A Room of Her Own: Newnham College 1874–1879
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter describes the Cambridge of 1874, the beginnings of university education for women, the obstacles and conflicts faced by the pioneers, notably Henry Sidgwick and John Stuart Mill. It discusses the formidable obstacles facing women students and their lack of academic preparation. Harrison was among the minority who opted to read for the Tripos, success in which was recognized by a certificate, not a degree. The chapter also describes social life at Newnham College; friendships; conflict with the principal, Anne Jemima Clough, over dress and deportment; Harrison's abortive attempt to stage a production, in Greek, of Euripides' Medea; the influence of books; her failure to be placed in the first class in the Tripos examinations; and subsequent failure to win a college Fellowship.
When Jane Harrison arrived in Cambridge in 1874 she found herself among a group of twenty women students from a variety of backgrounds, who were there for a variety of reasons. Of the thirteen in her year, most were, like Harrison, from the North of England or Scotland. 1 The majority were intending to become teachers or governesses, and went to Cambridge to take advantage of a new series of lectures which would enhance their qualifications. A few, more ambitious, were, like Jane, interested in following a course of studies similar to that taken by the men undergraduates. The women were not considered in any sense members of the university, nor was their presence even noticed by the university at large. With no access to libraries, laboratories, or examinations and not even a college of their own, permitted to attend only certain university lectures, no right to read for a degree, and barred by propriety from participating in the rich social life of the university, they had every reason to feel, as Harrison said, ‘like a peri outside Paradise’. Nevertheless, some significant privileges had recently been won for women; the door was open just a chink, and the hope of future gains buoyed their spirits. When Harrison went up she had the benefit of a scholarship (without which she could not even have considered the possibility of going to Cambridge), a place to live, and access to some lectures—either those offered specially for women or those that women were permitted to attend, chaperoned. Above all she had the counsel and encouragement of Henry Sidgwick.
Henry Sidgwick had achieved a double first in classics and mathematics at Cambridge in 1859, and had been elected a Fellow of Trinity College. He was tormented all his life with religious doubt; Maynard Keynes has written of him that ‘he never did anything but wonder whether Christianity was true (p. 35 ) and prove that it wasn’t and hope that it was’. 2 It is not fair to Sidgwick to allege that he never did anything else, since after resigning his Trinity Fellowship when he no longer felt able to subscribe to the Apostles’ Creed he remained as a lecturer in moral sciences and devoted his life to university reform. He worked for the abolition of celibacy and religious requirements for dons and of compulsory Latin and Greek for admission to the university. He campaigned to abolish the Poll, or Ordinary, degree, and was determined to see the range of degree subjects, which had hitherto consisted of classics, mathematics, and, more recently, law, history, theology, and moral sciences (philosophy), extended to include the natural sciences and English literature. With equal dedication he worked to make education accessible to all who could benefit from it, including women. His foremost achievement was the foundation of Newnham College.
The reforms that opened Cambridge to women had twin roots in the beginnings of extension education and in the Schools Inquiry Commission of 1864. Extension education had originally been conceived of as early as 1850 in order to bring lectures to the blue-collar worker of the day. 3 To this end university lecturers had been sent to give courses in various cities, particularly in the disadvantaged North of England, but in the event those who attended the lectures were mainly women. What had begun as a philanthropic venture aimed at benefiting the poor had revealed a new category of social need—women, in particular those of the upper classes, hungry for education and academic challenge, and eager to escape from the drawing room. The Schools Inquiry Commission, which had included in its report a consideration of the educational needs of girls, had urged that in large towns a series of lectures should be given to older pupils both at school and from private families. Out of this step grew the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women, whose purpose was to send university dons to give lectures in the provinces. Anne Jemima Clough, who was later to become the first principal of Newnham College, had played a part in these developments, first in securing that the terms of reference of the Schools Inquiry Commission be extended to include girls’ schools, and later in serving as secretary to the North of England Council. 4
Miss Clough knew from experience what it was to benefit from distance (p. 36 ) education, for her family had moved from Liverpool to South Carolina when she was a child, leaving the boys in England to attend school at Rugby. She had been encouraged during her years in America by letters from her brother, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, in which he had shared with her something of what he was learning at school. It was the only education she ever received.
