Locked out of the library, 1891

This week I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel discussion organized by St John’s College FemSoc on the theme of Women In Academia with University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner and Professor Helen McCarthy, author of the prize-winning Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (2020). As well as the history of women at Cambridge, wider issues to be discussed include the experiences of women in different professional settings and the importance of remembering histories to inform our future. For their support of my research this year I am personally grateful to the Women’s History Network, the national association for historians with a passion for women’s history. To mark the occasion I’m reposting my blog ‘Locked out of the library’ (below) about Cambridge University’s pioneering women scholars who were denied access to the University Library in the 1890s. I’m pleased to say it’s a welcoming space for all scholars and researchers today, both within the academy and beyond.

‘Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

For many years the University Library (known as the U.L.) was ‘a contested space’ for women at Cambridge, as Dr Jill Whitelock, Head of Special Collections at the University Library, puts it. She has been researching how the control of access to the U.L., alongside the university’s lecture halls and laboratories, was bound up with the status of women at Cambridge between 1869 and 1923, and gave a fascinating talk, ‘Lock up your libraries’, as part of the ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition and events of 2019-20 (curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin). I am very grateful to Dr Whitelock for alerting me to a remarkable letter that was sent to the University Library Syndicate in November 1891, and for sending me a photograph of it. My blogpost below is about some of the women who signed the 1891 letter; there is much more background in Whitelock’s excellent recent article ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ now published in Library & Information History, (Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758) and free to read online.

Nowadays, the U.L. is based in the striking Gilbert Scott-designed building that opened in 1934 in the west of the city (see Whitelock’s blogpost ‘The abandoned library’ here). Before 1934 the University’s library was situated in the Old Schools building, by the Senate House. The Old Library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way,’ as Whitelock writes in ‘M. R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’ here. It was chiefly a space for male academics and researchers, but Whitelock’s research shows that there were also women readers who used the university library for their research long before the first ‘ladies’ college’, Girton, was established in 1869. These included a ‘Miss Henslow’, one of the daughters of Professor Joseph Stevens Henslow who had taught Charles Darwin in the 1820s. Miss Henslow was probably Frances Harriet (later Mrs Hooker), who in 1851 married Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker; her translation of Maout and Decaisnes’ A General System of Botany, Descriptive and Analytical from French into English was published in 1873 and can be consulted in the U.L.’s Rare Books Reading Room (MD.40.65).       

Girton College was founded in 1869, Newnham College two years later. That year, following a vote by the Syndicate, the first woman reader’s card was issued to Newnham’s Ella Bulley (who would become renowned later as the scholar and archeologist Ella S. Armitage). In 1871 she was one of the ‘first five’ students who lived in the Newnham College’s earliest premises, a rented house in Regent Street. Because she was 30 when she began her studies, she was permitted a year-long card (all of the library’s readers then had to be over 21). Three years later, she would become Newnham’s first research student and, after her marriage to Reverend Elkanah Armitage, with whom she had two children, she continued her academic work, teaching at Owens College in Manchester (which became part of the University of Manchester) and publishing several books on medieval history. Her library card was preserved by the U.L. and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20.  

(Ella Bulley, U.L. library card, 1871)

One of the other five students was Mary Paley Marshall (then Mary Paley) who took charge of the small collection of books that students could borrow. She was, in effect, Newnham College’s first librarian. In 1874 she became the first of two women to take the Cambridge Tripos (final year exams) in Moral Sciences, along with Ella’s younger sister Amy Bulley. A year later Paley Marshall became Newnham’s first resident lecturer, teaching Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’, as a former student, Winnie Seebohm wrote.

By the 1880s, women at Cambridge seemed to be gaining ground. In 1881 female students gained the right to take the Tripos exams on equal terms to the male students (see my blogpost here), and in 1887 the University Library’s age restriction for readers was dropped, allowing women under 21 to use the library for the first time.

