The Dining Club, 1890

HBH18900519.2.22-a1-259w-c32

10701039Vicmarriage[1]

In August 1888 Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’. The Daily Telegraph took up the debate, asking its readers ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ (see 2013 feature here) In the following two months over 27,000 readers replied, for and against. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s. I think it is likely that Caroline Jebb and her friends would have discussed it during meetings of their newly formed Ladies’ Dining Society – and I have imagined their first meeting here, based on their diaries and letters.

HBH18900519.2.22-a1-259w-c32

10701039Vicmarriage[1]

In August 1888 Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’. The Daily Telegraph took up the debate, asking its readers ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ (see 2013 feature here) In the following two months over 27,000 readers replied, for and against. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s. I think it is likely that Caroline Jebb and her friends would have discussed it during meetings of their newly formed Ladies’ Dining Society – and I have imagined their first meeting here, based on their diaries and letters.

October 1890: The husbands were left to fend for themselves for the evening. Some wandered off happily to their colleges for dinner, thinking about important matters to be discussed with the other Fellows. Others were having solitary suppers in their studies, books piled up around them. The wives had arranged the suppers, given instructions to cooks and servants, written letters and lists for the following day, and dressed for the evening.

Caroline Jebb glanced at her reflection and approved. Her black velvet dress set off her auburn hair and her creamy complexion seemed to glow. She could still pass for much younger than fifty, she knew. When she went to say goodbye to Richard in his study, he looked up from his papers and sighed.

‘Must you go?’

‘I must. You could still have dinner in college if you wanted to.’

‘Too much work to do here. Don’t be late, Carrisima.’

Outside, their gardener Melbourne waited by the carriage. He had squeezed into his navy blue coat and put on his top hat for his duties as driver. As they drove to George and Maud Darwin’s house, he told her some fascinating gossip about their cook’s marital problems, as Caroline made mental notes for the evening’s discussion. After ten minutes’ waiting, Maud climbed into the carriage, apologizing and explaining about her children’s toothaches. Caroline shook her head impatiently.

‘Did you read the article I sent you, Maud? About the marriage question?’

‘Yes, well, most of it, you know. George had another bad head, you know, so I had to sit with him, and he doesn’t like me to read. He says I rustle the pages too much.’

This was too vexing. Like all the Darwin men, George had frequent illnesses and expected his wife to dispense constant sympathy as his mother had always done. If only Maud would follow her advice she would do quite well, Caroline thought. She was still a pretty young woman, though she’d unwisely allowed her waist to thicken and it made her look positively matronly. She was wearing something in the new style from London, but Caroline suspected she had just come from the garden. Maud caught her look.

‘It’s real nice of Mrs Creighton to invite me,’ she said cheerfully, ‘though of course, I should never have got a look-in if it hadn’t been for you, Aunt Cara.’

Caroline frowned, wishing Maud would try to remember that Americans must be on their guard against English snobbery at all times.

‘Try not to say ‘real nice’ or ‘look-in’ when you meet Mrs Creighton, Maud, remember. That sort of slang should stay in Philadelphia. Come to think of it, it might be best if you said as little as possible.’

The carriage swung into a wide driveway. The Creightons’ home was one of the newer Cambridge houses, rather square and featureless, but Louise had spent money on landscaping the garden, Caroline noted with approval. The maid showed them into a hall which had a new blue carpet on a freshly polished rosewood floor. As Louise came out to greet them, Caroline looked up to see a row of children in white nightgowns peering down at them, faces pressed against the banisters. One child said wonderingly,

‘Mama, mama! What are all these ladies doing here?’

Louise shooed them off to bed before ushering Caroline and Maud into the drawing room, explaining that she had asked the maid to prepare a fruit punch for this, the first of their Ladies’ Dining Club gatherings.

‘Mrs Lyttelton and I decided to have no champagne at our dinners, so that our minds are sharp for the discussion at hand,’ she told them crisply, handing them each a glass.

Louise and Kathleen Lyttelton asked a small group of their Cambridge friends to form a ladies’ dining society, to meet twice a term, and discuss issues of the day.

The other women arrived in twos and threes, .some walking, others by private carriage or rented hansom cab. A gong was sounded and they were shown into the dining room. Caroline surveyed the table. Dark-haired Ellen Darwin was whispering to her sister-in-law Ida Darwin. The Darwins always stayed close, she noted, and Louise had seated them together because Ida was good at putting Ellen at her ease. Fanny Prothero was sitting on the other side of Ida and saying little, as usual, but it was not Caroline’s job to draw anyone out this evening, thank goodness. Mary Paley Marshall was on her left. Good, Mary always had something interesting to say, Caroline thought. She was talking to the Vice-principal of Newnham College, Mrs Sidgwick, who looked flushed, her eyes shining. Eleanor Sidgwick loved these discussions. Beside her, her friend and Newnham neighbour Eliza von Hügel was looking gracious and spiritual as ever.

At the end of the table Kathleen Lyttelton shuffled a heap of papers in a business-like way. Dear me, Caroline thought, I hope she doesn’t speak for too long. Louise rang a small bell.

‘Welcome, ladies. May I introduce the topic for this evening? It is a subject which affects us all, and on which everyone here will have very different views, I am sure. It is, of course, the marriage question. Now, who would like to begin?’

