Nasty forward minxes

I don’t normally write here about what I’m reading, but I do read, incessantly, and I recently came across a book that is worthy of wider attention, A Newnham Anthology, edited by Ann Phillips.

To most people Cambridge means King’s College Chapel. In fact, that’s merely the public face of an institution with many private ones. This book was commissioned to mark the centenary of Newnham College in 1971, and was eventually published in 1979. My library copy had a dedication inside by Lady Archer, and a further pencil annotation in a rougher hand, ‘Wife of Jeffrey’. I’d have liked the second writer to elaborate further.

Newnham was the second college to admit women, after Girton. Its alumnae include the likes of Joan Bakewell, Mary Beard, Iris Murdoch, Rosalind Franklin, Jane Goodall, Emma Thompson, A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble. This book amounts to a documentary history of Newnham told by its members in the form of recollections, diary entries, letters home, poetry, and official documents and statutes.

It’s possible to view the University of Cambridge as a microcosm of British society, albeit a skewed one. Over the course of the century covered by the book, women slowly gain emancipation, initially allowed to attend lectures under sufferance, granted permission in 1881 to sit exams but not to receive degrees for passing them, and admitted as full members of the University only in 1948. Times have changed, I think, but it’s embarrassing to reflect on how recently the barriers came down. My own was one of the first all-male colleges to admit women, but that wasn’t until 1972. Today there are three women-only colleges, including Newnham; all the rest are co-educational.

‘Nasty forward minxes’ was Professor Adam Sedgwick’s epithet for female students seeking admission to Cambridge. It is true that women were met with much resistance, only permitted to attend lectures (to attend anything, it seems) if chaperoned, segregated from male students by having to sit at the front of the lecture hall. More than one graduate remarks on Arthur Quiller-Couch’s spiteful habit of beginning his lectures pointedly with, ‘Gentlemen!’

Individuals, though, gained small victories:

I always considered at the time that Newnham and Girton had been accepted as official colleges of the University. I put it to the test one day. Trinity was giving a concert in the chapel by invitation to members of the University. I and another student made up our minds to go. We streamed through the quad with all the swells, and at the door the verger, or someone in authority, said, ‘What college?’ ‘Newnham,’ I said firmly, and we passed in. Perhaps I was right, perhaps, however, the verger wasn’t sure, and thought it best to let things go.

K.M. Rathbone (Dixon, matriculated 1880)

There is a sense that in the early years of Newnham students were compelled to strive particularly hard for excellence to justify their existence, being very much second-class citizens within the University. That may also account partly for the heavy-handedness of Newnham’s own authorities:

No cinemas – but there was the New Theatre in Regent Street, viewed with stern disapproval, though students of English were allowed to go to Shakespearian plays. I remember one occasion when a friend and I had taken tickets for The Merchant of Venice and at the last moment the programme was altered and a non-Shakespearian play substituted. The College authorities heard of the change and a don was sent forthwith to the theatre and we were ignominiously extracted from our seats just before the curtain went up.

M.A. Quiggin (Hingston, 1899)

Alongside the struggles to assert themselves, the early stories of friendship and ritual are charmingly old-fashioned. The practice of proposing, or ‘propping’, was widespread for some years, that is, proposing the use of first names to another student. ‘I have proposed to Miss Mutch,’ one student writes. Until the acceptance of your proposal, everyone was a Miss. The origin of the cocoa party amused me:

When the College was still young a benefactor left a sum of money to provide a lady’s maid for every five young ladies, but most of the young ladies had no idea what to do with such a creature, and the benefaction was changed into half a pint of milk to be drunk at night by each young lady on finishing her studies: hence the custom of giving cocoa-parties, the guests bringing their own milk and the hostess supplying food, often of a very indigestible nature. I can remember eating extravagantly buttered muffins and cream buns between ten and eleven at night.

