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 fifty years before. ‘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.

Manless climbing: Dorothy Pilley Richards 1894-1986

On 11 November 1918 Dorothy Pilley was 22 years old and in London when news of the Armistice reached her. She rushed to Buckingham Palace, where she spotted an irresistible challenge. ‘I saw in a flash the Victoria Memorial waiting to be climbed: white, untouched, a secret ambition of mine to scale its dizzy heights,’ she wrote in her diary that evening. Pilley was secretary of the British Patriotic Women’s League at the time, earning £200 a year writing newspaper articles to promote the League’s work. But her passion in life was for climbing the mountains of North Wales and Skye. So it was natural that on Armistice Day she would use mountaineering terms to describe her joyous ascent of the 25-metre-high monument. ‘Pitches correspondingly tricky; an arm pull, then followed some ordinary scrambling onto a Cherubim’s head,’ she noted. Standing triumphantly at the peak, holding tightly to the golden statue of the Winged Victory, ‘I was exhilarated as only climbing can make me,’ she recalled.

Dorothy Pilley is one of thirteen women who feature in a new book, Rebel Women Between the Wars by Sarah Lonsdale (which I reviewed recently for History Today). As an experienced former journalist herself, Lonsdale’s focus is on how these disparate women forged their careers in the world of newspapers and magazines in the interwar years, including Shiela Grant Duff, who reported on the Nazi violence following the Saar plebiscite in 1935, and Margaret Lane, whose interview with ‘Scarface’ Al Capone made the front page of the Daily Express in October 1931. Most of these enterprising writers are little remembered today, including Edith Shackleton, who is usually mentioned only in passing as the bisexual ‘last mistress’ of the poet W.B. Yeats, despite being one of Fleet Street’s highest paid journalists in 1930.

Dorothy Pilley’s journalism was mainly a way of funding her climbing expeditions, which her well-off father refused to pay for. After the War ended, she stopped writing articles about patriotic women and took a regular job at the Daily and Sunday Express. She enjoyed ‘the rush of Fleet Street’ and working in a busy newspaper office, noting in 1920 that ‘to write in that heat – among a noisy, moving mob is the most exciting yet nerve-wracking experience’. Journalism gave her the independence she craved, yet she wanted to find a way of combining her skills as a writer with her love of mountaineering. So in March 1921 she co-founded The Pinnacle Club in Snowdonia, with the aim of encouraging rock climbing and mountaineering amongst women (the club celebrates its centenary this year). Pilley took on editorship of the Pinnacle Club Journal, which, like The Woman Engineer, launched in 1919 and published quarterly ever since, provided a public platform for women’s voices to be heard without interference from male editors. Both the club and its journal helped to normalize climbing as something all women could do, not just a few extraordinary individuals: as a lifelong feminist, Pilley wanted to use her experience and enthusiasm to encourage others.

Pilley would continue to edit the Pinnacle Club Journal for the next twenty years. Its first issue contained an article called ‘Three Pinnaclers in the Alps’ by Lilian Bray, describing how she, Pilley and another English woman friend travelled by train to Switzerland in the summer of 1921. There, they covered their hair with cotton bandanas, exchanged their dresses for breeches and hobnail boots, and put ropes and knapsacks on their backs before scaling the Matterhorn together; it was the first Alpine cordée féminine, or female roped party. ‘Manless climbing’ – without male guides or companions – was seen as a dangerous practice and condemned as ‘insane’ by members of the distinguished Alpine Club.

Not all male climbers of the time doubted women mountaineers’ abilities, or their right to climb independently. The Cambridge scholar and literary critic Ivor Armstrong Richards (I.A. Richards, 1893-1979) and Dorothy Pilley first met clambering up Tryfan in Snowdonia in 1917. ‘You were the first original thinker I had met,’ she later told him, ‘and in your conversation I discovered even as barely more than a schoolgirl the “something more in life” which I had ever so vaguely suspected – a country of the mind.’ They soon became close friends and tackled several Alpine ascents together in the early 1920s. But in 1925 Pilley wrote a 60-page letter to him setting out all the reasons why she had to turn down his offer of marriage. She could not marry Richards because, she explained, marriage would mean ‘lots of housework and twenty children’, a prospect that made her ‘go cold and stiff with disdain’.

