A testament to friendship

The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society was “ a testament to friendship and intellectual debate at a time when women’s voices went largely unheard” (Ann Kennedy Smith)

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Kathleen Lyttelton; photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Andrew Wallis

This month Wikipedia included a detailed article about the Ladies’ Dining Society (although the apostrophe is missing from their version). It’s based on, among other sources, an entry that I wrote last year for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and written by one of Wiki’s experienced editors. In the future, other editors and readers may add to the article, and it would be nice if, in time, more information emerges about the group, including what they discussed during their dinners.

Given that the twelve women met regularly from 1890 until 1914 it’s not difficult to make some guesses. Women’s higher education, suffrage, the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and reality – they were all hot topics at the time. But probably the most debated issue in 1890, when the group formed, was ‘the marriage question’. In August 1888 the novelist Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’ and calling for equality of marriage partners. The Daily Telegraph took up the issue, and began a series called ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ Over the following three months the newspaper received an astonishing 27,000 letters on the subject, an avalanche of opinions that filled its columns week after week. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s, and I think it is very likely that these friends would have discussed it. (I imagined an early meeting of theirs in a previous post.)

Marriage was what brought most of them to Cambridge, or made them choose to stay on there after their studies. One of the attractions of marrying a man from Oxford or Cambridge was the chance to access the educational opportunities that were denied to the majority of women at the time. Many lectures were open to married women, and in the 1870s Caroline Jebb attended lectures in zoology, moral philosophy, law, and German literature. She did not want to appear a bluestocking, though, and claimed that she enjoyed Alfred Marshall’s lectures in political economy because they supplied ‘such good after-dinner conversation’.

Ida Darwin’s husband Horace worked on designing measuring instruments for the university’s new scientific laboratories. After she married him and moved to Cambridge in 1880 they both became involved in supporting the new women’s college at Newnham. Together they helped to galvanize votes for the successful Senate statute in 1881 that allowed female students the right to sit for the university’s final year exams. Horace’s father Charles Darwin called it ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’ describing proudly how ‘Horace was sent to the Ladies’ College to communicate the success and was received with enthusiasm.’

Ida was also close to Anne Clough, Newnham’s first principal, and vice-principal Helen Gladstone, and later this year I will be discussing their connection in a talk for Literature Cambridge’s summer course, ‘Fictions of Home‘. Several other lecturers from Newnham College were members of the Ladies’ Dining Society, including Margaret Verrall, Mary Paley Marshall and Ellen Crofts, who married Ida’s brother-in-law Frank Darwin. Newnham’s second principal was Eleanor Sidgwick, whose marriage to the college’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick was a working relationship that helped to establish women’s education at Cambridge.

So, as far as Cambridge was concerned, marriage (which was only permitted for most college fellows after 1882) was a good thing. It brought a wave of women who were passionately committed to improving life for the less privileged people of the town, and for giving equal rights to women workers of all classes across Britain. Louise Creighton was a co-founder of he National Union of Women Workers in 1885, while Kathleen Lyttelton began The Cambridge Association For Women’s Suffrage alongside Millicent Fawcett. The American Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Cambridge, and Fanny Prothero and Eliza von Hügel were active in finding homes for Belgian refugees in the town during the First World War.

Later this year, Girton College will celebrate the beginning of 150 years of women’s education at Cambridge. Virginia Woolf once called Cambridge “that detestable place” because of the university’s long history of preventing female students’ rights to education. Marriage – like women’s education – was an unfair institution in 1890 and for many years afterwards, but the work of the married women associated with the university helped to make Cambridge a much better place. Wikipedia is helping to spread the word about the Ladies’ Dining Society, and I’m looking forward to hearing more in the future.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 January 2019 (All rights reserved

Great Lives

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A study of Strachey reading, by Dora Carrington

Just over a hundred years ago, in 1918, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was published and biography changed forever. To celebrate the centenary of this groundbreaking book, I decided last year to compile a list of 100 of my favourite biographies and memoirs that have been published since then, and post each one on Twitter as my ‘Life of the Day’, with the hashtag #lifeoftheday. My list is not in any particular order or organized by theme, but as I have now reached the halfway mark, here’s a selection of a few of them.

