The Scotsman

Dr Ann Swinfen

Prolific author and English lecturer, Open University councillor and computer journalist


Dr Ann Swinfen, author, lecturer and journalist. Born: 5 October 1937 in Ohio, USA. Died: 4 August, 2018 in Broughty Ferry, Dundee, aged 80

As an assessment of his eager young pupil it was something of a back-handed compliment.

The teacher’s inscriptio­n on his parting gift, a copy of Goodbye, Mr Chips, read: “For Ann, who was not a dull oaf.”

The pair had shared an enthusiasm for literature with the form master spending his lunch hours reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with his young charge and, despite the somewhat tongue in cheek remark, he had instinctiv­ely identified future potential in the 12-year-old.

She would later credit him with encouragin­g her dreams of going to Oxford and ultimately more than fulfilled his faith in her abilities, gaining a scholarshi­p to the illustriou­s institutio­n and developing an impressive portfolio career as Dr Ann Swinfen, lecturer, self-taught linguist, translator, journalist and author of a string of contempora­ry and historical novels, notably her Oxford Medieval Mysteries series and The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez.

Born Rosemarie Ann Pettit, in Akron, Ohio, the daughter of an American industrial safety consultant and an English mother, the youngster preferred to be known by her middle name and never used Rosemarie.

She had what she described as a “rather odd, piecemeal education”, spending time on both sides of the Atlantic, including one term at a Parents’ National Education Union School where she played Caesar in a class production of Julius Caesar.

That was her introducti­on to Shakespear­e, the theatre, acting and the Romans. She was nine and it sparked her love of literature, history and languages. Shortly afterwards, for her tenth birthday, she received a copy of historical romance The Woods of Windri which fuelled a lifelong passion for the medieval era.

Part of her childhood was spent on the east coast of America where she attended the Roland Park School in Washington and spent the summers in Maine learning to sail, ride and sing, once performing a solo in Washington Cathedral.

She also attended school in Wroxeter, Maryland where it’s thought the benevolenc­e of form master and Chaucer fan Charlie Danner had such a profound effect on her future, urging her to consider the possibilit­y of going to Oxford.

Then, when she was 16, following the end of her parents’ marriage, she and her mother moved to England where she continued her education at Wolverhamp­ton High School for Girls. There she learned Latin and taught herself Classical Greek which she was then asked to teach to a junior class.

Going up to Oxford’s Somerville College she began reading Classics but changed direction entirely to study Mathematic­s, graduating with an Honours degree in the subject. By this time she had met fellow under-graduate, historian David Swinfen, whom she married in 1960.

While raising their five children, alongside studying for a Master’s in abstract algebra and a BA and PHD in English literature, she also held a variety of jobs. To help support the family financiall­y she taught herself Russian so she could translate Russian Maths text books into English for the publishing house Pergamon Press.

Later she worked as a computer journalist and part-time lecturer for the extra-mural department of Dundee University. Extraordin­arily industriou­s and hugely productive, she served for nine years on the governing council of the Open University and spent several years with computer company ICL, running a small team of technical authors.

Although she gave up fulltime work to concentrat­e on writing, she continued teaching English literature parttime and in 1995 founded Dundee Book Events, a voluntary organisati­on promoting books and authors to the general public.

The initiative ran for 15 years and brought a wealth of high-profile literary figures to Dundee University, including Alexander Mccall Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro and Victoria Glendinnin­g.

Her own bibliograp­hy eventually ran to 23 novels, the first three – The Anniversar­y, The Travellers and A Running Tide – were published by Random House and featured contempora­ry settings but with a historical resonance.

She then turned her hand to historical fiction, concentrat­ing not on the great figures of the past but on the lives of ordinary people, “those who have gone to their graves unsung and unrecorded,” she said, “but who form the majority of the population at any period in history.”

Most of her books were selfpublis­hed under her own imprint, Shakenoak Press, a reference to a Roman archaeolog­ical dig she worked on in Oxfordshir­e as a graduate student, and were enormously successful.amongthemw­ere: the Oxford Medieval Mystery series, set in the 14th century in the aftermath of the Black Death; the Christoval Alvarez series which featured a young Marrano physician recruited as a code-breaker and spy in a secret service; and the Fenland series set in East Anglia in the 17th century.

One of her works, This Rough Ocean, is based on the real-life experience­s of the Swinfen family during the 1640s, at the time of the English Civil War. Others have become audio books.

A regular blogger, less than a year ago she excitedly shared the news that she was signing up with a production company that wanted to make a major television series of the Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez and revealed that she had been approached by no less than four similar companies.

Her blog helped her to keep in touch with her readers with whom she shared her thoughts on various topics – her dog Suki included – as well as her expertise on aspects of writing and research.

Once, discussing the sources of her inspiratio­n, including characters who she found simply stepped into her consciousn­ess, she pondered: “How does it happen? It is one of the mysteries of writing. It is as though these people are already there, just on the other side of a thin veil. You have only to draw it aside and they come forth.”

Predecease­d by their daughter Katrina, she is survived by her husband David, children Tanya, Michael, Nikki and Richard and 11 grandchild­ren.


The Scotsman welcomes obituaries and appreciati­ons from contributo­rs as well as suggestion­s of possible obituary subjects.

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