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 rather than the beginning, this vote represented the end of something. The optimistic belief that women were slowly but surely making progress towards equal membership of the University did not last. From 1881 on, votes began to be blocked by ever more stubborn resistance by the forces of reaction in the Senate who feared that the status quo would be changed. The photograph on the cover of Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s book above shows the thousands who gathered in 1897 to defeat the Senate’s vote to allow women degrees.

By then women at Cambridge, both in and outside the colleges, had discovered that they would have to rely on themselves, not votes at the Senate. From the 1880s on they formed women-led associations and societies to work together towards the better future that they all wanted.

© 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’.

 

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 the portrait that hangs in Newnham College, Cambridge today (see above). She was the college’s first Vice-Principal and its second Principal at the end of the Victorian era, and taught mathematics to its students. ‘We had immense respect for her,’ one of them 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), Nora’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 was both an affectionate and a deeply rational partnership, based on working together to promote equal higher education opportunities for women. (They also shared a lifelong passion for psychical research, and probably met during a séance at her brother Arthur Balfour’s house: see Jane Dismore’s excellent guest post from 2017 here.) Eleanor Sidgwick’s ODNB entry notes that ‘her concern for women to be regarded as rational creatures naturally led her to support the growing campaign for women’s suffrage.’

Growing up in the Balfours’ stately home in East Lothian, Nora had always been treated as a rational creature herself. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics, so her mother Lady Blanche insisted that she should be taught Euclid alongside her brothers Arthur, Gerald and Frank. While they all went off to study at Eton and Cambridge, Nora stayed at home to manage the three large family estates, giving her a practical education in finance that would come in useful later. At Newnham she personally micro-managed the college accounts (‘chasing twopences’) and also 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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A new book by Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019) shines light on another, less well known aspect of Nora’s work in Cambridge: as a physicist who contributed to Rayleigh’s discoveries. The Philosophical Society, the subject of Gibson’s excellent book, was a scientific society for Cambridge graduates which has had a worldwide influence since 1819, but for over a hundred years it did not accept women as members because they were not permitted to hold Cambridge degrees. In my recent Times Literary Supplement review (currently only available in print or to subscribers) I wrote how my favourite chapter in the The Spirit of Inquiry is ‘A Workbench of One’s Own’ about what the Philosophical Society was missing in terms of the scientific work that Cambridge women were doing in their segregated, poorly equipped laboratories. Earlier in the book Gibson explores the work of Lord Rayleigh, who in 1904 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 ‘Discovery’ blogpost here). In the 1870s and 1880s Rayleigh worked alongside Cambridge graduates, but his ‘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)

Currently in Cambridge there’s a great opportunity to get a flavour of this fascinating historical scientific work in the ‘Discovery‘ exhibition at the University Library, which runs until the end of August. You can see 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 (see photographs here).  There is 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, is the 1967 pulsar chart reading made by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who rolled out her experimental charts on the long floor of the old Cavendish Laboratory where she was working on her PhD. Seven years later it was her supervisor Anthony Hewish 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. 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)

A testament to friendship

The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society was “ a testament to friendship and intellectual debate at a time when women’s voices went largely unheard” (Ann Kennedy Smith)

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Kathleen Lyttelton; photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Andrew Wallis

This month Wikipedia included a detailed article about the Ladies’ Dining Society. It’s based on, among other sources, an entry that I wrote last year for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and written by one of Wiki’s experienced editors. In the future, other editors and readers may add to the article, and it would be nice if, in time, more information emerges about the group, including what they discussed during their dinners.

Given that the twelve women met regularly from 1890 until 1914 it’s not difficult to make some guesses. Women’s higher education, suffrage, the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and reality – they were all hot topics at the time. But probably the most debated issue in 1890, when the group formed, was ‘the marriage question’. In August 1888 the novelist Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’ and calling for equality of marriage partners. The Daily Telegraph took up the issue, and began a series called ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ Over the following three months the newspaper received an astonishing 27,000 letters on the subject, an avalanche of opinions that filled its columns week after week. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s, and I think it is very likely that these friends would have discussed it. (I imagined an early meeting of theirs in a previous post.)

Marriage was what brought most of them to Cambridge, or made them choose to stay on there after their studies. One of the attractions of marrying a man from Oxford or Cambridge was the chance to access the educational opportunities that were denied to the majority of women at the time. Many lectures were open to married women, and in the 1870s Caroline Jebb attended lectures in zoology, moral philosophy, law, and German literature. She did not want to appear a bluestocking, though, and claimed that she enjoyed Alfred Marshall’s lectures in political economy because they supplied ‘such good after-dinner conversation’.

