Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)


1915 portrait of Lettice Ramsey (née Baker) by Frances Baker ©Newnham College, reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College.

A young woman wearing a red blouse leans against a balcony railing. Her head is tilted and her brown eyes are pensive, and there’s something resolute about her expression.  In the background is a landscape that has become familiar to viewers of this year’s BBC drama series Normal People: the light-filled west of Ireland coastline. As a small child Lettice Ramsey’s English parents moved to Rosses Point estuary in County Sligo where her father Cecil managed an oyster farm. When he died suddenly, her mother Frances Baker took her two young daughters a few miles south to live in the village of Ballysadare (pictured here). She had trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, and her paintings were displayed and sold in exhibitions in Ireland and the UK. She painted this portrait of seventeen-year old Lettice in 1915 (which can be seen on Art UK’s website here), when she was about to travel to England to board at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school in Hampshire. The painting suggests Lettice’s feelings of sadness at leaving her home in Ireland, and her determination to succeed.

Last year this beautiful portrait was extensively restored by conservator Polly Saltmarsh before being displayed at Cambridge University Library as part of its “Rising Tide” exhibition https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide. The determined-looking girl in the painting went on to study moral sciences at Newnham College in Cambridge from 1918 until 1921, and would later pick up a camera to become one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s.

Yet it’s probably fair to say that Lettice Ramsey is still better known for her husband than for her contribution to photography. Frank Ramsey was the brilliant mathematician, philosopher and economist who, as an eighteen-year-old student at King’s College Cambridge, helped to translate Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into English in 1921. Lettice Baker was five years older than him and Newnham’s star student when they first met in 1920. It was at a meeting of the Cambridge Heretics society, where Lettice was Treasurer and Frank gazed at her, too shy to speak. He wrote in his diary that Miss Baker was “very beautiful and rather nice.”

They began a love affair in 1924, when he was a King’s fellow and she had returned to Cambridge to work at the University’s Psychological Laboratory. They married in August 1925, had two daughters and a relationship that was happy if unconventional (neither believed that love meant exclusivity, and Lettice thought jealousy about sexual matters was reprehensible). Tragically, Frank died of liver disease in 1930, aged just twenty-seven. Cheryl Misak, the author of a new biography Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (OUP 2020) is convinced that he caught Weil’s disease while swimming in the River Cam in what was an unusually warm October. (There’s an excellent discussion about Frank Ramsey in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking with Shahidha Bari – with a recording of Lettice’s voice halfway through. )

In 1932, Lettice Ramsey’s lover Julian Bell invited her to his family home at Charleston in Sussex to meet his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell. There Ramsey took informal photographs of Virginia Woolf playing with her young niece Angelica Bell in the sunshine; Woolf in turn took a snap of Lettice standing in her summer dress and one of the distinctive necklaces she often wore, holding what looks like an early Leica camera (this photograph appears in Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury). The National Portrait Gallery in London has several of these portraits, and in 2012 ran an exhibition called ‘The Bloomsbury Poet and the Cambridge Photographer: Julian Bell and Lettice Ramsey”.

The fact that her mother Frances Baker was able to earn a living through her painting may have contributed to Ramsey’s own conviction that she too could support her young family by combining her artistic and business skills. On a summer holiday in Dorset with her two daughters in 1932, she met Helen Muspratt, ten years her junior, who owned a small photographic studio in Swanage. It was a life-changing encounter for them both. In her excellent book Face: Shape and Angle (2016), Helen Muspratt’s daughter Jessica Sutcliffe describes how Ramsey, almost on the spur of the moment, asked Muspratt to join her on a new venture. The photographic studio of “Ramsey & Muspratt” (note the ampersand) opened on St Andrews Street in Cambridge later that year. The owner of their main professional rival, Palmer Clark (the town’s photographer since 1867) predicted that “those two ladies won’t last six months.” But “Ramsey & Muspratt” was so successful that after a couple of years Lettice and Helen bought Palmer Clark’s studio on Post Office Terrace for £600.[i]

The two women turned what was little more than a collection of old sheds in an overgrown yard into a purpose-built studio and shop, while the outhouse were using for developing and printing. Lettice asked her friend Wittgenstein for advice on painting the studio’s woodwork, as he had helped to design his sister’s house in Vienna in 1925. “If it is good paint it white,” he told her. “If it is bad paint it black.” Ramsey and Muspratt’s studio became a stylishly modern space. In 1937 a student journalist in Cambridge’s Granta magazine said it was “like one of René Claire amid Paris rooftops” which reflected Lettice Ramsey’s personal style. “Hers is the photography of originality… She does not need the old-fashioned curtained room, heavy arc lamps and elaborate watch-for-the-dickybird camera.” [ii] There is a rare photograph, probably by Muspratt, of Ramsey in the Cambridge studio here.