The first biography I chose was Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1933), an imaginative account of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s mischievous little cocker spaniel. All her life Woolf experimented with different forms of biographical writing, but even before Flush was published she regretted it, believing it would prevent her from being taken seriously as a writer. Yet after her friend Sibyl Colefax praised it, Woolf said: “I’m so glad that you liked Flush. I think it shows great discrimination in you because it was all a matter of hints and shades, and practically no one has seen what I was after.”

One of the first biographies that made me want to write about ‘forgotten’ women was Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber 1996). In her preface Thwaite wrote: “I have always been interested in the lives of nineteenth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.” She showed that Emily Tennyson was musically gifted and independent-minded, something that biographers of her more famous husband had failed to notice.

Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 2012) ‘is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air,’ Tomalin writes. I included Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber 2008) for its vivid opening pages (“I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings, past, present and future which will come upon me on the wedding morning”) that instantly reveal the passionate inner life of William Wordsworth’s sister.

download.jpgNot all overlooked lives are female: I love The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock (Yale, 2015) for its fascinating story of the “intimacy, possessiveness, exasperation and love” of the close friendship between a former child slave and Dr Samuel Johnson. My own blog celebrates friendship, so it’s not surprising that several of the biographies I chose also take this as their subject.

Secret Sisterhood imageA Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney showed how these writers’ friendships with other women underpinned their lives and writing, sustaining and challenging them to greater creativity. I wrote a review of it here. Michelle Dean’s Sharp: the women who made an art of having an opinion (Fleet, 2018) is another engaging group portrait, in this case of the connections between ten 20th-century female thinkers and writers.  Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month (Faber, 1965) is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes a summer of fierce heat and personal crises for a close-knit group of writers and artists in 1846 London. It’s a book that still has a huge impact.

The book that got me interested in writing about marriage is Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Penguin, 1983) by Phyllis Rose. It’s an insightful, thought-provoking evocation of the troubled marriages of Dickens, Carlyle and Ruskin that’s a pleasure to read and Rose asks ‘if we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’ More recently, Daisy Hay wrote ‘a portrait of a marriage unobscured by mythology’ in her Mr and Mrs Disraeli (Chatto & Windus, 2015), which shows her biographer’s skills of ‘watching for alternative narratives, listening to things not said.’ I love Michael Holroyd’s explanation of how he ended up writing about the famous theatrical partnership of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in A Strange Eventful History (2008): “it was impossible to write about Ellen without Irving elbowing his way in and trying to upstage her – and once that happened the rest of the families crowded in and I was in for the long haul.” (The Guardian, 2008).

Some of the best biographies remind us of the pitfalls of life writing. In Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997) Hermione Lee shook up biography traditions by reminding us in the opening chapter that “there is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” In his equally influential book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (Harper Perennial, 1985) Richard Holmes showed the pleasures of ‘footstepping’ your subject, visiting the places they went to and seeing what they saw. “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway,” he warns. Yet the besotted biographer is not necessarily a good thing, as far as his or her subject is concerned. ‘The biographer at work,’ wrote Janet Malcolm provocatively in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993) ‘is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.’

In her prize-winning Aristocrats (Chatto, 2004) Stella Tillyard offers a more positive view of why life-writing matters: ‘biography (especially biography that deals, as this one does, with romance and royalty) often gives intimacy without context, and history without biography offers context without the warmth of individual lives.’ Craig Brown also deals with romance and royalty in his witty and irreverent Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017). It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize for Biography in 2018, and like Virginia Woolf’s Flush it’s a reminder to all biographers not to take themselves – or their subjects – too seriously.

Caroline Jebb’s perfect gift

I have re-edited my previous Christmas post about Caroline Jebb, with more about the 1874 European craze for all things Japanese and the early days of Liberty – see below.

The Cambridge Ladies' Dining Society

japanese-fan‘My Christmas is a bright one enough, and I have great hopes of a happy New Year.’

