Beginnings

RBLIn my previous post I wrote about the 1881 Senate vote at the University of Cambridge giving women the right, for the first time, to take final exams. Ida Darwin had written to her sister-in-law Henrietta Litchfield (née Darwin) asking her to encourage her husband Richard Buckley Litchfield to travel to Cambridge to support women’s education there. ( Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece shows him being fussed over by Henrietta) As a former student and tutor of Trinity College he had the right to vote on University matters. As it turned out, the vote was won by a large majority, although Cambridge degrees were still some way in the future for women, who were not admitted to membership of the University until December 1947. The present Queen’s mother was the first woman to be awarded the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Laws (Honorary) in October 1948.

Samantha Evans is author of the excellent Darwin and Women (CUP, 2017) which I reviewed here. In her book Evans describes how Charles Darwin’s ideas were affected by the women scientists he corresponded with, as well as his wife Emma and daughters Henrietta and Bessy’s active engagement in lifelong learning.

Women in their circle, even without raising an particular banner, were extraordinarily active: they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women. (Evans, p. 210)

Even so, Emma Darwin was not in favour of complete equality. Last week I came across Evans’ fascinating article (see link here) about Emma Darwin’s attitudes to higher education for women. In March 1881 Emma wrote to her son George about the recent vote.

You heard of the triumphant vote for the girls at Cambridge having their places in the exam. made public. Horace went to tell them about it & was received w. clapping. Afterward they put all their candles & lamps in the windows & ended w. a dance. R. thinks it is the beginning of the end & (I believe), that they will turn out as badly as the Russian young lady Doctors at Zurich.’ (DAR 251: 1002 Emma Darwin to G. H. Darwin, 7 March 1881.)

Horace, Ida’s husband, was so elated with the good news that he rushed to Newnham to celebrate with them, but his brother-in-law ‘R.’ (Richard Buckley Litchfield) felt very differently. Ida had assumed that Richard shared the Darwins’ liberal attitudes to women’s education, but when it came to his old university it seems that he wanted to keep the status quo. He was worried that by giving women the right to take exams Cambridge had gone too far and it would mean “the beginning of the end” for its continuing success as a university.

In her article, Evans explains that the ‘Russian young lady doctors’ who went to Zurich to study medicine were told in 1873 that they would not be offered appointments in Russia on their return. Effectively, their education would be worthless, and they faced a stark choice of either their country or their work. Richard Litchfield was arguing that there was little point in women trying to get a Cambridge education, because they wouldn’t be allowed into the professions in any case. Yet Litchfield was himself a forward-thinking educator. In 1854 he was one of the group who founded London’s Working Men’s College at 31 Lion Square in Bloomsbury to provide artisans with the chance for an education. It was one of the first adult education institutions, and its nineteenth-century teachers included Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and William Morris. EM Forster and Seamus Heaney were among those who taught there in the twentieth century. There’s an informative UCL history project on the college here.

In 1864, Elizabeth Malleson opened the Working Women’s College just round the corner at 29 Queen Square. She wanted the two colleges to merge, but the council of the male college (including Litchfield, who taught there for many years) resisted. Perhaps he felt it would be the beginning of the end for the institution he had done so much to establish. It was only in 1966 that women were admitted to the college, eight years after the first women gained degrees at Cambridge. Now known as WMC -The Camden College, it provides courses to men and women today, particularly for those who have missed out on traditional educational opportunities, including the unemployed, older adults and refugee learners.

It is wonderful that the WMC has had such a long and successful history, but Litchfield was wrong to fear women students as he did. This year, from 14 October, Cambridge University celebrates beginnings: ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibitions, events and talks will mark 150 years of women at Cambridge, 1869-2019.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 14 July 2019. All rights reserved.

The 1881 vote

Women at Cambridge

 

On the 19 February 1881 Ida Darwin sat down in her home in Hills Road, Cambridge to write an urgent letter to Henrietta Litchfield, her sister-in-law. They had been friends for years, long before Ida had married Henrietta’s brother Horace just over a year before, and often wrote to one another. But this letter was different. It was not about either of them, but about women’s rights in the future. ‘There is great excitement at Newnham & Girton about the voting which is to take place next Thursday’, Ida told her,

which will decide the fate of women up here for some time to come. I have sent a circular about it to Frank [Darwin] who says he will come up if he can. Could & would Richard come too? If the women do not get the certificate granted to them this time, their position will be worse than it has been, as they will lose the privilege of being examined by the University examiners.

