An invasion of croquet

A new version of one of my first blogposts – about the father of Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen’s years as a fellow at Cambridge. Although at first he objected to the idea of academic men getting married, fearing that it would be at the expense of the close scholarly fellowship of his beloved ancient college – he later changed his mind. Here’s why.

Ann Kennedy Smith

Long before he became famous as the co-founder of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885 (and as the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell), Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge from 1854 until 1864. During 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 Cambridgeby 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…

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3 thoughts on “An invasion of croquet

  1. Bryony Armstrong says:

    Thanks so much for resharing this! I was reading this passage recently and also honed in on this invasion of croquet. Croquet was and still is a sport in which men and women compete together, and seems to resist the cult of muscular Christianity at Oxbridge. It contrasts perfectly with Stephen’s descriptions of athletics competitions and rowing bumps elsewhere in the ‘Sketches’, which reveal his reverence for the muscular male body and its abilities. Although the women did play games in their colleges (I love the records of women taking to football in the early days of Hitchin, or fighting to play hockey in shorter skirts at Girton), Stephen’s joy in rowing, cricket, and athletics is very homosocial. Thank you for highlighting the “invasion” of wives as opposed to female students – something I’ll give more thought to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • akennedysmith says:

      Many thanks for reading the post and for your fascinating comments, Bryony. There is so much more to Oxbridge sport than the Boat Race… have you published anything on this, or would you recommend any book or article?


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