E. Terry (1902)

The variety of stories and voices in the book means there is little chance of the reader getting restless, other than in the sections written by boating bores that presumably must appeal to someone but not to me. On reading one piece I empathised immediately, thinking, this is a real writer and I recognise these experiences as mine as well as hers, and was delighted to turn the page and find the author was Catherine Storr, whose books I have always loved. She was convinced she was a fraud because of having had the good fortune to be asked about Edward Thomas at interview, whose poetry she had read recently. With me, it was a mention of Thomas Adès that I thought got me in; I later found out my Bach chorale harmonisation had also been good, which made me feel less of an impostor.

Newnham clearly is a place held in great affection by many of its alumnae, and that may be why the most memorable pieces are by students who had a miserable time there. K.A. Rees (1929) was a streetwise girl from a London state school. Joining the University Labour Club was a sobering experience:

I remember once listening to an impassioned talk by some good soul, who was horrified because there were households in Britain where the only hot water was obtained by boiling kettles. I’d been filling my weekly bath that way all my life.

Work might have made it all worth while but, alas, there too I’d seen it all before. I was reading English, and I’d already at school achieved London University Intermediate B.A. standard. Now I was back to an elementary course in English Literature, designed for the products of the public schools who, as far as I could see, had read absolutely nothing.

Well, that was my Newnham. I was lonely, bored, frustrated, humiliated, insecure, frightened, resentful. And I didn’t stage a sit-in, nor a demo; never so much as threw a tomato; just sulked my way through three long years.

The likes of Rees were trailblazers, and provide an important corrective to the image (still true to some extent) of Cambridge as a place of privilege, scarves and toast. As she observes, she was then a minority of one but would now be in the majority. The state school students are taking over. (Well, in my dreams.)

I’ll end with a longer excerpt, from N.S. Rinsler (Lee, 1946), that provides a delightful portrait of Miss Edith Chrystal, one of the many formidable women among the Newnham Fellowship, and of the changing attitudes to men within Newnham. The days of chaperoning were long gone by this time.

During the second term of that first year, I was laid low, one cold, wet afternoon, by fever and a miserable cough. I retired to bed, hoping that the certain young man would assume that my failure to arrive for tea could only be due to an emergency, such as the sky falling on Newnham. At about half past six he arrived in my room, examined me with the eye of an experienced medical student, and pronounced me unfit for Hall; he would return shortly, he said, and make me some supper. He returned in due course with his one egg (they were still rationed in 1947), and proceeded to make up my decidedly ineffective coal fire – the room was big, the grate small, and our coal ration dreadfully inadequate for the damp Cambridge winter. It was at this moment that Miss Chrystal, having learned from one of my friends that I did not seem well at lunch-time, came up to see how I was. Her appearance was awe-inspiring. Visitors were not allowed in College from tea-time until eight o’clock, when they were admitted only if their names had been signed in the book. My visitor was out of hours, unrecorded and male; I was tucked up in bed. Miss Chrystal’s intelligent eye surveyed the cosy domestic scene, and she invited my nurse to step downstairs to her room.

My mind, admittedly feverish, ranged wildly among visions of expulsion, public disgrace, and official letters to the young man’s Tutor, while my imagination conceived only too easily what Miss Chrystal might be saying downstairs. In ten minutes the young man returned. ‘She’s wonderful,’ he told me. ‘She gave me another egg so that we could both have one, and she lent me her egg-poacher; and she says I’m to put these logs on the fire because the room isn’t nearly warm enough for an invalid. Oh yes, and she signed me in the book.’ Humanity most skilfully combined with discipline – that was exactly Miss Chrystal. My nurse returned the poacher on his way out that evening. When I next saw Miss Chrystal, some two days later, she merely remarked in answer to my thanks: ‘The poacher was washed up very well. I should marry that one if I were you, he’s been brought up properly.’ As a matter of fact, I had already decided to do so; but I was oddly glad of Miss Chrystal’s approval; and we are both still grateful for her kindness.


Cambridge Newnham” by Azeira at English Wikipedia – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


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One Response to “Nasty forward minxes”

  1. The 1938 Club: Three Guineas / Virginia Woolf | Somewhere Boy Says:

    […] a vote about allowing female students to receive degrees (bringing back memories for me of this brilliant book). Or the shutting out of women from certain professions, notably the forces and the […]

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