Lady Margaret Hall, whose Governing Body turned down St Hugh’s when petitioned with a merger by the younger college in 1894
By Richard Lofthouse
If the first Principal of Lady Margaret Hall had her way, St Hugh’s would have never existed as an independent college. Elizabeth Wordsworth (below), great-niece of the poet and founder of St Hugh's, tried in 1894 to merge St Hugh’s Hall into LMH. At the time St Hugh's was based at 17 Norham Gardens, next-door-but-two to LMH, so the move had certain logic. Fascinatingly, she was turned down which, as the editor of‘Dare unchaperoned to gaze’, A Woman’s View of Edwardian Oxford notes in a student diary from 1905, “reveals a great deal about social anxieties in late Victorian Oxford.” LMH’s Governing Body peered down their noses at St Hugh’s, seven years younger and founded expressly with broader access in mind. The LMH Governing Body fretted that “the tone and average standard would not be quite so select and high.”
The book is a beautiful and valuable hardback facsimile of a treasure of the St Hugh’s archive, namely, the joint diary of Dorothy Hammonds and Margaret Mowll, undergraduates who went up in 1905. Dorothy had a sharp eye and the diary is full of accomplished sketches and watercolours, mostly of people. As the copiously footnoted introduction by current Modern History Fellow and Tutor at St Hugh’s, George Garnett, makes plain, far from being crushed by Oxford’s refusal to allow women degrees (they only relented in 1918), they seized their relative freedoms with alacrity. The diary is noteworthy chiefly for its mischief and good humour. Men were a foreign species but chaperones, still a formal requirement at an onerous cost, were often ‘culled’ at short notice. In one entry from the Trinity Term –presumably Eights Week– of 1906, Margaret writes of “A thrilling not to say frivolius [not a typo] day.” They got on the Magdalen barge having ‘culled’ Miss Simpson, were introduced to a Rhodes Scholar “the first of the species we have met,” and then quashed his “lingering qualms” about swimming across the river and back, to then be rewarded with the “pleasure of seeing him perform this feat without drowning.” The effervescence is infectious; as the editor says himself, it would have been delightful to have known either woman. The effervescence is infectious; as the editor says himself, it would have been delightful to have known either woman. Both went on to distinguished careers in education, Dorothy going on to be one of six H.M. Chief Inspectors at the Ministry of Education, awarded an OBE in 1947. Neither of them married, as was common to that generation partly on account of World War One, but mostly because of prevailing unwritten rules about work and gender. They chose work.
Changing gear, classicists and non-classicists alike will love Arcadian Nights, Greek Myths Reimagined by John Spurling. John and his wife, the biographer Hilary Spurling, launched the book at Daunts in Notting Hill late last year. Despite torrential rain, a great crowd of friends and well wishers came and it was a splendid occasion. The author, who lives partly in Arcadia, makes very plain, “My version [of the Greek myths] is for readers of all ages and for entertainment and not reference.” That should get rid of the quibblers, but what would they quibble over? To the extent that Spurling riffs, as for instance he does on page 49 by bringing the reader to his terrace overlooking the Gulf of Argos to imagine different naval fleets that would have sailed by in different centuries, it is entirely welcome if only as a lozenge between one lot of mysterious rapes and murders and another. It is a great book and will join a distinguished lineage – not least, as Spurling himself points out, the child’s version from 1856 by Charles Kingsley, titled The Heroes. Literate children of that generation were formidably literate.
Changing gear again, I’m going to mention a new addition to a series of archive recordings by Magdalen College Choir directed by Bernard Rose. Produced by the BBC and digitally remastered, it boasts 78 minutes of choral evensong and some special renderings of Byrd, Dering and Purcell. The CD is titled More Archive Recordings (1960-76).
Back into Oxford we go with Richard Smith’s Town and Clown which collects together the best 70 of his Oxford Examined columns from The Oxford Times. Spanning town and gown, they are witty and curious and capture the bizarre majesty of Oxford in a manner that will seem common to people who actually live there and have something to do with the University but not everything. There is a terrifying hen night, a sink hole, a ‘gatecrashing of Encaenia’ and how he got smartie points from an ambulance medic for wearing a helmet after being badly knocked off his bike. That sort of thing. Not taking himself at all seriously, Smith actually lays bare what students blunder into when they come up to Oxford. If you miss Oxford try this, it will make you laugh.