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Cover of Women's University Narratives, 1890–1945

Women's University Narratives, 1890–1945

  • Published: 10 Jan 2015
  • DOI: 10.4324/9781848935228
  • Set ISBN: 9781848935228

From the late nineteenth century women began to enter British universities. Their numbers were small and their gains hard won and fiercely contested, yet they inspired a whole new genre of fiction. This collection of largely forgotten and rare texts forms a valuable primary resource for scholars of literature, social history and women’s education.

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General Introduction

When Fanny Johnson's novel In Statu Pupillari was published anonymously in 1907, reviewers praised what they saw as its faithful picture of student life. The Daily Mail called it a Veracious study', the Times Literary Supplement praised its 'faithful presentment of a phase of life at Cambridge', and the Academy predicted that 'girl graduates past and present will eagerly scan these pages for portraits and characteristics of the well-known people of their day'. Such verisimilitude seemed to suggest that the anonymous author was, as the Speaker put it, 'probably a former Newnham student', perhaps following in the steps of former Newnhamhite Alice Stronach, whose novel A Newnham Friendship had been published to similar acclaim seven years earlier. In fact, the reviewers were wrong in their assumptions about the novel's author; far from being a recent Newnham graduate, the author was the 52-year-old former Headmistress of the Bolton High School for Girls, Miss Fanny Johnson. From its very beginnings, therefore, In Statu Pupillari has been characterized by a blend of fact and fiction that complicates its initial reception as a dull but faithful portrait of 'real' Cambridge life. As such, it is more than typical of women's university fiction of the period. While all university fiction necessitates the balancing of novelistic skill with faithful representation of the university scene, authors of women's university novels faced additional challenges. For authors like Johnson, writing a university novel meant constant negotiation between the demands of their form, the often heated discourse that surrounded the higher education of women, and the representation of the challenging (and often quite painful) experiences of women students in real-world Oxbridge. Johnson's position as a quasi-outsider (she had, as I will detail below, many ties to Cambridge, but was not herself a student) adds both a distance and a depth to our contemporary reading of In Statu Pupillari that allows us to more easily trace such negotiations.

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When the heroine of The Girls of Merton College, Katherine Douglas, is first invited to visit the chapel of St Benet’s College, her response is enthusiastic: ‘Miss Silence will take me to church – to St Benet’s, where the most wonderful choir in the world sings. St. Benet’s! Have I not dreamed of it all my life!’ Katherine’s enthusiastic exclamation mirrors the purpose of The Girls of Merton College, which, more than any other text in this collection, is most clearly designed for a juvenile audience. It is clearly intended to provide both inspiration and information about higher education so that young readers can, like Katherine, begin dreaming about life in Cambridge. However, the phrase ‘have I not dreamed of it all my life!’ also highlights some important tensions surrounding the book and its author. Just like Katherine, Meade’s knowledge of Cambridge was based on a lifelong dream, but unlike her heroine, Meade herself never attended Girton and her knowledge remained aspirational. Unlike Fanny Johnson, however, Meade’s fame as a London-based children’s book writer meant that her lack of a university background was public knowledge. This has led not only to an unfair marginalization of The Girls of Merton College within university fiction, but has also resulted in a lack of attention towards the significance of her juvenile audience, who, like Meade, had not attended university yet and for whom books like The Girls of Merton College and Meade’s other university novels, A Sweet Girl Graduate (1891) and The Chesterton Girl Graduates (1913) served as an importance source of inspirational knowledge.

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When Mrs George de Horne Vaizey’s novel A College Girl was serialized in the Girl’s Own Paper in 1911, the first installment was illustrated by real-life photographs from Newnham College, which the novel’s heroine Darsie attends. When the book was republished in complete form in 1913, the cover featured an attractive drawing of a Newnham student holding up a kettle. Both of these illustrations, as well as the title of the novel, highlight the importance of the college experience to the novel’s plot, despite the fact that only a little less than half of it actually takes place at Newnham. They also showcase A College Girl’s role as a ‘new’ type of women’s university fiction, less muted and careful than earlier works like In Statu Pupillari or The Girls of Merton College, with their disguised names like ‘Castlebridge’ and ‘Hypatia’. Although Vaizey, like Johnson and Meade, was a generation too old to attend Cambridge herself, A College Girl operates confidently within the world of ‘real’ Cambridge, taking it for granted that fictional ‘everygirl’ heroines like Darsie, and the ordinary readers of the Girl’s Own Paper, not only could but should access the delights of Newnham. A College Girl thus moves beyond the Victorian vision of Oxbridge suggested by Johnson and Meade, providing an Edwardian bridge between these older accounts and post-war narratives of women’s university life.

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Gertrude Winifred Taylor’s novel 1917 The Pearl was not her first foray into Oxford fiction. Four years earlier, she and her friend D. K. Broster had published a successful novel called The Vision Splendid, a historical romance set in the heady days of the mid-nineteenth-century Oxford Movement. The novel focuses on the protagonist’s spiritual awakening in an Oxford setting: ‘the vision which had called ... in the streets and gardens of Oxford’. We also see this association of the university with spiritual life in Taylor’s The Pearl four years later; although the setting this time is modern, the plot almost anti-romantic, the novel maintains its preoccupation with religious questioning and focus upon the intertwining of intellectual and spiritual growth as it follows the career of Oxford student Janet Prout. As a result, The Pearl stands alone within women’s university fiction for the sharpness of its religious focus, providing a fascinating glimpse of the connections between gender, education and religious diversity in late nineteenth-century England.

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