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

Clubs of their own

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“We were a very lively buzzing community, pushing along our way, very much amused with ourselves,” Blanche Athena Clough wrote of her time as a Newnham College student in the 1880s (she later became Principal). As well as studying Classics, she had lots of college clubs to choose from, including the Shakespeare Reading Society, the Browning Society, several French societies and the ever-popular debating society. Both Newnham and Girton had a rich associational life, as the section on ‘Social Life’ in the ongoing ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition at Cambridge University Library reveals. Most of the University’s student-run societies that began in the 1870s were exclusively male, as Clough confirms. “We had no part or lot in University societies except the Ladies Discussion Society and I think C.U.M.S. [Cambridge University Music Society]… in any case the University generally were hardly aware of our existence.”

I believe that the women-led societies that began in the 1880s and lasted for so many years helped to make Cambridge a better, more inclusive place. These were not University societies, but associations begun in most cases by women married to professors, masters and college fellows after the University dropped its celibacy requirements. I’ve been talking quite a bit about these clubs recently. I was invited to speak to Selwyn College alumni about Kathleen Lyttelton and ‘The Women who changed Cambridge’ at the rather splendid Oxford and Cambridge Club in London last November. Then I gave a talk called ‘A Club of Their Own’ at the University Library in December, connected to the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition. This month I gave another version of that talk to the Friends of Milton Road Library in a bright and welcoming new library setting.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk in such a variety of places, particularly as the societies that I discussed brought ‘town and gown’ women together in such an active, outward-facing social network. The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (founded in 1883) was practical and philanthropic in nature, helping underprivileged girls; it was co-founded by Ida Darwin and a small committee of married townswomen and dons’ wives.

downloadIn 1884 Selwyn Master’s wife Kathleen Lyttelton (pictured here) co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leading to the town becoming one of the major centres in the campaign for women’s votes. The Ladies’ Discussion Society, mentioned by B.A. Clough above, was founded in 1886 by Mary Paley Marshall and others with the aim of bringing University wives, townswomen and female students together to discuss social questions. Speakers included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in England. In December 1892 she came to Cambridge to give a talk on the medical profession for women, and was ‘pelted with questions’ by Newnham and Girton students, according to a report in the Cambridge Independent Press.

IMG_8985Today, anyone who is interested in finding out more about these societies can access their extensive original archives in the Cambridgeshire Archives in a brand new, purpose-built site in Ely. It’s a bit harder to find out about the fourth club that I talked about, and have written about in this blog for the last few years. The exclusive Ladies’ Dining Society did not, as far as I know, keep minutes of their conversations or record details of the dinners they shared once or twice a term for almost twenty-five years. There are only intriguing snippets about the club in a couple of memoirs, and a handful of references in letters and diaries. It’s understandable that the women wanted to keep their conversations private, including from future researchers like me. The fact that it lasted for so many years shows that the Ladies’ Dining Society was deeply significant at a time when women’s voices and contributions to debate went largely unheard. I think that it’s a club worth celebrating, as we approach International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020.

‘Even to form a ladies’ social club was a mild assertion of women’s right to public space’, as Doughan and Gordon write. Below I have listed their useful book, along with archive sources and a selection of excellent books, essays and articles on women’s clubs.

The University has not always been welcoming to women, but the excellent Rising Tide exhibition and events show what women at Cambridge have achieved despite all the obstacles. The exhibition closes on 21 March, so do grab the chance to see it if you’re in Cambridge (and if you are not, my TLS review is here). The Friends of Milton Road Library provide a year-round programme of stimulating and varied talks: more information here.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 17 February 2020 (all rights reserved)

Cambridgeshire Archives: Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; Cambridge Association for Social Welfare (1883-1985) [formerly CACG]  R106/097; Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; CWSA Papers to 1919: 455/Q16-57, 59-60, 62-79; archives held at the Cambridgeshire Collection (in Cambridge Central Library) and the Museum of Cambridge.

Secondary sources: Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999) and ‘Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian And Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Hesitant Beginnings‘ & other articles on ‘Woman and her Sphere’ website (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936 ed. James Thayne Covert (1994); D. Doughan and P. Gordon, Women, clubs and associations in Britain (2006); Linda Hughes, ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ Victorian Literature and Culture  35:1, March 2007, pp. 233-260; (1947); Amelia Hutchinson, ‘The “Hidden Histories” of women at Trinity’ unpub. dissertation (2019) https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/news/amelia-hutchinson-on-the-hidden-histories-of-women-at-trinity/ (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Mary Paley Marshall, What I remember (Cambridge, 1947); G. Sutherland ‘Girton for ladies, Newnham for governesses’ in Teaching and Learning in Nineteenth-Century Cambridge, eds. Jonathan Smith and Christopher Stray, 2001) pp.139-149 and In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2015); Christina Paulson-Ellis, The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls: Social Work with Girls and Young women in Cambridge 1883 -1954 (2008); Ann Phillips, A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge, 1979); Tamsin Wimhurst, The Development, Importance and Influence of a Local Network of Women c. 1886 – 1930: unpub. MA dissertation, University of Cambridge 2007 (soon to be made available at Milton Road Library)

The education of Mary Paley Marshall

This year marks 150 years since Cambridge University opened its doors to women for the first time. Girton College‘s founder Emily Davies was clear that ‘the College is intended to be a dependency, a living branch of Cambridge.’ In October 1869, however, its connections to the University were still uncertain. Davies herself insisted that her college should be based at Hitchin, far enough away to keep her students safe from the unwanted attention of male students.