In 1869 the question had been raised as to whether Cambridge should not go further than offering isolated lectures in the provincial towns. It was felt that an examination for women was needed in order to provide the extension students with some objective. Since the extension lectures were clearly meeting a very real need amongst women of the upper classes, could not a whole course of lectures be offered in Cambridge itself to prepare women for the examination? In December, 1869, a pivotal meeting took place in Cambridge in the drawing room of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, (sister of the doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson), a pioneer of women’s rights. Those present included Henry Sidgwick, James Stuart (the pioneer of extension education), Mr Markby (a member of the North of England Council), Prof. Benjamin Hall Kennedy (Regius Professor of Greek) together with his daughters Marion and Julia, and Prof. Maurice. They set up a committee and arranged a course of special lectures for women. 5 The classes could not, of course, be held in university buildings, but were given in a rented room in Trumpington Street. In addition to this, various university professors had for some time been willing to have women attend their lectures. Henry Sidgwick built on this foundation to persuade others to extend the same welcome to women, and by 1873 twenty-two out of a total of thirty-four professors consented, and a few years later the number grew to twenty-nine. St John’s College offered the use of its chemistry laboratory outside of regular hours. Mrs Fawcett launched an appeal for scholarship funds; John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor were among the first benefactors, contributing £40 a year for two years. A longer-term goal was the provision of a residence for students from outside Cambridge. 6
The scheme was not without its critics. Most strenuously opposed to the whole venture was Emily Davies, later Mistress of Girton. While sharing with Henry Sidgwick a passionate commitment to making higher education available for women, she was determined from the outset not to settle for anything less than total equality with men, and to her the very idea of a (p. 37 ) special examination for women was anathema, for she felt it would consign women eternally to a lower status than men. On the opposite side it was argued that the situation of women was different from men and that the existing examinations were unsuitable; the Cambridge Local Examination, to which women had recently been admitted, was of too low a standard for those intending to become teachers; on the other hand the Previous Examination, taken by all undergraduates, included compulsory papers in Latin and Greek. It seemed to Henry Sidgwick both unnecessary and impractical to impose such a requirement on all women desiring a Cambridge education. Moreover, Sidgwick was already involved in a campaign for the total reform of university education at Cambridge, part of which involved the abolition of compulsory Latin and Greek. Emily Davies conceded that it was unrealistic to expect women to read for the Honours degree, and proposed instead the Poll, or Ordinary degree—a degree which Sidgwick was campaigning to abolish altogether. A great deal of contention and bitterness arose over strategy, which finally led to the separate foundation of two women’s colleges. Miss Clough (like Miss Beale) did not share Miss Davies’s passionate conviction that the whole attitude of society towards women needed to be changed. Emily Davies held out for the principle that women must demand nothing less than complete equality of opportunity, and so must fight for the right to enter the same degree courses as men, and comply with all regulations (such as the stipulation concerning how much time may be taken in studying for the Tripos examinations). Henry Sidgwick felt that to take that position was to risk the failure of the whole venture, and that to seize whatever gains could be made, step by step, by a series of compromises, was more likely to succeed in the long run. In the end each position was vindicated in its own way. Both Emily Davies’s college at Hitchin, which later became Girton College, and Newnham College were a success, and with the gradual change in social attitudes the root of the conflict lessened in importance.
The lectures for women in Cambridge were an immediate success, with an attendance of between seventy and eighty the first year. Accommodation was now needed for women travelling from a distance. So it was that in 1871 Henry Sidgwick took a house at 74 Regent Street, furnished it at his own expense, and persuaded Anne Jemima Clough to preside. The communal life was not always easy: the five original students lived frugally in close quarters with Miss Clough, and there was a great deal of friction. 7
(p. 38 ) The housing scheme and the lecture scheme began as separate ventures, the housing initially being almost entirely the private venture of Henry Sidgwick. For its management Miss Clough had at her side a steering committee, composed mainly of wives of Cambridge dons. Their support was essential to the success of the project as they were able to mediate between Miss Clough and the students on the one hand, and traditional Cambridge society on the other. The demand for housing rapidly exceeded the available space, and for the first few years the Cambridge women students lived under difficult circumstances. By 1874, after two moves, it was clear that the women needed a hall of residence. The committee set about to raise funds. Miss Clough explained the need in a leaflet she wrote for distribution among friends, referring to the lectures as ‘a free-will offering of higher culture made to women by members of the University, to enable them to pass with credit the examination for women over eighteen’. The appeal found support, land was leased from St John’s College, Sir Basil Champneys was appointed as architect, and plans were drawn up for Newnham Hall. In the mean time temporary accommodation was found in two adjacent houses in Bateman Street.
Most of the women who came to Newnham arrived in Cambridge with no clear idea of what they wanted to study. By far the majority of them, rather than attempting a degree course, came with the intention of picking up what education they could, most of them governesses or teachers seeking to improve their credentials. Many of these stayed for only one or two terms, returning to their positions. Miss Clough would work out a course of study for each student on an individual basis. Henry Sidgwick’s personal interest in each student and his influence in the university at large made it possible to set up a curriculum of lectures and tutorials that were tailored to individual needs. Such a makeshift system had its advantages and disadvantages, the chief advantage being the flexibility that such an arrangement offered to women, very few of whom had the educational background to undertake the same course of studies as their male counterparts.
Of the first 221 students at Newnham in the 1870s, only about forty read for the degree examinations—the Tripos. 8 Unlike the students at Girton, the Newnham students were not tied to any timeframe in which to complete their studies. Henry Sidgwick had reservations about this ‘irregularity’, but Miss Clough, determined to prove that young women were capable of mastering (p. 39 ) academic studies, felt that they would be most likely to succeed if they were allowed to work in their own time. Women embarked on the degree course with no certainty that they would be able to take the Tripos examinations at all. (Indeed, one may wonder why an issue should have been made about ‘irregularities’ in fulfilling the requirements, since they were not awarded a degree in any case.) 9 Until 1881, when they gained the right to be examined for a certificate (not a degree), they were admitted to examinations only unofficially and by private arrangement with university lecturers who were willing to read their papers. Students thus had no guarantee that their achievements would ever be recognized in any way. The difficulties that the early women students faced were considerable. While Emily Davies’s insistence that her students complete exactly the same course as the men, under the same conditions, was vindicated in the success of her first students, she did not take into account the enormous emotional strain involved. One early Girton student groaned that very little allowance was made for their colossal ignorance of the subjects they were expected to know. Under the less stringent regime at Newnham, Jane Harrison, although in advance of nearly all her female contemporaries in her knowledge of Latin and Greek, still fell far behind the male undergraduates who had studied these subjects intensively in public schools from the age of 8, under teachers who themselves had a thorough grasp of the languages. Although by extra study and tutorials she caught up sufficiently to be able to read Greek and Latin fluently and with ease, and to do well in the Tripos examinations when she took them, she never felt confident when it came to philology, even in later years. At times she was overwhelmed with paralysing self-doubt. 10
