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 https://neglectedbooks.com/

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)   

The wedding photos: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Lettice Ramsey (part 2)

Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, first published in 1993, is a brilliantly written, forensic investigation into the transgressive power of biography and the literary legacy of the poet Sylvia Plath. In February 2020 Granta Books reissued this classic, with a striking new cover designed by Luke Bird. A photograph of Plath and Hughes, in three-quarters profile, has been drenched in a dark red that stands out vividly against the cover’s cream background. “The intention is absolutely that is shocking,” Bird explains. “It goes back to that idea of referencing the tragedy in the marriage, and in Plath’s life.”  

The book’s cover conjures up the sense of dissonance and silence in the lives of Plath and Hughes. It’s a fitting image for Janet Malcolm’s book that takes as its subject the bitter aftermath of Plath’s suicide in 1963, and what she describes as the “dubious, unauthentic, suspect” ways that biographers have told the couple’s story ever since. Although the original photo was taken to mark their wedding in 1956, when Plath and Hughes were at their happiest, it remained hidden away for over fifty years in a Cambridge studio. This post is about how this set of pictures came to be taken, and why the couple hated them so much.

Photograph of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Lettice Ramsey, © Peter Lofts Photography. Used with permission of Peter Lofts Photography. Not to be reproduced without permission.

As I described in my previous post, it was on a mild winter’s day in early December 1956, six months after their summer wedding that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes went to the studio of Ramsey & Muspratt in Cambridge to have their wedding photo taken. It seems that this was all Aurelia Plath’s idea: she had sent Sylvia money to pay for a portrait that would be suitable to send out to American friends and family who had read about the marriage in a notice she had put in the newspaper not long before. The picture would be a way of making the wedding a reality, a visual proof of her daughter’s new domesticity .

A couple of weeks after the studio session, the weather in Cambridge had turned bitterly cold. It would be a white Christmas that year, the first that Plath and Hughes would spend together in their rented flat on Eltisley Avenue, which was kept warm with a coal fire in the sitting room. Aurelia had sent them early Christmas gifts, including a package of cookies that Ted couldn’t resist opening straightaway. “We bought themselves a huge cutting knife for bread & meat and a great Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which is now our favorite book— for our own Christmas presents” Sylvia told her. Less welcome for the couple was an expensive invoice from the photographer Lettice Ramsey, who enclosed a contact sheet for them to choose four photos out of the set of thirteen pictures she had taken.

The problem was that Plath and Hughes hated all of them, as Sylvia explained to her mother, enclosing a few of the “grisly proofs” with her Christmas card. It’s true that these photos present a very different atmosphere from the exuberant word-picture Plath painted of their June wedding. Then, with only Sylvia’s mother and the curate present as witnesses, Plath and Hughes exchanged their vows in a gloomy London church as the summer rain poured down outside. No special thought was given to their clothes that day. Hughes wore his ancient corduoroy jacket (“thrice dyed black, exhausted”) and Plath wore a pink knitted dress given by her mother as Hughes later recalled in this poem from Birthday Letters, remembering her tears of joy.

In the black and white studio photos taken in Cambridge in December there is little of this spontaneity or warmth. Both Hughes and Plath are smartly turned out: Hughes is wearing a new tweed jacket, presumably purchased for his job as a teacher which had started a few weeks before, and his hair is neatly combed back. Plath wears what looks like the same pink knitted dress that she wore in June (although we can’t be sure), and her hair is held back with a bandeau, possibly the pink ribbon she wore on her wedding day.

They both seem ill at ease with the idea of posing for such conventional portraits: Plath’s smile is hesitant, while Hughes looks grim, and reluctant to be there at all.  The photos represent nothing about the relationship they had, and everything about putting on a show for the benefit of her mother’s friends. It’s in a very different style to Lettice Ramsey’s celebrated, intensely romantic double portrait of John Cornford and Rachel ‘Ray’ Peters in 1934.