There was another, equally significant event for women’s education at Cambridge that year. In December 1869, what historian Rita Mc Williams-Tullberg has described as ‘a momentous meeting’ took place in the Brookside drawing-room of Millicent Fawcett and her professor husband Henry Fawcett. The Cambridge Higher Local Examination for Women had come into being not long before, primarily to establish standards for women over eighteen who wanted to become teachers or governesses. But the Fawcetts and a small group of supporters of women’s university education, including Henry Sidgwick, wanted to take it further. They decided that the Higher Local Examination should be used as a stepping stone for women to attend lectures in the town itself, and within a few months of this meeting, Cambridge’s first series of Lectures for Women began. This blogpost is about one of the first women who passed that entrance examination in 1871, and found herself staying in Cambridge for longer than she or anyone else expected.

Mary Paley Marshall

Mary Paley was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century theologian and philosopher William Paley. She grew up in a rose-covered rectory in the village of Ufford in Northamptonshire, about forty miles north of Cambridge. Her father, the Reverend Thomas Paley, was a strict Evangelical clergyman whose powerful sermons shook the little church and baffled the congregation, as Mary wrote in her memoir What I Remember. Her mother Judith, by contrast, was ‘full of initiative and always bright and amusing’. Summers at the rectory were idyllic for Mary and her brother and sister, who spent happy days playing croquet and rounders in the garden and looking after their Shetland pony, rabbits and hens. Visitors came to stay for weeks on end and there were outings to Scarborough and Hunstanton. Winters were dull, especially after their brother was sent off to boarding school. The muddy country roads around the rectory were impassable and there were few interesting people to see. Their bright German governess left when Mary was thirteen, and she and her sister were expected to fill their time with Sunday school teaching and keeping their mother company in visiting the poor and sick.

Fortunately for Mary, her father had an unusual attitude to learning. Reverend Paley did not see why his daughters’ education should stop at age thirteen or be limited to certain subjects. ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, Mary recalled. He even entertained the whole village occasionally with his scientific demonstrations. At home in the evenings he read aloud to his children everything from The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels and the Iliad to Shakespeare and Walter Scott, ‘those fireside bulwarks of the old-fashioned home evenings’ as F.M. Mayor wrote in The Rector’s Daughter, a wonderful evocation of a similar Victorian upbringing published in 1924.* Reverend Paley’s strong religious principles meant that there were limits, however. He disapproved of the novels of Charles Dickens and once threw his Mary and her sister’s beloved dolls into the fire: ‘he said we were making them into idols and we never had any more.’

When her sister left home to get married, Mary’s own duties seemed duller than ever. To give his bright daughter something to do, and perhaps dissuade her from marrying an army officer, Reverend Paley encouraged her to enter for the Cambridge Higher Local Examination. He set about coaching Mary in divinity and mathematics and they studied Potts’ Euclid’s Elements of Geometry together. Although she wept over the ‘Conic Sections’ paper, Mary passed the examination with distinction in the summer of 1871, and was awarded a small scholarship to attend the University’s Lectures for Women on condition that she resided in Cambridge.

At the time, the idea that single women might live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Mary said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’. Fortunately for her, her father had met Anne Jemima Clough, whom Henry Sidgwick had asked to take charge of the house at 74 Regent Street near the centre of Cambridge (later it moved to Newnham and, like Girton, became a college). Mary would be one of five students living there. Reverend Paley’s admiration for Miss Clough’s commitment to women’s higher education and his pride in his daughter’s achievements helped him to overcome his misgivings, and he gave Mary permission to leave home.

In her memoir Mary described how she came to Cambridge for ‘general cultivation’ and only expected to stay for three terms. She chose to study Latin, History, Literature and Logic, which Reverend Paley thought of as ‘such a safe subject’. But if he thought that his daughter would be unchanged by a Cambridge education he was mistaken. In her first term Mary obediently attended evangelical services and taught at St Giles’s Sunday school, as her father wished. But soon, she said, ‘Mill’s Inductive Logic and Ecce Homo and Herbert Spencer and the general tone of thought gradually undermined my old beliefs’, and with the encouragement of Alfred Marshall, she changed subjects to study Moral Sciences (Political Economy, Politics and Philosophy).  Nothing was ever the same again for Mary Paley Marshall, or for the generations of women who have followed her to gain a Cambridge education.

