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.

Celebrating The Ladies’ Dining Society

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This month, to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020, a new cocktail called ‘The Ladies’ Dining Society’ will be launched in the Parker’s Tavern Bar at the beautifully renovated University Arms in Cambridge. The ingredients are still under wraps, but it will feature on a prestigious list of cocktails named after Darwin, Byron and others.  It’s a wonderful, celebratory tribute to the intellectual discussion club that twelve women began in 1890, and the unique contribution they made to the city’s life and culture.

It’s funny that one of the things known about the dining club is that the women didn’t over-indulge in alcohol. ‘The hostess not only provided a good dinner (though champagne was not allowed),’ recalled Mary Paley Marshall, ‘but also a suitable topic of conversation, should one be required, and she was allowed to introduce an outside lady at her dinner; but it was an exclusive society, for one black ball was enough to exclude a proposed new member.’

Despite such stern-sounding rules, the women were welcoming to guests, and their conversations were lively and wide-ranging. The freedom of talking openly in the relaxed setting of like-minded, trusted friends was heady, it seems. Eleanor Sidgwick, who became Principal of Newnham College in 1892, was usually seen as a rather reserved, slightly aloof figure. But the Ladies’ Dining Society dinners brought out her lighter side. ‘I have never anywhere else seen her more alive & interested,’ her friend Louise Creighton wrote. ‘She used to quite flush with excitement.’

So perhaps it was a good thing that champagne was not introduced into the already sparkling mix. The twelve women were not the only hosts who agreed that it was best for guests not to overdo it, at least before dinner. A note by Charles Dickens, acquired by the Dickens Museum recently, throws light on how meticulous he was about his own dinner party arrangements twenty years before the Ladies’ Dining Society. “No champagne before supper,” he told his butler, “and as little wine as possible, of any sort, before supper.”

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During their meal Dickens’s guests could drink as much wine and champagne as they liked, of course – the idea was that they shouldn’t over-indulge beforehand. None of the Ladies’ Dining Society would, I imagine, have risked Dickens’ rather lethal home-made ‘gin punch’, nor would it have been offered to them (or any other guest). He instructed his staff to keep it hidden under the table (in ice) during his dinners, and only give it to himself and his friend Mark Lemon, the founding editor of the aptly named Punch.

I am sure the new Ladies’ Dining Society cocktail will be delicious, and bear no resemblance to anything Dickens might have dreamed up. I am looking forward to celebrating it with friends at the University Arms from 8 March 2020 onwards.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 1 March 2020 (all rights reserved)

Sources: M.P. Marshall, What I remember (1947); L. Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman ed. J. T. Covert (1994); ‘Dickens treasure trove goes to London museum’ The Guardian 7 Feb 2020

‘Militant, cussed and determined’: Women at Cambridge

download copy‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ opens on 14 October 2019 at Cambridge University Library, and runs until March 2020. Curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin, this free exhibition marks 150 years since women were first permitted to attend lectures at Cambridge University. As well as letters, portraits and petitions, fascinating objects on display at the UL will include a green Newnham College tennis dress (closely buttoned to the neck and wrists) as well as fragments of the eggshells and fireworks used in violent opposition to female students being awarded degrees in 1897.

To accompany the exhibition, there will be a wide range of events about the past, present and future of women at Cambridge. The curators are taking an inclusive and imaginative approach, telling the stories of different women who since 1869 have studied, taught, worked and lived in Cambridge, “from leading academics to extraordinary domestic staff and influential fellows’ wives” as the University’s website puts it. This includes the struggles of,  in Lucy Delap’s words,“militant, cussed and determined” women, who fought for gender equality in the University, as well as the way in which female students and other women joined forces to share knowledge and bring about change in wider society.

This is the subject of my forthcoming talk ‘A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914’ which takes place on Thursday 5 December 2019, 5.30pm- 6.30pm at the Cambridge University Library (admission free, booking required). It’s about some of the women-led groups that sprang up in the 1880s and 1890s and gave female students, lecturers and townswomen the opportunity to meet, debate issues of the day, learn about professional careers and forge important networks. These groups were, perhaps uniquely for the time, genuinely “town and gown” in their structure. The largest association was the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society, formed at Newnham College on 17 March 1886 “to bring together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions… hearing papers read and discussing subjects arising”.

Originally connected to the (all-male) University Society for the Discussion of Social Questions (USDSQ), the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society (CLDS) later became an independent women’s association but kept in step with the University’s terms and organisational principles. Newnham and Girton students were encouraged to join, with a reduced membership fee, and were among the large numbers who attended talks by a range of speakers including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (pictured above) on ‘The medical professon for women’ and Beatrice Webb on ‘The expediency of regulating the conditions of women’s work’. Active founder-members of the CLDS included Kathleen Lyttelton, Louise Creighton and Eleanor Sidgwick. Together these friends would form a much smaller discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society in 1890. In 1913 the CLDS amalgamated with the National Union of Women Workers, and in 1918 became known as the National Council of Women (NCW), which is still active today.