Harrison was among the minority at that time who decided from the first to read for the Tripos. Alfred Marshall had tried to interest her in the moral sciences, but she was persuaded by Henry Sidgwick to read for the classical Tripos instead. 11 Classics, considered until the middle of the nineteenth century to be the core of a liberal education, was being challenged at this period by the introduction of the sciences and modern (p. 40 ) languages; nevertheless a disproportionate number of women still opted for classics. The focus was heavily on language (especially composition, including, optionally, verse composition) 12 and literature (mainly translation), with compulsory papers in philosophy, philology, and history. She was just too early to benefit from the ‘divided Tripos’ that was introduced in 1879, in which Part I was devoted to language and literature, with Part II offering a choice of subjects: philosophy, history, archaeology, and philology. Even after this reform, the linguistic requirements of Part I were a formidable hurdle for women. 13
To bring her students up to the necessary level of competence, Miss Clough also arranged for them to have individual tutorials. Harrison’s ‘coach’ was S. H. Butcher, Fellow of Trinity College (best remembered for his translation, with Andrew Lang, of Homer’s Odyssey). 14 She fell in love with him and was led to believe that he loved her in return and had intentions of proposing to her. However, she was called home in 1875 to nurse one of her younger sisters, Jessie, who had fallen ill with peritonitis. Jessie’s condition itself placed Jane under all the stress felt by a close relative during a terminal illness. The nursing was not pleasant: baths in oil and enemas were prescribed and Jane, who hated a sickroom and never had any stomach for the unsavoury aspects of nursing, had to cope. Jessie died on 23 April 1875, and for Jane the consequences were devastating. To the exhaustion of caring she now added bereavement. Jane had felt closer to Jessie than to any other of her sisters; in fact Jessie was the only one of her siblings for whom Jane had felt anything like sisterly love and had shown this by promising to pay the fees for her to attend Newnham. Desolate, Jane returned to Cambridge having missed a whole term. There she discovered that Henry Butcher was (p. 41 ) already engaged to Rose Trench. They were married and in 1876 moved to Oxford. 15
These events, enough to overwhelm anyone, brought Jane to an emotional breakdown. She turned to the arts for solace. Unable to study she poured out her emotions on the piano for hours on end, playing duets whenever possible, and finding an outlet in the romantic music of Chopin and Brahms, notably his Hungarian Dances. One of her contemporaries vowed she had never known anyone who so completely abandoned herself to music and beauty in every way, with tears pouring down her cheeks. Near the end of Harrison’s life, Hope Mirrlees expostulated at the ‘barbarous sacrifice’, angry at an ethic which regarded it as shocking for anyone with a mother or sisters to be nursed by a professional. Harrison spurned the criticism. ‘Of course I went’, she retorted. ‘Jessie needed me.’ Near the end of her life she told Mirrlees that she had learned that one never regrets having made a sacrifice. But it took her many years to recover from the disappointment.
While at Newnham Harrison formed some life-long friendships. Foremost among them was Ellen Crofts, cousin to Henry Sidgwick. Like Jane, Ellen came from Yorkshire and shared Jane’s sense of humour. She was appointed to the Newnham Staff in 1878, though she resigned on her marriage to Frank Darwin (third son of Charles Darwin and himself a botanist) in 1883. Ellen introduced Jane to the Darwin family, with whom she remained close friends all her life. Mary Paley, Harrison’s Scarborough friend, was just one month younger than Harrison and joined the staff a year after Harrison arrived, having come to Newnham straight from school. In 1877 Mary Paley married the economist Alfred Marshall, merged her life in his, and collaborated with his work. She taught first at Newnham, then went on with her husband to lecture in economics at Bristol (where she eventually received an honorary D. Litt. in 1928), and at Oxford. When he returned to Cambridge as Professor of Political Economy in 1885, she resumed her teaching at Newnham until 1908. Academically she pioneered, but socially, unlike Harrison, she had no desire to break with tradition by participating in serious discussion outside the lecture hall. When the question of degrees for women came up, Alfred Marshall was opposed. 16
In 1875 the students moved into a college of their own (Fig. 5 ). They now
I like to live spaciously, but rather plainly, in large halls with great spaces and quiet libraries. I like to wake in the morning with the sense of a great, silent garden round (p. 43 ) me…. If I had been rich I should have founded a learned community for women; … as it is, I am content to have lived many years of my life in a college. 18
The students were given the freedom to express themselves by choosing the wallpaper for their rooms. Mary Paley remembered how both she and Jane were carried away by the Pre-Raphaelite wave. They bought Edward Burne-Jones photographs and dressed accordingly. ‘We had our rooms papered with Morris papers (I remember hers was a dark jessamine and mine a light).’ 19 Similarly, another student reminisced how ‘a good many students wore aesthetic green gowns & the harmony of colours against the green and blue walls was quite delightful. Miss Harrison had a new dress much the colour of mine only even a better colour, so really she & Miss Richmond & Miss Wimbush should never be apart, their dresses harmonize so beautifully.’ 20 In a much-quoted incident the Pre-Raphaelite décor of Harrison’s room led on one occasion to a fainting fit when George Eliot came to the college, and visiting Harrison for a few minutes in her room, ‘she said in her shy, impressive way, “Your paper makes a beautiful background for your face.” The ecstasy was too much, and I knew no more.’ George Eliot spoke like a true aesthete; one of the principles of the movement was that a person should harmonize with the décor. 21
By breaking away from traditional forms of dress aesthetic women were proclaiming their liberation from traditional roles. At a time when ladies of society still laced themselves into stiff dresses for the drawing room, those who took up careers began to think of dress in terms of convenience and comfort. Burne-Jones’s limp ladies, who look so old-fashioned to us more than a hundred years later, were making an important social statement. We forget that simply not to wear a crinoline was to be liberated. The ‘tennis frock’ was a similar innovation. Recognizing that ‘tight stays and sleeves and tied-back skirts are incompatible with success in rowing or tennis’ women were demanding less constricting clothes for sports. It was fashionable to embroider them with the emblems of the movement. In the summer of 1880, one Cicely, a reader of The Queen, was advised that she ‘might embroider her bluish green art dress with peacock’s feathers, the pattern carried from the shoulder down both sides of the front of the dress over the side darts as in the newest style of tennis aprons’. 22 Mary Paley remembered how (p. 44 ) she and Jane were caught up in it all, sitting together in the evenings embroidering their tennis frocks, ‘hers with pomegranates and mine with Virginia Creeper’ as they talked freely on all subjects. 23 The aesthetic movement was more than a fashion: it was a new attitude to life.
