The marvellous Mrs Marshall

I was delighted to be asked to write a guest post this month for the excellent Neglected Books website (‘where forgotten books are remembered’). My article about two ‘forgotten’ but beautifully written books – allowing us to experience the lived experience of women at Cambridge during the late Victorian era is republished below, with kind permission of Neglected Books.

It’s not hard to think of fiction set in Cambridge, from E.M. Forster’s Maurice (written in 1913-14, published posthumously in 1971) to Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamund Lehmann and, more recently, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us (2015). But I’m convinced that well-written nonfiction can bring an authentic story to light in a way that no novel can. During my research into Cambridge’s first women students, university wives and college tutors I’ve discovered there’s nothing like hearing their own voices in the form of memoirs and biographies based on their letters and diaries. Here I focus on two of these books.

Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember was published by Cambridge University Press, 1947. It’s a slim volume – only 50 pages long – with a jaunty introduction by the historian G.M. Trevelyan who writes:

If people who knew not the Victorians will absent themselves from the felicity of generalising about them for a while, and read this short book, they can then return to the game refreshed and instructed.

What I remember begins, as many good stories do, with a happy childhood. Mary’s was spent in a rose-covered country rectory, where her father Reverend Thomas Paley encouraged his daughters’ education: ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, she recalls. She moved to Cambridge in 1871 as one of the University’s earliest women students and one of the ‘first five’ at Newnham College; Girton College had begun two years previously. The idea that unmarried women could live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Paley Marshall said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’ at the time.

Soon after she arrived in Cambridge, she became fascinated by Political Economy because of Alfred Marshall’s lectures. He was ‘a great preacher’ who spoke passionately about the need for women’s equality in education and quoted from George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. With his encouragement, Mary was one of the first two women to sit for the University’s final year exams in 1874 and she became Newnham’s first residential lecturer.

By the mid-1870s the Pre-Raphaelite era of colour in dress and house decoration had dawned all over England. As Florence Ada Keynes later wrote: ‘Newnham caught the fever. We trailed about in clinging robes of peacock blue, terra-cotta red, sage green or orange, feeling very brave and thoroughly enjoying the sensation it caused’ (By-ways of Cambridge History, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1956, first published 1947). The college room that Mary studied and slept in was, like those of her students, papered in William Morris designs and hung with Burne-Jones prints. At the age of twenty-five she was that rare thing in Victorian times, an unmarried woman who lived independently from her parents and earned a good income doing a job she loved.

Then she and Alfred Marshall married and accepted posts at the newly founded University College, Bristol, where they taught and together published a textbook called The Economics of Industry (1879). Their working marriage seemed the ideal of an intellectual partnership that Mary had dreamed of, and What I Remember describes the happy years the Marshalls spent in Sicily and in Oxford before returning in 1885 to Cambridge. Alfred was made a Professor and published The Principles of Economics (1890) and Mary returned to her post at Newnham, where her inspiring teaching would have a great influence on one student: Winnie Seebohm.

‘This is the true story of a young woman who lived in the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign,’ Victoria Glendinning writes at the beginning of A Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter, her biography of Seebohm.

But do not be misled into thinking that because it is history it has nothing to do with you. 1885 is yesterday. It is probably tomorrow too.

The prize-winning biographer of Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell and Leonard Woolf, among others, Glendinning took as her first subject her Victorian great-aunt Winnie Seebohm, but the book is no less powerful for Seebohm’s obscurity. A Suppressed Cry was not much noticed when it was published in 1969 and it disappeared from view until it was reissued by Virago in 1995, with a new introduction by the author.

The issue at the heart of A Suppressed Cry is how a young woman from a close-knit Hertfordshire family rebelled against their loving claims on her and achieved her ambition to study at Cambridge. The Seebohms were linked to other Quaker clans in what Glendinning describes as ‘a tight genealogical spiral’ with banking and scholarly connections. Winnie’s father was the economic historian Frederic Seebohm, and she grew up with her siblings and invalid mother in an idyllic house called the Hermitage in rural Hitchin. Despite her obvious intelligence, Winnie was expected to be a ‘good daughter’, contented with flower-arranging and visiting her Quaker relations until a suitable husband was found for her. But she decided that ‘no woman (it is not my business to consider a man’s life) has any excuse for living a life that is not worth living’.