Despite the difficulties and delays in obtaining full membership of the University (degrees were not awarded until 1948), active and determined Cambridge women have always worked together, helping to create the University that exists today. It is worth remembering that their work, like that of the male dons and students, was enabled by an army of (mostly female) domestic staff, and it is right that ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ recognizes their contribution. I will also be discussing the Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls founded by Ida Darwin and Kathleen Lyttelton in 1883, which aimed to help local girls by giving them training opportunities as domestic servants.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 29 September 2019

The full programme of ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ will be available soon, and I will post a link and booking details here when it does.

The 1881 vote

Women at Cambridge

On the 19 February 1881 Ida Darwin sat down in her home in Hills Road, Cambridge to write an urgent letter to Henrietta Litchfield, her sister-in-law. They had been friends for years, long before Ida had married Henrietta’s brother Horace just over a year before, and often wrote to one another. But this letter was different. It was not about either of them, but about women’s rights in the future. ‘There is great excitement at Newnham & Girton about the voting which is to take place next Thursday’, Ida told her,

which will decide the fate of women up here for some time to come. I have sent a circular about it to Frank [Darwin] who says he will come up if he can. Could & would Richard come too? If the women do not get the certificate granted to them this time, their position will be worse than it has been, as they will lose the privilege of being examined by the University examiners.

Ida was referring to the Senate vote – about to take place on 24 February 1881 – on whether Cambridge University’s final year Tripos examinations should be opened to female students by right, not by favour as had been the case until then. Every M.A. (male graduate) who could attend the vote counted, so Ida was attempting to round up as many of the Darwins’ extended family as she could.

Since 1874 twenty-one women had been granted special permission to take the Tripos, and all had succeeded, with four being placed in the First Class. By 1881, even though there was still no question of female students being awarded degrees, pressure had been building on Cambridge to give some sort of formal recognition to its female students, particularly since London University had opened its degrees to women three years before. In 1880 a petition known as the Newcastle Memorial had obtained over eight thousand signatures from across Britain calling for Cambridge University to grant ‘to properly qualified women the right to admission to the Examinations for University Degrees’.

The Memorial had come as a surprise to the leaders of both of the women’s colleges, but Newnham College’s Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick and the college Principal Anne Jemima Clough felt that the time was right to move forward. Emily Davies at Girton argued that the proposal did not go far enough, but reluctantly accepted that Girton had to support it. She knew that if the vote was defeated it might mean the end of the women’s colleges’ tentative relationship with the University.

Ida Darwin had made many friends at Newnham, including Helen Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter and Ellen Crofts, a young lecturer in English. Horace’s mother Emma Darwin knew Anne Jemima Clough well, and his sisters Henrietta and Bessy attended lectures at London University. Before she married, Ida had longed to study at the newly founded Somerville College at Oxford; now that she found herself in Cambridge as a wife, not a student, she wanted to help others, and was determined that more doors into higher education should be opened to women in the future.

On 24 February the Senate House was packed with about 400 M.A.s and Henry Sidgwick was pleasantly surprised when it dawned on him that almost everyone there was in favour of the women’s vote. ‘Ultimately, with great trouble, I discovered the enemy seated in a depressed manner on a couple of benches in one corner, about thirty in number,’ he later wrote. The Graces allowing women students to take the Tripos were passed by 366 votes to 32: Ida and others’ efforts to round up supporters had worked. In Kent, Charles and Emma Darwin rejoiced when they heard the news. 

‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles told his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’

But in their celebrations of February 1881 neither the Darwins, nor Ida and her Newnham friends, could have known that their optimism about women at Cambridge would not last. From then on, women’s progress towards equal membership of the University was increasingly blocked by the forces of reaction in the University who feared that the status quo would be changed. The photograph on the cover of Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s book above shows the thousands of male undergraduates and M.A.s who gathered to protest against the Senate’s 1897 vote to grant recognition of women’s degrees; women finally won the right to degrees and full membership of Cambridge University in 1948.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 1 July 2019

Sources: Ida’s letter to H. Litchfield is Add.9368.1: 5977, C. Darwin’s letter is DAR 210.1:103, both from the Darwin Papers held at Cambridge University Library; other quotes are from Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s chapter ‘1881 Admission to Examinations’ in her excellent Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998) (pp 70-84). See also my post ‘The Ascent of Women at Cambridge’ and the excellent UL timeline here: https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide

Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures

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Portrait of Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1889; (c) Newnham College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

During the 1890s Eleanor Sidgwick (always known as ‘Nora’ as by her friends) loved taking part in the regular Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society discussions. ‘I have never anywhere else seen her more alive & interested,’ her friend and fellow-member Louise Creighton recalled. ‘She used to quite flush with excitement.’ (Creighton, 97) It’s a delightful image that seems to contradict the serious face of the woman in James Jebusa Shannon’s portrait that hangs in Newnham College, Cambridge today. Sidgwick was the college’s first Vice-Principal and its second Principal from 1892. ‘We had immense respect for her,’ one student later recalled, ‘she was soft-voiced, slight in figure and generally pale in colouring, but in her grey eyes shone the light of the pure intellectual, quite unconscious of itself, but making one painfully aware of one’s own amateurish inferiority.’ (Phillips, 54)