House rules imposed strict limitations on the students’ life outside of the college. 24 During the Michaelmas and Lent terms the students were required to be in college at half-past six each evening; this was extended to half-past eight on Sundays and throughout the Easter term. It was natural that under such circumstances the secluded community of women soon developed its own social structure. At the tea parties and cocoa parties they held in their rooms intimacy grew as they talked on all subjects—‘Morris, both as a decorator & poet, & Deronda & the Mill on the Floss & Lord Lytton’s books & Thackeray and Jane Eyre & Dickens & all sorts of things’. 25 Mary Paley remembered visits to the town gymnasium once a week with Mrs Fawcett as a chaperon. 26 The letters written to her parents by one student, Mabel Malleson, provide a vignette of their social life: lawn tennis in the summer, with a Devonshire cream tea to celebrate a tournament; music (a Brahms quartet and a Schumann trio given by Mr Stanford and some amateurs of the musical society); a Shakespeare reading with Harrison taking the part of Viola (delighted to obtain an unbowdlerized version); ghost stories in Ellen Crofts’s room. Debates were held ‘on rather dreary subjects, for instance “That the greatness of the nation is due, rather to the perfect development of the individual than to that of state organization”’, and on less dreary topics, such as dress. In one of these debates the topic of wearing bloomers came up, and her friend Margaret Merrifield was startled to find that the issue could be considered from the point of view of convenience (‘they must be so delightful in muddy weather’) rather than morals. Mrs Bateson, the wife of the Master of St John’s, gave dances in the Hall of the Lodge. They danced quadrilles, gallops, the Lancers—all the latest vogue—though ‘Miss Clough was not keen on dances’. Sometimes the lecturers invited them to Sunday evening parties in their rooms. On other evenings Mr Sidgwick read aloud to them from Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. There were distinguished visitors: Turgenev, Ruskin (who, on being shown around the library by Harrison is reported to have made the condescending remark, ‘Each book that a young girl touches should be bound in white (p. 45 ) vellum’), and Burne-Jones. There were ‘endless’ tea-parties given by Miss Clough to introduce the students to distinguished members of town and gown.
Throughout her student days Harrison was in conflict with Miss Clough. On the surface it was the old issue of ‘hats and bonnets’ again. Like Miss Caines at Cheltenham, Miss Clough lived in constant fear that she would forfeit the approval of ‘the Cambridge ladies’ through some social indiscretion of one of her charges. Harrison thought the whole issue was ridiculous and all the attention to tact and prudence futile, and attributed Miss Clough’s fussiness to a need in her personality to ‘energize’. Most of Miss Clough’s energy was directed towards matters of dress. She disliked the long narrow flannel skirts worn for tennis (‘I suppose she would have liked us to play in bustles!’ was one angry protest); aesthetic and ‘mannish’ clothes were her particular bugaboo. Harrison wore both. She appeared one term with a yellow plaid ulster, described by her friend Eleanor Ritchie as ‘a frightful object, with very loud yellow checks’. (A few years later the ulster—a long, loose overcoat of a rough fabric—was immortalized in the pages of Punch. On the occasion of an exhibition of George Frederick Watts portraits at the Grosvenor, a poem was printed in the media that contained the lines: ‘Here’s Sir Frederick robed in scarlet, here’s Dean Stanley’s thoughtful face | And the lady in the Ulster has a certain kind of grace.’) Even the height of the two students was a problem. Miss Clough is reputed to have approached them as they were going out for a walk with the plea, ‘M’dears, don’t you think you could try to look a little less tall?’ There can be no doubt that Harrison, emancipated, unconventional, influential, and popular, was a threat to Miss Clough, who still saw Newnham College as an experiment, her experiment, and primarily a philanthropic venture as ‘a means of enabling penniless young women to earn their living’, whereas to Harrison it was a haven of learning for learning’s sake. Harrison never doubted for a moment that the cause of women’s education was bound to succeed, and considered the whole issue silly, pointing to the success of Girton. Emily Davies had never cared about the opinion of the Cambridge ladies.
In 1877 Harrison and two other students decided to put on a Greek play. The idea was novel though not unprecedented: there had been a production of Antigone at Edinburgh in the 1840s. Apart from this production Greek tragedy in performance was unheard of. The very idea bears testimony for Harrison’s gift of originality, perhaps also to her sense of the wholeness of things, that Greek tragedies were not texts but dramas, and would come to life only on the stage. Euripides was the natural choice, with his penchant for representing his characters as if they were his contemporaries, and for (p. 46 ) bringing the mythological past into the present, for which he was parodied in Aristophanes’ Frogs. He was irreverent, sceptical, iconoclastic. The Victorians were divided in their attitude towards him, strong in their praise or condemnation, and the choice of Euripides would have been seen as ‘naughty’. This attitude is well captured in the vignette Harrison records of her encounter with Gladstone when he visited the college:
Reading this, one wonders if Harrison, at the age of 76, was still ‘perverse and not quite truthful’. Euripides was her favourite Greek author and remained so all her life.