Pilley wrote her long letter from British Columbia, where she was beginning the two-year global climbing adventure that she had always dreamed of. She started by tackling the Canadian Rockies, the Selkirks and the American Rockies, her climbs funded by her journalism for various American and Canadian newspapers. Then, in August 1926, she was joined by a new climbing companion: Ivor Richards, who had travelled to America to persuade Dorothy to reconsider his offer of marriage. That month they climbed Mount Baker (2, 686 metres) from the north-east side together  – Pilley was the first woman to do so – and after several other peaks she was convinced that marrying Richards would not hold her back, or lead to a conventional life. They married in Honolulu on New Year’s Eve 1926 (there’s a photo of them on a climbing trip together here). 

Pilley was, according to her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘one of the most outstanding mountaineers of the interwar and post-war periods’. She became famous when in July 1928 she and Richards made the first ascent of the north ridge of the Dent Blanche in the Alps, together with Joseph and Antoine Georges, thereby solving ‘one of the last great alpine problems’ as the ODNB puts it. She herself wrote about the Dent Blanche ascent in the final chapter of her climbing memoir, Climbing Days (1935) and, thanks to Ivor Richards’ academic appointments in Bejing and Harvard, she continued scale peaks in many different locations including China, Japan, Korea and Myanmar for the next thirty years, sometimes with Richards and guides, sometimes alone.

Her international climbing career ended in 1958 when she broke her hip in a car accident. While she was recovering in hospital, her husband wrote a touching poem called ‘Hope’ for her, recalling the night they accidentally spent together on a dangerous mountain glacier before they married: ‘”Leaping crevasses in the dark/ That’s how to live!”, you said/ No room in that to hedge./ A razor’s edge of a remark.’ Ivor was right to remind Dorothy that there would be better days to come, and more adventures for her. The ODNB records that at the age of 91, the irrepressible Dorothy spent New Year’s Eve at the climbers’ hut at Glen Brittle, Skye, ‘drinking whisky and talking mountains’ with a party of Scottish climbers. “It is the reverberation of one’s life among them,” she once wrote, explaining her lifelong love of mountains. “Therein, reflected, is the experience of being ardently alive.’

© Ann Kennedy Smith 30 January 2021

POSTSCRIPT: The couple returned to live in Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1973. ‘I.A. Richards, sometimes credited as the ‘founding father’ of modern literary criticism, began as an undergraduate at Magdalene in 1911. After 35 years teaching at Harvard, he returned to the College and lived here until his death in 1979.’ Magdalene College website (accessed 30 January 2021) Dorothea Pilley-Richards left over a million pounds to Magdalene College when she died in 1986. Her great-great nephew, the writer and broadcaster Dan Richards, published a book Climbing Days (Faber & Faber, 2016) about following in Pilley’s challenging footsteps. There is a fascinating 30-minute discussion about her on his recent ‘Dan Talks To Interesting People’ podcast here. For her lifelong work encouraging women climbers, Dorothy Pilley is my nomination for this year’s ‘Woman In History’ campaign by the writer Kate Mosse for International Women’s Day 2021.

SOURCES: Sarah Lonsdale, Rebel Women Between the Wars (Manchester University Press, 2020); ‘The pioneering women who took on Hitler… and Fleet Street’ The Guardian 25 October 2020; ‘Recipes and resolutions’ Times Literary Supplement, 3 July 2020; Dorothy Pilley Climbing Days (1935; 2nd edition 1965): ‘Richards [née Pilley, Dorothy Eleanor] 1894-1986’ Carol A. Osborne, ODNB, September 2004; Dan Richards, ‘ In the footholds of Dorothy Pilley: how my great-great aunt became a climbing inspiration’, The Guardian 15 September 2016; ‘Dorothea Richards’ Magdalene College Libraries blog 7 July 2016. All websites accessed 30 January 2021.

