Lettice Ramsey in her studio

Lettice Ramsey in her Cambridge studio, 1978 Sunday Times magazine (John Lawrence-Jones)

Last month I was invited to talk to the Mill Road History Society about the life and work of Lettice Ramsey. From 1932-1978 she was one half of the celebrated photographic team, Ramsey & Muspratt, and their portraits of the Bloomsbury group and Cambridge spies are still widely reproduced today. While her professional partner Helen Muspratt expanded their business in Oxford, Ramsey worked in Cambridge until the late 1970s and was described as ‘Cambridge’s First Lady’.

One of the nice things about giving this talk in Cambridge was hearing others’ personal memories of Lettice Ramsey, and seeing delightful family photographs taken by her that had been carefully preserved. I am very grateful to everyone who got in touch with me to share their stories and images. There are links to my previous posts about Lettice Ramsey here, and below is a video of my talk on 11 October 2022.

My thanks to the Mill Road History Society and to the Cambridgeshire Collection for its archives; to Peter Lofts whose archival website of Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs is here, and to Jessica Sutcliffe for her excellent book Face: Shape and Angle, Helen Muspratt Photographer (MUP, 2016).

Inez Milholland (1886-1916)

Inez Milholland at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, Washington D. C., 1913 © Courtesy Library of Congress

Inez Milholland was born and spent her early childhood in New York. In 1899, when she was thirteen, her entrepreneur father moved his family to London, and Inez acquired an English accent and (after meeting Emmeline Pankhurst) budding suffragist convictions. She returned to New York to study at the élite women’s college of Vassar, and because suffrage activism was banned by the college president, she led a group of her fellow students to a nearby cemetery ‘to listen to impassioned outpourings about the wrongs of their sex while seated on cherub-carved tombstones’.

After graduating in 1909, Inez sailed back to London and took part in increasingly activist suffrage rallies. Having been turned down by Cambridge University, she brought her radical politics back to New York and was labelled a ‘New Woman’ by newspaper reporters who were fascinated by her good looks and fashionable appearance. When she stood alongside striking textile workers on a New York picket line (in an evening gown as she was going to the opera afterwards) the New York Times article was headlined “Inez Milholland Helping”.

Milholland became a lawyer handling criminal and divorce cases in New York, and never gave up her campaigning. Recognizing the vote-winning value of a photo opportunity, in 1913 she led the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington D.C. in suitably eye-catching style, wearing a coronet and a long white cape, while riding a white horse. Her story – along with that of the ‘Heterodoxy’ club she belonged to – is told in Joanna Scutts’s excellent new group biography, Hotbed: Bohemian New York and the secret club that sparked modern feminism (Duckworth). My review, ‘Dynamite debates: female autonomy in the early twentieth century’ is in this week’s TLS. I was pleased to see that the Readers’ Catalog of the New York Review of Books is offering greetings cards featuring a poster of this famous image (see above), acknowledging the important – and very stylish – part that Inez Milholland played in the fight for women’s suffrage.

Copyright Ann Kennedy Smith, 10 October 2022, all rights reserved

The Queen and E.M. Forster

Image of Queen Elizabeth II on coronation postage stamp, 1953

In 1952, at the age of 73, the author E.M. Forster moved into a set of rooms in King’s College, Cambridge as an Honorary Fellow, where he enjoyed the life of a feted author with few college duties (see my TLS article here). He was offered a ‘Companion of Honour’ in Queen Elizabeth II’s first New Year’s Honours list. Although previously he had turned down a knighthood, he now decided to accept a ‘CH’, he explained, because he preferred honours that came after his name.

The investiture was held at Buckingham Palace in February 1953, and Forster enjoyed every minute of it. When the young Queen told him what a shame it was that he had not written a book since A Passage to India in 1924, he politely corrected her. His collection of reviews and essays Two Cheers for Democracy had been published to general acclaim in 1951, he told her, and he had recently collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. (Alan Bennett imagines what the Queen might have thought of their meeting in his charming story, ‘The Uncommon Reader’ published in the London Review of Books here.)

Forster was unexpectedly moved by the occasion. He ‘returned to Cambridge in a glow of loyalty, declaring that if the Queen had been a boy, he would have fallen in love with her’ (Furbank, 289). Meeting the young Queen and thinking about all the royal duties she had inherited made Forster think again about the imaginative importance of tradition. As his biographer and friend P.N. Furbank writes, ‘though he rejected patriotism and had renounced ‘roots in the land’, he believed in tradition.’

Back in his college rooms, sorting through old family letters, Forster thought about his great-aunt Marianne Thornton and her posthumous influence. She had attended the newly crowned George III’s opening of Parliament as a child, something she never forgot, and lived through most of the nineteenth century. It was thanks to her legacy that Forster had been able to study at Cambridge, and later travel to Italy and become a full-time writer.

He decided to write about his great-aunt as a way of honouring her gift to him and exploring the historic links they shared. Marianne Thornton, published in 1956, connects and develops themes familiar from Forster’s fiction, including the loss of a beloved home, forbidden passions and second chances, and the final section is a moving account of his own young life, his only published memoir. It’s likely that, if she had ever managed to find the time to read E.M. Forster’s final book, Queen Elizabeth would have enjoyed it.

