The marvellous Mrs Marshall

I was delighted to be asked to write a guest post this month for the excellent Neglected Books website (‘where forgotten books are remembered’). My article about two ‘forgotten’ but beautifully written books – allowing us to experience the lived experience of women at Cambridge during the late Victorian era is republished below, with kind permission of Neglected Books.

It’s not hard to think of fiction set in Cambridge, from E.M. Forster’s Maurice (written in 1913-14, published posthumously in 1971) to Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamund Lehmann and, more recently, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us (2015). But I’m convinced that well-written nonfiction can bring an authentic story to light in a way that no novel can. During my research into Cambridge’s first women students, university wives and college tutors I’ve discovered there’s nothing like hearing their own voices in the form of memoirs and biographies based on their letters and diaries. Here I focus on two of these books.

Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember was published by Cambridge University Press, 1947. It’s a slim volume – only 50 pages long – with a jaunty introduction by the historian G.M. Trevelyan who writes:

If people who knew not the Victorians will absent themselves from the felicity of generalising about them for a while, and read this short book, they can then return to the game refreshed and instructed.

What I remember begins, as many good stories do, with a happy childhood. Mary’s was spent in a rose-covered country rectory, where her father Reverend Thomas Paley encouraged his daughters’ education: ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, she recalls. She moved to Cambridge in 1871 as one of the University’s earliest women students and one of the ‘first five’ at Newnham College; Girton College had begun two years previously. The idea that unmarried women could live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Paley Marshall said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’ at the time.

Soon after she arrived in Cambridge, she became fascinated by Political Economy because of Alfred Marshall’s lectures. He was ‘a great preacher’ who spoke passionately about the need for women’s equality in education and quoted from George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. With his encouragement, Mary was one of the first two women to sit for the University’s final year exams in 1874 and she became Newnham’s first residential lecturer.

By the mid-1870s the Pre-Raphaelite era of colour in dress and house decoration had dawned all over England. As Florence Ada Keynes later wrote: ‘Newnham caught the fever. We trailed about in clinging robes of peacock blue, terra-cotta red, sage green or orange, feeling very brave and thoroughly enjoying the sensation it caused’ (By-ways of Cambridge History, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1956, first published 1947). The college room that Mary studied and slept in was, like those of her students, papered in William Morris designs and hung with Burne-Jones prints. At the age of twenty-five she was that rare thing in Victorian times, an unmarried woman who lived independently from her parents and earned a good income doing a job she loved.

Then she and Alfred Marshall married and accepted posts at the newly founded University College, Bristol, where they taught and together published a textbook called The Economics of Industry (1879). Their working marriage seemed the ideal of an intellectual partnership that Mary had dreamed of, and What I Remember describes the happy years the Marshalls spent in Sicily and in Oxford before returning in 1885 to Cambridge. Alfred was made a Professor and published The Principles of Economics (1890) and Mary returned to her post at Newnham, where her inspiring teaching would have a great influence on one student: Winnie Seebohm.

‘This is the true story of a young woman who lived in the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign,’ Victoria Glendinning writes at the beginning of A Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter, her biography of Seebohm.

But do not be misled into thinking that because it is history it has nothing to do with you. 1885 is yesterday. It is probably tomorrow too.

The prize-winning biographer of Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell and Leonard Woolf, among others, Glendinning took as her first subject her Victorian great-aunt Winnie Seebohm, but the book is no less powerful for Seebohm’s obscurity. A Suppressed Cry was not much noticed when it was published in 1969 and it disappeared from view until it was reissued by Virago in 1995, with a new introduction by the author.

The issue at the heart of A Suppressed Cry is how a young woman from a close-knit Hertfordshire family rebelled against their loving claims on her and achieved her ambition to study at Cambridge. The Seebohms were linked to other Quaker clans in what Glendinning describes as ‘a tight genealogical spiral’ with banking and scholarly connections. Winnie’s father was the economic historian Frederic Seebohm, and she grew up with her siblings and invalid mother in an idyllic house called the Hermitage in rural Hitchin. Despite her obvious intelligence, Winnie was expected to be a ‘good daughter’, contented with flower-arranging and visiting her Quaker relations until a suitable husband was found for her. But she decided that ‘no woman (it is not my business to consider a man’s life) has any excuse for living a life that is not worth living’.

So, in 1885, at the age of 22, she took the gruelling Cambridge entrance exams and won a place at Newnham. A Suppressed Cry reproduces some of the touching letters and diary entries she wrote there. Winnie was thrilled with her college room, her new friends and the freedom to spend her days reading books and writing essays. She adored her tutors, particularly Mary Paley Marshall, who taught Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’. ‘She is a Princess Ida,’ Winnie told her sister, thinking of the heroine of Tennyson’s poem The Princess who founded a university for women.

She wears a flowing dark green cloth robe with dark brown fur round the bottom (not on the very edge) – she has dark brown hair which goes back in a great wave and is very loosely pinned up behind –very deep-set large eyes, a straight nose – a face that one likes to watch. Then she is enthusiastic and simple. She speaks fluently and earnestly with her head thrown back a little and her hands generally clasped or resting on her desk. She looks oftenest at the ceiling but every now and then straight at you.

Winnie wanted to become a teacher just like the marvellous Mrs Marshall, but her time as a student was heartbreakingly brief. After just six weeks at Cambridge, she fell ill and was brought back to the Hermitage to be nursed by her family. ‘How queer it looks to see everybody so leisurely here!’ Winnie wrote to her classmate Lina Bronner, confessing how she longed to return to Cambridge. ‘I imagine you lingering on dear Clare Bridge, and King’s spires will be looking grey and sharp against the sky.’  

Her kindly tutor Mary Paley Marshall also wrote to her. She was the only woman Winnie knew who seemed to have it all, combining fulfilling academic work with her role as a wife. ‘If she is the woman of the future, I am sure the world will do very well,’ Winnie wrote in her diary. It was one of the last things she wrote. She died after a severe asthma attack – though she may also have had undiagnosed anorexia – just a few weeks later. Expected from childhood to suppress her ambitions and put others’ needs first, Seebohm was, in Glendinning’s memorable description, ‘left stranded on the shores of the nineteenth century’.

Mary Paley Marshall’s married life was far from the ideal that Winnie perceived. In the early 1880s Alfred turned against the idea of women at Cambridge: ‘it is not likely that men will go on marrying, if they are to have competitors as wives’ he told LSE founder Beatrice Webb. He insisted that The Economics of Industry, the book he and Mary wrote together, should be pulped and in 1897 he voted against women being awarded Cambridge degrees. But unlike poor Winnie, Mary was a survivor and she had the final word. After Alfred’s death in 1924 she co-founded Cambridge University’s Marshall Library, and worked there for nearly twenty years; her portrait now hangs above the library staircase opposite his.  

What was left out of (or ‘forgotten’) in Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember is at least as interesting as what was put in; and the cheering counterbalance to Winnie Seebohm’s sad story is the continuing success of Newnham, which celebrates 150 years as a women’s college this year.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2021, all rights reserved.

With thanks to https://neglectedbooks.com/