Ida was referring to the Senate vote – about to take place on 24 February 1881 – on whether Cambridge University’s final year Tripos examinations should be opened to female students by right, not by favour as had been the case until then. Every M.A. (male graduate) who could attend the vote counted, so Ida was attempting to round up as many of the Darwins’ extended family as she could.

Since 1874 twenty-one women had been granted special permission to take the Tripos, and all had succeeded, with four being placed in the First Class. By 1881, even though there was still no question of female students being awarded degrees, pressure had been building on Cambridge to give some sort of formal recognition to its female students, particularly since London University had opened its degrees to women three years before. In 1880 a petition known as the Newcastle Memorial had obtained over eight thousand signatures from across Britain calling for Cambridge University to grant ‘to properly qualified women the right to admission to the Examinations for University Degrees’.

The Memorial had come as a surprise to the leaders of both of the women’s colleges, but Newnham College’s Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick and the college Principal Anne Clough felt that the time was right to move forward. Emily Davies at Girton argued that the proposal did not go far enough, but reluctantly accepted that Girton had to support it. She knew that if the vote was defeated it might mean the end of the women’s colleges’ tentative relationship with the University.

Ida Darwin had made many friends at Newnham, including Helen Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter and Ellen Crofts, a young lecturer in English. Horace’s mother Emma Darwin knew Anne Clough well, and his sisters Henrietta and Bessy attended lectures at London University. Before she married, Ida had longed to study at the newly founded Somerville College at Oxford; now that she found herself in Cambridge as a wife, not a student, she wanted to help others, and was determined that more doors into higher education should be opened to women in the future.

On 24 February the Senate House was packed with about 400 M.A.s and Henry Sidgwick was pleasantly surprised when it dawned on him that almost everyone there was in favour of the women’s vote. ‘Ultimately, with great trouble, I discovered the enemy seated in a depressed manner on a couple of benches in one corner, about thirty in number,’ he later wrote. The Graces allowing women students to take the Tripos were passed by 366 votes to 32: Ida and others’ efforts to round up supporters had worked. In Kent, Charles and Emma Darwin rejoiced when they heard the news. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles told his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’

But in their celebrations of February 1881 neither the Darwins nor Ida and her Newnham friends could have known that rather than the beginning, this vote represented the end of something. The optimistic belief that women were slowly but surely making progress towards equal membership of the University did not last. From 1881 on, votes began to be blocked by ever more stubborn resistance by the forces of reaction in the Senate who feared that the status quo would be changed. The photograph on the cover of Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s book above shows the thousands who gathered in 1897 to defeat the Senate’s vote to allow women degrees.

By then women at Cambridge, both in and outside the colleges, had discovered that they would have to rely on themselves, not votes at the Senate. From the 1880s on they formed women-led associations and societies to work together towards the better future that they all wanted.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 1 July 2019

Sources: Ida’s letter to H. Litchfield is Add.9864.1: 5977, C. Darwin’s letter is DAR 210.1:103, both from the Darwin Papers held at Cambridge University Library; other quotes are from Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s chapter ‘1881 Admission to Examinations’ in her excellent Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998) (pp 70-84). See also my post ‘The Ascent of Women at Cambridge’.

 

Secret Lives 2

41OR-n3sB5L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_My review of  Gavin McCrea’s first novel, Mrs Engels: the second in a series of occasional book reviews.

Mrs Engels strikes a very different tone to Natasha Walter’s A Quiet Life, with her cool, sophisticated protagonist. It is also based on the life of a real woman: Lizzie Burns, the Manchester-Irish mill worker from the slums who became the lover of Friedrich Engels, and moved to London with him in 1870. Engels is famous as the co-founder of Marxist theory, but very little is known about his life partner. Lizzie was illiterate, so left no letters or diaries, and Gavin McCrea’s novel tells her story by imagining her language and unique point of view.

And what a voice! Lizzie, in McCrea’s fictional version of her, has a turn of phrase that is hilarious – poetic, hair-raising and heart-breaking – and she holds firm, take-no-prisoners views on life and love. At the beginning of the book she advises all unmarried women not to be fooled by romantic ideas when it comes to choosing a husband:

What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping – is the mint that jingles in his pockets. In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.

