My reading year

In 2020 I enjoyed reviewing some excellent biographies and memoirs, as well as re-reading one of my favourite mid-twentieth-century novels; below are ten of the personal highlights of my reading year.

On 17 January 2020 my essay ‘Cursed with hearts and brains’ featured on the front cover of the Times Literary Supplement. I reviewed three group biographies about mid-twentieth century female writers, including Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, a compelling study of the quest for creative freedom told through the interwar lives of Virginia Woolf, H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers and Cambridge scholars Jane Ellen Harrison and Eileen Power. Wade makes the case that their time spent in Mecklenburgh Square links the five women, and for each of them it represented independence, a struggle to be taken seriously as a woman writer and a search for a different way of life.  D.J. Taylor’s stylishly written Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature 1939-1951 covers the twelve-year life of Horizon, the literary magazine Cyril Connolly founded with Stephen Spender. Intelligent, sharp and guileful, Connolly had a charm that he used on women like a weapon, and he drew on a favoured coterie of friends for contributions to his magazine, including George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Horizon published few women writers, but after the war Sonia Brownell took over the day-to-day running of the magazine until her brief, sad marriage to the dying Orwell.

‘Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties,’ Brian Moore wrote. ‘It is time to leave home.’ In the spring 2020 issue of Slightly Foxed I wrote about Moore’s first published novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955). My essay ‘Coming Home’ centred on how the novel’s postwar Belfast setting was placed on the map of world literature.  The central character Miss Hearne has little money, so she walks or takes the bus everywhere, and we see the city through her eyes: the grim bedsit she lives in, the grand avenues and pompous city hall, and the gracious university quarter to which she escapes, once a week, to bask in the warmth of a family home. Moore’s biographer Patricia Craig describes how the novelist relished ‘the contradictions that – for him – underscored his independence. First as an Irishman living in Canada, and later as a Canadian citizen who made his home on America’s Pacific Coast, he evaded categorisation by nationality, or affinity.’ My essay is reproduced with Slightly Foxed’s kind permission on my blog here.

In April 2020 my review of Endell Street: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran World War One’s Most Remarkable Military Hospital by Wendy Moore was published in The Guardian. It’s a fascinating book about the women who ran a busy military hospital in London’s Covent Garden during WW1. The all-female team of doctors, trained nurses and orderlies saved thousands of British soldiers from death, permanent disability and the effects of shellshock. Unlike any other military hospital, Endell Street’s wards were decorated with colourful quilts, reading lamps and fresh flowers, and the soldiers accepted the women’s authority and holistic approach to medicine. “What for should we be wanting male doctors here?” one Scottish patient asked. You can read my review here.

Memoirs I enjoyed this year include Norma Clarke’s Not Speaking and Julie Welch’s Fleet Street Ladies, both reviewed by me for the TLS. In June 2020 the Dublin Review of Books published my essay (available to read online here) on Deirdre Bair’s memoir Parisian Lives, about Bair’s (at times) difficult relationship with her first biographical subject, the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. ‘I will neither help nor hinder you,’ Beckett told her when they first met in Paris. ‘My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.’ Her Samuel Beckett: A Biography (1978) was not a critical success: academic American male critics in particular felt outraged that this unknown female journalist had dared to take on such a serious literary subject.  But Bair’s reputation as a biographer was confirmed when she received the USA’s prestigious National Book Award in 1981. She recalled how one publisher offered her a contract to write a biography of anyone she liked, convinced that she could ‘tackle anyone Irish or even Virginia Woolf.’

In September 2020 History Today published my article ‘The Lessons of shell shock’, marking 100 years since the Tavistock Clinic first opened its doors at 51 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, London. ‘My dream has come true’, said its founder, the Scottish neurologist Hugh Crichton-Miller, who with six other doctors worked pro bono to treat the early signs of mental illness in members of the general public. The idea that ordinary people could benefit from psychological techniques used in wartime to treat traumatized soldiers was promoted as early as 1917, in a best-selling little book called Shell-Shock and its lessons. In 1922 Cambridge’s Ida Darwin served alongside Hugh Crichton-Miller on the National Council for Mental Hygiene which later became part of the National Association of Mental Health, known today as Mind.   

