When Audrey Donnithorne, who has died at the age of 97, was just two years old, she was kidnapped by Red Lamp bandits in Sichuan, China, along with her parents and six others. Led into the mountains with their necks in a halter, the captives feared for their lives, though Audrey managed to ease some of the tension by chatting away in Chinese to the “naughty men”. This dramatic incident set the tone for the rest of her extraordinary life.
Audrey Gladys Donnithorne was born on November 27 1922 to Vyvyan and Gladys Donnithorne, evangelical Anglican missionaries. For the first four years of her life Audrey was a Sichuan country girl, but in 1927 the family was forced to leave China as Guomindang forces pushed northwards. Audrey was, therefore, educated in England, though she chose to rejoin her parents, by then back in China, when the Second World War broke out. While many people were leaving the continent, Audrey headed for France and, from there, sailed back home.
Audrey was determined to recover both her Chinese language skills and her Sichuanese accent. She also found herself increasingly, though reluctantly, drawn towards the Catholic faith. She tried to read herself out of these Catholic leanings but it was while studying the Anglican Bishop Jewel’s Apology for the Church of England “that the thought first gripped and terrified me that I might, after all, have to become a Catholic”. Her parents were horrified, so she waited until she was back in Britain before she took the final plunge.
Her journey back to Britain during the war was another hair-raising experience, since the only route out was over Japanese-occupied Burma in a plane that was scarcely up to the task. Safely back in the UK, Audrey worked in the War Office, where one night she took a phone call from Winston Churchill himself after filing her intelligence report: “On what grounds do you refer to Myitkyina as a city?” he asked. Audrey was impressed by such attention to detail on the Prime Minister’s part.
After the war, she went up to Somerville College, Oxford to study “a mish-mash of ill-assorted chunks of information, often at cross-purposes”, or PPE as it is more commonly known. Audrey did not flourish at Oxford and in one memorable passage from her memoirs, China in Life’s Foreground, she bracketed studying economic theory with the making of crêpe de chine underwear as “the most wasteful parts of my formal education”,
However, she did meet some interesting people, notably Elizabeth Anscombe, for whom she babysat, and Margaret Roberts (later Margaret Thatcher), from whom she took over as college secretary for the Conservatives. A few years later, when the future PM was out campaigning, Audrey cooked her “an awful meal of stew” using the plug-in electric cooker on the floor of her attic room because she couldn’t afford to take her out for a meal.
Audrey made her academic reputation at UCL – and also persuaded the CND campaigner Bruce Kent to move the university chaplaincy to its present location in Gower Street – before moving to the Australian National University after publishing China’s Economic System, the authoritative account of China’s economy under Mao.
She soon became a prominent figure in the culture wars of that time, working tirelessly for the pro-life cause, handing over part of her house to Vietnamese refugees, and opposing radical feminism. When it became clear that the rise of Women’s Studies was unstoppable, she suggested to the university authorities that the course should include a chunk of Marian theology. They ignored her advice.
The most extraordinary chapter of Audrey’s life began after her retirement to Hong Kong. Little can safely be said about the work she did at that time, helping the Church in China to rebuild, but one day the true magnitude of her achievements will be revealed. Even after her expulsion from the mainland in 1997, Audrey continued to work tirelessly for the Church in China, her Hong Kong flat becoming the hub of a network of people ranging from cardinals to her many godchildren, to each of whom she was devoted. She is an inspiration to them and us all.