So, in 1885, at the age of 22, she took the gruelling Cambridge entrance exams and won a place at Newnham. A Suppressed Cry reproduces some of the touching letters and diary entries she wrote there. Winnie was thrilled with her college room, her new friends and the freedom to spend her days reading books and writing essays. She adored her tutors, particularly Mary Paley Marshall, who taught Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’. ‘She is a Princess Ida,’ Winnie told her sister, thinking of the heroine of Tennyson’s poem The Princess who founded a university for women.

She wears a flowing dark green cloth robe with dark brown fur round the bottom (not on the very edge) – she has dark brown hair which goes back in a great wave and is very loosely pinned up behind –very deep-set large eyes, a straight nose – a face that one likes to watch. Then she is enthusiastic and simple. She speaks fluently and earnestly with her head thrown back a little and her hands generally clasped or resting on her desk. She looks oftenest at the ceiling but every now and then straight at you.

Winnie wanted to become a teacher just like the marvellous Mrs Marshall, but her time as a student was heartbreakingly brief. After just six weeks at Cambridge, she fell ill and was brought back to the Hermitage to be nursed by her family. ‘How queer it looks to see everybody so leisurely here!’ Winnie wrote to her classmate Lina Bronner, confessing how she longed to return to Cambridge. ‘I imagine you lingering on dear Clare Bridge, and King’s spires will be looking grey and sharp against the sky.’  

Her kindly tutor Mary Paley Marshall also wrote to her. She was the only woman Winnie knew who seemed to have it all, combining fulfilling academic work with her role as a wife. ‘If she is the woman of the future, I am sure the world will do very well,’ Winnie wrote in her diary. It was one of the last things she wrote. She died after a severe asthma attack – though she may also have had undiagnosed anorexia – just a few weeks later. Expected from childhood to suppress her ambitions and put others’ needs first, Seebohm was, in Glendinning’s memorable description, ‘left stranded on the shores of the nineteenth century’.

Mary Paley Marshall’s married life was far from the ideal that Winnie perceived. In the early 1880s Alfred turned against the idea of women at Cambridge: ‘it is not likely that men will go on marrying, if they are to have competitors as wives’ he told LSE founder Beatrice Webb. He insisted that The Economics of Industry, the book he and Mary wrote together, should be pulped and in 1897 he voted against women being awarded Cambridge degrees. But unlike poor Winnie, Mary was a survivor and she had the final word. After Alfred’s death in 1924 she co-founded Cambridge University’s Marshall Library, and worked there for nearly twenty years; her portrait now hangs above the library staircase opposite his.  

What was left out of (or ‘forgotten’) in Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember is at least as interesting as what was put in; and the cheering counterbalance to Winnie Seebohm’s sad story is the continuing success of Newnham, which celebrates 150 years as a women’s college this year.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2021, all rights reserved.

With thanks to

‘Forgotten’ writers

I’m delighted to be a guest this week on the excellent ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ book podcast hosted by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes. It’s a podcast about books, creativity, the writing life, and forgotten classics by women writers: recently I enjoyed their episodes on Marjorie Hillis, Martha Gellhorn and the Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. I was fascinated to discover that Hungerford’s Victorian bestseller Molly Bawn is name-checked in James Joyce’s Ulysses – and there is lots more to discover on the website here. Episodes are available on Apple podcasts, or via the website.

Kim and Amy invited me to talk about Amy Levy’s novel Reuben Sachs (1888) which attracted controversy when it was first published. Levy aimed to emulate her heroes Daudet and Zola, and say something original about affluent Jewish culture in Victorian Britain. ‘Its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and, above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic,’ Oscar Wilde said. ‘To write thus at six-and-twenty is given to very few.’ But the novel was widely criticized (along with its dangerous ‘New Woman’ author) and after her death Levy’s novels were ‘forgotten’ – that is, quietly dropped from the canon, as many Victorian women writers were.

Today I have updated my blogpost about Levy’s friendship with her former Cambridge tutor, Ellen Wordsworth Darwin. Both women were uncompromising in their pursuit of truth, and both struggled with depression, which Darwin herself described as ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’.

Amy Levy and Ellen Wordsworth Darwin


In summer 1888 Ellen Wordsworth Darwin (née Crofts) told her sister-in-law Ida Darwin that her former student Amy Levy was coming to visit. ‘She has written a novel, in which the heroine is partly me’, she told Ida. ‘I have not read it yet, but I don’t expect much: her stories and novels are rather saddening.’