My reading year

In 2020 I enjoyed reviewing some excellent biographies and memoirs, as well as re-reading one of my favourite mid-twentieth-century novels; below are ten of the personal highlights of my reading year.

On 17 January 2020 my essay ‘Cursed with hearts and brains’ featured on the front cover of the Times Literary Supplement. I reviewed three group biographies about mid-twentieth century female writers, including Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, a compelling study of the quest for creative freedom told through the interwar lives of Virginia Woolf, H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers and Cambridge scholars Jane Ellen Harrison and Eileen Power. Wade makes the case that their time spent in Mecklenburgh Square links the five women, and for each of them it represented independence, a struggle to be taken seriously as a woman writer and a search for a different way of life.  D.J. Taylor’s stylishly written Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature 1939-1951 covers the twelve-year life of Horizon, the literary magazine Cyril Connolly founded with Stephen Spender. Intelligent, sharp and guileful, Connolly had a charm that he used on women like a weapon, and he drew on a favoured coterie of friends for contributions to his magazine, including George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Horizon published few women writers, but after the war Sonia Brownell took over the day-to-day running of the magazine until her brief, sad marriage to the dying Orwell.

‘Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties,’ Brian Moore wrote. ‘It is time to leave home.’ In the spring 2020 issue of Slightly Foxed I wrote about Moore’s first published novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955). My essay ‘Coming Home’ centred on how the novel’s postwar Belfast setting was placed on the map of world literature.  The central character Miss Hearne has little money, so she walks or takes the bus everywhere, and we see the city through her eyes: the grim bedsit she lives in, the grand avenues and pompous city hall, and the gracious university quarter to which she escapes, once a week, to bask in the warmth of a family home. Moore’s biographer Patricia Craig describes how the novelist relished ‘the contradictions that – for him – underscored his independence. First as an Irishman living in Canada, and later as a Canadian citizen who made his home on America’s Pacific Coast, he evaded categorisation by nationality, or affinity.’ My essay is reproduced with Slightly Foxed’s kind permission on my blog here.

In April 2020 my review of Endell Street: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran World War One’s Most Remarkable Military Hospital by Wendy Moore was published in The Guardian. It’s a fascinating book about the women who ran a busy military hospital in London’s Covent Garden during WW1. The all-female team of doctors, trained nurses and orderlies saved thousands of British soldiers from death, permanent disability and the effects of shellshock. Unlike any other military hospital, Endell Street’s wards were decorated with colourful quilts, reading lamps and fresh flowers, and the soldiers accepted the women’s authority and holistic approach to medicine. “What for should we be wanting male doctors here?” one Scottish patient asked. You can read my review here.

Memoirs I enjoyed this year include Norma Clarke’s Not Speaking and Julie Welch’s Fleet Street Ladies, both reviewed by me for the TLS. In June 2020 the Dublin Review of Books published my essay (available to read online here) on Deirdre Bair’s memoir Parisian Lives, about Bair’s (at times) difficult relationship with her first biographical subject, the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. ‘I will neither help nor hinder you,’ Beckett told her when they first met in Paris. ‘My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.’ Her Samuel Beckett: A Biography (1978) was not a critical success: academic American male critics in particular felt outraged that this unknown female journalist had dared to take on such a serious literary subject.  But Bair’s reputation as a biographer was confirmed when she received the USA’s prestigious National Book Award in 1981. She recalled how one publisher offered her a contract to write a biography of anyone she liked, convinced that she could ‘tackle anyone Irish or even Virginia Woolf.’

In September 2020 History Today published my article ‘The Lessons of shell shock’, marking 100 years since the Tavistock Clinic first opened its doors at 51 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, London. ‘My dream has come true’, said its founder, the Scottish neurologist Hugh Crichton-Miller, who with six other doctors worked pro bono to treat the early signs of mental illness in members of the general public. The idea that ordinary people could benefit from psychological techniques used in wartime to treat traumatized soldiers was promoted as early as 1917, in a best-selling little book called Shell-Shock and its lessons. In 1922 Cambridge’s Ida Darwin served alongside Hugh Crichton-Miller on the National Council for Mental Hygiene which later became part of the National Association of Mental Health, known today as Mind.   

