Light and shade: Louise Creighton (1850–1936)

louise_creighton1024 ‘Nobody,’ said Ruskin, ‘will believe that the main virtue of Turner is in his drawing’. The Oxford professor and author of Modern Painters was discussing ‘Light and Shade’ in a public lecture on art on a Thursday afternoon in Oxford, 9 February 1871. He told his audience, packed into the Sheldonian theatre, that he was convinced that J.M.W. Turner’s genius as an artist lay in his skills as a draughtsman rather than as a colourist. One young woman in the audience who hung on Ruskin’s every word was twenty-year-old Louise von Glehn from London. She was visiting Oxford for the first time and passionate about art: Ruskin was, she told her friends, her prophet. It was ironic that at his lecture on the virtues of monochrome, Louise had chosen to wear a striking yellow scarf. It caught the eye of Mandell Creighton, a tall, art-loving 27-year-old don. He asked to be introduced to the ‘girl who has the courage to wear yellow’, and she was instantly struck by his self-confidence and brilliant, witty conversation. ‘How dull everyone else has seemed to me in comparison,’ she later wrote. Soon afterwards she and Mandell became engaged.

170px-Mandell_Creighton_aged_27According to ancient university statutes at both Oxford and Cambridge, fellows were not permitted to marry, but Merton College made an exception in Creighton’s case: they did not want to lose this gifted teacher and scholar who, unusually for an intellectual of that time, had recently taken religious orders. Louise and Mandell (or ‘Max’ as she always called him) married in January 1872 and settled in a modern villa in St Giles, Oxford, which they named ‘Middlemarch’ after George Eliot’s novel. They gave their artistic tastes free rein in their new home, decorating the drawing-room with Burne-Jones prints, old oak furniture, a blue carpet and the yellow wallpaper they both loved. Louise and Mandell adored each other with a passion, but from the beginning it was a stormy relationship. Charming and witty in public, he was frequently critical and demanding at home, and ‘not the sort of husband who overlooks one’s faults’, she told her sister three months after her wedding, adding that ‘nothing could be better for me.’ She was never afraid to take issue with him, although she always preferred it when they came to an agreement. Her friend Bertha Johnson painted her portrait at this time, looking soulful against a Morris-like trellis of roses, but Louise was no wistful pre-Raphaelite heroine. In contrast to Mandell, she had a direct manner that some people found rather alarming and unexpected in a woman.

Louise Creighton would have loved the chance to study at university herself. Before moving to Oxford she had taken London University’s first higher examination for women, and passed with honours: ‘had circumstances permitted it,’ she wrote rather wistfully later, ‘I might have become a real grubbing student’. The first women’s residences (later to be colleges) had opened in Cambridge in 1869 and 1871, and Louise and her friends Mary Augusta Ward and Clara Pater decided that Oxford needed to catch up. In 1873 they helped to set up a committee to organize the first women’s lectures and classes at the university, and in 1877 this became the Association for the Higher Education of Women and led to the founding of Oxford’s earliest women’s colleges, St Margaret’s Hall (1878) and Somerville (1879).


Cambridge 1884-91: From 1875 until 1884 the Creightons lived in Embleton, Northumberland where Mandell Creighton took up the post of country vicar and worked on the first volumes of his extensive papal history. Louise combined caring for, and home-educating, their six children with writing a series of popular history books. In 1884 Mandell accepted the offer of the first professorship of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge, and the family and their servants decamped to a rented house on the edge of the city, where their seventh child was born. Louise was happy to be able to socialize with the university’s first generation of fellows’ wives, and in her characteristically forthright way she decided that she would make particular friends with Kathleen Lyttelton. Kathleen and Louise had much in common: they were both published writers who were married to ambitious academic clergymen, and they shared a strong interest in social work. Their friendship became closer when both became involved in establishing the National Union of Women Workers in 1895 (now known as the NCW), a non-political organization founded in response to the unsatisfactory working conditions faced by many women at the time. Louise Creighton became its first president.

