A revolutionary proposal

Churchill

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

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

MEC

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

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

A sense of home: ‘Period Piece’

 

‘This is a circular book. It does not begin at the beginning and go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from the hub, which is me.’ Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: A Memoir of a Cambridge Childhood (1952)

 

Period Piece

Gwen Raverat’s account of growing up as a member of the extended Darwin clan in Victorian Cambridge has never been out of print since it was first published in 1952, and it has recently been reissued as a collector’s hardback by Slightly Foxed. ‘Humour, tenderness and affection are the keynotes of Period Piece,’ Hazel Woods writes in her introduction, ‘but there is a fierce and passionate undercurrent that tells you something about the artist Gwen became.’ Period Piece features punting, picnics on Grantchester Meadows and problems with corsets and bicycles, all illustrated with Raverat’s delightful drawings, often featuring the family’s put-upon dog. “My mother had the first lady’s tricycle in Cambridge. Our dog Sancho was horrified to think that anyone belonging to him would ride such an indecent thing”. It’s the perfect book to read in a garden on these sunny summer days.

I’ve been thinking about Period Piece again because tomorrow evening I’m giving a talk for Literature Cambridge (see their website here for details of courses in 2019 and 2020). My talk is part of the final evening of this year’s ‘Fictions of Home’ course, and will take place in Darwin College, which was founded as Cambridge’s first graduate college in 1964 and incorporates both of Gwen Raverat’s former riverside homes, Newnham Grange and the neighbouring Old Granary. I’ll be discussing three women who changed Cambridge: Anne Clough, Helen Gladstone and Ida Darwin. Ida’s later sister-in-law Maud was an American from Philadelphia who married George Darwin in 1884. They hired an architect and turned Newnham Grange into their family home. Their first child Gwen was born there in 1885.

Raverat biog

Recently I re-read Frances Spalding’s excellent biography of Gwen Raverat, revealing Gwen’s unhappiness as a child and her long struggle to become an artist. She found happiness when she enrolled as a student at the Slade, and made friends in the Bloomsbury set including Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) who came to Cambridge to visit. They sat in Newnham Grange’s garden together and Virginia smoked one of Gwen’s father’s cigars. In 1911 Gwen married Jacques Raverat, part of their ‘Neo-Pagan’ circle. Then the war came and their friend Rupert Brooke was killed in April 1915, on the same day as Gwen’s first cousin and childhood companion, Erasmus Darwin. There were other sadnesses, as during the war the ailing Jacques was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Gwen and Jacques had two daughters, probably through artificial insemination, and the family went to live in Vence, but his condition slowly worsened and he died there in 1925.

His death after years of pain triggered a deep depression in Gwen, but she kept on working and became recognized for her brilliance as as the first modern wood engraver. She and her two daughters returned to Cambridge in the 1930s, and during the Second World War Gwen Raverat spent four years drawing maps for the Naval Intelligence Division. In 1946 she moved back into the Old Granary next to her former home (both houses are now part of Darwin College), and her mother Maud died the following year. Living there again, admiring the reflections on the river, and sifting through old letters and diaries made Gwen decide to write about her own life, as she had always wanted to do – though she claimed to hate writing – and capture something of her past. She told her publisher that she saw the book ‘as a social document – to be a drawing of the world as I saw it when young, not at all as a picture of my own soul (though I suppose that gets in by mistake)’ (Spalding, 397).

The memoir is a circling back to the childhood that, aged 66, Gwen Raverat could still recall vividly, especially now that she was living again in the house by the river. Reading Period Piece today in the light of Raverat’s subsequent life shows just what a remarkable book it is. There are hints of unhappiness– her parents’ ‘hands that understood nothing’, but she observes them and growing up among Victorians with humour and forgiveness. Compared to the darker times to come, the sunny days of her Cambridge childhood were bright indeed. If you get the chance, do go into Darwin College’s gardens and stand on the riverbank where Virginia Woolf once daringly smoked. The view from there is lovely.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 25 July 2019. (All rights reserved.)