His daughter Helen was a college friend of mine, or rather, more exactly, a friendly enemy …. I was a rigid Tory in those days, and I resolutely refused to join the mob of students in cheering and clapping the Grand Old Man on his arrival. I shut myself up in my room. Thither—to tease me—she brought him. He sat down and asked me who was my favourite Greek author. Tact counselled Homer, but I was perverse and not quite truthful, so I said ‘Euripides’. Aeschylus would have been creditable, Sophocles respectable, but the sceptic Euripides! It was too much, and with a few words of warning he withdrew. 27
At first they considered the Medea, but in the end they decided on the Electra. Harrison took the parts of the messenger and the paidagogos, and taught the chorus their dances. The costumes were made up to the students’ own designs by a local dressmaker. Harrison had a white costume with a border of gold and crimson, Margaret Merrifield a knee-length blue tunic with a border of gold and blue, and blue sandals, Eleanor Ritchie a similar costume in saffron with a white chlamys.
However, when Miss Clough found out that they were intending to act with bare arms and legs before the Cambridge ladies, she put a stop to the proceedings, adding that she disapproved of theatricals and would not hear of women acting as men. Margaret Merrifield remembered with indignation that earlier ‘she had given full consent to our acting and had said she would be very pleased if her niece acted in the Chorus; it was entirely her own idea asking people from the town, we did not wish them to come at all—as to the arms, they are no more ‘bare’ than in every ball dress;—as to the legs we certainly had no stockings, but our legs were encased in sandals from the sole of the foot to the knee’. 28 Miss Clough proposed that Mrs Sidgwick inspect their costumes, at which point the women lost interest in the whole production and called it off.
They were just a few years before their time and hampered by their (p. 47 ) gender. The Agamemnon was produced in Oxford in 1880, Oedipus Tyrannus at Harvard in 1881, and Alcestis at Bradfield College in 1882. The first Cambridge Greek play, the Ajax, was produced later that year, and was so successful that special trains were run from King’s Cross. That a man should play the part of a woman shocked no-one; in fact A. R. Macklin’s performance as Tecmessa was acclaimed. In 1883 Girton staged Sophocles’ Electra (with the leading role played by Janet Case, who two years later took the part of Athena in a university production of the Eumenides, albeit in flowing robes).
It was through their common interest in the Greek play that Harrison became close friends with Margaret de Gaudrion Merrifield, who later married the classicist Arthur Woollgar Verrall (notorious for his daring emendations of texts), and with whom Harrison was to collaborate in one of her most successful books. 29 From her French mother Margaret Merrifield inherited ‘an alertness, a clarity, a dexterity which left some of us with a feeling that we were half-baked and wholly unfinished’; she was ‘punctiliously law-abiding’, and ‘never an ardent or even very active Suffragist’, yet held startlingly strong views on the importance of women’s independence. Hearing a speaker extol the virtue of a woman who had given up her whole life to the furthering of her husband’s career, she expostulated, ‘Wonderful? I call it simply squalid; fancy giving up your whole life to your husband!’ and added, reflectively, ‘how it would bore Arthur if I did!’. 30
By her second year Harrison had begun to surround herself with the aura that developed into ‘the myth of Jane Harrison’. 31 This is how Alice (Lloyd) Dew-Smith, who became one of Harrison’s life-long friends, remembered her:
Only one letter survives from this period of her life. It illustrates just the light banter and the gift with language that Alice Lloyd recognized.
The earliest impression that remains in my mind of Jane Harrison is as the central figure of a group of students seated round a dining table in the S.E. corner of the Old Hall, Newnham College …. Central, in that she was the dominating figure of a little set of friends that in those days dined at that particular table during term time…. Like a Rembrandt picture the rest of the dining hall is shrouded in darkness. I cannot even with an effort call up an image of what it was like, or a memory of who was in it. Only a shadowy picture of that table in the corner, with a high light on Harrison’s imposing and vital figure. Nor can I in the least remember what threw me, a ‘fresher’ of no ‘parts,’ into that interesting group. But there I was, and fortunately for myself I was equipped with an appreciation for the exceptional.(p. 48 )
Certainly, even at that time, Jane Harrison was exceptional; exceptional in appearance, character and intellect. I can see her now, her tall willowy figure clad in a tight-fitting olive green ‘art serge’ such as used to be supplied to Newnham students by Messrs Boyd-Burnett in the days of the aesthetic craze; her long neck and well-set head, with brown hair in a Greek coil at the back; her fine deeply-fringed eyes—all made an ineffaceable picture. Moreover I can hear her delightful voice and her amusing talk. Looking back over many years I can think of no one else who could pour forth such a continuous stream of delightful nonsense as Jane entertained us with, evening after evening…. It was like a felicitous flow of well chosen words adapted with ludicrous effect to whatever was the subject under discussion, and poured forth in the unconscious, heedless, lavish way that a spring bubbles from a rock and tumbles over the surrounding area. 32
Dear Miss Wilson,
I have been meditating a letter of condolence ever since I heard you were so smitten and afflicted, and now I can no longer forbear, since M. tells me (but the thought is intolerable) that the Doctor has forbidden you to take cold baths. You with your crest a fish rampant, your motto ‘never pass a good pool.’ Don’t believe him. Defy him. Read the snark all night and splash all day and you will come right. Indeed I speak from experience. Seriously though, I am sorry you are not to come back yet, we miss you horribly at our table, though I do quote Tennyson with more ease and complacency. However, you will be sure to come up next term….
So you may only work a quarter of an hour. It really is quite enough. The best coach I ever had told me (at scattered intervals) that it was ‘absurd to work in the afternoon’, ‘a great mistake in the evening’ and ‘almost impossible in the morning’; and I have gathered from other sources that the best men only do ten minutes a day. When one thinks of it seriously it is difficult to excuse oneself doing any work at all. I am sure tennis is a plain leading to better paths. Now I must stop. I’ve got some bricks to make and no straw, i.e. Iambics and no ideas. If you have time and inclination do let me know how you fare. 33
She had all her life learned to be independent, from the death of her mother, through childhood to the years at Cheltenham, where even among her peers she was set apart by her quick intellect, forming more of a bond with Miss Beale than with any of her own contemporaries. To some, however, she appeared not so much brilliant as snobbish. Mary (Paley) Marshall pointed out that among the criteria for acceptance in Jane’s set was (p. 49 )
At Newnham she had discovered her own social style, as she began to live out the inner freedom she was now experiencing, for which the life style of the Pre-Raphaelites offered just the right outward code. She became popular with those, who, like her, were sick of Victorian pretentiousness. She had no patience with others, less sure of themselves, who chose to conform. Perhaps she was right in associating her hatred of hypocrisy with her Yorkshire roots; she certainly inherited this trait from her father and found it lacking in her Welsh stepmother.