Aurelia Plath must have sensed this uneasiness too, because it seems that copies of the wedding photos were never made up. The glass plates remained in Ramsey’s Cambridge studio until it closed in 1978 and the originals were sold on to Peter Lofts (a selection can be seen on Lofts’s website here.). In 2013 the Plath scholar Gail Crowther spotted one of the images online, and Lofts gave her permission to publish them in an article she wrote with Peter K. Steinberg about Plath’s archives.

When she describes how she discovered the photos, Crowther quotes the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who in Camera Lucida (1980) wrote:

When we define the photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.

It’s an apt description of how trapped and uneasy Plath and Hughes both look in this semi-official wedding portrait of 1956. “Photography,” Barthes states, “has something to do with resurrection.” Now this unloved, suppressed image has been resurrected for the cover design for the reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, and it speaks its truth through the book’s pages.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 24 June 2020 (all rights reserved)

My thanks to Luke Bird and Lamorna Elmer of Granta Books, and to Di Beddow, Peter Lofts, Chris Murray and Gail Crowther. See also my following post, ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)’ about the photographer Lettice Ramsey and her extraordinary creative partnership with Helen Muspratt, and my TLS review of four books about Plath.

SOURCES

Di Beddow, ‘“That was our place.” – The Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ (British Library blogpost, consulted 24 June 2020)

Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, These Ghostly Archives: The unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Fonthill, 2017)

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, selected and edited with commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (Faber & Faber, 1975)

Sylvia Plath,  The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (Faber & Faber, 2017 and 2018)


The wedding photos: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Lettice Ramsey (part 1)


Photograph of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Lettice Ramsey, © Peter Lofts Photography. Used with permission of Peter Lofts Photography. Not to be reproduced without permission.

It poured with rain on 16 June 1956, the day that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes got married at St George’s Holborn in London. Plath and Hughes chose Bloomsday to honour the date that James Joyce first walked out with Nora Barnacle in 1904, and later set his novel Ulysses (1922). For Plath, even the damp weather increased the romantic literary associations that made her wedding so wonderful. She describes  “standing with the rain pouring outside in that dim little church saying the most beautiful words in the world as our vows, with the curate as second witness and the dear Reverend, an old, bright-eyed man (who lives right opposite Charles Dickens’ house!) kissing my cheek, and the tears falling down from my eyes like rain – I was so happy with my dear, lovely Ted.”

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had first met in Cambridge just four months before, at a party to celebrate the first issue of the student literary journal St. Botolph’s Review. Plath was a second-year student on a Fulbright scholarship at Newnham College while Hughes, a former Pembroke student, was doing various jobs in London to make ends meet while trying to get his poems published. They had discussed moving to America together and getting university teaching jobs after she finished her degree, but getting married before then was out of the question.  

Everything changed within hours of Plath’s mother Aurelia arriving in England on 13 June 1956. Over supper it was decided: the wedding would take place while she was in London. During the next two days Plath and Hughes got a special (expensive) licence (“from the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less”, as she told her brother Warren) and dashed around the shops with Aurelia to buy gold rings and new shoes and trousers for Hughes. There was no time to try on wedding dresses, and very little money left over, but fortunately Aurelia had packed in her suitcase exactly the right thing: “a lovely pink knitted suit dress”, which “intuitively” she had never worn herself, Sylvia told Warren. So that was what she wore on her wedding day, with “a pink hair ribbon and a pink rose from Ted”, while he, over his smart new clothes, wore his battered old black corduroy jacket.

“Our only sorrow was that you weren’t there,” she told her brother two days later. Her letter brims with with such happiness and excitement, it’s hard to believe she felt any sorrow at all. But their marriage was “a huge and miraculous secret”, she warned him. No one outside the family must know about it. She and Ted were both “poverty-stricken” and worried that, if word got out, she might lose her funding and earn the disapproval of Newnham (“the Victorian virgins wouldn’t see how I could concentrate on my studies with being married to such a handsome virile man, the Fulbright, etc., etc.”). So they planned to live apart until June 1957, when they would have another wedding at the Plath family’s Unitarian Church in Wellesley, followed by “a huge reception for all our friends and relations who will be informed this fall that Ted and I are engaged”.  