The letter Caroline Jebb wrote to her sister on 25 December 1874 was trying hard to sound upbeat, but her first Christmas in Cambridge was a pretty miserable one. She was missing her family back in Philadelphia, and the happy chaos of exchanging gifts with her young nieces and nephews. When she sailed to England six months previously to marry the Classics scholar Richard Jebb, it had seemed at first, she told her sister, deeply romantic and ‘just like the novels we read of English life’. Now she was living far from her friends and family in a remote university town, sharing a cold house with a man she did not know very well, who was usually either in his college or in his study. She suspected Richard was drinking too much…

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Ida Darwin and the refugees, 1914

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Ida Darwin and her husband Horace were staying at a spa in the Haute Savoie, south-eastern France, when the Great War broke out on 4 August 1914. At first they thought they would wait until things settled down – only on 19 August did they decide to set out for home. This story is based on a letter that Ida wrote in September 1914 to her son Erasmus.

Ida and Horace arrived in Paris early on Tuesday 25 August, exhausted by their long train journey from Lyons and intending to rest in a hotel for a day or two. The streets that they knew well were now eerily empty. One shop on the Rue de la Paix carried a notice on its plate glass window saying that the owner and employees had gone off to war and asking the public to protect his property. Outside their hotel Ida observed people ‘eagerly buying the fresh editions of the papers with the accounts of the German advance & the beginnings of the fighting at Mons & standing still on the pavement to read them.’ They decided that it would be wise to leave Paris on the first train available, so Ida left Horace in their hotel room and went to have their passports stamped at the British Consulate.

They boarded a train leaving Paris that evening. As the train headed north Ida was struck by what she saw from her carriage window.

Our train stopped at every station & the carriages were besieged by soldiers begging for French newspapers. As we went along we saw rows & rows of horses and artillery silhouetted on the evening sky, & at Chantilly as we passed through the station was full of women & children camping out. These were the first of the refugees that we had seen.

They disembarked at Amiens at 11pm, where another train was supposed to take them on to the ferry port of Boulogne. The promised train did not arrive. Ida managed to find a porter, who told them that a trainload of wounded soldiers was expected at any moment and all other trains had been held up. It was the second night of the Battle of Mons and most of Amiens’s larger buildings had been turned into impromptu hospitals.

As they stood on the platform, unsure of what to do, Ida watched uniformed British Red Cross men darting about making preparations. Train upon train pulled in, each disgorging not wounded men, but more and more refugee families, who were then shunted on to other trains. Their porter stared at the bedraggled women and children crowding the platforms, muttering ‘Ah! Mais ce n’est pas gai.’ Ida described the pitiful scene to Erasmus.

Many of the people looked very poor & others were well to do. All with children or dogs. One sick woman was being carried on her bed by 2 priests, another by her friends – there were little nuns too, & farm labourers and their bundles. The whole station was full of the shrill sound of women’s and children’s voices, until that lot was sent off & another was poured out afresh onto the platform. And all the time there was a slow procession on the further side of trains carrying gun carriages, covered carts & other war material & endless strings of the Nord engines, being withdrawn from the enemy.

Ida and Horace took turns sitting on their trunk and bags, not daring to move far from each other for fear of getting separated in the crush of people. Their porter waited with them. Ida told Erasmus how ‘that long night 25th to 26th – the second of the battle of Mons – in the great black station with its couching arc lights & its panting engines & its ever growing crowds of refugees, is burnt into one’s memory for ever.’ She tried hard not to think about plume-helmeted Prussian troops on horseback, riding into the station with their bayonets aloft.

When dawn came Ida shared out their remaining chocolate and biscuits with the mothers of crying babies, and wondered if she would ever see England again. Then, just after 6.30am, the train to Boulogne arrived, and their faithful porter managed to bundle them into a carriage with their luggage. Ida couldn’t help noticing that it was a third class carriage, but she did not mind.