Lettice and Helen worked as an equal partnership, and as Granta wrote, “They prefer to take people naturally” taking turns to work in the studio and the darkroom. They always signed their portraits democratically as “Ramsey & Muspratt” even after Helen Muspratt opened a separate studio in Oxford in 1937. “Helen had the know-how and I had the connections,” Ramsey modestly recalled of the period.  Throughout the 1930s many of the undergraduates photographed by Ramsey and Muspratt in Cambridge and Oxford would become very well known: Dorothy Hodgkin who in 1964 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (still the only British woman scientist to be awarded a Nobel) and Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who would later become infamous as Soviet spies. In 1932 Lettice Ramsey photographed the ‘Apostles‘, including Sir Anthony Blunt. “All intellectuals in Cambridge were Communists at the time”, Ramsey recalled. “We had great hopes, but then were gradually let down.”[iii]

Many of these portraits are now in the National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Ramsey & Muspratt collection. Both women were also keen to push the boundaries of photography as an art form, and were fascinated by Man Ray’s photographic experiments (it seems they were unaware of Lee Miller’s work). They discussed solarisation techniques in the studio’s darkroom with their Cambridge scientist friend, J.D. Bernal, and experimented with different styles, as Sutcliffe describes in her book (There is a 1935 portrait of Elanor Singer on Peter Loft’s website here.)

Ramsey & Muspratt gained an international reputation during this time, and featured regularly in Photography magazine. In 1936 the editor praised the duo for not following the lucrative route of becoming London society photographers: “Though they are too modest to claim it for themselves, Ramsey & Muspratt hold an important place in photography. For they are forcing the new idea, the modern spirit to the fore… Miss Ramsey will tell you “We are fortunate in having Cambridge as a field, as we get a lot of young people to photograph: undergraduates, who like experimenting in light and treatment.”[iv]

Helen Muspratt and Lettice Ramsey had a close friendship that lasted a lifetime, across two university cities, that continued long after their professional association ended in 1947. After Muspratt married and settled in Oxford, she like Lettice was her family’s main breadwinner, so after the war their experimental photography of the 1930s was abandoned for the “bread and butter” business of wedding and university photography. This might explain why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes so disliked their 1956 “official” wedding photos taken by Ramsey, which Plath complained resembled “passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting” (see my previous blog post here.)

Family photograph of Lettice Ramsey in the 1960s, with kind permission of Stephen Burch. Not to be reproduced without permission.

In the 1960s Lettice Ramsey often returned to the west of Ireland, where this photograph was taken (a rare appearance – she was usually behind the camera, her grandson Stephen Burch recalls). “We had a number of family holidays there in the 1960s, the first of which in 1963 marked the start of my interest in birding” Burch writes. A selection of Ramsey & Muspratt portraits and family photographs, along with other information, features on his website here.

In 1969, at the age of 71, Lettice Ramsey took her camera to Phnom Penn and Siem Reap, unconcerned about the threat of war in Cambodia. When she was forbidden to enter the country as a professional photographer, she obtained another passport in which she described herself as “housewife” and coolly carried on taking photographs (“I took hundreds,” she told friends). A year later she climbed the scaffolding on King’s College Chapel to photograph the stained glass windows, and was unconcerned when she was accidentally locked in overnight. She reluctantly retired on her 80th birthday in 1978, and sold her Cambridge studio. She had hoped that it would continue as a working studio, Burch told me, but the next owner was not successful. He sold the studio and extensive archive to Peter Lofts who owns the copyright to almost all Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs.

That year, the two women were photographed in their respective Oxford and Cambridge studios by John Lawrence-Jones for a Sunday Times article called ‘The Photographers of Golden Youth’ by Francis Wyndham. This was the first time since the 1930s that their work had been recognized in the national media, and the Sunday Times magazine featured a range of their most famous (and infamous) subjects.