But their carefully planned, deceptive version of that academic year – advised closely by Aurelia – did not last beyond October 1956. Plath and Hughes felt miserable about not being able to live together, and decided that they would take the risk of telling the authorities that they were married. Writing from Cambridge to her mother in Wellesley, Plath skitters between hesitancy and resolution. One day she suggests that her mother could tell friends and relations in America “Ted got a job in London and we felt it ridiculous not to get married here and now” and appeals for guidance: “Do help me through this with advice and opinions.” The following day she tells Aurelia firmly: “We are married and it is impossible for either of us to be whole or healthy apart”.

External events in October 1956 might have helped to Plath to resolve what she called her “private crisis” without her mother’s assistance. On 1 November she wrote to Aurelia about “the huge crisis aroused by Britain’s incredible and insane bombing of Egypt”. Reading in The Guardian about the conflict over the Suez Canal made Plath boil with anger.  “The British arrogance – that old, smug, commercial colonialism – alive still among the Tories, seems inexcusable to me.” Rather than following a carefully choreographed pattern to please her mother and her friends, Plath decided to live the life she wanted.

Once she was honest about her marriage, the crisis was resolved quickly. Her Newnham tutor Dorothea Krook-Gilead turned out not to be the prudish Victorian that Plath had feared – she was warm and understanding – and the Fulbright Commission was positively encouraging. The couple’s money worries eased slightly when Hughes got a job teaching at a boys’ school in Cambridge (Coleridge Secondary Modern School for Boys on Radegund Road, which later combined with the girls’ school to become Coleridge Community College), and he found them a flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, near Grantchester Meadows in Newnham village, where they would live together from December.

With the marriage no longer a secret, Plath became matter-of-fact with her mother about practical arrangements. “Item: Do write “married recently” in our marriage announcement and say after December 7 ‘the couple will be at home at 55 Eltisley Avenue, Cambridge, England.’ I’d rather not even have a politic untruth in print about the date.” She discusses where wedding gifts “of a bulky or house-furnishing nature” can be sent: her briskly sensible tone could hardly be more different from how she wrote about her wedding almost six months previously.

Plath had made one concession to her mother: to have a set of studio photographs taken of herself and Hughes. “Thanks for the money,” she told Aurelia towards the end of November, “we’ll have a good picture taken this vacation, you may be sure”. With no grand English wedding to impress them with, at least there would be a set of commemorative photographs taken by the prestigious firm of Ramsey & Muspratt, who had studios in Cambridge and Oxford. Aurelia Plath was prepared to pay for the best.

But a few weeks later neither Plath nor Hughes were happy with the results. On 20 December 1956, Sylvia sent her mother a Christmas card along with a proof sheet of the photographs. ‘Well, here are enclosed a few of the best of the grisly proofs,’ she wrote.

Ted and I really don’t like them, considering ourselves much more beautiful — these are more like passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting; in fact Ted hates them all. But I am sending them on to you until we have something better done, which we will do soon — this lady was an expensive crook.   

Lettice Ramsey – the “expensive crook” – ran the Cambridge studio of the successful photographic partnership Ramsey & Muspratt from 1932 until 1978. Her professional partner Helen Muspratt worked from their Oxford studio (more about the Bodleian’s recent exhibition here). In the 1930s they had been a groundbreaking artistic partnership, celebrated for their photographic innovations, and sixty of their perceptive portraits of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle are now in the National Portrait Gallery.

But both women were their families’ main breadwinners, and Muspratt confirmed that from the 1950s on, weddings were Ramsey & Muspratt’s bread-and-butter work. “I had a rule: four minutes by the church clock,” she said. “Wedding photos are easily spoiled by keeping the couple posing far too long.” For poets Plath and Hughes, who longed to smash conventions, there was too great a gap between their wildly romantic Bloomsday wedding and the dutiful studio photographs they posed for six months later.