They travelled with five weeping women and their children. One mother with a baby girl and two young boys told Ida that she had been given an hour’s notice to leave her home near Cambrai on the French-Belgian border. She told Ida that they had spent all of the previous hot day travelling by train, and when they stopped at one station, kind English soldiers had run along the platform, passing their tin mugs of water up to the thirsty children.

Ida and Horace sailed from Boulogne on Wednesday afternoon, six English gunboats guarding their ship’s passage across the Channel. She told Erasmus how strange it was to look out of their Folkestone hotel window on Thursday morning and see Englishmen and women, towels under their arms, peacefully strolling down to the beach. Three days later the cross-Channel ships stopped running.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 15 November 2018

My next post will be about Ida and her friends’ (including Eliza von Hügel)  involvement with Belgian refugees in 1914-18. This year’s ‘A Window On The War’ project has more information about a wide range of Cambridge women’s work during the Great War, with an excellent photographic exhibition now at Michaelhouse Café until 24 November. Its curator J. E. Bounford’s fascinating blog is here

Sources: Ida Darwin, Making for home, August 1914 (Blackwater Press, 1995). For more information about Ida Darwin, see Headway Cambridgeshire’s timeline.

Pesky feminists

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“And I’d have got away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky feminists!”, or so Caroline Criado Perez imagined Sir Neil Thorne saying this week. Thorne is the former Conservative MP who attempted this summer to move the Grade 2 listed statue of Mrs Pankhurst from its present location in front of Parliament, to an obscure corner in the grounds of a private university in Regent’s Park.

In August the author and suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford used her informative ‘Woman and sphere’ blog to draw attention to plans to dismantle the statue. Even though the online petitions protesting against it had raised thousands of signatures, Crawford explained that Westminster city council was under no obligation to take notice of them, but it did have to pay attention to complaints made to them via their planning applications procedure.

Thanks to the efforts of Crawford and Criado Perez, who helped to publicize the campaign, in less than a month Westminster city council received 896 comments on the proposed move, of which 887 were objections (including mine). It was slightly more time-consuming than clicking on an online petition, but it seems to have done the trick, as last week it was announced that the proposals have been withdrawn.

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Mary Martin Ward (Newnham Hall 1876-1879), photograph reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College Cambridge

Last year the ODNB asked me to write an entry on one of Cambridge’s longest serving ‘pesky feminists’, the Irish suffragist Mary Ward (1851-1933). I knew that she was one of the original members of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in the 1880s, so I turned to Crawford’s landmark reference work, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide to find out more. That led me to the Cambridgeshire Archives and to the archives at Newnham College (where she was a star student) and finally to the Women’s Library at the L.S.E., to consult the papers of Olwen Ward Campbell (Ward’s daughter).

My blog about Mary Ward is here, but I have been thinking about her again this week because on October 4th I’m giving a talk about her suffrage work at the Museum of Cambridge. It’s part of events supporting the  ‘At Last! Votes For Women’ exhibition that has come fresh from the LSE, and runs until 11 November. With sashes, badges and documents telling the story of the fight for equal voting rights, the campaign methods of the three main groups for women’s suffrage in the years 1908-14 are explored.

The WSPU headed by Mrs Pankhurst believed in ‘deeds not words’, and the militant actions by its members made headlines in 1913. Mary Ward, then 62, belonged to the much larger NUWSS which condemned violence and believed that the vote would be won using the ‘peaceful and constitutional methods’ it had been deploying for almost fifty years. Ward may have disagreed with the tactics of the suffragettes, but in 1913 she co-signed a letter to the Cambridge Daily News protesting against the continuing focus of ‘the sensational Press’ on the militant actions of the WSPU, and she resigned her membership of the Liberal Party in protest against the government’s treatment of militant suffrage prisoners.

That summer of 1913 saw the Great Pilgrimage, a six-week march by the many thousands of suffragists who believed in non-violent protest from all over England and Wales to Hyde Park in London (the author Jane Robinson wrote about it in her excellent recent book, Hearts and Minds). Mary Ward was one of the leaders of the Cambridge suffragists, ‘marching through unfriendly crowds from Barnwell junction to Midsummer Common’, as Crawford puts it, before setting off for London.