In 1874 Mary Paley was one of the first two women to take Cambridge University’s Moral Sciences Tripos, and she became the university’s first residential woman lecturer in economics at Newnham College in 1875. In 1924, as Mary Paley Marshall, she co-founded the University’s Marshall Library of Economics where she also worked until she was 87. See also my previous blogpost on Mary Paley Marshall’s life and work,  ‘How to use a library’, here.

Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019

Sources: Rita McWilliams Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men’s university, though of a mixed type (1975); Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (1947); F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter (Virago Modern Classics, 1924, reissued by Virago in 1987). The Rector’s Daughter one of the ‘overlooked classics’ recommended by Susan Hill in The Novel Cure (2013). Flora Macdonald Mayor’s character, coincidentally also called Mary, is the unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in a small East Anglian village. The fictional Mary did not sit for Cambridge’s Higher Local Examination or marry, so there was no escape from her rector’s daughter’s duties: “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” F.M. Mayor herself attended Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s where she read History. It is likely that she met Mary Paley Marshall who was teaching economics while she was there.

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

Overlooked lives

Now that spring seems to be edging slightly closer, I decided to write a brief round-up of some recent books, articles and blogs that throw new light on lives that have been gathering dust in the corners of history. The title is borrowed from the recent initiative by the New York Times that addresses the issue of ‘missing entries’ from the thousands of obituaries it has published since 1851. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female,” it admits. In its new ‘Overlooked’ section the paper promises to feature the lives of remarkable women that should have been acknowledged long ago. Entries to date include (amazingly) the writer Charlotte Brontë, the pioneering anti-lynching reporter Ida B. Wells, and Mary Ewing Outerbridge, the woman who introduced tennis to America in 1874. Readers are invited to nominate candidates whose lives and achievements should be written about here. It is certainly better late than never, and it would be wonderful if the London Times and others followed suit.

Illuminating books: One Cambridge woman whose achievements have been overlooked on this side of the pond is Mary Paley Marshall. In the 1870s she and her husband Alfred Marshall helped to establish the economics department of the newly founded University of Bristol, with Mary taking on the bulk of the teaching workload. She was an inspirational figure for the women students there (as well as in Cambridge, before and after her marriage), and I am very pleased that she features in The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018 by Jane Duffus.

IMG_5346Other promising new books I hope to read soon include The Century Girls, which celebrates the lives of six extraordinary women who were born in 1918 or before. They have all been interviewed by the book’s author, Tessa Dunlop, and together they tell the story of the past hundred years of British history from their own unique perspective. I am particularly looking forward to finding out more about the life of Joyce Reynolds, the Cambridge classicist who still works at Newnham College, and Ann Baer (née Sidgwick) whose great-uncle Henry Sidgwick did so much to promote women’s education at Cambridge – not least co-founding Newnham College itself.

In February I attended a day of talks about British and Irish women’s suffrage at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. One of the most engaging speakers was the author Jane Robinson, who spoke with passion about the women from all backgrounds who took part in the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913. She can be heard on Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ here. The thousands of non-violent suffragists (male as well as female) have largely been forgotten about in the history of Irish and British women’s suffrage, so I’m delighted that her new book Hearts and Minds throws light on those overlooked lives. The Irish suffragist Mary Ward, a largely self-taught governess who became one of the first Cambridge women students, was one of the leaders of the 1913 Pilgrimage at the age of sixty-two.

lady sybilThe retired publisher Simon Boyd, one of this blog’s followers, became fascinated by his grandmother’s wartime exploits after discovering a battered old travelling trunk in a back room containing letters and diaries covering much of her life. His new book Lady Sybil: Empire, War and Revolution tells the story of how during the First World War she travelled to Russia to help to set up a British Red Cross hospital in Petrograd.

Blogs of others: Letters and diaries are not the only way of uncovering stories of the past. Another reader kindly drew my attention to this fascinating National Archives post by Sally Hughes about how objects as diverse as shopping lists, a scold’s bridle and dinosaur fossils can offer valuable insights when researching ‘unknown’ women’s lives. The British Library blog ‘Untold Lives’ is another very interesting and varied blog based on materials held in their collection. I have also enjoyed a wonderful new blog about (lesser known as well as famous) poets’ houses – many of them are in Cambridge – by John Clegg, a poet and bookseller at the London Review Bookshop. He has some requests for information here.

Reviews news: I recently wrote about two mothers of famous writers who have been not so much overlooked, as rather unfairly dismissed: May Beckett and Eva Larkin. My essay-review in the Dublin Review of Books was also featured on Arts and Letters Daily. Although Freud is hardly a forgotten figure, many of the people who first championed his writings after the First World War in Cambridge are. My take on an excellent new book, Freud in Cambridge, was published last week in the Times Literary Supplement; there is a snippet here. For repeating Lytton Strachey’s joke, I must apologize to Queen Victoria – a woman whose life was certainly anything but overlooked.

 

Copyright Ann Kennedy Smith 6 April 2018