See The Wedding Photos, part 2, for more on why Plath and Hughes’s wedding photos were hidden away for over 50 years. The photograph above, taken by Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey in December 1956, features on the cover of the recent reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta, 2020). I wrote about it in the Times Literary Supplement along with three other recent books about Sylvia Plath, and my post about Lettice Ramsey is here.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 16 June 2020 (all rights reserved)

A revolutionary proposal

Churchill

In June 1958, plans were under way to build a new Cambridge college. It would be a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, and promote teaching and research in science and technology. A campaigning group called the Women’s Freedom League wrote to Churchill directly with a proposal (“you may regard as revolutionary”) that he use his considerable influence to make it Cambridge’s first coeducational college. “You already know that great efforts are being made in all schools and colleges to increase the number of women scientists.” Churchill, 83, thought this sounded like a perfectly sensible suggestion. “I see no reason why women should not participate,” he told his friend, the civil servant Sir John Colville. But Colville, in charge of raising funds for the proposed college, was convinced that donors in British industry would withdraw their support if they heard that Churchill College was planning to admit female students. It would be, he told Churchill, “like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the University.”

Although women had finally won the right to Cambridge degrees in 1948, they were still very far from being represented equally at the University in the 1950s. Numbers were capped, and for every eleven males there was just one female student: Cambridge still had the lowest proportion of female undergraduates of any university in the UK. To help correct this, a third “foundation” for women students, originally called New Hall, was established in 1954, with just sixteen students in a house on Silver Street. In 1962 New Hall moved to its permanent home on Huntingdon Road, thanks to the generosity of Ida and Horace Darwin’s daughters, Ruth Rees Thomas and Nora Barlow who donated their former family home The Orchard and its grounds so that a college for 300 students could be built. The house had to be knocked down, and most of what Gwen Raverat described in Period Piece as Ida’s “poet’s garden” disappeared beneath the rubble, but it allowed this much-needed third college for women to come into existence, and Ida surely would have approved. The gardens of  Murray Edwards College (as it is now called) are still imaginative and beautiful.

MEC

Churchill’s 1958 letter to Colville (on loan from the Churchill Archives Centre) is just one of the many fascinating items on display in the new exhibition, “The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge” at the University Library, which uses letters, costumes and audio-visual material to tell the story of 150 years of women at Cambridge. Today, all the formerly male colleges are fully coeducational, and Churchill College’s website boasts that it was “in the vanguard of dramatically expanding female participation in Cambridge University” as the first college to vote to admit women in 1972 (the same year that King’s and Clare also became coeducational). In her excellent independent blog, the current Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald (the first woman to hold this post at Churchill College) asks “How many ‘Firsts’ does it take to change a system?’.  She makes the point that, although in 2019 there is gender equality across the University in terms of students, women still hold only 20% of the professorships. “I am pleased to be part of the advancement of women in Cambridge”, Donald writes. “I am not pleased it is still so far from complete. Everyone – most definitely including male leaders – have a part to play in making the progression speed up.” One positive recent development is that out of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, there are now 15 female Heads of House, including the new Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, the first person of colour to head any college in Oxford or Cambridge. Hers is one of the 27 luminous portraits currently on view in the University Library’s Royal Corridor.

The “Rising Tide” curators Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin plan to add more archival items over the six months of the exhibition, which they describe as “a work in progress” – much like women at Cambridge, in fact. Professor Athene Donald will be speaking at the event closing the exhibition in March 2020, and my own talk “A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914” is on 5 December 2019 (tickets are free, but you’ll need to book here). And if you are in Cambridge visiting “The Rising Tide”, do go to Murray Edwards College to see the outstanding paintings and sculptures on view there; one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of contemporary art by women.