Ida Darwin’s husband Horace worked on designing measuring instruments for the university’s new scientific laboratories. After she married him and moved to Cambridge in 1880 they both became involved in supporting the new women’s college at Newnham. Together they helped to galvanize votes for the successful Senate statute in 1881 that allowed female students the right to sit for the university’s final year exams. Horace’s father Charles Darwin called it ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’ describing proudly how ‘Horace was sent to the Ladies’ College to communicate the success and was received with enthusiasm.’

Ida was also close to Anne Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, and student (later vice-principal) Helen Gladstone. Several other lecturers from Newnham College were members of the Ladies’ Dining Society, including Margaret Verrall, Mary Paley Marshall and Ellen Crofts Darwin, who had married Ida’s brother-in-law Frank Darwin. Newnham’s second principal was Eleanor Sidgwick, whose marriage to the college’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick helped to establish women’s education at Cambridge.

So, as far as Cambridge was concerned, marriage (which was only permitted for most college fellows after 1882) was a good thing. It brought a wave of women who were passionately committed to improving life for the less privileged people of the town, and for giving equal rights to women workers of all classes across Britain. Louise Creighton was a co-founder of he National Union of Women Workers in 1885, while Kathleen Lyttelton began The Cambridge Association For Women’s Suffrage alongside Millicent Fawcett. The American Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Cambridge, and Fanny Prothero and Eliza von Hügel were active in finding homes for Belgian refugees in the town during the First World War.

Virginia Woolf once called Cambridge “that detestable place” because of the university’s long history of preventing female students’ rights to education. Marriage – like women’s education – was an unfair institution in 1890 and for many years afterwards, but the work of the university wives helped to make Cambridge a much better place.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 January 2019 (All rights reserved

Helen Gladstone, dutiful daughter

At about 20 minutes to 12 the body was brought out of the Chapel of St. Faith, through the Chapter-house vestibule, into the west cloister, and the procession was formed. The coffin was covered with a black velvet pall edged with white silk. On it were laid many wreaths of beautiful white flowers… (‘The funeral of Mr Darwin’, The Times, 27 April 1882)

Helen-Gladstone

On Wednesday 26 April 1882, thirty-two year old Helen Gladstone attended the funeral of Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey. She went in the place of her father, Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was busy that day giving a speech on the Irish question, she told her friend Ida Darwin. It was true that this was a time of crisis for the government: increasing political violence in Ireland had led to secret negotiations that, two weeks later, would see the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell released early from Kilmainham Gaol. But there may have been other, more tactical reasons for Gladstone’s absence that day. As a leading light in the Church of England, it might have been seen as inappropriate for him to attend the funeral of a great naturalist whose theory of natural evolution had nothing to do with God.

“Rather a tall person, in black” was Helen Gladstone’s typically diffident description of herself, which, according to one former student of hers, was “not at all suggestive of that vivid and compelling personality with its alert and vigorous carriage and striking distinction of features and expression”. She was 28 when she moved to Cambridge to study at Newnham Hall (later Newnham College), the oldest of 25 students there. At first she worried that she was neglecting her “home duties” by choosing to study, but told herself that her presence in Cambridge would help to break down prejudices about women’s colleges. “The fact of a daughter of Papa… being sent here ought to have a good influence”, she wrote.

Gladstone himself was not in favour of higher education for women, but he made an exception in his youngest daughter’s case. Of all his seven surviving children, Helen was thought to resemble him most, and he often found his way into her thoughts and conversations: “certainly one could not be ten minutes in her company without knowing that he was her father”, a Newnham student commented years later.

Indeed I think one of the things that kept her such a very “unmarried” person was her ingrained attitude of daughter. This went beyond her earthly father, through to God.

Helen was deeply religious, and regularly attended services at Selwyn College – her family donated generously towards building the new chapel – as Newnham had no religious affiliation. She had intended only to stay in Cambridge for a year, but ended up studying for three years, and took the higher local examination in political economy. After finishing her studies she became secretary to the Principal, Nora Sidgwick, and in January 1882 she accepted the post of Vice-Principal of Newnham, with her father’s blessing.

