An invasion of croquet

“I was not discovering that my creed was false, but that I had never really believed it” (Leslie Stephen, National Review, October 1903)

Long before he became the father of the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vanessa Bell, Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge from 1854 until 1864. Following his ten years there, he wrote a series of affectionate and sardonic essays about university life, published anonymously in 1865 in a little book called Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don.

In the first chapter, Stephen describes Trinity Hall as ‘the ideal of a college’, with its ancient cloisters and courts surrounded by tall trees, organ music drifting through the air and the sounds of high-spirited young men making their way to lectures, as they had done for centuries. Now this scholarly idyll was under threat: women were encroaching on its hallowed ground.

We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls, but threatened by an invasion of croquet, for female influence is slowly but surely invading our cloisters. Whether, like the ivy that gathers upon our ancient walls, it may ultimately be fatal to their stability, remains yet to be seen.

The University of Cambridge had been an all male, religious institution since it was founded in 1513. Students and academic Fellows lived, studied, taught and dined together as celibates in their colleges (in terms of marriage at least – prostitutes were a thriving town business). Stephen claimed that during the fourteen years he spent at Cambridge, first as a student, then a fellow, the only two women he ever spoke to were his bedder (college cleaner) and the Master’s wife.

Leslie Stephen, ca. 1860

The young Leslie Stephen was a tall, athletic figure, a keen rower and an early member of the Alpine Club; he was celebrated for his coaching of the college boat, and once walked 50 miles from Cambridge to London on a hot summer’s day, simply to have evening dinner at his club. He became politically active in the 1860s and, unlike most of his peers, a vocal supporter of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. But in the 1850s he was old-fashioned in his dread at seeing women trampling on his college’s precious velvet turf. He feared that the university wives would break up Cambridge’s exclusively male scholarly world: ‘a married fellow will, I fear, oftener think more of his wife than his college’.

He gave up his Trinity Hall chapel services in 1862 following his loss of faith. “When I ceased to accept the teachings of my youth, it was not so much a process of giving up beliefs, as of discovering that I had never really believed,” he said (Maitland, 133). He decided he could no longer stay in Cambridge, with its close ties to the Church of England, and moved to London, where he began a new career as a writer and journalist, and co-founded the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885.

After his marriage to Harriet (Minny) Thackeray in 1867, Stephen also changed his mind about women at Cambridge as dramatically he had changed it about religion. He no longer believed that married fellows would mean the end of Trinity Hall, telling his friend, the Classicist Richard Claverhouse Jebb, that he was glad that the college’s ‘idiotic rule of celibacy’ was gradually being dropped. Stephen even formed a lasting friendship with Richard’s American wife, Caroline Lane Jebb, even though one of the first things Caroline did in Cambridge was to plan her very own croquet lawn.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 2021, all rights reserved

Sources: ‘Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; F.W. Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (Duckworth, 1906); Leslie Stephen Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don (MacMillan, 1865); Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber, 1960)

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Leslie Stephen: An invasion of croquet’ (date accessed)

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