Thursday, March 7, 2013

Newnham’s Literary Connections and Collections: The Nineteenth Century

The weekend of Friday the 1st of March 2013 saw Newnham College host a Literary Archive Event entitled ‘Women and the Novel’. There were wonderful discussions from writers such as Margaret Drabble, Jenn Ashworth and Patricia Duncker, all of whom are Newnham alumnae. Many of the donors to the Literary Archive were also in attendance.

The Newnham writers section of the display

A special Literary Archive display was put together for the event. As well as celebrating Newnham's contemporary writers, part of the display - ‘Newnham’s Literary Connections and Collections: The Nineteenth Century’ - celebrated some of the earliest Newnham students who went on to become writers.


Katharine Harris Bradley (1845-1914) attended Newnham in 1874 for a vacation course in Classics. Like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym, while collaborating with her niece, Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913). Their first collection of poetry was published in 1881 to great critical approval, although they did not begin writing as Michael Field until 1884. Their true identities remained undiscovered until 1889 with the publication of Long Ago. As Katharine predicted, ‘the report of lady authorship will dwarf and enfeeble our work at every turn’.[1] They were shunned by all except Browning, Swinburne, Yeats and Wilde, until they resorted again to anonymity in 1905 with the publication of Borgia. Despite this disappointment, they remained prolific in their writing career, having published twenty-seven tragedies, eight books of poetry, a play and a masque.[2]

The Engrafted Rose and Sir Elyot of the Woods by Emma Brooke
Emma Frances Brooke (1844-1926) seems to have very much embraced the challenges of being a female author. She is classed mainly as a ‘New Woman’ novelist, as she meditated upon the social expectations of women within her work while painting portraits of educated, emancipated female protagonists.[3] She maintained that as a result of education, women had ‘raised the standard of what is expected of them in affairs of the world. Many barriers are broken down, but the test to entrance is always ability to perform.’[4] Brooke herself certainly did perform. After two years at Newnham, from 1872 to 1874, she studied at the London School of Economics and subsequently published economic analyses on the contemporary working conditions of British and European women.

A Minor Poet (1884) by Amy Levy

Amy Judith Levy (1861-1889) came to Newnham slightly later than Harris Bradley and Brooke; she was at Newnham between 1879 to 1881, but did not specialise in a Tripos. This was common at the time, as female students often attended lectures that were of interest to them, rather than necessary for a course of study, as they were ineligible to take a degree.[5] She was the second Jewish woman to study at Cambridge and the first at Newnham.[6] She found studying at Newnham both enthralling and exhausting; she left after her collection of verse, Xantippe and Other Verse was published, 1881, as she was enthusiastic for her career as a writer to begin.[7] Much of the poetry in A Minor Poet (1884) was written while in Cambridge and explores the persistent melancholy she experienced throughout her life.

'Michael Field', Emma Brooke and Amy Levy are just three of the authors explored in our display. Future blogs will look at some of Newnham's other literary connections and collections from the nineteenth-century.

Kirsten Southard, Graduate Library Trainee, 2012-2013

[1] V. H. Blaine, Bradley, Katharine Harris (1846–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2011 [, accessed 7 March 2013]
[2] Ibid.
[3] Angelique Richardson, ‘Brooke, Emma Frances (1844–1926)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 March 2013]
[4] Ibid.
[5] Gill Sutherland, 'Results but No Degrees', History of Newnham College, 2011 [, accessed 7 March 2013]
[6] Linda Hunt Beckman, ‘Levy, Amy Judith (1861–1889)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 March 2013]
[7] Ibid.

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