Caroline Jebb’s calculations

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It was a bright morning in late March 1875, and sunlight slanted into her bedroom. Caroline Jebb had woken early, thinking about the roll of carpet from Thomas Tapling’s in London that had been delivered to their new house the day before. She and her husband Richard, a classics don, would soon be moving into St Peter’s Terrace, a row of seven tall houses near the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It was fashionable address, but the owners, Peterhouse College, had allowed the interiors to fall into disrepair and pear trees to colonise the back garden. Caroline advised Richard to refuse to sign the lease until the college agreed to take the garden in hand and redecorate the house from top to bottom.

Six months on, the work was almost finished, with Caroline supervising every step of the process, from the most flattering shade of grey on the drawing room walls to the culling of the pear trees. The carpet was the last thing to be fitted. It was a ‘tapestry Brussels’, not expensive at only two shillings eleven pence a yard, and certainly good enough for the upstairs rooms, she thought. She had ordered a hundred yards which was plenty for three bedrooms, but after ordering it she realized that she had forgotten about the dressing room. She told Mr Burnett, her upholsterer, that she was sure that if he cut it a certain way there would enough leftover strips to cover the dressing-room. He had shaken his head and said that she would need another ten yards at least. There was always waste with carpets like that, he told her, it was to be expected. His wife might be able to do something with the off-cuts, he added, as if he was doing Caroline a favour. He was coming to cut the carpet that day and would bring his cart.

Caroline had always prided herself on being careful with money, as she had to be, with an itinerant preacher for a father. The family had lived in several American states as she grew up, but only Nashville was as cold as a English winter, she told her sister Ellen. Caroline was good with figures, even though she had left her school in Philadelphia at fifteen; calculations came naturally to her. She decided that she would get to the house before Burnett and the other workmen got there and see for herself. As she let herself out of the front door onto their quiet Cambridge street, she thought about her husband Richard, who was spending his Easter vacation visiting his elderly parents in Ireland. He would not have liked her walking through the streets at six o’clock in the morning (or indeed any time), and would have insisted on ordering a carriage for her. The expense of such a thing was ridiculous.

Parker’s Piece stretched green and fresh into the distance. Delivery boys pushed heavy barrows across the paths, and a handful of young men were up early to play football before their working day began. Outside St Peter’s Terrace, the cherry trees were in glorious blossom and inside the house smelled of fresh paint and sawdust; the decorators had been hard at work. Gardeners too, Caroline noted, looking out of the landing window, pleased to see that a dozen rosebushes had been planted around the planned croquet lawn as she had instructed and the pear trees had been forced into retreat at the bottom of the garden.

She turned from the window and walked up to her bedroom. The carpet lay rolled in its wrappings of brown paper and strings, Mr Burnett’s tool-bag on the floor nearby. I shall just have a look at it, she thought, taking his large scissors out of the bag.

Poppy Blue & Sage

‘I was very busy and very happy cutting off the lengths of carpet for my own room, when my upholsterer and factotum Mr Burnett came in, and caught me in the very act,’ she later wrote to her sister Ellen in Philadelphia. ‘He looked so shocked that I yielded my scissors and my position at once, and took on myself the harder work of putting my ideas into his head.’

Caroline was aware of how undignified she must have appeared, on her hands and knees cutting her way through carpet, with dust in her hair and smudges on her face. Whatever would Richard say? That this was not suitable work for a lady. He frequently reminded her that as an American she should take extra care in keeping up appearances in the highly traditional university town that was Cambridge.

Caroline listened politely, but suited herself. That evening she took off her street dress and instead of dressing for dinner as she did when Richard was at home, put on a loose jacket and warm woollen skirt and had her supper on a tray, sitting comfortably by the fire with her book. There was enough carpet to fit all the rooms, as long as it was cut the right way, as she knew there would be. ‘Burnett will never think so well of me again,’ she told Ellen. ‘Luckily, I don’t care.’