Books played a significant part in her emancipation. Like her mother, she loved poetry. As a child she had read anything she could get her hands on, as did all girls of her time who loved to read, and memorized quantities of verse. Later she was to laugh at herself for her youthful love of the sentimental, quoting with glee, ‘My hair is white | But not with years’ and other such verse. During her Newnham years she discovered Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and The Stream’s Secret became her favourite poem.
Above all, perhaps influenced by the enthusiasm of Henry Sidgwick, she read Swinburne. She loved the stuff of his early poetry: ‘passion and rebellion and liberty and the sea’. 36 It was Swinburne’s avowed aim to subordinate all his own gifts to the ideal of re-creating Hellenism. Harrison’s response was on two levels. She ‘resonated’ (to use her own word) to the classical ideas and imagery, but she also fell under the hypnotic spell of the Swinburnian rhythms, which were not classical at all, but derived from romantic English poetry. 37 Like his heroes and models, Byron and Shelley, Swinburne idealized (p. 51 ) the Greeks, but he wrote for an audience that had seen Greece reborn in two ways. In the 1820s Greece had once again become a free nation, and now in the 1870s the archaeological discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae, together with the earlier German excavations at Olympia, brought back to life the ancient myths. The romantic fantasy began to take on a Pygmalion-like reality. Swinburne translated it into a Victorian idiom. At the same time he was an iconoclast, and as he turned for inspiration to the pagan Greeks, he spoke honestly if irreverently of his feelings about Victorian religion. He wrote of ‘the supreme evil, God’ that
Because thou are cruel and men are piteous …
At least we witness of thee ere we die
That these things are not otherwise, but thus;
That each man in his heart sigheth, and saith,
That all men even as I,
All we are against thee, against thee, O God most high. 38
More than anything else at this period of her life Harrison sought an emotional release from the weight of her religious upbringing. Poems like Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, gave a voice to her experiment with unbelief and excited her to ecstasy by its rhythms. ‘Thou hast conquer’d, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath | We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death’, leads to the conclusion, ‘For there is no God found stronger than death; and death is a sleep’; although her perspective on religion was to change with the years this remained her philosophy to the end.
The very name of Swinburne blazed emancipation. ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ tells of the destructive power of love, and of a fate which plays havoc with natural family ties. In other poems Swinburne wrote of homosexual and lesbian love—just as the great classical authors, long looked to as models, had done without embarrassment. His volume Poems and Ballads was condemned for its ‘depravity’ and ‘feculent corruption’, and he was castigated for his ‘passionate zest and long-drawn elaboration of enjoyment’ of vice. 39 Yet boys in school were given the poems of Sappho and plays such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as required reading. The satires of Martial and Juvenal abound in obscenity. 40 Such a curriculum was defended on the (p. 52 ) grounds of its moral value—by those who had inherited unthinkingly a tradition that believed that it was more important to construe and scan the lines than to understand their message. Now the meaning of the texts excited Harrison. As a student she read Aristophanes for the first time and discovered that the pagan Greeks were ‘real people’.
But it was Aristotle’s Ethics, one of the set books for her year at Cambridge, that made a real change in her thinking. She records the effect:
She wrote these words, however, fifty years after the event, when the conversion of her attitudes could be seen as complete. Rarely does the impact of an encounter bring about such instantaneous change.
To realise the release that Aristotle brought, you must have been reared as I was in a narrow school of Evangelicalism—reared with sin always present, with death and judgement before you, Hell and heaven to either hand. It was like coming out of a madhouse into a quiet college quadrangle where all was liberty and sanity, and you became a law to yourself. The doctrine of virtue as the Mean—what an uplift and revelation to one ‘born in sin’! The notion of the summum bonum as an ‘energy’, as an exercise of personal faculty, to one who had been taught that God claimed all, and the notion of the ‘perfect life’ that was to include as a matter of course friendship. I remember walking up and down in the College garden, thinking could it possibly be true, were the chains really broken and the prison doors open. 41
In March 1879 Harrison wrote her Tripos examinations. The preceding months were filled with the agony of apprehension known as ‘Trip fever’, even more paralysing to the early students than it is today. The students carried the extra burden of realizing that their own performance would contribute to the success or failure of ‘the cause’. In Harrison’s case further anxiety was caused by the refusal of two out of the six classical examiners to examine women, and Miss Clough’s fretting over how to handle the situation. When the day came a great fuss was made over the candidates. Each one had her ‘bridesmaid’. One student described their duties (and rewards):
at the end of the morning paper I took up my stand outside the door of the room where Nellie was working [until] she came out. I had to order lunch, then take her in the garden & make her rest in the one hour’s interval. Lunch & dinner are served up separately for Tripos students & consist of choice food, so the reward of the bridesmaids is that they are allowed to share the dainties. At five o’clock I again waited for Nellie & then we had a nice little dinner together in one of the lecture rooms. Only (p. 53 ) think of having fish and lamb & jelly & dessert & Champagne at Newnham! I could hardly believe my eyes. 42
The Tripos lasted for eight days. Harrison’s stress was compounded by toothache. The results were read out in the Senate House. Margaret Merrifield and Helen Gladstone went with Miss Clough to hear the list read out, Harrison staying in bed for nervousness. The news was brought back: she was top of the second class.