You might say that Ward believed in deeds and words – a stinging letter, a well-timed resignation, walking with her head high through hostile crowds to make a point about women’s rights. It’s good to know that even today words (and emails sent to the correct authority) can make things happen too. But we have to make sure we don’t assume, as feminists today, that the fight has been won by women like Mary Ward and Mrs Pankhurst, and we can let our guard down. As Elizabeth Crawford wrote last week:

‘The proposals to remove Mrs Pankhurst’s statue and re-erect it in the grounds of Regent’s University have just been WITHDRAWN… However, we would be wise not to be too complacent…this may be some kind of tactical move. Be vigilant.’

More words from me (spoken this time) at the Museum of Cambridge on October 4th. I hope you can come.

 

Sources: H.M. Lawson Dodd and others, ‘Mrs James Ward (Mary Jane Martin), Newnham Hall 1876-1879’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter, January 1934, pp. 38-47‘Ward, Mrs Mary’ (1851-1933) in E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); ‘A Petticoat Pilgrimage’ Cambridge Daily News (21 July 1913); Cambridgeshire Archives CWSA Papers 1884 –1919. With thanks to Newnham College for permission to use the photograph of Mary Ward.

A public space: Kathleen Lyttelton’s campaigning journalism

In my recent guest post for Something Rhymed, Emily Midorikawa’s and Emma Claire Sweeney’s inspiring blog on women’s literary friendships, I described how Kathleen Lyttelton was the first editor to publish Virginia Woolf’s writing, beginning a warm professional relationship. Here I take a closer look at Kathleen’s work as a journalist.  

In June 1903, when she was 47, Kathleen Lyttelton became the editor of a new supplement of a long-established Anglican weekly newspaper called The Guardian. It seems that it was her idea to start a special section of women’s pages in a publication that otherwise was aimed squarely at clergymen, with articles such as ‘The Church at Home and Abroad’ and advertisements for prayer-books and suitcases for cassocks. Arthur Lyttelton, Kathleen’s husband was the Bishop of Southampton, and she had been reviewing books anonymously for The Guardian for years (she was a published short-story writer). After his death in early 1903 she moved to London with her daughter, and began to earn her own living as a journalist.

 

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Mary Kathleen Lyttelton (née Clive) by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), platinum print, 1890s: NPG Ax68772 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Editorship of the new section allowed Kathleen to cover issues that had a direct impact on women’s lives, and to bring them directly into the homes of clergymen and their families. From the beginning, her focus was on the new opportunities opening up for women of different social classes to study and work. There were articles on women as school managers and, working in public health, much-needed sanitary inspectors. Or what about a career as a nurse, an elementary school teacher or in the printing trade? The ‘well-educated gentlewomen’ who read The Guardian were encouraged to consider what were previously seen as lowly occupations. And to cater for their needs, there was a feature on ‘A restaurant for busy women’ that had recently opened in Manchester Square, London.

By 1904 Kathleen was writing editorial leader columns every week. She was outspoken about the need for women to earn money on the same terms as men, including in her own profession of writing. She was aware that ‘in spite of Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen’ women writers were still seen as overstepping a boundary if they were paid on equal terms to men. ‘Even when Charlotte Yonge achieved her first success, it was not considered the right thing for her to receive a pecuniary reward for her labours’, she noted, ‘and the difficulty was overcome by handing the proceeds to a charitable society.’ Things had not changed much, she implied.

In specially commissioned articles, Kathleen directed her readers’ attention to financial and legal issues affecting women in other countries. One article called ‘What women are doing in Germany’ described the growing call for women to have equal access to professions: ‘In Germany the woman question – as it is in England- is no mere matter of abstract right; considerations of daily bread come into the account… There are in the Empire a million more women than men’. Her friend Millicent Garrett Fawcett (writing as Mrs Henry Fawcett) contributed an article on ‘Women’s Suffrage in the Australian Commonwealth’, and in March 1904 Kathleen published ‘Indian Women’ by Cornelia Sorabji, who had studied at Somerville College in Oxford, then taken law qualifications in London and Bombay. Sorabji described how she wanted to use her training to ensure the legal rights of purdanashins, women prohibited from communicating with men, but she was not permitted to represent them in court. Three months later, however, Kathleen was happy to report that Sorabji had been appointed as a government legal adviser on the issue; later she would win the right for purdanashins to train as nurses.