Sources

Hermione Lee Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997); Frances Spalding Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill Press, 2001)

Beginnings

RBLIn my previous post I wrote about the 1881 Senate vote at the University of Cambridge giving women the right, for the first time, to take final exams. Ida Darwin had written to her sister-in-law Henrietta Litchfield (née Darwin) asking her to encourage her husband Richard Buckley Litchfield to travel to Cambridge to support women’s education there. ( Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece shows him being fussed over by Henrietta) As a former student and tutor of Trinity College he had the right to vote on University matters. As it turned out, the vote was won by a large majority, although Cambridge degrees were still some way in the future for women, who were not admitted to membership of the University until December 1947. The present Queen’s mother was the first woman to be awarded the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Laws (Honorary) in October 1948.

Samantha Evans is author of the excellent Darwin and Women (CUP, 2017) which I reviewed here. In her book Evans describes how Charles Darwin’s ideas were affected by the women scientists he corresponded with, as well as his wife Emma and daughters Henrietta and Bessy’s active engagement in lifelong learning.

Women in their circle, even without raising an particular banner, were extraordinarily active: 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. (Evans, p. 210)

Even so, Emma Darwin was not in favour of complete equality. Last week I came across Evans’ fascinating article (see link here) about Emma Darwin’s attitudes to higher education for women. In March 1881 Emma wrote to her son George about the recent vote.

You heard of the triumphant vote for the girls at Cambridge having their places in the exam. made public. Horace went to tell them about it & was received w. clapping. Afterward they put all their candles & lamps in the windows & ended w. a dance. R. thinks it is the beginning of the end & (I believe), that they will turn out as badly as the Russian young lady Doctors at Zurich.’ (DAR 251: 1002 Emma Darwin to G. H. Darwin, 7 March 1881.)

Horace, Ida’s husband, was so elated with the good news that he rushed to Newnham to celebrate with them, but his brother-in-law ‘R.’ (Richard Buckley Litchfield) felt very differently. Ida had assumed that Richard shared the Darwins’ liberal attitudes to women’s education, but when it came to his old university it seems that he wanted to keep the status quo. He was worried that by giving women the right to take exams Cambridge had gone too far and it would mean “the beginning of the end” for its continuing success as a university.

In her article, Evans explains that the ‘Russian young lady doctors’ who went to Zurich to study medicine were told in 1873 that they would not be offered appointments in Russia on their return. Effectively, their education would be worthless, and they faced a stark choice of either their country or their work. Richard Litchfield was arguing that there was little point in women trying to get a Cambridge education, because they wouldn’t be allowed into the professions in any case. Yet Litchfield was himself a forward-thinking educator. In 1854 he was one of the group who founded London’s Working Men’s College at 31 Lion Square in Bloomsbury to provide artisans with the chance for an education. It was one of the first adult education institutions, and its nineteenth-century teachers included Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and William Morris. EM Forster and Seamus Heaney were among those who taught there in the twentieth century. There’s an informative UCL history project on the college here.

In 1864, Elizabeth Malleson opened the Working Women’s College just round the corner at 29 Queen Square. She wanted the two colleges to merge, but the council of the male college (including Litchfield, who taught there for many years) resisted. Perhaps he felt it would be the beginning of the end for the institution he had done so much to establish. It was only in 1966 that women were admitted to the college, eight years after the first women gained degrees at Cambridge. Now known as WMC -The Camden College, it provides courses to men and women today, particularly for those who have missed out on traditional educational opportunities, including the unemployed, older adults and refugee learners.

It is wonderful that the WMC has had such a long and successful history, but Litchfield was wrong to fear women students as he did. This year, from 14 October, Cambridge University celebrates beginnings: ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibitions, events and talks will mark 150 years of women at Cambridge, 1869-2019.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 14 July 2019. All rights reserved.

Marrying Maud

lady_george_darwin_by_cecilia_beaux_1889

Portrait of Maud by Cecilia Beaux, 1889. pastel on paper, 19×13.5in.

‘Maud is not a girl to surprise anyone into matrimony. I wonder why?’ wrote the American Caroline Jebb, 43, to her sister Ellen Dupuy in Philadelphia. Maud was Ellen’s sensible 22-year old daughter, tall with golden brown hair and dark blue eyes. She was visiting her Aunt Cara (as she called Caroline) in Cambridge in the summer of 1883. It was her first trip to England and she loved everything about the university town in May: the picnics and afternoon teas, the boat races and games of lawn tennis, trips to London for shopping, dinner parties and the cultivated conversations of the college fellows. Caroline was keen to give her niece a taste for culture, so gave her poetry books by Browning and Tennyson to read, took her to a Greek play and to see paintings at the Royal Academy. But most of all, she wanted Maud to marry well.