Lettice Ramsey died in 1985, so did not live to see the recognition belatedly given to Ramsey & Muspratt’s achievements as women photographers. Their photographs featured in a Channel 4 programme, ‘Five Women Photographers’ in 1986, and Helen Muspratt’s work was highlighted in a major exhibition at the Bradford Museum of Film and Photography, reassessing the work of 20th-century female photographers, which toured the country for two years. In 2015 the portrait photographer Jane Bown went to Dorset to take Muspratt’s photograph for the Observer. It was a shame, as Jessica Sutcliffe writes, that Lettice was not around to enjoy the excitement. “She, of all people, would have enjoyed the attention, appreciation, and, most of all, the accompanying parties”.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 3 July 2020 (all rights reserved)


[i] Jessica Sutcliffe Face: Shape and Angle, Helen Muspratt Photographer (Manchester University Press, 2016), p.50.

[ii] Quoted in Sutcliffe, p.50.

[iii] Quoted in Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert Guy Burgess: the spy who knew everyone (2016)

[iv] January 1936: quoted in Sutcliffe, p.63.

SOURCES: My warm thanks to Stephen Burch, Laura Dennis, Maggie Humm, Peter Lofts, Sara Rawlinson and Polly Saltmarsh. Thanks also to my helpful Twitter contacts in tracking down Lettice Ramsey information: Paul Bird @singleaspect; Dr Barbara @adoptanovel; and Julia Abel Smith @jabelsmith.

Stephen Burch’s website ‘Stephen Burch’s Birding and Dragonfly website’

Peter Lofts’ ‘Lofty Images’ website, with many restored Ramsey & Muspratt prints available for sale

Jan Marsh, ‘ Pioneering photographer who made her mark in naturalistic portraiture and social documentary’. Obituary of Helen Muspratt, Guardian, 11 Aug 2001

Guardian photo essay: ‘Helen Muspratt: the camera of a communist radical’

Jean Mc Nicol ‘All this love business’ London Review of Books, January 2013

Cheryl Misak Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (OUP 2020) 

“Mrs. Lettice Ramsey.” Obit. The Times (30 July 1985): 12.

Sara Rawlinson, photographer, who last year went on a cherry-picker to take photos of King’s College chapel: see online photography exhibition

Polly Saltmarsh, Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation

Frances Spalding Vanessa Bell: Portrait of the Bloomsbury artist (Tauris Parke, 2018)

Charles Saumaurez Smith writes about his family’s Ramsey & Muspratt collection on his blog here

Jessica Sutcliffe Face: Shape and Angle, Helen Muspratt Photographer (Manchester University Press, 2016)

The wedding photos: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Lettice Ramsey (part 1)


Photograph of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Lettice Ramsey, © Peter Lofts Photography. Used with permission of Peter Lofts Photography. Not to be reproduced without permission.

A blogpost about the Bloomsday wedding of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956, and the “official” wedding photos taken six months later by Lettice Ramsey, of the Cambridge and Oxford photographic studio ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’. Part 2 is about why these unloved portraits were hidden away for over 50 years. A related post about Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey will follow, with a full list of sources and acknowledgements.

It poured with rain on 16 June 1956, the day that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes got married at St George’s Holborn in London. Plath and Hughes chose Bloomsday to honour the date that James Joyce first walked out with Nora Barnacle in 1904, and later set his novel Ulysses (1922). For Plath, even the damp weather increased the romantic literary associations that made her wedding so wonderful. She describes  “standing with the rain pouring outside in that dim little church saying the most beautiful words in the world as our vows, with the curate as second witness and the dear Reverend, an old, bright-eyed man (who lives right opposite Charles Dickens’ house!) kissing my cheek, and the tears falling down from my eyes like rain – I was so happy with my dear, lovely Ted.”

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had first met in Cambridge just four months before, at a party to celebrate the first issue of the student literary journal St. Botolph’s Review. Plath was a second-year student on a Fulbright scholarship at Newnham College while Hughes, a former Pembroke student, was doing various jobs in London to make ends meet while trying to get his poems published. They had discussed moving to America together and getting university teaching jobs after she finished her degree, but getting married before then was out of the question.  

Everything changed within hours of Plath’s mother Aurelia arriving in England on 13 June 1956. Over supper it was decided: the wedding would take place while she was in London. During the next two days Plath and Hughes got a special (expensive) licence (“from the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less”, as she told her brother Warren) and dashed around the shops with Aurelia to buy gold rings and new shoes and trousers for Hughes. There was no time to try on wedding dresses, and very little money left over, but fortunately Aurelia had packed in her suitcase exactly the right thing: “a lovely pink knitted suit dress”, which “intuitively” she had never worn herself, Sylvia told Warren. So that was what she wore on her wedding day, with “a pink hair ribbon and a pink rose from Ted”, while he, over his smart new clothes, wore his battered old black corduroy jacket.