On 13 November my essay ‘Let her be Ariadne,’ on the poet Sylvia Plath, featured on the TLS’s front cover along with a large photograph of someone called Joe Biden, who happened to be in the news that week. My review included Heather Clark’s Red Comet (2020), a well researched and beautifully written biography that traces Plath’s development as a writer in America and England, revealing her to be an ambitious, resilient and supremely talented artist. I also enjoyed Sylvia Plath in Context (CUP, 2019), a collection of thirty-four essays on Plath’s life and work edited by Tracy Brain. It’s a well-edited selection that indicates the wide range and ongoing relevance of current Plath studies. A few years ago, the American writer and actor Lena Dunham asked her many social media followers what Plath’s novel The Bell Jar meant to them. Her favourite response was “it made me feel less alone”.

In December 2020 History Today published my review of Sarah Lonsdale’s excellent group biography Rebel Women Between The Wars (MUP, 2020). I particularly enjoyed her chapter on the mountaineer Dorothy Pilley, who in 1921 co-founded the Pinnacle Club to promote the subversive practice of ‘manless climbing’. I’m delighted that his all-woman club will be celebrating its centenary in 2021, and I will be exploring Pilley’s Cambridge connection in my next post. Meanwhile, thank you for reading my blog, and I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 December 2021

Sylvia Plath in 2020

This post looks at how two photographs taken by Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey in 1956 have been used this year to tell two very different stories about Sylvia Plath. 

In this week’s Times Literary Supplement (see image below) I wrote about four recently published books about Sylvia Plath, including Heather Clark’s magisterial biography Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Jonathan Cape, 2020) and the re-issue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Granta, 2020). The two books are very different in style and content but both feature, on their respective covers, images from a set of black and white photographs of Hughes and Plath taken by Lettice Ramsey in early December 1956 at Ramsey & Muspratt’s studio in Cambridge (their studio in Oxford was run by Helen Muspratt). The couple, who had married six months previously, disliked the resulting images, as I wrote in a linked blogpost earlier this year. After Ramsey sent a contact sheet of thirteen for them to pick their favourites, Plath couldn’t decide which she disliked least, so she forwarded the “grisly” proofs to her mother, describing them as “more like passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting.” She added that “Ted hates them all” and that Ramsey herself was “an expensive crook.” What do these two recently published books on Plath read into these unloved images from 1956?

The Silent Woman, first published in the UK in 1994, is an extended essay in which the American journalist Janet Malcolm investigates the conflicts over Plath’s life and work since her death in 1963. On the one side are the biographers, academics and journalists who wanted to explore Plath’s personal papers and unpublished work; and on the other, Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, who for many years did their best to block their paths. In its 2020 reissue by Granta (pictured above) Luke Bird’s cover design for The Silent Woman (see above) features a Ramsey’s photograph of Plath and Hughes sitting side by side, each looking in the same direction but seemingly wrapped up in their own thoughts. The dramatic red tint suggests a strained atmosphere between the newly married couple, and anticipates their future rupture and its bitter aftermath. More about the background to this in my post here.

It’s hard to believe that the photograph above, as it appears on on the cover of Clark’s Red Comet, was taken during the same session. In Suzanne Dean’s design, Plath is depicted alone on the front cover, looking to one side and smiling in a relaxed and confident way. The book’s title is picked out in red; the background is a deep, velvety black. It is only when you turn the book over to look at the back that it becomes apparent that this is actually another double portrait by Ramsey, and that Ted Hughes is warmly returning Plath’s smile.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf’s biographer, wrote: “Women writers whose lives involved abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide, have often been treated, biographically, as victims or psychological case-histories first and as professional writers second.” In Red Comet Heather Clark refuses to treat Plath as a victim, and insists that her life and work deserve to be known better. The biography’s cover – using a portrait taken from Lettice Ramsey’s insightful series in December 1956 – suggests that Sylvia Plath’s story can be told in 2020 as a professional writer who succeeded in her own terms, yet also benefited from the poetic inspiration that Hughes provided.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 18 November 2020 (all rights reserved) 

Dorothy L. Sayers’s graduation day

100 years ago the first Oxford University graduation ceremony to award degrees to women took place; the future crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first fifty celebrants. This post is about its lasting effect on her.

Today, 17 October 2020, marks Oxford University’s matriculation day, when students are formally welcomed as members of the University and its colleges. Due to the ongoing pandemic, today’s event was a ‘virtual matriculation’, with the Formal Welcome address delivered online this morning by the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson. Lots of the new students, described as ‘in absentia’, dressed up in their academic gowns anyway, to celebrate the occasion as best they can.

