Amy Levy and Ellen Wordsworth Darwin

darwin-ellenThe critic Lisa Allardice has described Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs (1888) ‘another forgotten classic by an accomplished female novelist. Amy Levy might be described as a Jewish Jane Austen.’ I was delighted to be invited to discuss Levy’s novel on Kim Askew and Amy Fowler’s excellent ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast in April 2021. This is a blogpost about Levy’s friendship with her former Newnham College Cambridge tutor.

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? 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 this 1903 photo of Ellen, reproduced courtesy of Newnham College Cambridge, above); certainly she had her passionate nature and almost austere truthfulness. 

In 1879 Amy Levy was just 17 when she became the first Jewish woman to study at Newnham College Cambridge. Ellen Wordsworth Crofts, as she was then, was 23 and the college’s first resident lecturer in English Literature and History, having studied at Newnham from 1874-77. Levy was a hardworking student and an ambitious young poet, and the two women found a common bond in their shared love of literature. Ellen was the great-niece of the poet William Wordsworth, while another uncle, Henry Sidgwick, was a Cambridge philosopher and one of the founders of Newnham. She was working on a book about Elizabethan and 17th-century lyric poetry when she met Amy, who had published an accomplished essay on Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh when she was 13.

Although she enjoyed 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 found it difficult to join in the other young women’s late-night cocoa parties and outings. Ellen was sympathetic and serious-minded and one of the few people that Amy could turn to as a friend. 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. She perhaps 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). It is also possible that she was undergoing a phase of serious depression. 

But Ellen and Amy’s friendship continued after Amy left Cambridge, and they might have met in Switzerland in the summer of 1883, when both women were on holiday there. Ellen had just become engaged to be married to the botanist Francis Darwin, who had moved to Cambridge after his father Charles Darwin’s death in 1882. 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 and became a stepmother to Frank’s young son Bernard. Their daughter Frances was born three years later, in 1886. Amy’s literary career began to flourish, and her poetry, short stories and articles were published in the Jewish Chronicle, while Oscar Wilde, then editor of the journal ‘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 divided her time between Europe and the British Library in London, where she befriended Eleanor Marx and Beatrice Webb (née Potter). 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. Her first novel The Romance of a Shop (1888) was selling well: it ‘aims at the young person’, she wrote, 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 see Ellen in 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 rather patronizing pro-Semitic descriptions in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876).

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 (in Daniel Deronda the Jewish family’s baby ‘carries on her teething intelligently’).

At first Levy 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 one of the few to be perceptive about Levy’s true mental state. Her work and socializing had provided a distraction from her lifelong struggle with depression, but her promising literary career was not enough to protect her from loneliness and despair and in September 1889 she took her own life. A few months later, 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 admits (with the characteristic honesty Levy admired), but she describes its power as ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’, and compares the poetry to Emily Brontë’s: ‘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 which might have been about the last, truly happy day they spent together in Switzerland.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 19 April 2021. 

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′.

Clubs of their own

bbbbff268e491097c1d4427208cd9b4d

“We were a very lively buzzing community, pushing along our way, very much amused with ourselves,” Blanche Athena Clough wrote of her time as a Newnham College student in the 1880s (she later became Principal). As well as studying Classics, she had lots of college clubs to choose from, including the Shakespeare Reading Society, the Browning Society, several French societies and the ever-popular debating society. Both Newnham and Girton had a rich associational life, as the section on ‘Social Life’ in the ongoing ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition at Cambridge University Library reveals. Most of the University’s student-run societies that began in the 1870s were exclusively male, as Clough confirms. “We had no part or lot in University societies except the Ladies Discussion Society and I think C.U.M.S. [Cambridge University Music Society]… in any case the University generally were hardly aware of our existence.”

There’s no doubt that the women-led societies that began in the 1880s and lasted for so many years helped to make Cambridge a better place. They certainly made it more socially inclusive for the women involved. These were not University societies, but associations begun in many cases by academic wives and townswomen who worked closely with Newnham and Girton college heads Anne Clough and Emily Davies. I’ve been talking quite a bit about these clubs recently. I was invited to speak to Selwyn College alumni about the college’s first Master’s wife, Kathleen Lyttelton; and about ‘The Women who changed Cambridge’ at the rather splendid Oxford and Cambridge Club in London last November. Then I gave a talk called ‘A Club of Their Own’ at the University Library in December, connected to the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition. This month I gave another version of that talk to the Friends of Milton Road Library in a bright and welcoming new library setting.