Ann Kennedy Smith, March 2019

Information for this scene is based on Caroline’s letter to Ellen Dupuy, 21 March 1875 from the Lady Caroline Lane Reynolds Slemmer Jebb Papers held at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Writing Lives: the Jebb marriage

Richard_Claverhouse_Jebb MP, known as 'Ajax'. Vanity Fair, 1904

Bacchylides was of placid temper; amiably tolerant; satisfied with a modest lot; not free from some tinge of that pensive melancholy which was peculiarly Ionian’ (‘The Life of Bacchylides’, Richard Claverhouse Jebb, 1905)

In 1905 Cambridge University Press published the first English translation of poems by Bacchylides, with an introductory essay about the Greek lyric poet’s life. The author and translator, Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, was considered by many to be the most brilliant classical scholar of his time, and his seven-volume edition of Sophocles was widely celebrated. He was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and its Member of Parliament  (where he was nicknamed ‘Ajax’ after Sophocles’s tragic hero); he accepted a British knighthood in 1900, and was appointed to the Order of Merit in June 1905. A month later he and a group of academics sailed to South Africa with the British Association to promote its scientific and literary work. It was an exhausting and demanding lecture tour, and Richard’s health was not strong. He returned to Cambridge in October with a high fever, and died on 9 December 1905 at the age of sixty-four.

13 December 1905, Wednesday. Funeral. Sunshine through a veil of mist… Ah, my dearest.’ (Diary of Caroline Jebb)

Richard’s death came as a shock to his American wife Caroline Jebb, then sixty-five, but her next move was obvious: she would write her husband’s biography. In this she was following in the footsteps of two of her friends, both members of her ladies’ dining club. Louise Creighton’s two-volume biography of Mandell Creighton, published in 1904, was praised by many, including Lytton Strachey. Eleanor (Nora) Sidgwick was busy co-authoring a memoir of her husband Henry, who had died in 1900. In January 1906 Caroline set to work. Richard had done much of the preparation for her already, having compiled scrapbooks in which he pasted letters, reviews, excerpts from his speeches and newspaper cuttings about himself. All she had to do was to choose what to include.

Weighty biographies of great men were plentiful throughout the nineteenth century, and in many cases they were written by people who were close to their subjects, such as a wife, sibling, son or daughter. This presented the home-grown biographer with a paradox. The ideal biography was, it was believed, conscientious in its gathering of documents and deeply respectful in tone. It should be heavy on its subject’s achievements, and light on their personal failings. Undignified anecdotes were avoided, and most of all, the biographer’s own personality and feelings should be suppressed at all times.

‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory’ Disraeli, 1832

To modern readers, the apparently respectful, authoritative ‘Lives‘ that fill the library’s dustier shelves reveal, on closer inspection, interesting hidden narratives about the people who wrote them. Mandell Creighton’s biography was written partly to defend his posthumous reputation from his critics and yet, almost accidentally, his widow lets slip his shortcomings as husband and father. Although Eleanor Sidgwick seems to choose humble self-effacement in her memoir of her husband (by never directly referring to herself), her absence only reinforces the reader’s sense of her supreme self-confidence in the central role she played in their shared life and work towards women’s education in Cambridge.

From her family letters we know that Caroline Jebb was a discerning and enthusiastic reader of literary biographies, and she was influenced by Leslie Stephen, the Dictionary of National Biography’s first editor and, until his death in 1904, a friend of both Jebbs. Like Stephen, she wanted to avoid what Thomas Carlyle called a ‘Dryasdust’ approach to biography, in which the traditional biographer was at pains to present his or her subject in the most reverential light. J.A. Froude’s edition of Carlyle’s posthumous Reminiscences (1881) was criticized for being too revealing about the Carlyles’ unhappy marriage, but Caroline found it fascinating. ‘I can’t help thinking Froude must have slipped in thing or two unmarked by Carlyle for publication’, she told her sister.  ‘Would I have mended his trousers while he was off amusing himself with Lady Harriet Baring? I would not.’ She had misgivings about John Cross’s ‘not altogether attractive Life’ of his famous wife but it gave her an insight into George Eliot’s ‘enormous mental industry. To read about her work took my breath away’.