Coincidentally, this was also the year that a Cambridge woman student made the national headlines. In 1887 Agnata Frances Ramsay (later Butler) of Girton College was the only student to be placed in the first class of the Classical Tripos. Three years later, Newnham College was in the spotlight when Philippa Fawcett, Millicent Fawcett’s daughter, outperformed all of the male students in the 1890 Mathematics Tripos. Their success in the two subjects that were traditionally considered as the preserve of men -Classics and Mathematics – caused a sensation. Cambridge women had now proved that their intellectual ability could be superior to that of their male counterparts, and conservative forces at the University were becoming uneasy that they would invade other, traditionally male, spaces.

This was reflected in a tightening of the rules permitting access to the University Library. The hours that readers who were University ‘non-members’ (which included women) could use the library were reduced from 10 until 2pm (from 4pm previously), and in autumn 1891 it was proposed that a fee should be introduced. Non-members would now be permitted to use the library only from 10am until 2pm, and were restricted to certain areas. As Rita McWilliams-Tullberg points out in Women At Cambridge (revised edition 1998), this restriction ‘was most hardly felt by the staffs of the women’s colleges who, whatever their degree of scholarship, could only use one of the world’s finest libraries on the same conditions as members of the general public’ (p. 156).

Crucially, by now Girton and Newnham’s academic success had been proven not only by the excellent exam results of their students, but also by the research record of their lecturers and tutors, who had published books and academic papers. Regardless of their achievements, they could now only use the library on extremely limited terms. In November 1891, twenty years after Ella Bulley’s reader’s card was issued, a petition in the form of a letter was delivered to the University Library Syndicate. The letter politely asked for the new library rules to be reconsidered, and was signed by twenty-four women who described themselves as ‘former Students of Girton and Newnham Colleges who have obtained places in Various Triposes’. They respectfully requested permission ‘to work in the Library with the same freedom as heretofore’, explaining politely that for those who had ‘morning engagements’ (that is, teaching students) the reduced hours meant that it would now be almost impossible for them to use the library for their research.


In ‘History of the Library’, vol. V, 1886-1900, UL classmark ULIB 6/5/5

The letter was signed by twenty-four women lecturers and librarians, researchers and laboratory demonstrators, star students and scholars from the first twenty years of Girton and Newnham. They include the linguists Margaret Janson Tuke (Dame Margaret Tuke, D.B.E.), the Newnham lecturer who would later head Bedford College in 1907 (now merged with Royal Holloway, University of London) and Bertha Skeat, the first resident lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers (now Hughes Hall).

Scientists who signed the letter include Ida Freund, who was the first woman to become a chemistry lecturer in the UK; Dorothea F.M. Pertz, who had co-published papers on geotropism and heliotropism in plants with Francis Darwin; and the botanist and geneticist Edith Rebecca Saunders, who worked closely with the biologist William Bateson. ‘Saunders had several years of independent research under her belt when she started to collaborate with William Bateson,’ writes Susannah Gibson in The Spirit of Inquiry (2019) ‘she was not a junior colleague, but very much his equal.’ Saunders conducted her groundbreaking plant experiments at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and with Bateson co-founded the Genetics Society in 1919. Christine Alexander, librarian of Cambridge University’s Plant Sciences Department, has compiled a fascinating online collection about Saunders’ influential work.

The 1891 group also included Newnham’s most famous student, Philippa Fawcett (Mathematics tripos Parts 1 & II 1890-1), as well as one of the first women to sit for the Tripos almost 20 years previously, Mary Paley Marshall (Moral Sciences Tripos 1874). She was now back in Cambridge after some years teaching male and female students at Oxford and the newly founded Bristol University, where 30 years later she would be awarded an honorary doctorate for her contribution (see post here). The letter is also signed by two of her fellow Ladies’ Dining Society members and ‘sometime’ (i.e. previous) Newnham lecturers Ellen Wordsworth Darwin and Mary Ward; like Paley Marshall, they were active in promoting higher education and suffrage for women, and continued to research and write. The letter is also signed by E.E. Constance Jones, then a lecturer in Moral Sciences at Girton, who would become Girton College Mistress (head) from 1903 until 1916.

