Steamboat Ladies: women at Cambridge & Dublin

 

Women were first admitted to Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College Dublin, in 1904 and one of the most important episodes to raise Irish women’s academic reputation was the awarding of ad eundem gradum degrees to their predecessors at Cambridge and Oxford. Girton College was the UK’s first residential institution offering university-level education for women 1869, and Newnham was founded two years later. But although women had been studying and sitting for final exams at Oxford and Cambridge since the 1870s, they continued to be refused degrees at those universities. Between 1904 and 1907, over 700 ‘Oxbridge’ women travelled to Dublin by special arrangement to be given the degrees at Trinity instead. Among them were distinguished headmistresses, teachers and academics, who wanted to be able to prove their degree status and were nicknamed ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the cheap ferry transport they used to to cross the Irish Sea from Holyhead.

Inviting these women to attend a formal graduation ceremony on the same terms as male students was a remarkable act of forward thinking on the part of Trinity College Dublin. Yet it happened almost by accident, as Susan M. Parkes writes in her book A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004 (Lilliput Press 2004). The Trinity Board had presumed only a handful of Irish women who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge would take up the offer, and were surprised when hundreds of women arranged to make the journey to Dublin. ‘These distinguished women of varying ages were the leaders of women’s secondary and higher education in Britain’, Parkes writes. ‘Trinity was honoured by their presence, and though the majority of the “Steamboat Ladies” probably never returned to Dublin, they remained proud holders of University of Dublin degrees’.

Steamboat ladies

Seeing so many distinguished women gathered together must have provided inspiration to Trinity’s first generation of female students, who on regular occasions from December 1904 onwards watched the women proceed from the Provost’s house (where they had been given lunch) to the college’s gracious Front Square where they posed for photographs on the steps of the Dining Hall.  The last ‘Steamboat Ladies’ ceremony took place in 1907 and the revenue generated by the fees paid by these Oxbridge women enabled the purchase of TCD’s much-needed hall of residence for women, Trinity Hall in south Dublin. Its first Warden (and for the next thirty-two years) was Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, who had studied modern languages at Girton College in the 1890s. She was herself one of the original ‘Steamboat Ladies’, travelling back to Ireland from her post as a lecturer at Royal Holloway College London. In 1908 she gave up her promising academic career to return to Dublin and make Trinity Hall a welcoming place for TCD’s female students. She wanted them to have the chance to experience the atmosphere of encouragement and support that she had enjoyed while studying at Girton.   

Sixty years later, in 1968, Barbara Wright (née Robinson) became one of the first four women to be elected to the Fellowship of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (then Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, where Wright had completed her Ph.D. degree in 1962) gave Professor Wright a remarkable gift: one of the original graduation gowns worn by one of original Newnham’s Steamboat Ladies. ‘I thought that was really moving that they wanted to mark the full accession of women to all stages in Trinity, in gratitude for what Trinity had done for them’, Wright said in a 2019 broadcast.  ‘These were very important women, in society, and in the world of learning, and it was extremely important that they should be recognised as such.’

It was wonderful to see this historic gown on display in last year’s Cambridge University Library exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’  (my review in the Times Literary Supplement is free to read here) As a TCD student in the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Wright and it was partly thanks to her inspiring teaching and encouragement that I came to Cambridge to study for my own Ph.D. in French Literature in 1985. It’s lovely that such historic, tangible connections exist between the first women at Trinity College Dublin and at Cambridge University.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

The Spiritualist lecturers

By the summer of 1875 Caroline Slemmer Jebb was gradually adjusting to the slow pace of life as a don’s wife in an ancient university town, so different from her home in busy, modernizing Philadelphia. ‘Term is over now, and we have settled down into quietness with a little variety furnished by a set of spiritual séances,’ she told her sister, a tone of exasperation creeping into her letter.  Although she was now quite fond of Cambridge, and of her husband Richard Claverhouse Jebb, she could not understand the hold that spiritualism had over his Trinity College friends. For her it was ‘the most arrant nonsense and imposture’ and she mocked Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers (‘these great geniuses’) for being so willing to be taken in: ‘both seem as easy to delude and as anxious to believe as any infant.’

The Victorians’ fascination with spirit mediums claiming to channel communication between the living and the dead reached its peak in the mid-1870s. In the name of ‘scientific investigations’ into spiritualist phenomena, groups of learned people were attending séances in elegant drawing-rooms all over the country; in January 1874 Charles and Emma Darwin took part in one at Erasmus Darwin’s London house along with George Eliot and G.H. Lewes. ‘Mr Lewes I remember was troublesome’, recalled Henrietta Darwin, ‘and inclined to make jokes and not sit in the dark in silence’ (Browne, 405).

But despite such scepticism, scholarly interest in analysing spiritualist phenomena was steadily growing. The informal discussion group that Sidgwick and Myers began in Cambridge in 1874 was soon joined by Sidgwick’s former students Edmund Gurney and the future prime minister Arthur Balfour; it was during one of their séances at Balfour’s London house that Sidgwick met Arthur’s sister Eleanor, and they married in 1876. The Cambridge group was a forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) that was founded in London in 1882 (see Jane Dismore’s guest blog for more about the SPR’s early years). The SPR’s archive at Cambridge University Library featured in an episode of the recent Netflix series ‘Surviving Death’, as reported here.