Injustices closer to home were also highlighted. In July 1904 Kathleen reported on Mrs Higgs who, as a precursor of George Orwell, had described her experience of spending five days as a woman tramp, sleeping in workhouses and common lodgings. After the tramp ward men and women no longer fear prison,’ Mrs Higgs wrote, and as a result of her report, local governments in Lancashire and Yorkshire took action. Elsewhere, Kathleen reported on the ‘crying need of an ambulance service in London’ rather than using cabs to take injured people to hospital, and took up the cause of Dr Ethel Vernon, a competent and well-liked doctor who was sacked from Westminster Hospital because one male consultant did not want to work with a woman. In another leader column, she argued for a greater knowledge of the laws that existed to protect working women and girls instead of the bazaars and charity balls favoured by her well-meaning, wealthy friends.

Kathleen’s work as a campaigning journalist threw light on issues affecting women of all classes, and Millicent Fawcett described her close friend’s sudden death in 1907, at the age of 51, as ‘a grave loss… to every cause which concerns the welfare and the progress of women… it is hard to lose such a companion and fellow-worker.’

Selwyn

In autumn 2018 Selwyn College in Cambridge will rename a room in the tower as the ‘Kathleen Lyttelton Room’, marking both the centenary of the extension of the women’s franchise in 1918 and Kathleen’s twenty-five years of campaigning for political equality. Her work began when she moved to Cambridge in 1882 as the wife of the college’s first Master, Arthur Lyttelton: she was one of the founders of the Cambridge Association for Women’s Suffrage in 1884, and became President of the National Union of Women Workers in 1899. Her book Women and Their Work was published in 1901, and her portrait, above, is included in the portraits of 74 influential ‘Suffragettes and Suffragists’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London. So it is all the more appropriate that there will soon be a room at Selwyn named in her honour, where discussions between men and women can take place on equal terms.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 20 July 2018

With thanks to Selwyn College and to Andrew Wallis, Jean Chothia and Carolyn Ferguson for additional research. 

‘Marianne Thornton’, E.M. Forster’s biography-memoir

Slightly FoxedE.M. Forster’s novels continue to be read and loved around the world. However, his final full-length book, a biography of his great-aunt Marianne Thornton, has been largely overlooked by critics and forgotten by readers since its publication in 1956. That’s a shame, as it shows that Forster was a brilliant writer of nonfiction too. It connects themes familiar from his fiction – including a home loved and lost, forbidden passions, second chances – and its final section is the only published memoir he ever published of his own young life. I’m delighted that ‘Prayers Before Plenty’, my essay on this fascinating book, appears in Slightly Foxed this month. They have kindly given permission for me to reprint it here.

 

Prayers before Plenty       Ann Kennedy Smith

In 1953 the writer E. M. Forster, then aged 74, was sorting through old family papers and thinking about the past. He had recently moved back to King’s College, Cambridge, and the high-ceilinged spacious room where he sat was filled with treasured objects from his previous homes: shelves overflowing with books, framed family portraits on the walls and blue china plates neatly arranged on the mantelpiece. Letters gathered in a drift around his shabby William Morris armchair as he pored over his great-aunt Marianne Thornton’s diaries and recollections. She had died when he was 8, but it was thanks to the money she left him that as a young man he was able to study at King’s and later to travel to Italy. It was Marianne, more than anyone else, who had helped him to become a writer, and now he wanted to tell her story.

When Marianne Thornton, 17971887: A Domestic Biography was published three years later, it was greeted as a literary event. It had been five years since the appearance of Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy, his collection of critical essays (see SF no. 44), and he had not published a novel since A Passage to India in 1924. Marianne Thornton was widely reviewed, for the most part warmly, although some critics confessed to feeling puzzled by its subject matter. Why, wondered the Spectator, did Forster want to cast his considerable charm on the Clapham Sect, that ‘particularly uncharming clan’? The New York Times critic admitted that only the writer of A Passage to India could have persuaded him to read ‘a conversation piece about English family life among the suburban dynasties’.