Earlier this month, in her annual Oration to the University (delivered in the socially distanced Sheldonian Theatre) Professor Richardson reminded her colleagues that it was 100 years ago, on 7 October 1920, that women were admitted to full membership of the University: ‘It took a very, very long time, many hundreds of years in fact, for women to earn the right to an Oxford degree’. The first graduation ceremony to award Oxford degrees to women took place just a week later, as if to make up for lost time.

It was a pleasantly warm autumn day on 14 October 1920 when fifty women were presented with their Oxford University degrees in the grand surroundings of the Sheldonian. The women graduating that day included five heads of houses of the women’s colleges at Oxford as well as former students who had waited many years for their degree certificates; during the next academic year over 400 more women would take part in degree ceremonies there.

But the first one, on 14 October 1920, was a graduation day like no other. Never before had an Oxford Vice-Chancellor uttered the ceremonial Latin words ‘domina, magistra’ in the feminine gender at a degree ceremony, and the vast, high-ceilinged auditorium rang with the loud cheers of family, friends and supporters of women’s education. Twenty-seven-year old Dorothy L. Sayers was among the celebrants that day. Wearing her brand new academic cap and gown, she was awarded a first-class degree in modern languages. Sayers had completed her studies at Somerville five years before, but she was determined not to miss out on this historic occasion. She had requested a place at the October ceremony, she told her mother, ‘because I want so much to be in the first batch. It will be so much more amusing.’

The women’s success was celebrated at Somerville College that evening with a special dinner, presided over by Principal Emily Penrose (who since 1907 had made sure that all her students fulfilled the requirements for an Oxford degree) and attended by Somerville graduates Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby among others. The guest of honour was Professor Gilbert Murray, a classical scholar and strong supporter of women’s higher education. His Cambridge friend, Jane Ellen Harrison, a lecturer in classical archaeology at Newnham College, was jealous.  ‘I gnash my teeth when I think of all your Somerville young women preening in cap and gown,’ she told Murray. ‘So like Oxford and so low to start after us and get in first!’ The following year, a vote to award degrees to women at Cambridge would be defeated. The 1920 Oxford vote had given hope to Harrison and others at Newnham and Girton; but by 1921 the tide of gratitude towards women for their war effort had turned, and Cambridge would not confer degrees on women until 1948.

When Dorothy L. Sayers began studying modern languages at Somerville in 1912 it was still, technically, only an ‘affiliated women’s society’ within Oxford University. Somerville women were called ‘freaks’ by male students because of what was seen as their ‘unnatural’ – and threatening – devotion to learning. In her first term Sayers started up a literary society with a handful of other students, which they named ‘The Mutual Admiration Society’. Despite the jokey name, it was ‘a subversive community within an institution where women were constantly reminded that their talents were not wholly welcome’, as biographer Francesca Wade puts it (Wade, p.100). Sayers had a passion for writing but played down her talents (‘I write prose uncommonly badly, and can’t get ideas’). Only her close friends in the Mutual Admiration Society knew of her secret passion for ‘lowbrow’ crime fiction.

Sayers began to publish poetry and essays, but the possibility of actually making a living as a writer seemed as far-fetched as some of the plots in the novels she loved. During this period, the great majority of women students, no matter their subject of study, took up teaching after university: ‘all that she sees before her, unless she has exceptional talent, is teaching’ observed the economist Clara Collet in 1902 (Sutherland, p.26) Sayers wanted something different, but before her graduation day in 1920, she was not sure what that would be. So in 1916 she took a job teaching modern languages at a girls’ school in Hull, then returned to Oxford in 1917 to work for publisher and bookseller Basil Blackwell. But she soon found that, as Mo Moulton writes in The Mutual Admiration Society, ‘a single woman who was neither a student nor an academic had no obvious place in Oxford society’ (Moulton, p.79). Her landladies were suspicious of her wish to hold literary salons for Somerville students and, on one occasion, a respectable tea for wounded soldiers. One landlady told Sayers that she would rather have a badly behaved male undergraduate as a lodger than a ‘permanent woman’.

After her graduation day, Sayers decided that her life had to change. She moved to London, took on translating work and part-time teaching to make ends meet, then in December 1920 found an unfurnished room in Mecklenburgh Square on the eastern, unfashionable fringe of Bloomsbury. Her lodgings had the advantage of being cheap and close to the British Library, where, on her application form to use the reading room, she proudly wrote down her new academic status: ‘a Master of Arts at Oxford’. She stated that she was considering doing a postgraduate degree to work on her thesis called ‘the Permanent Elements in Popular Heroic Fiction, with a Special Study of Modern Criminological Romance.’