She had already tried and failed with Maud’s older sister Nellie, who had come to Cambridge the year before and refused a proposal of marriage from George Darwin, the second son of Charles Darwin and a professor of astronomy at Cambridge. Caroline and her husband Richard Claverhouse Jebb were close friends of his and she was very sorry to see him disappointed. ‘George Darwin is so kind and nice, so really generous in big things, so companionable and amusing’, she told Nellie, ‘that if only you had been five years older, I think you might have liked him.’ George Darwin was 38, tall but slight in stature, and years of poor health had left him prone to exhaustion after any sort of exercise. Bookish and serious-minded, he was ill at ease in most women’s company apart from Caroline’s.

george-darwin

George Darwin, about 1880, unknown photographer.

Fond as she was of her dear George, Caroline had a very different sort of man in mind for Maud. She told her sister that Henry Martyn Taylor, a barrister, had much to offer, being ‘very manly, a good shot, Alpine climber, tennis player, has an income of, I fancy, about £2,000 a year… I fancy he could settle at least £10,000 on his wife to secure her future.’ Caroline wanted her American niece to be practical in her choice of husband. Despite their aristocratic-sounding name, the Philadelphia Dupuys were not well off, and Maud was only able to afford the trip to England with the help of her businessman brother, Herbert. She told him that she liked her Aunt Cara’s friend George. ‘I can see how nice he is as a brother and a friend…but somehow the romantic view of lover is left out of his disposition.’ Sensible as she was, Maud knew her own mind and wanted to marry for love. Caroline was no fortune-hunter either, for all her interest in finding her niece a good match. Years earlier she herself had turned down a proposal by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railway magnate and richest man in America, and married Cambridge classical scholar instead.

When the wealthy, manly Henry proposed in September 1883, Maud politely refused and set off to spend the winter travelling around Europe with another aunt. By December they were in Rome, and Caroline was still hoping that her niece would reconsider Henry’s offer: ‘after six months of married life, Maud would be devoted to a man like Mr Taylor, and quite happy and settled in her life.’ Would she ever have a better offer? Caroline was not sure. In February Maud and her aunt left Rome and travelled to Castellamare, where they found a note waiting for them. It was from George Darwin, who happened to be passing through Italy, he said, on his way home from a trip to Tunisia. Might he call on them? It was all Caroline’s doing of course. Back in Cambridge she had come to realize that George liked her niece very much, but Maud did not see this kindly, reserved older man in a romantic light. So Caroline told him to go to Italy to find her.

Maud and George spent the next two weeks in each other’s company. Away from Cambridge he lost much of his English awkwardness and reserve. He spoke Italian fluently, was an energetic walker and enthusiastic about everything. ‘G.D. picked violets and crocuses for me, and we walked and walked and talked and talked’, Maud wrote to her sister, describing how, after one long walk, George hailed a passing donkey cart to give them a lift back to their hotel. ‘It was so funny!’, Maud told her sister, describing how he and the driver jumped out when they went up hills. ‘To think of a Professor in Cambridge running by the side of a donkey cart… And me in the cart too!’. In Florence George proposed and Maud accepted happily. Caroline was delighted to hear the news, with one reservation. ‘He must call me Cara, not Aunt’, she told her niece sternly. ‘I can’t stand that from a man so near my own age.’

A couple of weeks later another worry occurred to Caroline, and she wrote to George directly. The Darwin family ‘might think this was a match of my making’, she warned him, ‘And it wasn’t a bit, mind that! You were both a thousand miles away from any influence of mine and words can’t say how thankful I am. If there is a suspicion of my being a matchmaker, I utterly and entirely repudiate it…’

 Ann Kennedy Smith.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Marrying Maud’ https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: Gwen Raverat’s account of her mother’s first visit to Cambridge in ‘Prelude’, the first chapter of Period Piece (Faber and Faber, 1952) is simply unsurpassable, as are her beautiful illustrations. Maud’s words are taken from Frances Spalding’s elegant biography Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family, and Affections (Harvill Press, 2001, pp. 38 and 40). All quotations from Caroline’s letters are taken from With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb by Mary Jane Bobbitt (Faber and Faber, 1960).

