10 October 2005, and transferred into the custody of the Department of Special Collections, Sheffield University Library. A full set of photocopies has been retained.

Related Material

Papers of the Empson Family of Yokefleet [U DYK]

Other repositories:

The majority of William Empson's papers are held in the University of Harvard archives

The originals of items described in this catalogue are held at Sheffield University Library, reference MS 292

Appointments diaries and miscellaneous correspondence, c.1960-69, Sheffield University Library

Miscellaneous letters, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division

Correspondence and literary papers, from1929, in the Chatto & Windus archives, Reading University Library

Letters to John Hayward, 1931-1956, Cambridge University: Kings College Modern Archive Centre

Correspondence with members of BBC staff, 1936-1962, BBC Written Archives Centre

Location of Originals

Department of Special Collections, Sheffield University Library [GB 0200]


  • Works by William Empson:
  • Seven types of ambiguity (1930)
  • Collected poems (1949, revised 1955)
  • Some versions of Pastoral (1935)
  • The structure of complex words (1951)
  • Milton's God (1961)
  • Faustus and the censor: the English Faust-book and Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' (1987)
  • Complete poems (edited by John Haffenden 2000)
  • Works about William Empson:
  • Frank Day: Sir William Empson: an annotated bibliography (1984)
  • Roma Gill (ed.): William Empson: the man and his work (1974)