On 13 November my essay ‘Let her be Ariadne,’ on the poet Sylvia Plath, featured on the TLS’s front cover along with a large photograph of someone called Joe Biden, who happened to be in the news that week. My review included Heather Clark’s Red Comet (2020), a well researched and beautifully written biography that traces Plath’s development as a writer in America and England, revealing her to be an ambitious, resilient and supremely talented artist. I also enjoyed Sylvia Plath in Context (CUP, 2019), a collection of thirty-four essays on Plath’s life and work edited by Tracy Brain. It’s a well-edited selection that indicates the wide range and ongoing relevance of current Plath studies. A few years ago, the American writer and actor Lena Dunham asked her many social media followers what Plath’s novel The Bell Jar meant to them. Her favourite response was “it made me feel less alone”.

In December 2020 History Today published my review of Sarah Lonsdale’s excellent group biography Rebel Women Between The Wars (MUP, 2020). I particularly enjoyed her chapter on the mountaineer Dorothy Pilley, who in 1921 co-founded the Pinnacle Club to promote the subversive practice of ‘manless climbing’. I’m delighted that his all-woman club will be celebrating its centenary in 2021, and I will be exploring Pilley’s Cambridge connection in my next post. Meanwhile, thank you for reading my blog, and I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 December 2021

Sylvia Plath in 2020

This post looks at how two photographs taken by Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey in 1956 have been used this year to tell two very different stories about Sylvia Plath. 

In this week’s Times Literary Supplement (see image below) I wrote about four recently published books about Sylvia Plath, including Heather Clark’s magisterial biography Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Jonathan Cape, 2020) and the re-issue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Granta, 2020). The two books are very different in style and content but both feature, on their respective covers, images from a set of black and white photographs of Hughes and Plath taken by Lettice Ramsey in early December 1956 at Ramsey & Muspratt’s studio in Cambridge (their studio in Oxford was run by Helen Muspratt). The couple, who had married six months previously, disliked the resulting images, as I wrote in a linked blogpost earlier this year. After Ramsey sent a contact sheet of thirteen for them to pick their favourites, Plath couldn’t decide which she disliked least, so she forwarded the “grisly” proofs to her mother, describing them as “more like passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting.” She added that “Ted hates them all” and that Ramsey herself was “an expensive crook.” What do these two recently published books on Plath read into these unloved images from 1956?

The Silent Woman, first published in the UK in 1994, is an extended essay in which the American journalist Janet Malcolm investigates the conflicts over Plath’s life and work since her death in 1963. On the one side are the biographers, academics and journalists who wanted to explore Plath’s personal papers and unpublished work; and on the other, Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, who for many years did their best to block their paths. In its 2020 reissue by Granta (pictured above) Luke Bird’s cover design for The Silent Woman (see above) features a Ramsey’s photograph of Plath and Hughes sitting side by side, each looking in the same direction but seemingly wrapped up in their own thoughts. The dramatic red tint suggests a strained atmosphere between the newly married couple, and anticipates their future rupture and its bitter aftermath. More about the background to this in my post here.

It’s hard to believe that the photograph above, as it appears on on the cover of Clark’s Red Comet, was taken during the same session. In Suzanne Dean’s design, Plath is depicted alone on the front cover, looking to one side and smiling in a relaxed and confident way. The book’s title is picked out in red; the background is a deep, velvety black. It is only when you turn the book over to look at the back that it becomes apparent that this is actually another double portrait by Ramsey, and that Ted Hughes is warmly returning Plath’s smile.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf’s biographer, wrote: “Women writers whose lives involved abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide, have often been treated, biographically, as victims or psychological case-histories first and as professional writers second.” In Red Comet Heather Clark refuses to treat Plath as a victim, and insists that her life and work deserve to be known better. The biography’s cover – using a portrait taken from Lettice Ramsey’s insightful series in December 1956 – suggests that Sylvia Plath’s story can be told in 2020 as a professional writer who succeeded in her own terms, yet also benefited from the poetic inspiration that Hughes provided.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 18 November 2020 (all rights reserved) 

Dorothy L. Sayers’s graduation day

100 years ago the first Oxford University graduation ceremony to award degrees to women took place; the future crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first fifty celebrants. This post is about its lasting effect on her.