This may have been partly true. After her undergraduate studies Sayers had thought about staying on as an academic at Somerville, but decided that she was ‘too sociable’ to spend her life in a women’s college. She had always loved detective novels – she devoured the popular Sexton Blake thrillers – but knew that her secret wish to write such stories herself would not be seen as worthy of an Oxford graduate. Now in London, as she mixed with bohemian writers and artists and went to see ‘Grand Guignol’ plays near the Strand, she began to see crime fiction in a different light. In an unpublished essay, probably written in the British Library, she addresses ‘Miss Dryasdust, M.A.’ who ‘disapproves of my fondness for detective stories of the more popular kind’. Sayers tells Miss Dryasdust that she is wrong, and that crime fiction holds the same place in the contemporary imagination as Beowulf and the heroic epics of ancient Greece once did.

‘Miss Dryasdust’, with her prized Master of Arts degree, could be the alter ego of Dorothy L. Sayers herself, as the Oxford scholar who pursued her research interests at Somerville. Instead, in January 1921, Sayers began sketching out an idea for her first book, published in 1922 as Whose Body? It introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, the wealthy, athletic and intelligent protagonist of several of Sayers’s subsequent novels and stories who delights in solving mysteries for  his own amusement. He embodied the opposite of everything in her life at time, as she later recalled: ‘After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.’ 

In Strong Poison (1930) Sayers introduced the character who was much closer to herself: Harriet Vane, a successful crime writer and former Oxford student who lives in Mecklenburgh Square. In Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night (1935) Vane is invited to return to her former college (here named Shrewsbury) to help the women there to solve a series of hate crimes. As she hesitates, wondering how her former academic community will welcome her now, she realizes that these are the women who taught her to value her own intellectual ability and independence, and the three years she spent among them at Oxford enabled her to achieve the creative life that she wanted. ‘Whatever I may have done since, this remains’, Vane reminds herself, gathering her confidence, and her voice could be that of Sayers herself. ‘Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University’.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 17 October 2020 (all rights reserved)

Sources: Vera Brittain, The Women At Oxford: a Fragment of History (Harrap,1960); Ellen Brundrige, ‘Translations of Latin in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night’; Janet Howarth,'”In Oxford… but not of Oxford”: the women’s colleges’, History of the University of Oxford, ed. Brock and Curthoys, vol VII (OUP, 2000)  pp 237-307; Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (Basic Books, New York, 2019); Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (Gollancz, 1935);How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey’ quoted in Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1997); Gillian Sutherland, In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (CUP, 2015); Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber & Faber, 2020)


Vice-Chancellor’s Oration 2020:

Somerville College (with photo of Dame Emily Penrose & Gilbert Murray):

Women Making History, 100 years of Oxford degrees for women:

Libraries for our times

‘Bodleian Library’ by A. Pugin, in Joseph Foster’s Oxford Men and Their Colleges (1893), Public Domain,

What role do libraries play in society today? And tomorrow? Last week I was fortunate enough to attend an online conference asking these questions, marking 700 years since the founding of the first purpose-built central library for the University of Oxford (you can see three excellent short videos on the past, present and future of the Bodleian Libraries on their website here.) Over the three days of the ‘Oxford Library 700’ conference there were fascinating talks by librarians, archivists and authors as well as specialists in the world of media, science and communication on the role that libraries have played and continue to play in our global society. Recordings of talks by Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden and others will be available soon via the website: meanwhile, I have listed a few of my own personal highlights below.

In his keynote speech, ‘The library as wishful thinking’, the writer and former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel asked why libraries around the world are often seen as outdated institutions. ‘How can things have gone so wrong?’, he asked. Libraries are as powerful as the use we continue to make of them, and can be reduced to mere adornment if a nation perceives them as irrelevant. ‘Any cultural institution entails both the possibility of learning and of imaginative change’ he argued, ‘and also the duty to understand the use we make of these tools of survival.’ According to Manguel, if we want to make libraries and the information they hold relevant to people again, we should ‘encourage civil disobedience, behave badly, make the government do their job.’

