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The Papers of Betty Behrens

Reference Code: GBR/0014/BEHR

Scope and Contents

The papers consist of: reading notes on both European and British history and also on historiography and other subjects; notes and offprints from Behrens's own writing and publications, on European and British history and also historiography; some reviews; correspondence relating to Behrens's work; lecture notes; some personal material, including sketches and notes for an autobiography; papers relating to the work of Behrens's husband E H Carr.


  • 1938-08 - 1985-08


Conditions Governing Access

With the exception of one file of thesis reports, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers wishing to publish excerpts from the papers must obtain prior permission from the copyright holders and should seek advice from Archives Centre staff.

Biographical / Historical

Betty Behrens, as her professional colleagues called her (though some of her friends seem to have called her Jane), was born in 1904, into a privileged family. She was privately educated by governesses and grew up speaking French and German as well as English. She also travelled extensively. In 1925 she went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, on a scholarship, and took a First in History in 1927. She then spent a year as a Commonwealth Fellow at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts [United States] before returning to Oxford in the 1930's as a research student at University College. This distinguished academic career was crowned by her appointment to Cambridge University as a University Lecturer in History in 1938, when she was just 34 years old. Behrens continued as a lecturer from 1939 to 1941, then for the rest of the war worked as an official historian for the Ministry of Shipping. She returned to Cambridge in 1946, once again as Lecturer in History, and continued in this post from 1946 to 1966, when she married E.H. Carr (his third, her first marriage). She spent the remaining years of her life in the pursuit of academic study, publishing her last book in 1985 at the age of 81. Behrens was a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1935-67), then of Clare Hall, Cambridge (1967-72) and finally a fellow emeritus of Clare Hall (1972-86). She died in 1989.

Three things emerge from Betty Behrens's papers. She read extensively in many areas, not just history, and made notes on what she read. From these it is clear that she read in what C. S. Lewis called the "good" sense - that is she read to feed her mind and her curiosity. She read critically, and had very little patience with poor writing. Some of her comments are typical: (on an book on German politics) "I am unable to see that this is a good book - I think it v. badly done ...". David Lodge's novel 'Small World' she thought "... v. funny & v. clever ..."; but of Jeffrey Archer's 'First Among Equals' she commented that although it was very popular she found it "just boring", and of Genet's 'Madonna of the Flowers' she wrote that having read 133 pages she didn't think she would bother to read any more, the French was too slangy and tiresome.

It is also obvious that she was as critical of herself as she was of others. One note book is endorsed "Books read at the age of 38 when I sh'd have known better." The correspondence relating to her reviews is mostly concerned with her anxiety that the reviews may not be what the journal wants, and Rosalind Gilmour (in an obituary) comments of her final book 'Society, Government and the Enlightenment', that it was fortunate that "her driving determination to distil her thought and clarify her writing had been sufficiently satisfied to enable the publishers to get the book away from her". Her reading notes bear evidence of rereading and much organisation of thoughts in marginal notes, underlinings and other annotations. Of herself in a letter she wrote: "I just don't do my job nearly as well as many did. It would have been nice to be Voltaire."

The final thing which emerges is that she cared passionately about her subject and the way it was taught. A long correspondence with Herbert Butterfield concerns the nature of History. Her later letters to the press are concerned with whether history is being destroyed or debilitated by modern approaches. Betty Behrens was appointed to her lectureship in 1938 and was therefore one of that remarkable group of successful women academics of the early part of this century. In the 1970s she became concerned at the decline in the numbers of women on the Faculty of History and began to gather evidence on the numbers of women employed and appointed to lectureships. At least part of her concern was with the waste or underemployment of human resources - put crudely she believed that many of the women without official lectureships were better teachers than the men who held them. Behrens's major publications were: 'Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War' (Official History, 1955); 'The Ancien Regime' (Thames and Hudson, 1967); 'Society, Government and the Enlightenment: The experience of Eighteenth Century France and Prussia' (Thames and Hudson, 1985). She also published numerous articles and review articles, particularly for the New York Review of Books and the Historical Journal and also a piece on the French Revolution for 'English Speaking Peoples' and an entry for an Encyclopedia (probably Britannica) on Austria.


19 archive box(es)

Language of Materials



The major problem with the papers might be termed one of stationery. Betty Behrens read with a pen in her hand and took extensive notes. She was not especially fussy about what she wrote on. Notes were found on the reverse of bills, invoices, circulars, correspondence, corrected proofs and previous (earlier) notes. They were also found on the reverse of copies of confidential papers (applications/ CVs/ references etc.) connected with applications for Visiting fellowships at Clare Hall. Because of the security problem posed by these latter papers (75 year closure), the following procedure was adopted: the notes were copied (onto yellow paper) and the originals were shredded. Into each file so affected a note was inserted stating that this had been done. A list of the papers shredded was compiled. See Appendix 2.

Betty Behrens had at some stage clearly numbered her folders but the numbers were both incomplete and inconsistent. They were therefore not found to be especially useful for cataloguing. Files were in many cases annotated with a list of the contents, this was copied and placed in the file. Titles in quotation marks are her own. Where no title was given the files have been numbered according to contents. Files as created by Betty Behrens were retained and not combined (except in one case). She also "bundled" her papers, usually with metal split clips; these were removed and plastic paper clips substituted, so that papers she considered to be a unit were kept together. In many cases it is not possible to date the papers.

The papers were found to consist chiefly of academic papers, with a few personal papers - many of these incidental in the sense that they were used as stationery. The papers have been listed in the following groups:- Reading notes; Writings and Publications; Correspondence; Lectures and other academic responsibilities; Personal. Some items were placed in more than one section due to overlap. The numbers are processing numbers only and refer to the order in which papers were box listed. Those with "ADD" as part of the number are from the second deposit.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

The papers were in good condition, apart from creasing and the fact that some papers had been secured into bundles with elastic bands (perished). Some pages compiled by cut and paste methods with sellotape had also come apart.

Other Finding Aids

A copy of this finding aid and of a fuller catalogue is available at Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers of Betty Behrens were deposited in Churchill Archives Centre in 1990 as the result of the initiative of Christine, Lady Bondi. The papers were a gift to the Archives by Dr Jonathan Steinberg (Trinity Hall), Behrens's Literary Executor with the permission of her stepson John Carr, the Executor of her Estate. A further set of papers was received from Dr Steinberg in 1992 and 2015. The two earlier sections were box listed separately, but were combined for complete cataloguing in 1996.


This collection (fonds) level description was prepared by Katharine Thomson of Churchill Archives Centre in July 2004 and was taken from an existing catalogue created by Averil Condren in April 1996.


Behrens, Catherine Betty Abigail

2004-07-21 08:36:56.670000+00:00
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Churchill Archives Centre Repository

Churchill Archives Centre
Churchill College
Cambridge Cambridgeshire CB3 0DS United Kingdom
+44 (0)1223 336087