Today, 17 October 2020, marks Oxford University’s matriculation day, when students are formally welcomed as members of the University and its colleges. Due to the ongoing pandemic, today’s event was a ‘virtual matriculation’, with the Formal Welcome address delivered online this morning by the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson. Lots of the new students, described as ‘in absentia’, dressed up in their academic gowns anyway, to celebrate the occasion as best they can.

Earlier this month, in her annual Oration to the University (delivered in the socially distanced Sheldonian Theatre) Professor Richardson reminded her colleagues that it was 100 years ago, on 7 October 1920, that women were admitted to full membership of the University: ‘It took a very, very long time, many hundreds of years in fact, for women to earn the right to an Oxford degree’. The first graduation ceremony to award Oxford degrees to women took place just a week later, as if to make up for lost time.

It was a pleasantly warm autumn day on 14 October 1920 when fifty women were presented with their Oxford University degrees in the grand surroundings of the Sheldonian. The women graduating that day included five heads of houses of the women’s colleges at Oxford as well as former students who had waited many years for their degree certificates; during the next academic year over 400 more women would take part in degree ceremonies there.

But the first one, on 14 October 1920, was a graduation day like no other. Never before had an Oxford Vice-Chancellor uttered the ceremonial Latin words ‘domina, magistra’ in the feminine gender at a degree ceremony, and the vast, high-ceilinged auditorium rang with the loud cheers of family, friends and supporters of women’s education. Twenty-seven-year old Dorothy L. Sayers was among the celebrants that day. Wearing her brand new academic cap and gown, she was awarded a first-class degree in modern languages. Sayers had completed her studies at Somerville five years before, but she was determined not to miss out on this historic occasion. She had requested a place at the October ceremony, she told her mother, ‘because I want so much to be in the first batch. It will be so much more amusing.’

The women’s success was celebrated at Somerville College that evening with a special dinner, presided over by Principal Emily Penrose (who since 1907 had made sure that all her students fulfilled the requirements for an Oxford degree) and attended by Somerville graduates Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby among others. The guest of honour was Professor Gilbert Murray, a classical scholar and strong supporter of women’s higher education. His Cambridge friend, Jane Ellen Harrison, a lecturer in classical archaeology at Newnham College, was jealous.  ‘I gnash my teeth when I think of all your Somerville young women preening in cap and gown,’ she told Murray. ‘So like Oxford and so low to start after us and get in first!’ The following year, a vote to award degrees to women at Cambridge would be defeated. The 1920 Oxford vote had given hope to Harrison and others at Newnham and Girton; but by 1921 the tide of gratitude towards women for their war effort had turned, and Cambridge would not confer degrees on women until 1948.

When Dorothy L. Sayers began studying modern languages at Somerville in 1912 it was still, technically, only an ‘affiliated women’s society’ within Oxford University. Somerville women were called ‘freaks’ by male students because of what was seen as their ‘unnatural’ – and threatening – devotion to learning. In her first term Sayers started up a literary society with a handful of other students, which they named ‘The Mutual Admiration Society’. Despite the jokey name, it was ‘a subversive community within an institution where women were constantly reminded that their talents were not wholly welcome’, as biographer Francesca Wade puts it (Wade, p.100). Sayers had a passion for writing but played down her talents (‘I write prose uncommonly badly, and can’t get ideas’). Only her close friends in the Mutual Admiration Society knew of her secret passion for ‘lowbrow’ crime fiction.