Lizzie is a born survivor. Her working class background has given her a searing contempt for the foibles and hypocrisies of the political men and women around her, but to the outward eye she is discreet as she moves through the intellectual drawing rooms of London. She is good at keeping secrets, and the women around her (including Marx’s put-upon wife Jenny, his mistress Nim and renegade daughter Tussy) insist on confiding in her, even when she does not want them to. But Lizzie is fundamentally kind, and a good listener: ‘My memory is in my ears’ she says. It is a survival mechanism that conceals her hidden illiteracy.

She has other secrets too, both personal and political. As readers, we are the only ones who know what is really going on in her mind as she struggles with the contradictions in her life. Her memories of her sister Mary (Engels’ former mistress) dominate her thoughts, and their shared story is threaded through the main narrative. For all her fierce humour and insistence on money being the only thing that matters, we know that Lizzie seeks a legitimacy of her own and gradually finds it through a growing self-awareness.

Both Natasha Walter (see previous post) and Gavin McCrea use fiction to explore the essential truth, as they see it, about real-life central female characters. When I read letters in the archive I sometimes feel as if I am spying on women’s secret lives, but my excuse is that their stories deserve to be told.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 15 June 2019

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe, 2016). This is an edited version of my review first published on the Shiny New Books blog.

Secret Lives 1

A Quiet Life, by Natasha Walter (Borough Press, 2017)

I spend a lot of my time reading other people’s letters. Researching the lives and work of the women who moved to Cambridge as its first female students and university wives in the 1870s and 1880s means that I have to read their private diaries and correspondence to family and friends. It’s the only way to find out more about them, but sometimes I feel like a spy.

In my spare time I read fiction as well as biography, so I was interested in the journalist and campaigner Natasha Walter’s first novel. She is the author of two excellent nonfiction books, The New Feminism (1998) and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2010). Her novel A Quiet Life tells the story of the fictional Laura Last, who moves to England in 1939, falls in love with an upper middle-class Englishman and becomes deeply involved in his dangerous world of spying. It is loosely based on the life of the American Melinda Marling, ‘the communist in the Schiaparelli coat’ as she was known, who was married to the Cambridge spy, Donald Maclean.

There is no evidence that the real Melinda ever took part in, or knew about, her husband’s treacherous activities. She followed him to the East in 1953, taking their children and her secrets with her. A Quiet Life is, Walter says, ‘not a history book’ but an edge-of-the seat spy thriller about an extraordinary woman who is fatally underestimated by everyone around her. Laura, the chief protagonist of this novel, is able to take enormous risks for her work precisely because she seems so conventional. She is adept at presenting a perfectly made-up face to the world, but it comes at a personal cost.

Her story is mainly replayed in flashback, from the moment when, as a socially awkward young woman, she boards an ocean liner taking her from New York to London on the eve of war in 1939. She is drawn to Florence, a young Communist, both for her principles and her innate self-confidence:

Laura realised that she was one of the first women she had ever met who appeared to have no physical uncertainty. Her dress was shabby, her hair unwaved and her eyebrows unplucked, but her gestures were expansive and her voice determined. Laura had been brought up into the certain knowledge that a woman’s body and voice were always potential sources of shame, that only by intense scrutiny and control could one become acceptable.

The friendship with Florence triggers a series of events: Laura’s growing political awareness, meeting and falling in love with Edward, taking up work as a photographer and a spy. Walter cleverly intertwines a gripping plot with perceptive insights into the other aspects of her life that Laura, like every woman of her time, has to conceal, to maintain the illusion of ‘her own work of femininity’.

A little while ago there was a fuss about whether the actor who plays the next James Bond incarnation could be a woman. He is now to be scripted (at least in part) by the acclaimed writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Historically, women have always been rather good at keeping secrets. What secrets did our own mothers and grandmothers keep? There may be much more beneath the surface of every ‘quiet life’ than we suspect.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 8 June 2019 (all rights reserved)

This is an edited version of a review first published on the Shiny New Books website. Natasha Walter campaigns for Women for Refugee Women, which ‘aims to give a voice to women who are all too often unheard and unseen’: http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/

The education of Mary Paley Marshall

This year marks 150 years since Cambridge University opened its doors to women for the first time. Girton College‘s founder Emily Davies was clear that ‘the College is intended to be a dependency, a living branch of Cambridge.’ In October 1869, however, its connections to the University were still uncertain. Davies herself insisted that her college should be based at Hitchin, far enough away to keep her students safe from the unwanted attention of male students.

