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

Earlier this year, two of Charles Darwin’s field notebooks (one containing his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch) made headline news all over the world. Having been missing from Cambridge University Library for almost twenty years despite extensive searches (see BBC report here) the UL’s Librarian Dr Jessica Garner decided that these priceless objects had probably been stolen and appealed for help from the police and the public. Almost two years later, she and all the UL staff were delighted last April when the two notebooks were safely, and anonymously, returned to her office in a pink gift bag.

The notebooks will doubtless be the pocket-sized stars of a new exhibition, ‘Darwin in Conversation’ opening at the Cambridge University Library on 9 July and travelling to New York later in 2022. 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 15,000 letters. There is more information about this extraordinary project here, with most of the letters and extensive contextual notes available to read online as part of the Darwin Project’s vast digital archive.

‘Darwin in Conversation’ exhibition, CUL

Darwin’s most extensive correspondence was his close scientific friends Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray and Thomas Huxley, and letters were a 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). However, letters were also his primary research tool and during his life he corresponded with around 2,000 people around the world, in what biographer Janet Browne calls ‘an ever-expanding web of scientific correspondence’ 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), spending the equivalent of £2,000 by 1877 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; see my previous blogpost here). In January 1867 Darwin sent Becker two papers from his sickbed, revealing his positive attitude to women in science, and she and her group were touched by 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.’

Ann Kennedy Smith, July 2022, all rights reserved.

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

Two Women Scholars

It’s still shocking to think that while Cambridge was one of the first universities to offer women residential university education (Girton College opened its doors in 1869, Newnham in 1871) it was the last UK university to award them degrees, in 1948. Women students, lecturers, postgraduate scholars and scientists were denied not only Cambridge degrees but also research funding and scholarships, and had only restricted access to the University Library for many years.

Recently I was pleased to give a talk to the Cambridge Archivists’ Group highlighting the work of two campaigning historians, Mary Bateson at Newnham and Ellen McArthur at Girton from the late 19th to the early 20th century. I discussed how they not only succeeded in their own academic research and campaigned for the title of degrees to be awarded to women in 1897, they also actively promoted women’s scholarship at Cambridge and left legacies that continue today.

My thanks to the group for inviting me; below is a link to their excellent blogpost about my talk.

Beatriz Allende (1942-1977)

Beatriz Allende

As one of the Women’s History Network independent researchers for 2021-22, I’m honoured to be chairing an online WHN seminar at 4pm on 8 June 2022, in which Dr Tanya Harmer (associate professor at LSE) will present her paper on Beatriz Allende, the revolutionary doctor and daughter of Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende. Harmer’s recent biography Beatriz Allende: A Revolutionary Life in Cold War Latin America (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) draws on exclusive access to her private papers, as well as firsthand interviews, to connect the private and political and reveal the human dimensions of radical upheaval. It promises to be a fascinating talk, and I am looking forward to it – and grateful for WHN’s support for my own research this year.

You can find out more details about the talk, and sign up for a Zoom link below.