Why did Amy have Ellen Darwin in mind when she wrote about Judith Quixano in her second novel, Reuben Sachs: A Sketch? (Reuben Sachs and his beautiful, penniless cousin Quixano are deeply in love, but his political ambitions prevent him from marrying her.) Darwin was not Jewish, and her Yorkshire upbringing was very different from the fictional Quixano’s Portuguese connections. Possibly Ellen shared what Levy describes as Judith’s ‘deep, serious gaze of the wonderful eyes’ (as can be seen in the 1903 photo of Ellen) certainly she had her passionate nature and almost austere truthfulness. 

In 1879 Levy was 17 and the first Jewish woman to study at Newnham College Cambridge when she met Ellen Crofts, as she was then, the college’s resident lecturer in English literature and History. Ellen was just beginning her academic career, having studied at Newnham from 1874-77; Levy was a brilliant and ambitious young poet. The two women became friends through their shared love of literature. Ellen was the great-niece of the poet William Wordsworth, and another uncle, Henry Sidgwick, was a Cambridge philosopher and one of the founders of Newnham College. She was working on a book about Elizabethan and 17th-century lyric poetry when she met Amy, who had published an essay on Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh when she was 13.

Despite enjoying her studies, Amy Levy was often lonely at Cambridge. In the close community of Newnham she felt all too conscious of her Jewish difference, and she found it difficult to join in the other young women’s cocoa parties and outings. Ellen, as her sympathetic and serious-minded tutor, was one of the few people that Amy could turn to. Writing about Darwin in 1903, her contemporary Blanche Smith recalled how ‘she from the first recognized genius in a student who, extremely unpopular, was shunned by co-mates and dons alike until Ellen made a friend of her, and so helped to draw out talents that the literary world have since acknowledged.’

Could this unpopular but talented student have been Amy Levy? We can’t be sure, but in 1881 she left Cambridge without taking her final exams. Perhaps this was because she wanted to devote more time to her writing: her first poetry collection, Xantippe and Other Verse (1881) published while she was still a student, was praised by influential critic Richard Garnett. Possibly she did not want to take the mathematics paper necessary to sit for the Tripos, which women students won the right to do in May 1881 (see my post on Mary Willcox here).  

Ellen and Amy’s friendship continued after Amy left Cambridge, and it’s possible that they met up in Switzerland in the summer of 1883, when both women happened to be on holiday there. Three years later Levy would publish a poem called ‘To E.’  about a happy day that she spent with two other writer friends in the mountains: one was an unnamed male poet, and the other a ‘learned’ woman. (‘You, stepped in learned lore, and I,/ A poet too.’) Towards the end of the poem, Levy’s unrequited love for the woman is hinted at: ‘And do I sigh or smile to-day?/Dead love or dead ambition, say,/Which mourn we most? Not much we weigh/Platonic friends.’

In September 1883 Ellen gave up her Newnham lectureship (and ambitions to be a serious literary scholar) when she married the botanist Francis Darwin, who had moved to Cambridge after his father Charles Darwin’s death in 1882. Ellen became a stepmother to Frank’s young son Bernard, and their daughter Frances was born in 1886. Amy continued to divide her time between Europe and the British Library in London, where she befriended Eleanor Marx and Beatrice Webb (née Potter) and published poetry, short stories and articles in the Jewish Chronicle. But although she had close friendships with other women – and most likely a serious (on Levy’s part) love affair in Florence with Violet Paget, who wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Lee – Levy did not find the lasting romantic friendship that she longed for.

In the summer of 1888, when she travelled to Cambridge to visit Ellen, 27-year-old Levy was on the cusp of great success as a writer. Oscar Wilde, then editor of Woman’s World, had described one of her stories as having ‘a touch of genius’, and commissioned more work from her, including her article ‘Women and Club Life’. Levy’s first novel The Romance of a Shop (1888) was selling well. The book ‘aims at the young person’, as she said herself, and it’s an entertaining and light-hearted story about four independent young sisters who set up their own photography studio in London. Her next novel would be much more ambitious and complex and would, she hoped, make her name as a writer.  

Reuben Sachs: A Sketch was published soon after Levy’s trip to Cambridge. The idea for it had developed from Levy’s 1886 article called ‘The Jew in Fiction’ in the Jewish Chronicle in which she called for ‘a serious treatment… of the complex problem of Jewish life and Jewish character.’ With Reuben Sachs she wanted to challenge the anti-Semitic tropes of the Victorian novel, such as Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1871), as well as the well-meaning but unexamined assumptions of George Eliot’s pro-Semitic Daniel Deronda (1876) in which the Jewish family’s baby ‘carries on her teething intelligently’.