In the sixty years or so since Marianne Thornton’s first publication, it has been leafed through by biographers and scholars rather than read. I think this is a shame, and that this book deserves to be better known. In 2000 it was reissued as part of the Abinger edition, and in her introduction Evelyne Hanquart-Turner describes Marianne Thornton as a portrait of a modern Britain in the making, with illuminating glimpses of banking, Parliament and politics, the Church of England and the spread of popular education over nine decades of the nineteenth century. I would add that at a time when British identity is being much discussed, it is a book that seems more relevant than ever.

I discovered it in a King’s College archive, where I was working on a book project last summer. It was just before May Week, that con­fusingly named time in June when the students celebrate after their exams are over, and a marquee was being put up on the front court lawn. The sounds of heavy machinery and men working drifted in through the open window and made it hard to concentrate on hand­written letters, so I took down Marianne Thornton from the shelf and began to read. Within minutes I was transported back to another June day in 1806, and a horse-drawn carriage with election ribbons fluttering, going home to Battersea Rise, the house at the heart of this story.

Marianne was born in 1797, the eldest of nine children of Henry Thornton, a wealthy merchant banker and Member of Parliament, and his wife Mary Ann Sykes. Their home was Battersea Rise, an enlarged Queen Anne house on the north-west edge of Clapham Common in south London. The Thorntons belonged to the ‘Clapham Sect’, a close-knit group of friends that included William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Granville Sharp and James Stephen, who brought their combined influence, intellect and evangelical zeal to social reform. Their place of worship was Holy Trinity Church on the Common, presided over by the charismatic Reverend John Venn, and their social centre was Battersea Rise, where lively meetings were held in the oval library with a view of a magnificent tulip tree in the garden.

Battersea Rise was a perfect playground for Marianne and her younger siblings. ‘It satisfied in them that longing for a particular place, a home, which is common amongst our upper and middle classes,’ Forster observes: ‘some of them have transmitted that long­ing to their descendants, who have lived on into an age when it cannot be gratified.’ Writing this in his college rooms, he was think­ing of Rooksnest, the cottage in Hertfordshire where he had lived as a child and which he later commemorated in his novel Howards End. He had mourned its loss all his life; King’s College had provided him with somewhere to live, but it did not feel like home.

From the first pages of the book it is plain that Marianne Thornton is as much about Forster as it is about his great-aunt. Threaded through the book are his wry observations, teasing out connections between past and present and poking gentle fun at his illustrious forebears. At times he is combative, reminding us that although the philanthropic Clapham Sect cared passionately about abolishing the slave trade, they were supremely complacent when it came to in-equality within their own society. ‘When the slavery was industrial they did nothing and had no thought of doing anything.’

But this is a domestic biography, Forster reminds us, and the Thorntons did home life exceedingly well. Adored friends such as William Wilberforce – ‘fragile, whimsical, inspired’ – and the intel­lectual ‘bishop in petticoats’ Hannah More regularly dropped in for dinner. ‘Prayers before plenty,’ Forster observes, ‘But plenty!’ Conver­sations around the table ranged from parliamentary politics to missionary work, from economics to education, and little Marianne was encouraged to take part. Her father taught her about finance and brought her along to his election hustings and George III’s opening of Parliament. Despite the constant fear of a French invasion there were long holidays at the seaside, ‘comparable with the jauntings of Jane Austen’ in their elaborate organization. Fear of Napoleon Bona­parte was the only cloud over this sunny childhood, and Marianne vividly pictured him striding into Battersea Rise and chopping down their beloved tulip tree. Nonsense, her young friend the future his-torian Thomas Babington Macaulay assured her: when ‘Old Boney’ came, he would simply stab all the children in their beds.