There was another, equally significant event for women’s education at Cambridge that year. In December 1869, what historian Rita Mc Williams-Tullberg has described as ‘a momentous meeting’ took place in the Brookside drawing-room of Millicent Fawcett and her professor husband Henry Fawcett. The Cambridge Higher Local Examination for Women had come into being not long before, primarily to establish standards for women over eighteen who wanted to become teachers or governesses. But the Fawcetts and a small group of supporters of women’s university education, including Henry Sidgwick, wanted to take it further. They decided that the Higher Local Examination should be used as a stepping stone for women to attend lectures in the town itself, and within a few months of this meeting, Cambridge’s first series of Lectures for Women began. This blogpost is about one of the first women who passed that entrance examination in 1871, and found herself staying in Cambridge for longer than she or anyone else expected.

Mary Paley Marshall

Mary Paley was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century theologian and philosopher William Paley. She grew up in a rose-covered rectory in the village of Ufford in Northamptonshire, about forty miles north of Cambridge. Her father, the Reverend Thomas Paley, was a strict Evangelical clergyman whose powerful sermons shook the little church and baffled the congregation, as Mary wrote in her memoir What I Remember. Her mother Judith, by contrast, was ‘full of initiative and always bright and amusing’. Summers at the rectory were idyllic for Mary and her brother and sister, who spent happy days playing croquet and rounders in the garden and looking after their Shetland pony, rabbits and hens. Visitors came to stay for weeks on end and there were outings to Scarborough and Hunstanton. Winters were dull, especially after their brother was sent off to boarding school. The muddy country roads around the rectory were impassable and there were few interesting people to see. Their bright German governess left when Mary was thirteen, and she and her sister were expected to fill their time with Sunday school teaching and keeping their mother company in visiting the poor and sick.

Fortunately for Mary, her father had an unusual attitude to learning. Reverend Paley did not see why his daughters’ education should stop at age thirteen or be limited to certain subjects. ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, Mary recalled. He even entertained the whole village occasionally with his scientific demonstrations. At home in the evenings he read aloud to his children everything from The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels and the Iliad to Shakespeare and Walter Scott, ‘those fireside bulwarks of the old-fashioned home evenings’ as F.M. Mayor wrote in The Rector’s Daughter, a wonderful evocation of a similar Victorian upbringing published in 1924.* Reverend Paley’s strong religious principles meant that there were limits, however. He disapproved of the novels of Charles Dickens and once threw his Mary and her sister’s beloved dolls into the fire: ‘he said we were making them into idols and we never had any more.’

When her sister left home to get married, Mary’s own duties seemed duller than ever. To give his bright daughter something to do, and perhaps dissuade her from marrying an army officer, Reverend Paley encouraged her to enter for the Cambridge Higher Local Examination. He set about coaching Mary in divinity and mathematics and they studied Potts’ Euclid’s Elements of Geometry together. Although she wept over the ‘Conic Sections’ paper, Mary passed the examination with distinction in the summer of 1871, and was awarded a small scholarship to attend the University’s Lectures for Women on condition that she resided in Cambridge.

At the time, the idea that single women might live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Mary said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’. Fortunately for her, her father had met Anne Jemima Clough, whom Henry Sidgwick had asked to take charge of the house at 74 Regent Street near the centre of Cambridge (later it moved to Newnham and, like Girton, became a college). Mary would be one of five students living there. Reverend Paley’s admiration for Miss Clough’s commitment to women’s higher education and his pride in his daughter’s achievements helped him to overcome his misgivings, and he gave Mary permission to leave home.

In her memoir Mary described how she came to Cambridge for ‘general cultivation’ and only expected to stay for three terms. She chose to study Latin, History, Literature and Logic, which Reverend Paley thought of as ‘such a safe subject’. But if he thought that his daughter would be unchanged by a Cambridge education he was mistaken. In her first term Mary obediently attended evangelical services and taught at St Giles’s Sunday school, as her father wished. But soon, she said, ‘Mill’s Inductive Logic and Ecce Homo and Herbert Spencer and the general tone of thought gradually undermined my old beliefs.’ Nothing was ever the same again for Mary, or for the generations of women who have followed her to gain a Cambridge education.