It felt appropriate to have such different settings for my talks, as the 1880s societies I discussed were the first to bring ‘town and gown’ women together in an active, outward-facing social network. Jessie Stewart writes that it was not surprising that, influenced by the feminist social reformer Josephine Butler, the Cambridge women’s ‘zeal for education brought social awareness’. The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (founded in 1883) was practical and philanthropic in nature, helping underprivileged girls to find employment as domestic servants; it was co-founded by Ida Darwin and other married townswomen and dons’ wives. ‘For some of the younger women, lately married, the “Care of Girls” served as a launch pad into national organizations, local government and the magistracy – they were a talented and ambitious generation,’ Christina Paulson-Ellis writes.  In 1956 it became the Cambridge Association for Social Welfare.

downloadThere were other more overtly feminist groups. In 1884 Selwyn Master’s wife Kathleen Lyttelton (pictured here) co-founded the ‘Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association’ with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, which was the beginning of Cambridge becoming one of the major centres in the long campaign for women’s votes. The ‘Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society’, mentioned by Blanche Athena Clough above, was a large discussion society founded in 1886 by Mary Paley Marshall and others with the aim of bringing University wives, townswomen and female students together to discuss social questions. Speakers included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in England. In December 1892 she came to Cambridge to give a talk on the medical profession for women, and was ‘pelted with questions’ by Newnham and Girton students, according to a report in the Cambridge Independent Press.

IMG_8985Today, anyone who is interested in finding out more about these societies can access their extensive original archives in the Cambridgeshire Archives in a brand new, purpose-built site in Ely. It’s a bit harder to find out about the fourth club that I talked about, and have written about in this blog for the last few years. The twelve members of the Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society did not, as far as I know, keep minutes of their conversations or record details of the dinners they shared once or twice a term for almost twenty-five years. There are only intriguing snippets about the club in a couple of memoirs, and a handful of references in letters and diaries. It’s understandable that the women wanted to keep their conversations private, including from future researchers like me. The fact that it lasted for so many years shows that the Ladies’ Dining Society was deeply significant at a time when women’s voices and contributions to debate went largely unheard. ‘Even to form a ladies’ social club was a mild assertion of women’s right to public space’, as Doughan and Gordon write. Below I have listed their useful book, along with archive sources and a selection of excellent books, essays and articles about Victorian women’s societies.

The University has not always been welcoming to women, but the UL’s excellent Rising Tide exhibition and events show the remarkable things that women at Cambridge have achieved despite all the obstacles, and the Friends of Milton Road Library provide a year-round programme of stimulating and varied talks: more information here.

©Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved)

Cambridgeshire Archives: Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; Cambridge Association for Social Welfare (1883-1985) [formerly CACG]  R106/097; Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; CWSA Papers to 1919: 455/Q16-57, 59-60, 62-79; archives held at the Cambridgeshire Collection (in Cambridge Central Library) and the Museum of Cambridge.

Secondary sources: Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999) and ‘Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian And Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Hesitant Beginnings‘ & other articles on ‘Woman and her Sphere’ website (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936 ed. James Thayne Covert (1994); D. Doughan and P. Gordon, Women, clubs and associations in Britain (2006); Linda Hughes, ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ Victorian Literature and Culture  35:1, March 2007, pp. 233-260; (1947); Amelia Hutchinson, ‘The “Hidden Histories” of women at Trinity’ (unpublished dissertation, 2019: https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/news/amelia-hutchinson-on-the-hidden-histories-of-women-at-trinity/ )(accessed 16 Feb 2020); Mary Paley Marshall, What I remember (Cambridge, 1947); Sue Slack, Cambridge Women And The Struggle For The Vote (Amberley, 2018); G. Sutherland ‘Girton for ladies, Newnham for governesses’ in Teaching and Learning in Nineteenth-Century Cambridge, eds. Jonathan Smith and Christopher Stray, 2001) pp.139-149 and In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2015); Christina Paulson-Ellis, The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls: Social Work with Girls and Young women in Cambridge 1883 -1954 (2008); Ann Phillips, A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge, 1979); Jessie Stewart, ‘Social Welfare in Cambridge’, The Cambridge Review, 5 November 1960;  Tamsin Wimhurst, The Development, Importance and Influence of a Local Network of Women c. 1886 – 1930: unpublished MA dissertation, University of Cambridge 2007