In her Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, published in 1907, Caroline did not attempt to disguise her own authorial presence or her less than perfect marriage. She places herself in the first paragraph by adding a detail that only she could know. Describing Richard’s happy childhood in County Dublin, she depicts him as a boy who was both quick-tempered and highly sensitive. ‘A look of disapproval from his mother made him miserable: to disappoint anyone who loved him was all his life intolerable to him. “Dick sorry; forgive your Dick” was a phrase not confined to childhood.’ Instantly we have an insight into the Jebbs’ marriage: his quick temper and remorse; her amused tolerance. She suppresses information about his tendency to drink too much (which contributed to his poor health), but later in the book she  is humorous about his inability to manage money. ‘He never knew how much he had with him, or counted his change at railway stations’ she writes. ‘It filled him with a sort of disgust when less high-minded people – his wife to wit – assumed the existence of dishonesty’.

We get the impression of a real marriage with real arguments, and a man who, for all his achievements, was not always easy to live with. As Richard himself wrote in 1905, even Bacchylides suffered from ‘pensive melancholy’ sometimes, and some people might have considered Sophocles’s Ajax to be a bad loser.

Sources: Caroline Jebb, Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (Cambridge University Press, 1907); Mary Reed Bobbitt With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Dining Club, 1890

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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

An invasion of croquet

I was not discovering that my creed was false, but that I had never really believed it.

(Leslie Stephen, National Review, October 1903)

Long before he married and had children (including writer Virginia Woolf and artist Vanessa Bell), Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge from 1854 until 1864. During his ten years there, he wrote a series of affectionate and sardonic essays about university life, published anonymously in 1865 in a little book called Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don.

In the first chapter, Stephen describes Trinity Hall as ‘the ideal of a college’, with its ancient cloisters and courts surrounded by tall trees, organ music drifting through the air and the sounds of high-spirited young men making their way to lectures, as they had done for centuries. Now this scholarly idyll was under threat: women were encroaching on its hallowed ground.

We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls, but threatened by an invasion of croquet, for female influence is slowly but surely invading our cloisters. Whether, like the ivy that gathers upon our ancient walls, it may ultimately be fatal to their stability, remains yet to be seen.

The University of Cambridge had been an all male, religious institution since it was founded in 1513. Students and academic Fellows lived, studied, taught and dined together as celibates in their colleges (in terms of marriage at least – prostitutes were a thriving town business, apparently). Leslie Stephen claimed that during the fourteen years he spent at Cambridge, first as a student, then a fellow, the only two women he ever spoke to were his Bedder (college cleaner) and the Master’s wife.

Leslie Stephen, ca. 1860

The young Leslie Stephen was a tall, athletic figure, a keen rower and an early member of the Alpine Club; he was celebrated for his coaching of the college boat, and once walked 50 miles from Cambridge to London on a hot summer’s day, simply to have evening dinner at his club. He became politically active in the 1860s and, unlike most of his peers, a vocal supporter of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. But he was also conservative in his dread at seeing women trampling on his college’s precious velvet turf, fearing that the university wives would break up Cambridge’s exclusively male scholarly world: ‘a married fellow will, I fear, oftener think more of his wife than his college’.

He gave up his Trinity Hall chapel services in 1862 following his loss of faith. “When I ceased to accept the teachings of my youth, it was not so much a process of giving up beliefs, as of discovering that I had never really believed,” he said (Maitland, 133). He decided he could no longer stay in Cambridge, with its close ties to the Church of England, and moved to London, where he began a new career as a writer and journalist, and co-founded the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885.

After his marriage to Harriet (Minny) Thackeray in 1867, Stephen also changed his mind about women at Cambridge as dramatically he had changed it about religion. He no longer believed that married fellows would mean the end of Trinity Hall, telling his friend, the Classicist Richard Claverhouse Jebb, that he was glad that the college’s ‘idiotic rule of celibacy’ was gradually being dropped. Stephen even formed a lasting friendship with Richard’s American wife, Caroline Lane Jebb, even though one of the first things Caroline did in Cambridge was to plan her very own croquet lawn.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 2021, all rights reserved

Sources: ‘Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; F.W. Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (Duckworth, 1906); Leslie Stephen Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don (MacMillan, 1865); Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber, 1960)

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Leslie Stephen: An invasion of croquet’ (date accessed)