Ann Kennedy Smith, September 2022, all rights reserved.


Alan Bennett, ‘The Uncommon Reader’, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

PN Furbank, EM Forster: A Life, 1978

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Prayers Before Plenty’, Slightly Foxed, 88, Summer 2018; republished in my blog as ‘Marianne Thornton: EM Forster’s biography-memoir’

Barbara Pym’s renaissance

Virago Modern Classics 2022, editions of Barbara Pym’s novels

The poet Philip Larkin was one of Barbara Pym’s most devoted fans. ‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail,’ he told his editor at Faber in the late 1960s. Larkin’s admiration for the novelist’s ‘rueful yet courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it’ was heartfelt. His friend had been out in the cold as a writer for years, ever since being dropped unceremoniously by her publisher at Jonathan Cape in 1963. She had published five widely praised novels with them, including the bestselling Excellent Women (1952), but without even reading her new manuscript, the editor Tom Maschler decided that Pym was past her sell-by date.  

Larkin’s poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, published in 1974, humorously describes how his generation felt left out of the ‘swinging sixties’ era. ‘Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me/ Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’. But while his poetry collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) was selling well, it seemed that Barbara Pym’s novels – and their loyal readers – belonged to the past.

Then, in 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year, there was a remarkable turnaround. This was largely thanks to Larkin’s continued admiration for her as a writer, as I write in my article ‘The ascent of Barbara Pym’, published in The Critic magazine today. Since then, her books have never been out of print, and nine of her novels were reissued by Virago in their distinguished ‘Virago Modern Classics’ series in this Platinum Jubilee year. It’s good to think that Barbara Pym’s future in the twenty-first century literary canon seems assured.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 4 September 2022

Charles Darwin’s conversations

Darwin’s two field notebooks, recovered in April 2022, Cambridge University Library

In April 2022, two of Charles Darwin’s field notebooks (one containing his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch) made headline news all over the world. They had been missing from Cambridge University Library for almost twenty years despite extensive searches (see BBC report here) and the UL’s Librarian Dr Jessica Garner decided that these priceless objects had probably been stolen rather than misplaced. Following advice from the police and Interpol, a public appeal for help was launched. Almost two years later, all the CUL staff were delighted when the notebooks were safely, and anonymously, left outside the Librarian’s office in a pink gift bag. An excellent new University of Cambridge podcast discusses the mystery of the missing notebooks.

The notebooks are the pocket-sized stars of the exhibition, ‘Darwin in Conversation’ at the Cambridge University Library from 9 July – December 2022 (it will be in The New York Public Library from from April – July 2023). The exhibition comes at the completion of almost 50 years of the Darwin Correspondence Project, founded in 1974 and currently directed by James Secord and Alison Pearn. 2022 marks the last volume of the print edition going to press, and the thirty volumes will contain more than 15000 letters. In November 2022 all of these, with extensive contextual notes, have been made available to read free online as part of the Project’s vast digital archive.

‘Darwin in Conversation’ exhibition, CUL

Darwin’s most extensive correspondence was with his close scientific friends Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray and Thomas Huxley, and letters were Darwin’s principal way of sharing his ideas with them and other scientists, especially after the first Origin of Species was published in 1859. (Darwin updated five further editions in his lifetime, ‘each edition taking those conversations forward’ as Alison Pearn has said). Letters also acted as his primary research tool and a way of seeking out information from the general public. During his lifetime Darwin corresponded with around 2,000 people around the world, in what biographer Janet Browne calls ‘an ever-expanding web of scientific correspondence’ spinning outwards from his study in Kent. In Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003), she describes how Darwin corresponded with ‘civil servants, army officers, diplomats, fur-trappers, horse-breeders, society ladies, Welsh hill-farmers, zookeepers, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners, asylum owners and kennel hands’ (p.10). By 1877 it is estimated that he had spent the equivalent of £2,000 on postage and stationery.

Several of Darwin’s correspondents were scientific women, who at the time were excluded from the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Linnean Society. In her book Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (CUP, 2017) Samantha Evans includes letters from the botanist Lydia E. Becker, who was setting up a small scientific society for women in Manchester and asked Darwin for a copy of one of his botanical papers ‘such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness’ (Evans, p. 212). In January 1867 Darwin sent Becker two papers from his sickbed, revealing his positive attitude to women in science, and Becker and her group were touched by the his kindness (see my post ‘The ascent of women at Cambridge’ here).

More than 9,000 of the 15,000 letters that Darwin is known to have written and received are held at the Cambridge University Library, and this new exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see some of them, along with the ‘Tree of Life’ notebooks and much else. It runs until 3 December 2022, and tickets can be booked here. It is accompanied by a contemporary photographic commission by Leonora Saunders re-imagining people who connected with Darwin through letters: ‘those that were rarely seen – and lesser heard’ including Lydia Becker.

Ann Kennedy Smith, July 2022, all rights reserved.

Lydia E. Becker imagined by Leonora Saunders, for ‘Darwin in Conversation’ exhibition, CUL