Ann Kennedy Smith

Sources: Carolyn Christensen Nelson, A New Woman Reader: fiction, articles and drama of the 1890s (Letchworth: Turpin, 2001) pp.184-224

December 1890The husbands were left to fend for themselves for the evening. Some wandered off happily to their colleges for dinner, thinking about important matters to be discussed with the other Fellows. Others were having solitary suppers in their studies, books piled up around them. The wives had arranged the suppers, given instructions to cooks and servants, written letters and lists for the following day, and dressed for the evening.

Caroline Jebb glanced at her reflection and approved. Her black velvet dress set off her auburn hair and her creamy complexion seemed to glow. She could still pass for much younger than fifty, she knew. When she went to say goodbye to Richard in his study, he looked up from his papers and sighed.

‘Must you go?’

‘I must. You could still have dinner in college if you wanted to.’

‘Too much work to do here. Don’t be late, Carrisima.’

Outside, their gardener Melbourne waited by the carriage. He had squeezed into his navy blue coat and put on his top hat for his duties as driver. As they drove to George and Maud Darwin’s house, he told her some fascinating gossip about their cook’s marital problems, as Caroline made mental notes for the evening’s discussion. After ten minutes’ waiting, Maud climbed into the carriage, apologizing and explaining about her children’s toothaches. Caroline shook her head impatiently.

‘Did you read the article I sent you, Maud? About the marriage question?’

‘Yes, well, most of it, you know. George had another bad head, you know, so I had to sit with him, and he doesn’t like me to read. He says I rustle the pages too much.’

This was too vexing. Like all the Darwin men, George had frequent illnesses and expected his wife to dispense constant sympathy as his mother had always done. If only Maud would follow her advice she would do quite well, Caroline thought. She was still a pretty young woman, though she’d unwisely allowed her waist to thicken and it made her look positively matronly. She was wearing something in the new style from London, but Caroline suspected she had just come from the garden. Maud caught her look.

‘It’s real nice of Mrs Creighton to invite me,’ she said cheerfully, ‘though of course, I should never have got a look-in if it hadn’t been for you, Aunt Cara.’

Caroline frowned, wishing Maud would try to remember that Americans must be on their guard against English snobbery at all times.

‘Try not to say ‘real nice’ or ‘look-in’ when you meet Mrs Creighton, Maud, remember. That sort of slang should stay in Philadelphia. Come to think of it, it might be best if you said as little as possible.’

The carriage swung into a wide driveway. The Creightons’ home was one of the newer Cambridge houses, rather square and featureless, but Louise had spent money on landscaping the garden, Caroline noted with approval. The maid showed them into a hall which had a new blue carpet on a freshly polished rosewood floor. As Louise came out to greet them, Caroline looked up to see a row of children in white nightgowns peering down at them, faces pressed against the banisters. One child said wonderingly,

‘Mama, mama! What are all these ladies doing here?’

Louise shooed them off to bed before ushering Caroline and Maud into the drawing room, explaining that she had asked the maid to prepare a fruit punch for this, the first of their Ladies’ Dining Club gatherings.

‘Mrs Lyttelton and I decided to have no champagne at our dinners, so that our minds are sharp for the discussion at hand,’ she told them crisply, handing them each a glass.

Louise and Kathleen Lyttelton asked a small group of their Cambridge friends to form a ladies’ dining society, to meet twice a term, and discuss issues of the day.

The other women arrived in twos and threes, .some walking, others by private carriage or rented hansom cab. A gong was sounded and they were shown into the dining room. Caroline surveyed the table. Dark-haired Ellen Darwin was whispering to her sister-in-law Ida Darwin. The Darwins always stayed close, she noted, and Louise had seated them together because Ida was good at putting Ellen at her ease. Fanny Prothero was sitting on the other side of Ida and saying little, as usual, but it was not Caroline’s job to draw anyone out this evening, thank goodness. Mary Paley Marshall was on her left. Good, Mary always had something interesting to say, Caroline thought. She was talking to the Vice-principal of Newnham College, Mrs Sidgwick, who looked flushed, her eyes shining. Eleanor Sidgwick loved these discussions. Beside her, her friend and Newnham neighbour Eliza von Hügel was looking gracious and spiritual as ever.

At the end of the table Kathleen Lyttelton shuffled a heap of papers in a business-like way. Dear me, Caroline thought, I hope she doesn’t speak for too long. Louise rang a small bell.

‘Welcome, ladies. May I introduce the topic for this evening? It is a subject which affects us all, and on which everyone here will have very different views, I am sure. It is, of course, the marriage question. Now, who would like to begin?’

Ann Kennedy Smith

Sources: Carolyn Christensen Nelson, A New Woman Reader: fiction, articles and drama of the 1890s (Letchworth: Turpin, 2001) pp.184-224

7 thoughts on “The Dining Club, 1890

  1. Godela Weiss-Sussex says:

    An outing in the company of Caroline Jebb – it’s just as if we were allowed a fly-on-the-wall glance into her world. To be continued…. ?? Yes, please!

    Liked by 1 person

    • akennedysmith says:

      Many thanks Simon, this was inspired by my MA dissertation research last year into the very different marriages of the women in the group, and imagining what they might have discussed.

      Like

  2. Sally Rose says:

    Hi Ann, just letting you know I got this as I knew you were wondering how WordPress were sending them out.

    Off to London this week for Axl’s family reunion, perhaps a dog walk and coffee on Tues am if you are free

    S x

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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