She met Charles and Emma Darwin for the first time less than two years previously, introduced by Horace, Darwin’s youngest son. He and his wife Ida had moved to Cambridge after their marriage in January and were both active supporters of the new college at Newnham. When Charles and Emma came to Cambridge in August 1880 on their first visit to see Horace and Ida, they were introduced to their new friend Helen Gladstone. They all got on famously, so much so that Helen was invited to the Darwins’ family home in Kent the following summer. She was a little nervous at the prospect of being a guest at Down House, and asked Ida, who was also going to be there, to take her under her wing. They all met up again in Cambridge in October that year.

Charles Darwin’s death six months later came as a shock, and Helen grieved for the family. Her attendance at his funeral in Westminster Abbey was a more sincere expression of sorrow than her father’s would have been. Darwin was buried in the north aisle of the nave of the Abbey, not far from Isaac Newton, and the Times reported a long list of the names of distinguished, and mostly male, guests. Ida Darwin stayed at Down House to comfort Emma, who could not bring herself to attend the grand occasion.

In 1886 Helen was offered the post of Principal of the new Royal Holloway College for women in London. William Gladstone was deeply proud of his daughter’s achievements despite his continuing opposition to the “invasion” of women students at Oxford. He wrote her a heartfelt letter urging her to accept the position.

Your life has a distinct purpose. After all we have heard and seen, there can be no doubt that you have upon you the marks of a distinct vocation. The call is from on high and I really do not think you have a right to overlook, or not to follow the marks of it…

Helen was touched by her father’s tribute to her work as a God-given vocation, but, after much thought, she decided that her “home duties” were more important and that the work at Holloway would be too demanding. She stayed on as Vice-Principal of Newnham for another ten years.

In 1896, before she gave up her job to take care of her ageing parents at Hawarden, she asked her father to sign an official memorial calling for women to be granted degrees “in some form” at Cambridge University. There is no evidence that Gladstone ever signed it, and the memorial was heavily defeated in any case. It would be another fifty years before women were admitted to degrees at Cambridge, but for Helen Gladstone, it was perhaps enough to feel she could expect her father’s support.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 April 2018

Photograph of Helen Gladstone by Barraud; reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sources Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Anne Isba, Gladstone and Women (Hambledon Continuum, 2006);Newnham College Roll ‘Letter’ Jan 1926; Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2002); Emma Darwin’s diaries 242:44-7 and Ida Darwin’s Papers (Cambridge University Library); BBC Witness (9 mins, accessed 25/4/18). With thanks to CUL Manuscripts; Anne Thomson, Newnham College archivist; Elizabeth Stratton, Selwyn College archivist.

 

The Dining Club, 1890

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

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

‘Must you go?’

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

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

Outside, Melbourne waited by the carriage. He had squeezed into his navy blue coat and put on his top hat for the occasion. As he drove her to the Darwins’ house he told her some fascinating news about the cook’s marital problems until Maud climbed into the carriage, apologizing and explaining about children’s toothaches. Caroline shook her head impatiently.

‘Did you read the article I sent you, Maud? About this evening’s topic?’

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

This was too vexing. If only Maud would follow her advice she would do quite well, Caroline thought. She was still a pretty girl, though since having children she had allowed her waist to thicken and it made her look positively matronly. She was wearing something in the new style from London, but Caroline suspected she had just come from the garden. Maud caught her look.

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

Caroline frowned.

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

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

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

Louise shooed them off to bed before ushering Caroline and Maud into the drawing room, explaining that she had asked the maid to prepare a fruit punch.

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

The other women arrived in twos and threes, some walking, others by private carriage or rented hansom cab. A gong was sounded and they were shown into the dining room. Caroline surveyed the table. Dark-haired Ellen Darwin was whispering to her sister-in-law Ida. Louise had seated them together because Ida was good at putting Ellen at her ease. Fanny Prothero was sitting on the other side and saying little, as usual, but it was not Caroline’s job to draw anyone out this evening, thank goodness. Mary Marshall was on her left. Good, Mary always had something interesting to say. She was talking to Eleanor Sidgwick who looked flushed, her eyes shining. She loved these discussions and could not wait to address the group. Eliza von Hügel was looking gracious and spiritual, with her huge crucifix around her neck.

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

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

Ann Kennedy Smith

Coda: In August 1888 Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’. The Daily Telegraph took up the debate, asking its readers ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’. In the following two months over 27,000 readers replied, for and against. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s. I think it is likely that Caroline Jebb and her friends would have discussed it.

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