When I read Clare Balding’s My Animals and Other Family, one thing really shocked me. Her mother was not allowed to go to Cambridge because Clare’s grandmother said she wouldn’t have any ‘bluestockings in the family’. It was the 1960s!. Just goes to show we shouldn’t assume that education for women has been one long march of progress. Reading Jane Robinson’s book, I was impressed by the amount of social mobility in the early days. A surprising number of girls from very poor backgrounds did make it to university, often pushed there by teachers who helped them get grants and scholarships and even took on their parents. Things are not yet perfect on that score. I found an article in The Girl’s Own Annual for 1905 saying that ‘in twenty years’ time’ people would be laughing at the idea that women should not have an Oxford education. If only!
The Girl’s Own Annual took a high moral tone and tended to encourage self-sacrifice and looking after others. At the same time, it was full of articles about work and careers for women. In just a quick trawl through the non-fiction index I found: Durham Degrees for Women, Education for Women at Oxford, How I became lady doctor, The superior girl graduate (this may have been satirical, I haven’t read it), Holloway College for Women, The North London Collegiate School for Girls, Useful Hints for Examination Cadidates and so on. It’s interesting to read fiction about women’s education, either contemporary or written from an author’s own earlier experiences. Gaudy Night is probably the best known (and best) book of the type. The GOA also serialised Mrs Vaizey’s A College Girl.
NB this illustration is from a much later date than the original publication.
Other relevant fiction includes A Sweet Girl Graduate by L T Meade (I would have sworn I had a copy of this but can’t find it) and When Patty Went to College by Jean Webster (American), (reviewed by me here). These three books are all available as free e-books from Project Gutenberg and Amazon. The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge, by Josephine Elder (herself a doctor), has been republished by Girls Gone By. Mrs Henry Clarke’s The Ravensworth Scholarship and A Clever Daughter, both published in the 1890s are harder to find but worth reading.
I really enjoyed Bluestockings, not so much for the history, which is available elsewhere, but because Jane Robinson has tried to show what life was actually like for the young women who were pioneer ‘undergraduettes’ (awful word!). I decided the book would be a keeper if only for the exhaustive list of sources, which is full of interesting sounding books. By coincidence, on finishing Bluestockings, I started Hazel Holt’s The Cruellest Month, the second Mrs Malory mystery. Sheila is in Oxford to do some research and reflects on her time there in the early 1950s. ‘I must admit that my time at Oxford was the most purely happy of my whole life.’ She had been inspired to go there by her love of Lord Peter Wimsey ‘and Fate was kind enough not to disillusion me. I had a wonderful time.’