From the first, Reuben Sachs attracted controversy for its scathing depiction of the affluent upper-class Anglo-Jewish community that Levy knew well. Even though she describes a close and loving London community, who take in impoverished Judith Quixano and treat her as one of their own, Levy’s mordant attack on Jewish materialist values and critique of the late-Victorian marriage market meant that her book was widely criticized. Her satirical humour in the style of Zola or Daudet was not understood, nor was her attempt to parody George Eliot.

During the first half of the following year Levy – who never sought popularity – managed to shrug off the negative reviews. She threw herself into her writing, and took part in literary events, including organizing gatherings at the newly founded University Women’s Club in London. She was one of the guests at the first ever Women Writers’ Dinner, held at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly in May 1889 and attended by prominent other ‘New Women’ writers Mona Caird and Olive Schreiner.  At the end of July 1889 she met the poet W.B. Yeats. ‘She was talkative, good-looking in a way,’ he recalled, ‘and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.’

Yeats was perceptive about Levy’s mental state. Her work and socializing had provided a distraction from her struggles with depression, but it was not enough to protect her from loneliness and despair. Although her literary star was in the ascendant, she could not see an escape from her inner darkness, and in September 1889 she took her own life.

In January 1890 Ellen Darwin reviewed Levy’s posthumously published poetry collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889) in the Cambridge Review. She describes her friend’s ‘eager vital temperament’, and her constant, heroic struggle with ‘the shadow of a great mental depression’. Levy’s poetry’s range might be narrow, Darwin writes (with the characteristic honesty Levy admired), but its power comes from ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’. Ellen Darwin compares Levy’s poetry to that of Emily Brontë: ‘It is as different as their natures were different, but it has this one thing in common – it was written with the heart’s blood’. She says nothing in her review about ‘To E.’, the last poem in the collection.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 19 April 2021. I was delighted to be invited to discuss Reuben Sachs on the excellent ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast this month: follow the link here

Amy Levy

My thanks to Anne Thomson for her archival assistance, and to Newnham College for permission to reproduce Ellen Darwin’s photograph (Newnham PH/10/4 Chrystal Album no.2). Other sources: For more on Amy Levy, see Linda Hunt Beckman, Amy Levy: her life and letters (Ohio, 2000);  Eleanor Fitzsimons’s Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew (Duckworth Overlook, 2015) and ‘A brief introduction to the works of Amy Levy’ on the Victorian Web website (accessed 19 April 2021); Ellen Darwin’s letter to Ida Darwin: Cambridge University Library, Darwin Family Papers Add.9368.1:3543; ‘In Memoriam-Ellen Wordsworth Darwin’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter 1903; Ellen Wordsworth Darwin (Ellen Crofts) Chapters in the history of English literature: from 1509 to the close of the Elizabethan period (London, Rivingtons, 1884); ‘The Poems of Amy Levy’, Cambridge Review, 23 Jan 1890; ‘The Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914′.

The Cambridge bookshop

Image: Cambridge University Press

There’s a spring-like feeling of optimism in the air this week in Cambridge, and it’s good to know that the city’s bookstores are opening again this month. One of them is the Cambridge University Press Bookshop at 1, Trinity Street, opposite the University Senate House. It has a claim to be the oldest bookshop site in the UK, as there have been booksellers there since at least 1581. In 1846 the owners Daniel and Alexander Macmillan employed their nephew Robert Bowes as an apprentice. He later became a partner in the business, and the shop became Bowes & Bowes in 1907. In 1986 it was renamed Sherratt & Hughes, then in 1992 the Press took it over, and turned it into the beautiful, light-filled building that it is today.

This historic Cambridge landmark features in a book that I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement this week. Inventory of a Life Mislaid is a self-declared ‘unreliable memoir’ by Marina Warner, DBE. It’s an evocative account of how her Italian mother Emilia (always known as ‘Ilia’) and her English father Esmond met and married in occupied Italy in 1944, and the postwar years that they spent in Cairo with their two young daughters. Esmond Warner knew William Henry ‘Billy’ Smith, 3rd Viscount Hambleden, personally as they’d been at Eton together, and persuaded his influential friends at W.H. Smith & Son Ltd to set up business in Egypt in 1948: it would be the first overseas branch of the bookselling, newspaper distribution and stationery operation. Esmond became the manager of Cairo House, known locally as ‘the English bookshop’.