“Our only sorrow was that you weren’t there,” she told her brother two days later. Her letter brims with with such happiness and excitement, it’s hard to believe she felt any sorrow at all. But their marriage was “a huge and miraculous secret”, she warned him. No one outside the family must know about it. She and Ted were both “poverty-stricken” and worried that, if word got out, she might lose her funding and earn the disapproval of Newnham (“the Victorian virgins wouldn’t see how I could concentrate on my studies with being married to such a handsome virile man, the Fulbright, etc., etc.”). So they planned to live apart until June 1957, when they would have another wedding at the Plath family’s Unitarian Church in Wellesley, followed by “a huge reception for all our friends and relations who will be informed this fall that Ted and I are engaged”.  

But their carefully planned, fictional version of that academic year – advised closely by Aurelia – did not last past October 1956. Plath and Hughes felt miserable about not being able to live together, and decided that they would take the risk of telling the authorities that they were married. Writing from Cambridge to her mother in Wellesley, Plath skitters between hesitancy and resolution. One day she suggests that her mother could tell friends and relations in America “Ted got a job in London and we felt it ridiculous not to get married here and now” and appeals for guidance: “Do help me through this with advice and opinions.” The following day she tells Aurelia firmly: “We are married and it is impossible for either of us to be whole or healthy apart”.

External events in October 1956 might have helped to Plath to resolve what she called her “private crisis” without her mother’s assistance. On 1 November she wrote to Aurelia about “the huge crisis aroused by Britain’s incredible and insane bombing of Egypt”. Reading in The Guardian about the conflict over the Suez Canal made Plath boil with anger.  “The British arrogance – that old, smug, commercial colonialism – alive still among the Tories, seems inexcusable to me.” Rather than following a carefully choreographed pattern to please her mother and her friends, Plath decided to live the life she wanted.

Once she was honest about her marriage, the crisis was resolved quickly. Her college tutor Dorothea Krook-Gilead turned out not to be the prudish ogre that she had feared, and the Fulbright Commission were positively encouraging. Plath and Hughes’ money worries eased slightly when Hughes got a job teaching at a boys’ school in Cambridge (Coleridge Secondary Modern School for Boys on Radegund Road, which later combined with the girls’ school to become Coleridge Community College). He found a flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, near Grantchester Meadows in Newnham village, where they would live together after Plath’s term ended.

With the marriage no longer a secret, Plath becomes matter-of-fact with her mother about practical arrangements. “Item: Do write “married recently” in our marriage announcement and say after December 7 ‘the couple will be at home at 55 Eltisley Avenue, Cambridge, England.’ I’d rather not even have a politic untruth in print about the date.” She discusses where wedding gifts “of a bulky or house-furnishing nature” can be sent. The sensible tone could hardly be more different from how she felt on Bloomsday, almost six months previously. “Thanks for the money,” she tells Aurelia briskly towards the end of November, “we’ll have a good picture taken this vacation, you may be sure”.

Plath was pleasing her mother by having a set of studio photographs taken of herself and Ted Hughes, so that Aurelia would have something to show her friends. There would be no grand wedding reception to impress them with, but at least there would be a set of commemorative photographs taken by the prestigious English firm of Ramsey & Muspratt. Aurelia Plath had paid for the best, but that did not mean that Plath or Hughes would be happy about them.

On 20 December 1956, Plath sent her mother a Christmas card along with samples of the photographs.

Well, here are enclosed a few of the best of the grisly proofs; Ted and I really don’t like them, considering ourselves much more beautiful — these are more like passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting; in fact Ted hates them all. But I am sending them on to you until we have something better done, which we will do soon — this lady was an expensive crook.   

Lettice Ramsey – the woman that Plath described as “an expensive crook” – ran the Cambridge studio of the successful photographic partnership ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’ from 1932 until 1978. Her professional partner Helen Muspratt worked from their Oxford studio. Sixty of their relaxed and perceptive portraits dating mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, including of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle, are in the National Portrait Gallery (see the NPG collection here). Helen Muspratt, famous for her experimental solarisation techniques, once said that for all their celebrated portraits, weddings were Ramsey & Muspratt’s bread-and-butter work.

“I had a rule: four minutes by the church clock,” she said. “Wedding photos are easily spoiled by keeping the couple posing far too long.”

In Part 2 I say more about this “wedding” photograph of Plath and Hughes, and why it features on the cover of the recent reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta, 2020).