Although she was known for her ‘fastidious austerity’ (Fowler, 7), Eleanor Sidgwick’s students knew that she could take a joke. One college production in 1895 featured a lively song with the lines: ”Mrs Sidgwick she up an’ sez ‘Look at the fax…the one thing we ax, is – do treat a girl as a rational creature.” (Fowler, 20) Her marriage to Newnham’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick in 1876 was from the outset an affectionate and rational (rather than romantic) partnership, based on working together to promote equal higher education opportunities for women. They did share a lifelong passion for psychical research, however, and probably met during a séance at her brother Arthur Balfour’s house. Both Sidgwicks were founder members of the Society for Psychical Research (est. 1882): see Jane Dismore’s excellent guest post here.

Growing up in the Balfours’ stately home in East Lothian, Eleanor Sidgwick had always been treated as a rational creature herself. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics, and her mother Lady Blanche insisted that she should be taught Euclid alongside her brothers Arthur, Gerald and Frank. While her brothers went off to study at Eton and Cambridge, Nora stayed at home to manage the three large family estates, which gave her a practical education in finance. This came in useful at Newnham, where she personally micro-managed the college accounts (‘chasing twopences’ as she called it) and she had the far-sighted strategy to ensure the future of its campus site by purchasing adjoining land and organizing a new road, Sidgwick Avenue, planted with plane trees that she paid for herself.

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Susannah Gibson’s The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019) reveals a less well known aspect of Eleanor Sidgwick’s work in Cambridge: as a physicist who contributed to Lord Rayleigh’s Nobel prize-winning discoveries. The subject of Gibson’s book is the Cambridge Philosophical Society, a scientific society for the University’s graduates founded 1819 that came to have worldwide influence. For well over a hundred years it did not accept women into the Society as members, because they were not permitted to hold Cambridge degrees. In my Times Literary Supplement review of Gibson’s book I wrote that my favourite chapter in the The Spirit of Inquiry is ‘A Workbench of One’s Own’ about the scientific work that Cambridge women carried on doing in segregated, poorly equipped laboratories when they were not permitted access to the University’s labs. But they also worked, often unacknowledged, alongside their male counterparts, for the sake of scientific discovery. 

In 1904 Lord Rayleigh became Cambridge University’s first Nobel Prize winner for his study of the density of gases and the discovery of Argon (see Katrina Dean’s blogpost here). In the 1870s and 1880s Rayleigh’s ‘closest collaborator’, according to Gibson, was his sister-in-law Eleanor Sidgwick, ‘a brilliant experimenter’, who co-published several papers with him and

‘worked painstakingly with Rayleigh and the others to set up the great spinning coils of wire, the scales and magnetometers, the Argand lamps, the looking glasses, and the telescopic eyepieces needed to record their measurements. The researchers often worked overnight, toiling away when the laboratory was silent and still, exhausting themselves in pursuit of the elusive numbers.’ (Gibson, 166)

This fascinating historical scientific work was highlighted in the ‘Discovery‘ exhibition at Cambridge University Library (see blog here) with photographs of Rayleigh’s hand-crafted bird whistles and other apparatus that he devised to detect ultrasonic waves, including a box full of bright green iridescent beetles and even a delicate blue butterfly wing used in his experiments on light waves. The exhibition featured Newton’s own annotated copy of the Principia, a letter that Darwin wrote from the Beagle and an early typescript of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (intriguingly with a different title). Also on display, for the first time ever, was the 1967 pulsar chart reading made by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who as a PhD student rolled out her experimental charts on the long floor of the old Cavendish Laboratory. Seven years later it was her supervisor Anthony Hewish – not her – who was awarded the Nobel Prize, but despite this, Bell Burnell’s continuing work and influence have made her a role model for female scientists throughout the world. In 2018 she donated her $3 million Breakthrough Prize to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics.

It’s not hard to imagine Nora Sidgwick’s serious face lighting up at this news. How interested she would be to see, and hear about, the scientific discoveries that male and female Cambridge scientists have made – and continue to make – by working together. Women were doing important work even during a time when their contribution was not formally acknowledged by membership of prestigious scientific clubs and associations. Eleanor Sidgwick’s own ‘hidden figures’, like those of other women scientists, are part of that story.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019 (Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures’: https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman ed. J. T. Covert (1994); Katrina Dean, ‘Discovery: 200 Years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society’ blog post at https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=17330 (accessed 11.5.2019); Helen Fowler, ‘Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in Cambridge Women: Twelve portraits, eds. Edward Shils and Carmen Blacker (1996) & ‘Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019); Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Ladies Dining Society 1890–1914’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2016); Phillips, Ann (1979), ed., A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge: CUP); E. Sidgwick, Mrs Henry Sidgwick: a memoir by her niece (1938)