The Dining Club, 1890

HBH18900519.2.22-a1-259w-c32

10701039Vicmarriage[1]

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

HBH18900519.2.22-a1-259w-c32

10701039Vicmarriage[1]

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

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

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

‘Must you go?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Kennedy Smith

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

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

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

‘Must you go?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Kennedy Smith

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

How to use a library

img_1916When Alfred Marshall, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge, died in 1924 after a long illness, his wife and fellow economist Mary Paley Marshall was 74. Her friends assumed that she would devote her remaining years to her beloved water-colour painting. But Mary had other ideas.

Alfred had left money and his large collection of economics books to the university, and it was agreed that a new library would be established in his honour (read more about the Marshall Library’s history here). Mary immediately donated £1,000 of her own money towards it, and arranged to pay a further £250 a year to maintain the library. Then she suggested that she herself should be employed there on an unpaid basis. After all, who knew the collection better? For years she and Alfred had welcomed students into their home on leafy Madingley Road to drink tea and discuss economics and the students would leave with armfuls of borrowed books.

So, at the age of 75, Mary began working as ‘Honorary Assistant Librarian’ at the Marshall Library. Every weekday morning, for almost twenty years, she would cycle from Madingley Road, then along the college Backs, to the library’s original premises on Downing Street. She was easily recognizable by her striking profile, colourful scarves and the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ sandals she wore in all weathers.

Sitting at the library’s front desk, she would greet each student by name and offer suggestions about books and articles to consult. The historian G.M. Trevelyan said that ‘nothing escaped her clear, penetrating and truthful eye’. Mary’s favourite job was carefully cataloguing the books by author and subject on handwritten index cards in the special ‘brown boxes’, for many years the library’s main catalogue.

She only gave up her job at 87 when her doctor, fearful of her cycling in increasing Cambridge traffic, insisted on it. When she died two years later she left £10,000 to the University, ‘for the development and increased usefulness of the Marshall Library’.

Nowadays, the Marshall Library’s website has online induction sessions for new students, teaching them about how to navigate both the collection and the online cataloguing system. But when they visit the library, now housed in a modern building on Sidgwick Avenue, most freshers will still ask a librarian for advice. And as they walk up the stairs with their books, the students will see two portraits watching over them: Alfred on one side, and Mary on the other.

Mary Paley Marshall (1850-1944) was one of Cambridge’s earliest female students and the first to sit for the final year Tripos exams. She became Newnham College’s first resident lecturer in political economics, taught at Bristol and Oxford universities, and co-authored, with Alfred Marshall, The Economics of Industry (1879). After the couple moved back to Cambridge in 1885, Paley Marshall continued to teach at Newnham and Girton, and helped her husband to write his economics books. In 1927 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bristol University (pictured above) in recognition of the part she played in advancing women’s access to higher education.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘How to use a library’, The Ladies’ Dining Society, https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/ (Accessed: day/month/year).

 Sources: The photograph of Mary Paley Marshall receiving her honorary doctorate from Bristol (Marshall Library Archive: Marshall Papers Box 10: 10/4/28) is reproduced with permission of the Marshall Librarian, C.L. Trowell. My thanks to her, and to Anne Thomson, Newnham College Archivist, for their generous assistance. Any errors are my own. I consulted Mary Paley Marshall’s letters and documents at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Marshall papers at the Marshall Library; Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir, What I remember (CUP, 1947); the Newnham Letter, Jan 1928; and the ‘History of the Marshall Library’ at:

http://www.marshall.econ.cam.ac.uk/library-guide/history (accessed 22/9/16).