The two women who organized the 1891 petition One was the Girton economic historian Ellen A. Mc Arthur (History Tripos 1885), who would become the first woman to receive an honorary ad eundam doctorate from the University of Dublin, based on her academic publications (see my ‘Steamboat Ladies’ post here). The other person was the Newnham historian and lecturer Mary Bateson (History Tripos 1887) a sister of William Bateson. Her mother Anna Bateson and sister Anna, had co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in 1884, and Mary was also an active suffragist as well as a serious scholar.  She worked closely with the legal historian F.W. Maitland and was instrumental in the foundation of Newnham’s first research fellowship in 1903. As Dockray Miller writes, Mary Bateson ‘firmly believed, twenty-five years before Virginia Woolf addressed the faculty and students of Newnham College about the necessity of “a room of one’s own,” that women could not pursue serious scholarship without the financial and professional support of an academic institution.’

The 1891 petition offers a snapshot of twenty-four extraordinary women who had studied, researched, taught and published at Cambridge during the past twenty years. It is ironic that their books were welcomed by the U.L. even though they were not – including Paley Marshall’s The Economics of Industry (1879), co-written with Alfred Marshall, and E.E. Constance Jones’s Elements of logic as a science of propositions (1890). (Jones’s An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892; W. Cunningham and Ellen A. McArthur’s Outlines of English Industrial History in 1895; Mary Bateson’s Mediaeval England, 1066-1350 in 1903) . These and many more of their books and scholarly papers can still be consulted there today.

In 1891 these women had already achieved much – and would go on to do much more – but it was a period when the tide had turned against Cambridge women who dared to excel. Their request for greater access to the library fell on deaf ears, and the Syndicate’s policy became more, not less restrictive. In May 1897, after thousands gathered outside the Senate House to protest against the vote to allow women the title of degrees, the U.L. Librarian Francis Jenkinson confirmed that non-members’ access to the library would be limited yet again, until midday only.

So, locked out of the University Library as they were, staff and supporters of Girton and Newnham raised funds to build up their own magnificent college libraries, which today have around 100,000 books each. Tennyson, Ruskin, George Eliot and many others were early supporters of Girton College’s Stanley Library, and Newnham College’s beautiful Yates Thompson Library, see below. It was not until 1923 that Cambridge women students finally won the right to become readers at the U.L. on the same terms as the men.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Yates Thompson Library, Newnham College (photo: Ann Kennedy Smith, 2022)


Girton College by E.E.Constance Jones (1913); available at the UL (Cam.c.913.2)

SOURCES: My thanks to Jill Whitelock and to Carolyn Ferguson for their generous help. Any remaining errors are my own. Christine Alexander, ‘My Colleague, Miss Saunders’; E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); Mary Dockray Miller, ‘Mary Bateson (1865-1906): Scholar and Suffragist’ in Women Medievalists and the Academy, edited by Jane Chance (Wisconsin, 2005); Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019) (see my TLS review here); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1975; revised edition 1998); Jill Whitelock, ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ in Library & Information History, Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758-3489 (available online Apr 2022)

Amy Levy and Ellen Wordsworth Darwin

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

In summer 1888 Ellen Wordsworth Darwin (née Crofts) told her sister-in-law Ida Darwin that her former student Amy Levy was coming to visit. ‘She has written a novel, in which the heroine is partly me’, she told Ida. ‘I have not read it yet, but I don’t expect much: her stories and novels are rather saddening.’ Why did Amy have Ellen Darwin in mind when she wrote about Judith Quixano in her second novel, Reuben Sachs: A Sketch? Darwin was not Jewish, and her Yorkshire upbringing was very different from the fictional Quixano’s Portuguese connections. Possibly Ellen shared what Levy describes as Judith’s ‘deep, serious gaze of the wonderful eyes’ (as can be seen in this 1903 photo of Ellen, reproduced courtesy of Newnham College Cambridge, above); certainly she had her passionate nature and almost austere truthfulness. 