She had stayed in touch with her Oxford friends Clara Pater, by now classics tutor at Somerville College (years later she privately taught Virginia Woolf) and Mary Ward, who as ‘Mrs Humphry Ward’ was achieving modest success as a writer. Her novel about a doubting cleric, Robert Elsmere, published in 1888, propelled her into the literary spotlight; it was an immediate bestseller and Gladstone wrote a long review praising it in the literary journal The Nineteenth Century. The journal’s canny editor J.T. Knowles, keen to boost circulation figures, suggested that Mary Ward should use her celebrity status to organize a manifesto against the growing support for women’s suffrage in the UK. She asked her friend Louise Creighton for help, and together they gathered the signatures of 104 well-known women for a petition that was published in the June 1889 issue of The Nineteenth Century. Knowles saw to it that their petition would be attacked vehemently in the following issue by the influential suffragists Millicent Fawcett and Emilia Dilke. But there were personal friendships at stake in Cambridge. The strongly pro-suffrage Kathleen Lyttelton was distressed by her friend’s anti-suffrage stance, but Louise stayed firm, and in August 1889 The Nineteenth Century published her six-page ‘Rejoinder’, stating her belief that a wife was ‘purer, nobler, more unselfish’ than her husband and that giving the vote to women would ‘lower the ideal of womanhood among men’. It was her first step onto the national stage, and made her famous. Later she would regret her involvement in the controversial manifesto, saying simply ‘I think this was a mistake on my part.’The following year Louise and Kathleen asked a small group of their Cambridge friends to form a ladies’ dining and discussion club. It was so successful that they decided to meet twice a term, and continued to do so until 1914. (See Wikipedia entry about The Ladies’ Dining Society.) The Creightons moved away from Cambridge in 1891 when Mandell accepted a bishopric at Peterborough, but Louise never left the club; she travelled back to Cambridge for their meetings, or invited them to the bishop’s palace at Peterborough, and later Lambeth Palace.

800px-Mandell_Creighton_by_Sir_Hubert_von_HerkomerLondon 1904-6:  Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, died age 57 in January 1901, just days before the death of Queen Victoria. Louise was overcome with grief at the loss of her husband, but pragmatic. She moved to a ‘grace and favour’ apartment at Hampton Court and set about writing her Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, which was published in two volumes in 1904 and widely acclaimed as one of the best biographies of its time. Then there were several volumes of Mandell’s speeches and writings to edit and publish. She wanted to ensure that this brilliant and complex man was understood, and establish his future reputation through her own skills as a writer and historian.

At the 1906 conference of the National Union of Women Workers held at Tunbridge Wells, Louise stood on the platform and made an announcement. She told her audience that she had changed her mind about women’s suffrage, and from now on would support the parliamentary campaign for women to have the vote. Mrs Humphry Ward was furious when she heard this, and tried to talk her friend round, but Louise was once again resolute. In 1908 Mary Ward agreed to head the ‘Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League’. Her campaign helped to delay the vote for several more years, and ensured that for many today she is remembered less for her novels and significant contribution to women’s education and childcare provision, than for standing in the way of equal rights as John Sutherland has said.

Privately, Louise worried that people would think it was Mandell’s death that had allowed her to express her feminist opinions freely for the first time. Was there not some truth in this? In her unpublished memoir she considers the question as carefully as if Max had turned his penetrating eyes on her. I certainly should not after he was a bishop or indeed at any time’ she wrote, ‘have taken up a line opposed to him in any public opinion… I do not think he was at all strongly opposed to female suffrage at any time.’ But she sounds hesitant, as if she was asking herself whether her wifely loyalty had occasionally been in conflict with her own beliefs. As Ruskin said in 1871, when Louise’s yellow scarf attracted Mandell’s eye, there is light and shade in everything.


Louise continued to write, publishing history books, biographies and – perhaps most surprisingly – a treatise on venereal disease. She served on two Royal Commissions, gave lectures at the London School of Economics and as a moderate Christian feminist, worked hard to reconcile liberal and conservative factions in the Anglican Church. As her biographer James Thayne Covert noted: ‘In her later life she pondered the question of the priesthood of women. She recognized that her opposition to it was rooted in instinct and prejudice, and she could find no logical reason against it.’ In 1927 she moved back to Oxford and served on the governing body of Lady Margaret Hall for the rest of her life.

Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Sources: James Thayne Covert, ‘Creighton, Louise Hume (1850–1936)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 and A Victorian marriage: Mandell and Louise Creighton (2000) Louise Creighton, Life and letters of Mandell Creighton, 2 vols. (1904); Memoir of a Victorian woman: reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850–1936, edited by J. T. Covert (1994)

8 thoughts on “Light and shade: Louise Creighton (1850–1936)

  1. Tamsin Wimhurst says:

    Enjoyed reading this and did not realise that she had a changed of her views of women’s suffrage. She was instrumental in trying to persuade the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Group to become a branch of the National Union of Women Workers in 1903. They nearly did but pulled back and it took another 9 years for this to happen.


  2. akennedysmith says:

    Thank you very much Tamsin for your thoughtful comments, and how interesting that Louise tried to get the CLDS involved with the NUWW. She was a pretty influential campaigner I think, and also not afraid to question her own position.


  3. brontebabeblog says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you so much for the information. I was trying to find out a bit more about Louise’s life after I came across a book once owned by her husband as part of my work on a project for Liverpool Hope University’s Special Collections department a few months back. It had a beautiful bookplate inside it which depicted Mandell and I couldn’t resist blogging about it.


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