In 1874 Mary Paley was one of the first two women to take Cambridge University’s Moral Sciences Tripos (final examinations) in Political Economy, Politics and Philosophy, and she became the university’s first residential woman lecturer in economics at Newnham College in 1875. In 1924, as Mary Paley Marshall, she co-founded the University’s Marshall Library of Economics where she also worked until she was 87. See also my previous blogpost on Mary Paley Marshall’s life and work,  ‘How to use a library’, here.

Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019

Sources: Rita McWilliams Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men’s university, though of a mixed type (1975); Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (1947); F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter (Virago Modern Classics, 1924, reissued by Virago in 1987). The Rector’s Daughter one of the ‘overlooked classics’ recommended by Susan Hill in The Novel Cure (2013). Flora Macdonald Mayor’s character, coincidentally also called Mary, is the unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in a small East Anglian village. The fictional Mary did not sit for Cambridge’s Higher Local Examination or marry, so there was no escape from her rector’s daughter’s duties: “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” F.M. Mayor herself attended Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s where she read History. It is likely that she met Mary Paley Marshall who was teaching economics while she was there.

Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures

eleanorsidgwickpcf

Portrait of Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1889; (c) Newnham College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

During the 1890s Eleanor Sidgwick (always known as ‘Nora’ as by her friends) loved taking part in the regular Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society discussions. ‘I have never anywhere else seen her more alive & interested,’ her friend and fellow-member Louise Creighton recalled. ‘She used to quite flush with excitement.’ (Creighton, 97) It’s a delightful image that seems to contradict the serious face of the woman in the portrait that hangs in Newnham College, Cambridge today (see above). She was the college’s first Vice-Principal and its second Principal at the end of the Victorian era, and taught mathematics to its students. ‘We had immense respect for her,’ one of them later recalled, ‘she was soft-voiced, slight in figure and generally pale in colouring, but in her grey eyes shone the light of the pure intellectual, quite unconscious of itself, but making one painfully aware of one’s own amateurish inferiority.’ (Phillips, 54)

Although she was known for her ‘fastidious austerity’ (Fowler, 7), Nora’s students knew that she could take a joke. One college production in 1895 featured a lively song with the lines: ”Mrs Sidgwick she up an’ sez ‘Look at the fax/…the one thing we ax/Is – do treat a girl as a rational creature.” (Fowler, 20) Her marriage to Newnham’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick was both an affectionate and a deeply rational partnership, based on working together to promote equal higher education opportunities for women. (They also shared a lifelong passion for psychical research, and probably met during a séance at her brother Arthur Balfour’s house: see Jane Dismore’s excellent guest post from 2017 here.) Eleanor Sidgwick’s ODNB entry notes that ‘her concern for women to be regarded as rational creatures naturally led her to support the growing campaign for women’s suffrage.’

Growing up in the Balfours’ stately home in East Lothian, Nora had always been treated as a rational creature herself. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics, so her mother Lady Blanche insisted that she should be taught Euclid alongside her brothers Arthur, Gerald and Frank. While they all went off to study at Eton and Cambridge, Nora stayed at home to manage the three large family estates, giving her a practical education in finance that would come in useful later. At Newnham she personally micro-managed the college accounts (‘chasing twopences’) and also had the far-sighted strategy to ensure the future of its campus site by purchasing adjoining land and organizing a new road, Sidgwick Avenue, planted with plane trees that she paid for herself.

9780198833376

A new book by Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019) shines light on another, less well known aspect of Nora’s work in Cambridge: as a physicist who contributed to Rayleigh’s discoveries. The Philosophical Society, the subject of Gibson’s excellent book, was a scientific society for Cambridge graduates which has had a worldwide influence since 1819, but for over a hundred years it did not accept women as members because they were not permitted to hold Cambridge degrees. In my recent Times Literary Supplement review (currently only available in print or to subscribers) I wrote how my favourite chapter in the The Spirit of Inquiry is ‘A Workbench of One’s Own’ about what the Philosophical Society was missing in terms of the scientific work that Cambridge women were doing in their segregated, poorly equipped laboratories. Earlier in the book Gibson explores the work of Lord Rayleigh, who in 1904 became Cambridge first Nobel Prize winner for his study of the density of gases and the discovery of Argon (see Katrina Dean’s ‘Discovery’ blogpost here). In the 1870s and 1880s Rayleigh worked alongside Cambridge graduates, but his ‘closest collaborator’, according to Gibson, was his sister-in-law Eleanor Sidgwick, ‘a brilliant experimenter ‘who co-published several papers with him and