©Ann Kennedy Smith 16 June 2020 (all rights reserved)

How to write a biography

Virginia-Woolf

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) had already overturned accepted conventions that all biographies should be serious, worthy, and long; before that, the Dictionary of National Biography, co-founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen, also introduced a new approach to writing short lives. Today there are lots of inventive and imaginative ways to write a biography. As Michael Holroyd, the great biographer of Lytton Strachey, said in 2011: “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

About a year ago I started compiling a list of the biographies that changed my own thinking about what biography and life-writing can do. Now I have put together my personal ‘top twenty’ out of these, in a strand I called ‘Life of the day’: here they are listed in no particular order. At Number 20 is the revived digital edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, constantly updated, illustrated and with more focus on women’s lives than ever (available online in public libraries; information about the latest update here). Leslie Stephen might not recognize his original Victorian creation that was published in multiple heavy volumes, but Virginia Woolf would surely approve.

  1. Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997), showing new ways of combining scrupulous research,  brilliant writing and inventive structure: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” (Lee)
  2. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial, 1985) – a highly influential and inspiring book about travelling in the footsteps of your biographical subject: “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway.” (Holmes)
  3. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983) is a classic study of love and power, soon to be reissued by Daunt Books: ‘If we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’
  4. A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (Faber& Faber, 1965) by Alethea Hayter is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes the searing personal crises of a group of writers and artists over one suffocatingly hot summer.
  5. A Suppressed Cry by Victoria Glendinning (1969; reissued by Virago with a new introduction in 1995): the heartbreaking story of Newnham College, Cambridge student Winnie Seebohm’s short life. ‘I could, had I waited, have written a longer and different book. It might not have been a more telling one. Too much information can blur the issues.’ (Glendinning)
  6. Marianne Thornton, 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) by EM Forster. A biography of the great-aunt who helped him to become a writer, and Forster’s only published memoir: my Slightly Foxed essay is here. The Times critic observed that ‘Mr. E. M. Forster, one of the most reticent of authors, has adopted an unusual way to tell us something about himself’
  7. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1990): “This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air.”
  8. Janet Malcolm’s brilliant and acerbic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993): “The biographer at work… is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house.”
  9. Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber& Faber, 1996) opened my eyes to the fascinating woman overlooked by most of Tennyson’s biographers: ‘I have always been interested in the lives of nineteeth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.’ (Thwaite)
  10. Frances Spalding’s sensitive, imaginative and scrupulously researched Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill, 2001): ‘running through her work, both her art and her writing, is a deep sense of the importance of life, and a reverence for the texture and fabric of the everyday world.’ (Spalding)
  11. Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber 2008): ‘Dorothy walked out of the life that she and others expected of her.’
  12. Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Cape, 2003): ‘Darwin was one of the most human of men … his biography is in part the biography of Victorian family life – of what it was like to make and live with science.’
  13. Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2010) is about the tragedy and triumph of great economists’ lives 1850-1950 (especially good on Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall and Beatrice Webb).
  14. John Aubrey, My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2016) by Ruth Scurr: “Because I chose to write Aubrey’s life in the form of a first person diary, I had to get as close to him as I could, despite the passage of time”
  15. Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (Virago, 2017) Lyndall Gordon’s group biography of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: ‘All were readers before they became writers, which is to say each heard the one before her in a chain of making.’
  16. A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is an enjoyable, beautifully written book; I wrote about it here. Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work.’
  17. Jenny Uglow’s delightful, beautifully illustrated Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, 2017): ‘If we follow him across land and sea, to the borderlands of self, can we see where the art and nonsense are born?’
  18. Combining research, parody, diaries, interviews, lists and wicked gossip, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is a skilful, experimental and very funny biography.
  19. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (HarperCollins 2005), the heartbreaking life of a homeless “chaotic” Cambridge man, told with sympathy and humour: ‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes.”‘
  20. The revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now in its 58th update with 61,184 articles and 11,724 portraits, researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London. The ODNB has an increasing number entries on women (making up past oversights), and I’m proud to have contributed three of these (about the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Martin Ward) in the past three years.

 

An invasion of croquet

A new version of one of my first blogposts – about the father of Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen’s years as a fellow at Cambridge. He objected to fellows getting married, but later changed his mind.

Ann Kennedy Smith

Long before he became famous as the co-founder of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885 (and as the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell), 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 Cambridgeby 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…

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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)

kathleen-lyttelton-portrait-older

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