Women who claimed clairvoyant gifts are the subject of Emily Midorikawa’s new book, Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint, 2021). She traces the origins of the Modern Spiritualist movement to a small hamlet called Hydesville in New York County, where two young sisters appeared to be contact with unseen presences. The ‘Rochester rappings’ made Kate and Maggie Fox famous, and soon they and their older sister Leah were giving public demonstrations to large crowds in concert halls throughout North America. The craze soon crossed the ocean to Britain. ‘Table turning particularly caught on among working people in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, with its history of social and political radicalism’, Midorikawa notes, ‘as well as with the leisured classes residing in the nation’s capital.’ Queen Victoria recorded in her diary how, during their spring holiday at Osborne House in 1853, she and Prince Albert had engaged in the practice with their ladies-in-waiting.

But there was more to this era-defining phemomenon than an amusing parlour game or the studies of Cambridge scholars. Out of the Shadows shows how a handful of women made successful careers out of spiritualism on both sides of the Atlantic, by taking their talents as spirit mediums from the private drawing-room to the public stage. Kate, Maggie and Leah Fox, Emma Hardinge Britten, Victoria Woodhull and Georgina Weldon all became ‘grand successes’, and ‘came to wield extraordinary levels of social or political clout in an era when female voices seldom garnered much serious attention.’

It’s a beautifully written and absorbing book that criss-crosses the Atlantic as it reveals how these six women used their spiritualist gifts to gain power, money and remarkable influence. The story of how the British-born Emma Hardinge climbed the social ladder in the USA is particularly engaging. In the mid-1850s she struggled to make a living as an actress in London before, as a last-ditch effort to revive her career, taking up the offer of nine months’ work in a Broadway production. While in New York she met Ada Foye and other luminaries of the early American séance scene. They spotted her talents and encouraged her to give up her stage career and promote spiritualism instead. Her first Spiritualist performance was with a group of fifty singers performing a cantata written by Hardinge but imparted, she claimed, ‘by a power that worked through my organism.’ The New York Herald was impressed, commenting that ‘whoever the Spirits that controlled Emma Hardinge might be, they could at least make good music’. She could be one of the ‘leading musicians and composers of the age’, they added, if she chose to ‘give up the shadow’ of spiritualism.

But Hardinge was clairvoyant enough to predict that her gifts as a ‘spiritualist lecturer’, combined with her stage presence, would take her further. Before long she was travelling around Canada and North America, ‘trance lecturing’ before distinguished male audiences (including priests, lawyers, doctors and reporters, she recalled) and answering their questions. As with her music, she claimed to have no awareness beforehand of what the spirits would tell her to say, which included outspoken (and therefore unladylike) views on controversial topics of female emancipation and the need have sympathy for ‘fallen women’. When it came to speaking out, it might have been easier to tell herself and her audience, as Midorikawa says, ‘that she was merely a mouthpiece for dead – usually male – spirits.’

As her fame grew, Hardinge became more confident in her oratorial skills and in 1864 threw her weight behind the campaign to re-elect Abraham Lincoln as president by giving a speech in San Francisco entitled ‘The Coming Man; or the Next President of the United States’. Lincoln’s committee of supporters was so impressed by the crowds she drew that they asked if she would ‘stump the State for Lincoln’. Her unusual status as a female campaign orator giving a 32-date lecture tour drew the crowds and helped to ensure Lincoln’s resounding victory in California. When Lincoln was assassinated five months later, Hardinge was invited to deliver a eulogy the next day in New York City, the first to be given in the city. Before an audience of over three thousand she gave her Great Funeral Oration on Abraham Lincoln. As Midorikawa writes, ‘that a woman, not American-born, was afforded this honor demonstrates the heights to which the former player of bit parts on Broadway had risen in less than a decade’.

It was well known that the president’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, had held séances at the White House to try to reach their young son Willie, who had died during Lincoln’s first term in office. Later she was photographed by the ‘spirit photographer’ William H. Mumler, with the ghostly presence of Lincoln behind her, his hands resting protectively on her shoulders. ‘The picture, ersatz but powerful, exemplifies the “peace and comfort to the weary soul” that Mumler trumpeted as his hallmark’, Dan Piepenbring writes in the New Yorker. There’s a similar image of Hardinge below.

Emma Hardinge Britten, by W.H. Mumler

After Henry Sidgwick’s death of cancer in 1900 Eleanor Sidgwick was convinced that he was also not far away, communicating with her from ‘the other world’. It was a comfort that Caroline Jebb in Cambridge was denied. ‘So many things I would have told him, such love and worship I would have shown him’, she wrote three years after Richard Jebb died. ‘Now he cannot see, he cannot feel or hear, though I spend my days in trying to reach him.’ Perhaps she too reached for spiritualist powers in the end, but sadly without success.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Sources

Emily Midorikawa Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint, 2021)

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003)

Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychic Research in England 1850-1914 (CUP, 1985)

Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber and Faber, 1960)

Several of Emma Hardinge Britten’s books are held in Cambridge University Library.

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)