‘Opening a bookshop in Cairo after the war seemed a civilized idea,’ Marina Warner writes, but looking back, the colonial assumptions of the wealthy British abroad during that era now make her flinch. Her father’s character ‘was cadenced by the long, deep roots of the family in the empire’, she tells us. ‘I have been writing throughout my life in response to this background.’ Her parents’ comfortable ex-patriate lifestyle in Cairo was disrupted by an outbreak of rioting and mass arson of January 1952, and one of Warner’s earliest memories is of seeing the charred contents of her father’s beloved bookshop which was destroyed. The Cairo Fire ‘called time on a world and an era’, Warner observes. Soon afterwards, General Abdel Nasser emerged as leader of the insurgents and in 1956 he was elected president of Egypt. Soon afterwards, in the face of British and French fury, he took control of the Suez Canal.

The Warners moved to Brussels in 1954 and in 1959 came back to England, where Esmond became manager of the ‘handsome and historic’ bookshop Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge (W.H. Smith Ltd had bought it in 1953 and kept the prestigious name). Esmond loved running the bookshop, chatting with dons and students, and laughing what his daughter describes as his ‘long-cured, confident’ laugh. During the 1960s he opened two smaller branches of Bowes & Bowes in Trinity Street, one specializing in foreign languages, the other in sciences: ‘neither were profitable’ Warner writes, ‘and besides, shoplifting was a problem’.

While Esmond ran his beloved bookshop and grew his prize roses in their garden in Lolworth, Warner’s mother Ilia taught Italian to young people at a local ‘crammer’s’ and learned how to drive. On the quiet Cambridge roads of the 1960s, it seems that she was as eye-catching and beautiful as one of Esmond’s roses. ‘At the wheel of a Triumph Herald coupé, she cut a startling figure in what was then a provincial town,’ Warner recalls, ‘with her big sunglasses and a Hermès headscarf tied under the chin as worn by the Queen’.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 31 March 2021

Sources: Inventory of a Life Mislaid: an unreliable memoir Marina Warner (Harper Collins, 2021); Cambridge University Press Bookshop website (accessed 31.3.21); ‘1, Trinity Street’ on Capturing Cambridge website (accessed 31.3.21)   

An American at Newnham: M. A. Willcox (1856-1953)

Mary Alice Willcox with class and skeletons, Wellesley College Archives Image Gallery

Newnham College, Cambridge celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Since its earliest days, women have crossed the Atlantic for the chance to study there, and several became notable figures in 19th and 20th century American education. Helen Magill White was the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D., and described her three years studying Classics at Newnham from 1878-1881 as the happiest time of her life, while Alice and Anne Longfellow, the daughters of the poet, spent a year at Newnham from 1883 to 1884: Alice played an active role in establishing Radcliffe College. But perhaps the most influential American Newnhamite during these first years was M.A. Willcox, whose three years studying natural sciences there from 1880 to 1883 led to her establishing the first zoology department at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and making it one of the best in the country.

‘As I arrived, North Hall was just opening’ Mary Alice Willcox wrote in the 1930s, recalling her first days at Newnham in 1880. ‘I remember that we students, at our first breakfast, had to carry down the chairs from our bedrooms.’ Newnham College had begun in 1871 with a handful of women living in a rented house on Regent Street; now, nine years on, thanks to fund-raising and appeals, its second residential building was presided over by Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick. Willcox was 24 years old and had travelled from Boston to study what today would be termed natural sciences at Cambridge. Previously she had worked as a schoolteacher and attended biology classes at M.I.T., then known as the ‘Boston Tech’. With her father’s encouragement, she spent her summers studying molluscs and other sea creatures at Alexander Agassiz‘s private marine laboratory in Newport, Rhode Island. Agassiz, a marine biologist and oceanographer, should not be confused with his father Louis Agassiz, the naturalist and geologist who in the early 1860s argued so vehemently against Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). By contrast, Alexander’s transatlantic friendship with Darwin was as unruffled as a calm sea on a summer’s day: the two men corresponded about barnacles and coral reefs, and in 1872 Darwin sent him the latest edition of the Origin.