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

Although she enjoyed her studies, Amy Levy was often lonely at Cambridge. In the close community of Newnham she felt all too conscious of her Jewish difference, and found it difficult to join in the other young women’s late-night cocoa parties and outings. Ellen was sympathetic and serious-minded and one of the few people that Amy could turn to as a friend. Writing about Darwin in 1903, her contemporary Blanche Smith recalled how ‘she from the first recognized genius in a student who, extremely unpopular, was shunned by co-mates and dons alike until Ellen made a friend of her, and so helped to draw out talents that the literary world have since acknowledged.’

Could this unpopular but talented student have been Amy Levy? We can’t be sure, but in 1881 she left Cambridge without taking her final exams. Perhaps this was because she wanted to devote more time to her writing: her first poetry collection, Xantippe and Other Verse (1881) published while she was still a student, was praised by influential critic Richard Garnett. She perhaps did not want to take the mathematics paper necessary to sit for the Tripos, which women students won the right to do in May 1881 (see my post on Mary Willcox here). It is also possible that she was undergoing a phase of serious depression. 

But Ellen and Amy’s friendship continued after Amy left Cambridge, and they might have met in Switzerland in the summer of 1883, when both women were on holiday there. Ellen had just become engaged to be married to the botanist Francis Darwin, who had moved to Cambridge after his father Charles Darwin’s death in 1882. Three years later Levy would publish a poem called ‘To E.’  about a happy day that she spent with two other writer friends in the mountains: one was an unnamed male poet, and the other a ‘learned’ woman. (‘You, stepped in learned lore, and I,/ A poet too.’) Towards the end of the poem, Levy’s unrequited love for the woman is hinted at: ‘And do I sigh or smile to-day?/Dead love or dead ambition, say,/Which mourn we most? Not much we weigh/Platonic friends.’

In September 1883 Ellen gave up her Newnham lectureship and ambitions to be a serious literary scholar when she married and became a stepmother to Frank’s young son Bernard. Their daughter Frances was born three years later, in 1886. Amy’s literary career began to flourish, and her poetry, short stories and articles were published in the Jewish Chronicle, while Oscar Wilde, then editor of the journal ‘Woman’s World’, had described one of her stories as having ‘a touch of genius’, and commissioned more work from her, including her article ‘Women and Club Life’. Levy divided her time between Europe and the British Library in London, where she befriended Eleanor Marx and Beatrice Webb (née Potter). But although she had close friendships with other women – and most likely a serious (on Levy’s part) love affair in Florence with Violet Paget, who wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Lee – Levy did not find the lasting romantic friendship that she longed for.

In the summer of 1888, when she travelled to Cambridge to visit Ellen, 27-year-old Levy was on the cusp of great success as a writer. Her first novel The Romance of a Shop (1888) was selling well: it ‘aims at the young person’, she wrote, and it’s an entertaining and light-hearted story about four independent young sisters who set up their own photography studio in London. Her next novel would be much more ambitious and complex and would, she hoped, make her name as a writer.  

Reuben Sachs: A Sketch was published soon after Levy’s trip to see Ellen in Cambridge. The idea for it had developed from Levy’s 1886 article called ‘The Jew in Fiction’ in the Jewish Chronicle in which she called for ‘a serious treatment… of the complex problem of Jewish life and Jewish character.’ With Reuben Sachs she wanted to challenge the anti-Semitic tropes of the Victorian novel, such as Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1871), as well as the well-meaning but rather patronizing pro-Semitic descriptions in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876).

From the first, Reuben Sachs attracted controversy for its scathing depiction of the affluent upper-class Anglo-Jewish community that Levy knew well. Even though she describes a close and loving London community, who take in impoverished Judith Quixano and treat her as one of their own, Levy’s mordant attack on Jewish materialist values and critique of the late-Victorian marriage market meant that her book was widely criticized. Her satirical humour in the style of Zola or Daudet was not understood, nor was her attempt to parody George Eliot (in Daniel Deronda the Jewish family’s baby ‘carries on her teething intelligently’).

At first Levy managed to shrug off the negative reviews. She threw herself into her writing, and took part in literary events, including organizing gatherings at the newly founded University Women’s Club in London. She was one of the guests at the first ever Women Writers’ Dinner, held at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly in May 1889 and attended by prominent other ‘New Women’ writers Mona Caird and Olive Schreiner.  At the end of July 1889 she met the poet W.B. Yeats. ‘She was talkative, good-looking in a way,’ he recalled, ‘and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.’