It was small comfort to be told that the examiners had in fact been divided over whether or not to place her in the first class, or that she achieved the highest marks of all the candidates in philosophy. The news of her results, ‘so much better than anyone expected since the examination’, was greeted by Newnham with ‘loud clapping as a token of congratulation’, but for Harrison it was a bitter, bitter disappointment.
Harrison had probably never seriously considered the possibility of having to leave Newnham. She had hoped, even assumed, that after taking her Tripos she would be invited to join the Newnham staff as the first lecturer in classics, and had often talked about what she would do in this capacity. To her disappointment no offer was made, and in the summer of 1879 she was faced with the problem of what she was to do. Returning home was unthinkable. She had severed her connections with her family. Her thoughts naturally turned to teaching, not because she had any desire to teach, but simply because it was still assumed that students went to Newnham to prepare to be teachers, and her gifts and training were not suited to anything else. She joined the staff of the Oxford High School for Girls. She liked the pupils and they loved her, ‘booking’ the privilege of taking one of her arms during the morning’s break in the playground. But she stayed only one term. She was out of place in a school. She did not subscribe to the Victorian ideal of education as progress; the Christian basis for education, observed in morning prayers, grace at meals, and compulsory Scripture lessons, she repudiated. Her own philosophy was unorthodox:
(p. 54 ) She deplored the belief that it was part of the responsibility of the teacher to ‘develop a child’s mind’ or to exercise any kind of influence beyond the teaching of the subject itself; character training she believed was best left to one’s contemporaries. For the teacher to interfere in this she thought very dangerous, and bad for the teacher. This attitude to schooling was not altogether rational, owing as much to her own experience at Cheltenham as to any considered philosophy of education. The intensity with which she articulated these ideas at the end of her life is an indication that her infatuation for Miss Beale, followed by its reversal and the repudiation of all that Miss Beale represented, left her with a personal conflict that she was never able to resolve. No wonder she decided that teaching within the system of the day was not for her. Moreover, in Oxford she could not avoid the occasional social encounter with Henry Butcher. The stress was too much. With her small but adequate private income she could afford to resign her teaching post and in January 1880 she moved to London.
let children early speak at least three foreign languages, let them browse freely in a good library, see all they can of the first-rate in nature, art, and literature—above all, give them a chance of knowing what science and scientific method means, and then leave them to sink or swim. Above all things, do not cultivate in them a taste for literature. 43
Meanwhile, Miss Clough had offered a lectureship in classics to Margaret Merrifield. It is not hard to see why she was preferred over Harrison. Miss Clough wanted a ‘safe’ candidate and Miss Merrifield was the natural choice. As a teacher she proved to be clear, confident, and scholarly; she became valued as an examiner for scholarship examinations, for she was meticulous and reliable, ‘trenchant, clear-eyed and discriminating’. When, two years later, she married Arthur Woollgar Verrall, Fellow of Trinity, she kept up her work at Newnham, lecturing in Greek as well as giving private tutorials and superintending the classical students. She continued to dine at college once or twice a week, and to participate in meetings and social functions. Years later Harrison knew her as a colleague, ‘business-like, unselfish and convenient. There was never anyone less fussy.’ 44
However, Margaret Merrifield did not accept the appointment without protest at the injustice done to Harrison, who never forgot her ‘generous rage’ and irrational insistence that Jane, not she, should have the position. Margaret ‘came immediately up to London to see me, and literally stamped about the room, healing thereby her friend’s hurt vanity’. It was far into the night before Jane could persuade her that ‘refusal would be as useless as Quixotic’. Harrison had realized that she had no chance of being appointed to the staff at this stage. Instead, she decided to settle in London, taking a part-time teaching position at Notting Hill High School to supplement her income.
She must have been a good teacher. She loved her subject for its own sake (p. 55 ) and appreciated that its difficulties served to brace the mind, but was not content with teaching a class to parse, construe, and translate. Equally important was that her pupils should understand—see, feel, and enter into—the literature they were reading. She was fortunate at Notting Hill that the British Museum was only a few miles away. Teaching the passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about the rape of Proserpina she would not tell them but show them the goddess Demeter ‘with the corn-blades in her hair, and the fishes of the Sicilian sea playing around her, on the coins of that very Syracuse of which we have just read’. She would show them Demeter Thesmophoros—the ‘lawgiver’ of Ovid—goddess of fixed homes because of agriculture, of marriage and women’s rights, worshipped by women in strange mystic ceremonies. She showed them the tablets with the curses (‘mis-spelt too often, for the ladies of those days were more vengeful than literate’), and the sculpture of Proserpina bearing in her hand the fateful pomegranate. Reading of the Sirens she would convince them that doctae Sirenes were not to be translated ‘learned’ but rather ‘skilful’ Sirens by showing them the vase in which a bird-maiden touches her lyre with a skilled hand. 45 But the teaching was ‘still just drudgery, a dreary pis aller, the dull residuum of golden dreams—poetry which had turned into prose’. 46 Two years later, writing to her Newnham friend Hope Malleson who had seemed sad, she confessed, ‘I have so many doleful thoughts hidden away in my own soul that sometimes they betake themselves to other people’s faces’. 47 For the next twenty years she was restless (though not unproductive, and certainly not without friends), until her dreams materialized and she was invited to return to Newnham in 1898.
(1) Contra Sandra Peacock, who argues in Mask and Self passim, that as a northerner Harrison always felt marginalized by her provincial background. This is simply not true. The first principal of Newnham, Anne Jemima Clough, herself came from the North of England.
(2) See Robert Skidelsky, Henry Sidgwick: Between Reason and Duty, an address given at the University of Warwick on 31 May 1988 and published by Newnham College, Cambridge.