The novelist and FT columnist Nilanjana Roy gave us a heartening glimpse into how people are continuing to access books in India, even after the coronavirus pandemic has caused so many public libraries to close. Roy is a founding member of PEN Delhi, and has spent time tracking the ‘pavement libraries’ that sprang up during the recent citizens’ protests in New Delhi. Most of these makeshift libraries were assembled by women who wanted to pass their love of reading on to their children and others in their neighbourhoods. ‘We saved the books,’ one woman told her, ‘and among ourselves, we still read.’ Roy reminds us that, wherever we are in the world, our libraries should invoke a similar ‘magical foundation of trust’, and the simple invitation: ‘come sit and read’.

Dr Sandra Collins has been Director of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) since 2015. Her talk began movingly with a treasured photo of herself as a child with her late mother, followed by a snap of W.B. Yeats with his family, to illustrate the role of a national library as a ‘memory keeper’ for all of its citizens. She showed us a photograph of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963, and told us that a man had recently written to the library to say that he was the overawed young boy, seen with his mother at Dublin airport. Since the NLI joined the image-sharing website ‘Flickr’ it has had over 8 million views, Collins said, with other ‘citizen detectives’ coming forward to enrich the national collection with their memories of their past.

What will happen to our contemporary memories, she asked, now that there are so few written letters and so much that is ‘born digital’? Collecting and curating is not neutral, she explained, and told us how, as well as guarding the nation’s treasures, the NLI’s mission is to collect ‘the ordinary and the superficial’ that will help to tell Irish people’s stories in the future. This includes capturing websites and other data in a way that embraces the diversity of modern Ireland. ‘How we collect today will shape our country’s memory in future,’ she said. ‘In this way, the ordinary becomes extraordinary’.

Screenshot of Dr Gardner’s Oxford Library 700 talk, 17 Sept 2020, by A. Kennedy Smith

Dr Jessica Gardner is University Librarian and Director of Library Services at the University of Cambridge. Her talk ‘Owning the past, seizing the present’ also addressed the question of how she and her colleagues might approach the past while striving to make a library that is fit for present and future challenges. Referring to the 700th anniversary of Oxford Libraries, she said: ‘we should celebrate such momentous occasions, but we are always in a state of becoming.’ The role of libraries today should be ‘challenging the past, illuminating the present’, and she wants libraries to be places of ‘conversation and activism’.

As an example of challenging the past, Gardner drew attention to her ‘Behave Badly’ badge, which coincidentally echoed Alberto Manguel’s words in his keynote address. The badge is a replica of one handed out by the renowned historian Lisa Jardine (Jesus College’s first female fellow) in the 1970s and ’80s, encouraging her women friends to pin it under their jackets if necessary. It featured in the University Library’s recent ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition, marking 150 years of women at Cambridge, and Gardner said that wearing it reminded her of the struggle that women at Cambridge had to gain equal membership of the university. She praised Dr Jill Whitelock‘s excellent archival research into the historical University Library as a ‘contested space’ that symbolized and reinforced privilege, and I was delighted that she also mentioned my recent blog about the 1891 petition, when 24 women lecturers from Girton and Newnham colleges politely requested access to the University Library. As Gardner says, ‘whilst their books were welcomed on the library shelves, their access to the library itself was severely restricted’.

Gardner urged her colleagues around the world to enable more people to make use of their libraries: ‘We should make our content as open and accessible as possible, for as many people as possible.’ Although access to public spaces has to be limited during this uncertain time, all of the talks I listened to last week reminded me that the future of our libraries will be to welcome more readers through their doors, and to be able to access their extraordinary collections digitally. Cambridge University Library has recently joined Google Arts and Culture so that it can share its treasures freely and openly with many more people.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 24 September 2020


Finding Ida Darwin

Ann Kennedy Smith

Headway Cambridgeshire’s new exhibition IMPACT! Brain injuries and WW1has just opened at the Museum of Cambridge (open from 1pm – 5pm each Thursday, Friday and Saturday through September). I am reposting this blog about my visit to the Ida Darwin site in 2016, when Block 10 was the home of Headway Cambridgeshire, an organization which supports people with an acquired brain injury and their carers.


Just a mile or two south of Cambridge, after you pass the imposing gates of Fulbourn Hospital, there is a road to the left with a small sign marked ‘Ida Darwin’. It’s easy to miss. Turn in and you’ll find various single-storey prefabricated buildings scattered about a leafy, tree-filled park, including a creche, a ‘Help the Aged’ centre, and clinics specializing in helping young people with mental health issues and their families. Until a couple of years ago, Block 10 was the home…

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