Caroline’s War (Part 2)

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.00360

From January until April 1861 Lieutenant Adam Slemmer and his garrison defended Fort Pickens in Florida against repeated attempts by the Southern militia to seize it. They had a pretty miserable time of it. The dilapidated old fort, on tiny Santa Rosa Island in the Gulf of Mexico, was infested with rattlesnakes and vipers and food supplies were limited. When the long awaited federal reinforcements arrived, many of the men were suffering from scurvy.

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour 600 miles away, which was seized by Confederate forces after a fierce battle in April 1861. Thanks to Adam and his men, Fort Pickens was one of the few Southern forts retained by the North throughout the Civil War, and was an important naval base during the blockade of the Southern states.

Back in Washington, Caroline Slemmer was disappointed to discover after the siege that her husband had not been promoted, especially since less experienced men were being given commissions in the hastily formed new military regiments. On 10 May 1861 she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln directly about it, and was given an appointment to see him.

Accompanied by her two brothers-in-law, Caroline went along to the arranged interview. The president was busy working at his writing table, and they found it difficult to get his attention. So she did something very simple and very effective. She moved closer, put her hand lightly on his shoulder, and gently spoke to him about her husband’s bravery at Fort Pickens. Lincoln looked up, placed his hand on hers for a moment, and listened.

Adam Slemmer was made a Major soon afterwards. In the Abraham Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress there is a list in Lincoln’s handwriting of the names of the officers he wished to promote in July 1861. After the name Lieutenant Slemmer, Lincoln has scribbled a note: ‘his pretty wife says a Major or First Captain.’ Caroline had managed to charm the most important man in the land.

Sources: Lady Caroline Lane Slemmer Reynolds Jebb Papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton MA; Mary Reed Bobbitt With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece: The Cambridge Childhood of Darwin’s Granddaughter (London: Faber 1960). The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress for July 1861 can be found here.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Caroline’s War (Part 2)’ https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

A club of their own

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‘The female club must be regarded as no isolated and ludicrous phenomenon, but as the natural outcome of the spirit of an age which demands excellence in work from women no less than from men’ Amy Levy. (I am delighted that my entry on ‘ The Ladies Dining Society’ is now included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ).

They called it the Ladies Dining Society, a name that sounds rather quaint and privileged now. But it was an act of rebelliousness all the same. In 1890, when the club began, Cambridge was  still very much a male society with its few female students living in colleges outside the town. University wives were expected to be gracious hosts and guests at dinner parties and provide polite conversation, but they were excluded from their husbands’ college high tables and the intellectual discussions that went on there.

It was a time when professional women’s associations and clubs had begun to spring up around Britain. In May 1890 the first Ladies’ Literary Dinner for women writers took place at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly, London. Later renamed the Women Writers’ Dinner, it was so successful that it became an annual event.

In Cambridge, two of the university wives, Louise Creighton and Kathleen Lyttelton, both published writers, decided to form a dining and discussion club of their own. They invited a select group of between ten and twelve of their women friends to join, and agreed to take it in turn to host the occasion, provide dinner and choose a suitable topic for discussion.

They were, in the words of the economist John Maynard Keynes, ‘a remarkable group’. Most were married to professors or college masters, but all  were pioneers and achievers in their own right. Mary Paley Marshall was one of the first women students at Cambridge, and its first woman lecturer in economics. Eleanor Sidgwick became principal of Newnham college, Mary Ward was a suffragist and playwright, and Kathleen Lyttelton was the first editor to publish Virginia Woolf’s work. Ida Darwin was a leading figure in the twentieth-century fight for improved mental health care, while her American sister-in-law Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Britain. Maud’s aunt, the irrepressible Lady Caroline Jebb, was immortalised in Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece.

I will explore more of their stories in future posts. The dining society continued until the outbreak of the First World War, for almost 25 years providing a network of friendship and a space for debate, where these women’s voices would be heard.

Further reading: Marshall, Mary Paley What I remember (CUP 1947); The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing ed. Linda H Peterson (CUP 2015); Linda Hughes ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ (Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 35, Issue 1, March 2007, pp. 233-260

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘A club of their own’, (September 8, 2016) https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)