Along with his stepmother, Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, Alexander Agassiz was a keen supporter of women’s higher education, and he encouraged his bright young student Mary Alice to take her studies further. In 1879 he introduced her to Henry and Pauline Durant, who had co-founded Wellesley College for women in 1870. Like Newnham, Wellesley was expanding and needed suitably qualified female faculty members to teach the sciences. The Durants offered Willcox the zoology professorship on the understanding that first she should gain a degree (or its equivalent) at a top university. So, with Agassiz’s encouragement, she applied for a place at Newnham. 

During the 1870s, the culture of scientific study in Britain had shifted from a ‘gentlemanly pursuit’ of experiments carried out at home to properly equipped and supervised laboratories. In Charles Darwin: the Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003) Janet Browne describes how ‘Darwin’s study and greenhouse looked increasingly amateurish’, compared to the large laboratory at South Kensington that Thomas Huxley supervised from 1871 to 1878 (Browne, 468). From the beginning, Huxley’s innovative courses of laboratory teaching were open to women schoolteachers as well as men: ‘indeed, the solitary schoolmistress among thirty-eight men took that first term’s prize’, Adrian Desmond writes in the ODNB. ‘This yearly summer course, transmitted via the teachers to the new schools, became the foundation of the modern discipline of biology.’ One of Huxley’s demonstrators in London was Michael Foster, who had trained as a medical doctor before specializing in physiology. He accepted a fellowship at Trinity College Cambridge in 1871 on the understanding that his laboratory-based biology courses would be accessible to all students across the University, including from the new women’s colleges at Girton and Newnham.

Previously, botany and zoology were treated separately at Cambridge, but, influenced by Huxley, Foster believed that all branches of biology were united, ‘and that the Darwinian theory of evolution could be applied across the plant and animal kingdoms’, as Susannah Gibson writes in The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019). ‘Foster’s new syllabus saw first-year students studying elementary biology while second years studied practical physiology and third years studied advanced physiology’ (Gibson, 183). Soon Foster was attracting forty to fifty students each term to his practical biology classes, and in 1879 a new physiology laboratory opened on the New Museums Site.

Undergraduates hard at work in Newnham’s Old Labs, NEWNHAM COLLEGE

Despite the greater space and Foster’s best intentions, numbers of women students were still restricted at the University’s laboratories, so both Girton and Newnham colleges used their own. Newnham’s ‘Old Labs’ were built in 1879 at ‘a respectful distance’ from its residential buildings to avoid fires and other lab-based mishaps. Originally intended for the study of chemistry, for its first five years the Old Labs were used to study a variety of scientific disciplines. Mary Alice Willcox describes being taught Foster’s biology course in ‘our little stone-floored laboratory at Newnham’ using Huxley and Henry Newell Martin’s A Course of Practical Instruction in Elementary Biology (1875). She had come to England for ‘a definite purpose’ – to prepare Wellesley’s first zoology course – and during the three years she spent in Cambridge she took only courses in anatomy, biology and physiology, taught by the embryologist Frank Balfour and the anatomist Joseph Lister as well as Foster.

Happy as Willcox was in her studies, Newnham’s Old Labs must have seemed a long way from Newport. ‘I still quiver with cold as I remember those raw days in the laboratory barely tempered by a little grate fire in one corner’, she recalled. Willcox was a hardworking and remarkably focussed student who chose not to prepare for the Tripos, the University’s final exams, as Cambridge did not award women degrees at that time. (Later, she would move to Europe and take her Ph.D. in just one and a half years at the University of Zurich.) But she probably joined in Newnham’s celebrations when, during her first year, the Senate passed the ‘Three Graces’ in May 1881, formally allowing female students to sit for the Tripos on the same conditions as the men. At their home in Kent, Emma and Charles Darwin, who were friends with Newnham’s first Principal, Anne Clough, were delighted to hear about ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’. At around the same time Agassiz was keeping Darwin up to date with his work on coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. ‘It was very good of you to write to me from Tortugas’ Darwin told him. ‘I always feel much interested in hearing what you are about, and in reading your many discoveries’ (Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13145,” accessed on 14 March 2021).

Charles and Emma’s son Horace and his wife Ida had supported the fledgling Newnham College since they moved to Cambridge as newlyweds in 1880. In the weeks leading up to the 1881 vote, Ida had written impassioned letters urging their M.A. friends and relations to return to Cambridge to cast their vote at the Senate in favour of the women’s right to take the exams. She had made several friends at Newnham (including Anne Clough, Helen Gladstone and Eleanor Sidgwick) and she also reached out to the students to make them feel more at home. Willcox recalled Mrs Darwin as ‘a most sweet woman’ who was only a little older than her, and ‘divined that I was lonely and made me free of her house.’ Perhaps Mary Alice was leading the life Ida would have chosen, if her own father had permitted her to go to university as she wished.