Yeats was one of the few to be perceptive about Levy’s true mental state. Her work and socializing had provided a distraction from her lifelong struggle with depression, but her promising literary career was not enough to protect her from loneliness and despair and in September 1889 she took her own life. A few months later, in January 1890 Ellen Darwin reviewed Levy’s posthumously published poetry collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889) in the Cambridge Review. She describes her friend’s ‘eager vital temperament’, and her constant, heroic struggle with ‘the shadow of a great mental depression’. Levy’s poetry’s range might be narrow, Darwin admits (with the characteristic honesty Levy admired), but she describes its power as ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’, and compares the poetry to Emily Brontë’s: ‘It is as different as their natures were different, but it has this one thing in common – it was written with the heart’s blood’. She says nothing in her review about ‘To E.’, the last poem in the collection which might have been about the last, truly happy day they spent together in Switzerland.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 19 April 2021. 

Amy Levy

My thanks to Anne Thomson for her archival assistance, and to Newnham College for permission to reproduce Ellen Darwin’s photograph (Newnham PH/10/4 Chrystal Album no.2). Other sources: For more on Amy Levy, see Linda Hunt Beckman, Amy Levy: her life and letters (Ohio, 2000);  Eleanor Fitzsimons’s Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew (Duckworth Overlook, 2015) and ‘A brief introduction to the works of Amy Levy’ on the Victorian Web website (accessed 19 April 2021); Ellen Darwin’s letter to Ida Darwin: Cambridge University Library, Darwin Family Papers Add.9368.1:3543; ‘In Memoriam-Ellen Wordsworth Darwin’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter 1903; Ellen Wordsworth Darwin (Ellen Crofts) Chapters in the history of English literature: from 1509 to the close of the Elizabethan period (London, Rivingtons, 1884); ‘The Poems of Amy Levy’, Cambridge Review, 23 Jan 1890; ‘The Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914′.

The ascent of women at Cambridge

9781107158863‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles Darwin, aged 72, wrote to his son George in February 1881.  ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’ Cambridge University had just voted to give women students at Newnham and Girton the right to take final examinations on the same terms as male students, and Emma and Charles Darwin in Kent rejoiced with them. Ida Darwin (married to their youngest son Horace) was a keen supporter of Newnham, the ‘Lady’s College’ that Darwin refers to, and a future daughter-in-law, Ellen Crofts Darwin, studied and lectured there.

Charles Darwin is not always known for his feminist sympathies. In his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) he stated that ‘the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women’. As Dame Gillian Beer writesin regard to women Darwin ‘failed to observe in this one field the pressures of environment that were elsewhere fundamental to his arguments.’ She has contributed the foreword to Samantha Evans’s Darwin and Women  (CUP 2017). This fascinating selection of letters from the team behind the Cambridge Darwin Correspondence Project shines light on many of the remarkable women with whom Darwin corresponded with interest and intellectual involvement over his lifetime.

Many of the women scientists, journalists and writers who corresponded with him over the years were involved in the promotion of women’s education. Charles Darwin’s daughters Henrietta and Elizabeth (Bessy) attended lectures at London University and shared a keen interest in education with their friends. ‘Women in their circle, even without raising any particular banner, were extraordinarily active’, Evans notes, ‘they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women.’

Although the ‘triumph of the ladies’ in 1881 was welcomed by the Darwins, it did not mark the beginning of women’s imminent ascent to acceptance at Cambridge. There was to be no membership of the university, no degrees and not even the right to attend lectures for many years to come.

Sources

Many letters included in Samantha Evans’s book are reproduced in the invaluable online resource created by the Darwin Correspondence Project here. My review of Darwin and Women is in the Dublin Review of Books here.

The Dining Club, 1890

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10701039Vicmarriage[1]

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

HBH18900519.2.22-a1-259w-c32

10701039Vicmarriage[1]

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

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

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

‘Must you go?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Kennedy Smith

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

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

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

‘Must you go?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Kennedy Smith

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