The world-changing historical events of 1815 were overshadowed for Marianne and her siblings by painful personal loss when both Thornton parents died within the year. Forster skips over the ‘super­abundance’ of long, pious letters from this period and instead describes 19-year-old Marianne’s first trip to France, where she and other British tourists flocked after Waterloo. There she fell in love with all things French, and this gave her, Forster is convinced, her Gallic insouciance towards class differences which lasted for the rest of her life.

Her brother Henry, three years younger, was more straitlaced, but brother and sister ran the Thornton family as a team. Together they fought to save the bank where he was a partner when it was hit by a financial crisis in 1825: told through Marianne’s recollections, the story is as exciting and dramatic as any novel. Henry coped less well when their younger sister Laura fell in love with a poor Irish clergy­man. ‘Money must marry money, as it had always done hitherto,’ Forster observes drily, and he cheers when, thanks to a particularly spiky letter from a bishop, love wins the day. Laura married the Reverend Charles Forster, and among their ten children brought up in a ‘happy insanitary’ rectory in Essex was Eddie, the future father of the writer.

Marianne remained unmarried and devoted herself to Battersea Rise and to Henry’s three children after he was widowed. The young Forsters often came to visit, and the garden was filled with the sounds of laughter and games. Even sensible Henry occasionally entertained the family with his favourite trick before setting off for work at the bank: after setting fire to a newspaper, he would place it on the seat of his leather armchair then sit down firmly to put the flames out. ‘The vision of that substantial extinguisher descending cheers me,’ Forster writes: ‘the sun comes into the library again, the trees wave freshly on the lawn, tiny cousins collide and jump . . .’

Then Henry fell in love with Emily, his unmarried sister-in-law, and everything changed. Their marriage was not sanctioned under existing British law (the Marriage Act of 1835 made it illegal for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife) and the ensuing scandal broke the Thornton family apart. The law would remain unchanged until the twentieth century, and writing in Cambridge in the 1950s, when homosexual love was still outlawed in Britain, Forster’s anger flashes off the page. It was, he writes, ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’. Victorian disapproval did what Bonaparte and the banking crisis had failed to do: it destroyed Battersea Rise.

Marianne Thornton immerses us in a lost nineteenth-century world and, as Forster asks, ‘Where else could we take such a plunge?’ It is an invitation to enjoyment, demonstrating Forster’s brilliance as a non-fiction writer and providing us with links to our personal, cultural and national past that otherwise would be lost. Marianne’s story unfolds against a rich historical background, from Georgian England to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in which the Thorntons played an active role.

However, I think that this warm and engaging book is about more than British history and the decline and fall of an influential suburban dynasty. By choosing Marianne as his subject, and telling her story in the way that he does, Forster stresses the importance of personal relations, and the life of the heart and mind rather than public life. He connects his own story to his great-aunt’s, and the book’s delightful final section is both a memoir of his young life and a love letter to Rooksnest, his childhood home. ‘I took it to my heart,’ he writes, ‘and hoped, as Marianne had of Battersea Rise, that I should live and die there.’ It was not to be, but by writing his great-aunt’s story he was able to see that kindness and love were what mattered in the end, and to let go of the past. King’s College was his last home, and he was among friends there.

Battersea Rise was swallowed up long ago, and the lawn on which the tulip tree once stood is now covered by houses and streets. Holy Trinity Church still stands on a corner of Clapham Common though, and I went there recently, carrying my copy of Marianne Thornton. With its high steeple surrounded by tall, waving trees, the church looks much as it did in the Thorntons’ time, and as I approached the imposing portico, the sound of south London traffic seemed to fade away. On an outside wall a stone plaque scarred by Second World War shrapnel commemorates the evangelical and abolitionist work of the Clapham Sect. Then, as I arrive, there is the human touch. A friendly notice on the porch welcomes rough sleepers, and inside a caretaker is boiling a kettle. On a far wall a small brass plaque to Marianne Thornton glints in the shadows.

Ann Kennedy Smith lives in Cambridge and is working on her first biography. She is not related to the Kennedy dynasty, so far as she knows.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £10; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com