In 1882 and 1883, after a hard day in the lab, Willcox would cycle over to Ida and Horace’s house at 66 Hills Road to play on the floor with their infant son Erasmus. In later years she went back to visit the family and enjoyed seeing Erasmus growing up. But in late October 1881, just before he was born, Ida sent Mary Alice a more formal invitation to dinner. Her parents-in-law were coming to Cambridge for a visit, and she knew that Willcox would want to meet the great man whose teachings she knew so well, via her mentor Agassiz.

It would be one of Charles Darwin’s last trips away from his home in Kent. His health was growing worse, and died just six months later. One of his reasons for travelling to Cambridge that autumn was to see in situ the portrait that the Cambridge Philosophical Society had commissioned of him in 1879. Emma Darwin was not impressed when in October 1881 they at last saw William Blake Richmond’s painting of Darwin, wearing his rented doctoral scarlet robes. ‘We went to see the red picture & I thought it quite horrid, so fierce and so dirty’ she told their daughter Henrietta later. ‘However it is under a glass & v. high up so no one can see it’ (quoted in Browne, 451). Today the portrait hangs in Cambridge University’s Zoology Department, and can be seen on Art UK’s website here.

More enjoyable, it seems, was Charles Darwin’s dinner conversation with the bright young American student who worked with his friend Agassiz. In her recollections, the star-struck Willcox regretted that she was ‘too careless to write an account’ of everything Darwin said that night, but she did manage to make him laugh. ‘When he sat down beside me, he asked, as everybody in England had a fashion of doing, if I knew anyone in St Louis’, she recalled. ‘My answer – that St Louis was farther from my home in Boston than London was from Constantinople – amused him greatly.’ The great naturalist, who knew so much about barnacles, coral reefs and the plant and animal kingdom, had less of a grasp of American distances.

Back at Wellesley College in 1883, Willcox set about developing the zoology department in the basement of College Hall. Finances were limited, but her time in Newnham’s Old Labs had taught her that excellent work could be done in less than perfect conditions. Her courses included embryology and fieldwork in both freshwater and marine invertebrates, and she was particularly proud of her course on the anatomy of the cat, thought to be the first in the United States. Influenced by Michael Foster’s teaching, she introduced laboratory physiology, with sessions four times a week (at Harvard, physiology was taught only on one afternoon a year). During her tenure from 1883 until 1910, the reputation of zoology at Wellesley was ‘far in advance of anything at Harvard or Yale’. Willcox was a convinced Darwinian who insisted in teaching her students about evolution, despite the disapproval of New England society.

Willcox’s only book is a pocket guide to New England birds, published in 1895, and her unpublished manuscript on molluscs has never been found. It’s likely that it was with her personal library and other papers which were stored in the Zoological Museum and Library that she founded at Wellesley, which were destroyed in the College Hall fire of 1914. Although M.A. Willcox’s name is not well known today, because of her thoroughness and expertise, her scientific papers are still widely cited and David R Lindberg, Professor Emeritus of Integrative Biology at U.C. Berkley, has described her as ‘an outstanding malacologist and naturalist’.

M.A. Willcox’s recollections ‘The Sidgwicks in residence’ is included the first A Newnham Anthology edited by Ann Philips (CUP, 1979). A second Newnham anthology, Walking on the Grass, Dancing in the Corridors: Newnham at 150, edited by Gill Sutherland and Kate Williams, will be published by Profile Books in autumn 2021. It will include ‘not only those who joined the community as students, but also those who came to work in it, translated from student to senior member, or met the College for the first time as they came to teach, to administer, to garden, to cook, to nurse’, and is available for pre-order here.

OTHER SOURCES: For Darwin-Agassiz letters see Darwin Correspondence Project website; Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900 (1998) Mary R.S. Creese; Adrian Desmond, ‘Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825–1895)’ ODNB, accessed on 14 March 2021; David R Lindberg, ‘Mary Alice Willcox 1856-1953’; Papers of M.A. Willcox, Wellesley College archives website. My thanks to Anne Thomson, former Newnham archivist.