(3) See W. Sewell, ‘Suggestions for the Extension of the University’ (1850), 8–11, quoted in J. F. C. Harrison, Learning and Living’: a Study in the History of the English Adult Education Movement (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).
(4) See Blanche Athena Clough, A Memoir of Anne Jemima Clough. (London: Arnold, 1897).
(5) For the Lent term of 1870 the lectures comprised English history (Prof. Maurice), English language and literature (Dr Skeat), algebra and arithmetic (Prof. Cayley), Latin (Prof. Mayor), and economics (Prof. Marshall). See Rita McWilliams-Tullberg, Women at Cambridge, 56.
(6) See Alice Gardner, A Short History of Newnham College (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1921).
(7) Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), 11 f.
(8) Information taken from the Newnham College Register. The incomplete information about the early students makes it impossible to compile exact figures.
(9) Women were not awarded degrees at Cambridge until 1948.
(10) In matters of philology she deferred to the judgement of others all her life. Perhaps this is what Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones means when he writes, ‘She did not know Greek well’—a comment that is apt to be misunderstood if read in the context of present-day competence (Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London: Duckworth, 1982), 202).
(11) After this incident Mary Paley Marshall recalls that Jane afterwards called him ‘the camel’, for she said that she trembled at the sight of him ‘as a horse does at the sight of a camel’.
(12) Dora Ivens (Pym) observed in 1913 that few women took the verse paper so that they could concentrate on the rest of the syllabus, but that without the verse it was almost impossible to attain a first.
(13) See Claire Breay, ‘Women and the Classical Tripos 1869–1914’ in Curriculum, Culture and Community, suppl. 24 (Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, suppl. 1999), 49–70.
(14) Mirrlees records an amusing anecdote in her draft biography: ‘In spite of, (or perhaps, because of) the relentless chaperonage, Cupid was busy in those early Newnham days. A group of brilliant, one or two of them splendidly handsome, young Fellows used to “coach” the students—& when the “coachings” took place in May evenings with the nightingales singing loudly in the garden, they were apt to become sentimental. The lighter side of these discreet flirtations is shown by the following anecdote. Miss Clough had started a book, so runs the story, in which one was to jot down any interesting observation from Nature made in the Newnham garden. The contribution of Mr H. Butcher, at that time a young and brilliant Fellow of Trinity, was as follows: “Observed two lady birds.” The next entry … was “Observed the Butcher bird observing two lady birds”’ [‘butcher bird’ being another name for the shrike].
(15) By 1876 three colleges at Oxford countenanced married dons. Butcher may have been helped by his connections: G. G. Bradley, Master of University College, was a well-known member of the academic liberal group to which Sidgwick also belonged.
(16) Ellen (Crofts) Darwin and Mary (Paley) Marshall maintained their formal associations with Newnham College, both as Associates and as Council members.
(17) Marshall, What I Remember, 21.
(18) Reminiscences, 88–9.
(19) ‘Mary Paley Marshall’ in Mirrlees’s notebook.
(20) Mirrlees’s draft biography.
(21) Reminiscences, 45–6. Similarly, at Oxford in 1874 Oscar Wilde’s rooms at Magdalen were popularly considered to be one of the showpieces of the college. See Elizabeth Aslin, The Aesthetic Movement (New York: Excalibur Books, 1981), 98.
(22) From The Queen, 1881, quoted in Aslin, The Aesthetic Movement, 145–6.
(23) ‘Mary Paley Marshall’ in Mirrlees’s notebook.
(24) Except where otherwise noted, the following material about social life at Newnham College in this period is taken from Mirrlees’s draft biography.
(25) Mirrlees attributes this memory to Margaret (Merrifield) Verrall.
(26) Marshall, What I Remember, 15.
(27) Reminiscences, 44 f.
(28) Mirrlees’s draft biography, drawing on the memory of Margaret (Merrifield) Verrall.
(29) Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens: Being a Translation of a Portion of the ‘Attica’ of Pausanias, wih an Introductory Essay and Archaeological Commentary (London: Macmillan, 1890). Margaret Verrall did the translation.
(30) Jane Harrison, ‘In Memoriam Margaret Verrall’, Newnham College Letter, 1916, 53.
(31) See Beard, Invention, passim.
(32) Alice Dew-Smith in ‘Jane Ellen Harrison’, Newnham College Letter, Jan. 1929, 62–3.
(33) Letter to Edith Wilson, 26 Nov. 1876, quoted in Stewart, Jane Ellen Harrison, 8.
(34) ‘Mary Paley Marshall’ in Mirrlees’s notebook.
(35) ‘Alice Dew-Smith’ in Mirrlees’s notebook.
(36) Grierson, H. J. C., Swinburne (rev. edn. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1959), 6.
(37) Later, Gilbert Murray was to render the choruses in his translations of Euripides in similar metres, with the same hypnotic effect on Harrison. (She wrote to him of his translation of the Troades, when he appeared to her to have failed to live up to his usual magic: ‘I always want the rhythm of anything—as I want the words—to seem inevitable…. I don’t think one shld attempt to echo a metre unless it can be quite unstrained in English’ (JEH to GM 184, n.d.).
(38) Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon.
(39) Unsigned review in London Review, 4 August 1866, xiii, 130–1, quoted in Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne, the Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 36 f.
(40) Donald Thomas, Swinburne, the Poet in His World, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), 132, gives some nice examples.
(41) Reminiscences, 80–1.
(42) Mirrlees’s draft biography. Based on a letter from Hope Malleson.
(43) This quotation, and the substance of the following paragraph is taken from Reminiscences, 37–8.
(44) ‘In Memoriam Margaret Verrall’.
(45) Jane Ellen Harrison, ‘Archaeology and School Teaching’, Journal of Education, 2 (1880), 105–6.
(46) Mirrlees’s draft biography.
(47) JEH to Hope Malleson, Apr. 14 1882.