‘worked painstakingly with Rayleigh and the others to set up the great spinning coils of wire, the scales and magnetometers, the Argand lamps, the looking glasses, and the telescopic eyepieces needed to record their measurements. The researchers often worked overnight, toiling away when the laboratory was silent and still, exhausting themselves in pursuit of the elusive numbers.’ (Gibson, 166)

Currently in Cambridge there’s a great opportunity to get a flavour of this fascinating historical scientific work in the ‘Discovery‘ exhibition at the University Library, which runs until the end of August. You can see Rayleigh’s hand-crafted bird whistles and other apparatus that he devised to detect ultrasonic waves, including a box full of bright green iridescent beetles and even a delicate blue butterfly wing used in his experiments on light waves (see photographs here).  There is Newton’s own annotated copy of the Principia, a letter that Darwin wrote from the Beagle and an early typescript of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (intriguingly with a different title). Also on display, for the first time ever, is the 1967 pulsar chart reading made by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who rolled out her experimental charts on the long floor of the old Cavendish Laboratory where she was working on her PhD. Seven years later it was her supervisor Anthony Hewish who was awarded the Nobel Prize, but despite this, Bell Burnell’s continuing work and influence have made her a role model for female scientists throughout the world. In 2018 she donated her $3 million Breakthrough Prize to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics.

It’s not hard to imagine Nora Sidgwick’s serious face lighting up at this news. How interested she would be to see, and hear about, the scientific discoveries that male and female Cambridge scientists have made – and continue to make – by working together. Eleanor Sidgwick’s own ‘hidden figures’, like those of other women scientists, are part of that story.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019 (Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures’: https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman ed. J. T. Covert (1994); Katrina Dean, ‘Discovery: 200 Years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society’ blog post at https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=17330 (accessed 11.5.2019); Helen Fowler, ‘Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in Cambridge Women: Twelve portraits, eds. Edward Shils and Carmen Blacker (1996) & ‘Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019); Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Ladies Dining Society 1890–1914’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2016); Phillips, Ann (1979), ed., A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge: CUP); E. Sidgwick, Mrs Henry Sidgwick: a memoir by her niece (1938)

Figuring Out Popova

 

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If you picked up a copy of Figuring in something as old-fashioned as a bookshop and had never heard of Maria Popova, it would be hard to fathom exactly what you were looking at. It’s a hefty book with a bright yellow cover adorned with a mysterious flower-trumpet-diagram. On the back, instead a snappy blurb, there’s a meandering quotation from the book’s introduction that leaves you none the wiser. A glimpse inside gives few clues to the book’s contents, with lower-case chapter titles like “unmastering” and “that which exhausts and exalts”. It’s a disorientating experience, but the message is clear: Popova wants readers to abandon their preconceptions and simply dive in.

In my review of Figuring for this week’s Times Literary Supplement I did place it in a category, describing it as an unusual form of group biography (there’s a snippet of my review below – the rest is behind a paywall, but there’s an excellent essay by Ruth Scurr in this special ‘life writing’ TLS, free to read here.) My view of Popova’s book reflects my own interest in the stories of the women she describes (Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Rachel Carson) and the author herself might disagree with me about labelling it as a biography. She’s a Bulgarian-born writer who lives in New York and is the author of a popular blog ‘Brainpickings.org’ that has been covering a wide range of subjects for 13 years.

Brainpickings

Paradoxically perhaps, the Brain Pickings website is an up-to-the minute format that goes against what Popova sees as the Internet’s tendency to place a high value on everything new. “It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant,” she says, “yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date.” (Guardian interview, 30.12.12)

Popova’s new book Figuring also aims to spark interest in what links a wide variety of ideas and people over a period of four hundred years. She tells the intermingled stories of individuals who refused to conform and passionately defends their choices. It’s a “cosmos of connections” with Popova as the astronaut author-pilot and personal guide. Fasten your seatbelts, readers.

©Ann Kennedy Smith (27 April 2019)

Cosmos of connections