Sayers began to publish poetry and essays, but the possibility of actually making a living as a writer seemed as far-fetched as some of the plots in the novels she loved. During this period, the great majority of women students, no matter their subject of study, took up teaching after university: ‘all that she sees before her, unless she has exceptional talent, is teaching’ observed the economist Clara Collet in 1902 (Sutherland, p.26) Sayers wanted something different, but before her graduation day in 1920, she was not sure what that would be. So in 1916 she took a job teaching modern languages at a girls’ school in Hull, then returned to Oxford in 1917 to work for publisher and bookseller Basil Blackwell. But she soon found that, as Mo Moulton writes in The Mutual Admiration Society, ‘a single woman who was neither a student nor an academic had no obvious place in Oxford society’ (Moulton, p.79). Her landladies were suspicious of her wish to hold literary salons for Somerville students and, on one occasion, a respectable tea for wounded soldiers. One landlady told Sayers that she would rather have a badly behaved male undergraduate as a lodger than a ‘permanent woman’.

After her graduation day, Sayers decided that her life had to change. She moved to London, took on translating work and part-time teaching to make ends meet, then in December 1920 found an unfurnished room in Mecklenburgh Square on the eastern, unfashionable fringe of Bloomsbury. Her lodgings had the advantage of being cheap and close to the British Library, where, on her application form to use the reading room, she proudly wrote down her new academic status: ‘a Master of Arts at Oxford’. She stated that she was considering doing a postgraduate degree to work on her thesis called ‘the Permanent Elements in Popular Heroic Fiction, with a Special Study of Modern Criminological Romance.’

This may have been partly true. After her undergraduate studies Sayers had thought about staying on as an academic at Somerville, but decided that she was ‘too sociable’ to spend her life in a women’s college. She had always loved detective novels – she devoured the popular Sexton Blake thrillers – but knew that her secret wish to write such stories herself would not be seen as worthy of an Oxford graduate. Now in London, as she mixed with bohemian writers and artists and went to see ‘Grand Guignol’ plays near the Strand, she began to see crime fiction in a different light. In an unpublished essay, probably written in the British Library, she addresses ‘Miss Dryasdust, M.A.’ who ‘disapproves of my fondness for detective stories of the more popular kind’. Sayers tells Miss Dryasdust that she is wrong, and that crime fiction holds the same place in the contemporary imagination as Beowulf and the heroic epics of ancient Greece once did.

‘Miss Dryasdust’, with her prized Master of Arts degree, could be the alter ego of Dorothy L. Sayers herself, as the Oxford scholar who pursued her research interests at Somerville. Instead, in January 1921, Sayers began sketching out an idea for her first book, published in 1922 as Whose Body? It introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, the wealthy, athletic and intelligent protagonist of several of Sayers’s subsequent novels and stories who delights in solving mysteries for  his own amusement. He embodied the opposite of everything in her life at time, as she later recalled: ‘After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.’ 

In Strong Poison (1930) Sayers introduced the character who was much closer to herself: Harriet Vane, a successful crime writer and former Oxford student who lives in Mecklenburgh Square. In Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night (1935) Vane is invited to return to her former college (here named Shrewsbury) to help the women there to solve a series of hate crimes. As she hesitates, wondering how her former academic community will welcome her now, she realizes that these are the women who taught her to value her own intellectual ability and independence, and the three years she spent among them at Oxford enabled her to achieve the creative life that she wanted. ‘Whatever I may have done since, this remains’, Vane reminds herself, gathering her confidence, and her voice could be that of Sayers herself. ‘Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University’.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 17 October 2020 (all rights reserved)

Sources: Vera Brittain, The Women At Oxford: a Fragment of History (Harrap,1960); Ellen Brundrige, ‘Translations of Latin in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night’; Janet Howarth,'”In Oxford… but not of Oxford”: the women’s colleges’, History of the University of Oxford, ed. Brock and Curthoys, vol VII (OUP, 2000)  pp 237-307; Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (Basic Books, New York, 2019); Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (Gollancz, 1935);How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey’ quoted in Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1997); Gillian Sutherland, In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (CUP, 2015); Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber & Faber, 2020)


Vice-Chancellor’s Oration 2020:

Somerville College (with photo of Dame Emily Penrose & Gilbert Murray):

Women Making History, 100 years of Oxford degrees for women: