Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ivan Turgenev, John Ruskin and George Eliot Visit Newnham College

For Newnham’s recent Commemoration Weekend (the 13th and 14th of April, 2013) we decided to revive the book display that was so well-received at the Literary Archives event in March. Of particular interest to our alumnae were the visits notable individuals paid to Newnham in the late nineteenth century. Several of these are written about by Jane Ellen Harrison in her book Reminiscences of a Student’s Life (1925). She recalls that '[w]omen's colleges were a novelty and visitors were brought to see us as one of the sights.'[1]

The works donated to the library by John Ruskin

'Turgenev came, and I was told off to show him round. It was a golden opportunity. Dare I ask him to speak just a word or two of Russian? He looked such a kind old snow-white Lion. Alas! he spoke fluent English; it was a grievous disappointment. Then Ruskin came. I showed him our small library. He looked at it with disapproving eyes. “Each book”, he said gravely, “that a young girl touches should be bound in white vellum.” I thought with horror of the red moroccos and Spanish leather that had been my choice. A few weeks later the old humbug sent us his own works in dark blue calf!’ [2]

The editions sent to the college by Ruskin are still part of our collection and were displayed as part of the exhibition.

George Eliot came to Newnham in 1877. Along with admiring the first editions of Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch and Silas Marner on display, the Newnham alumnae who attended our recent event enjoyed reading the amusing accounts of the visit. Most of what is known about it comes from the accounts of Jane Harrison and Mary Hutton, a fellow student. Jane favoured Eliot above all other guests of the college:

‘And then last, but oh, so utterly first, came George Eliot. It was in the days when her cult was at its height – thank heaven I never left her shrine! – and we used to wait outside Macmillan’s shop to seize the new instalments of Daniel Deronda. She came for a few minutes to my room, and I was almost senseless with excitement, I had just repapered my room with the newest thing in dolorous Morris papers. Some one must have called her attention to it, for I remember that 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.’ [3]

Many of the students at the time must have felt the same sort of anticipation, as Mary Hutton, a student between 1875 and 1877, describes the visit in a letter to her mother with a similar level of excitement (and multiple exclamation marks).

‘This has been a great day. I have seen George Eliot! and Mr. Lewis!!!!!
They are staying at Mr. Sidgwick’s; this morning Miss Clough told us they were coming between 3.30 and 4 to see the house, that we must be on the watch to see her. So some went to the choice student rooms which are generally shown, e.g. Miss Ritchie’s, etc., and I & others posted ourselves in the library. After being in Miss Clough’s room a little time, the joyful moment came, & the Great One was shown into the library & Miss Paley & Miss Smith. She made a gracious bow & we all rose; after making a few remarks on the room they left it. She is very remarkable looking and looked extremely benevolent; I liked her very much.’

Anne Jemima Clough's volumes of Middlemarch.

These letters, along with the books themselves, are an indication of the importance of female novelists to the women of Newnham College. The first edition of Middlemarch was owned by Anne Jemima Clough, the first Principal of the college, who worked along with Henry Sidgwick to establish a Cambridge college for women.[5] She has written her name in pencil, along with ‘Merton Hall’, which was the residential building between 1872-4.[6]

The copy of Daniel Deronda owned by Anne Jemima Clough
Our first edition of Silas Marner was donated to the library by Blanche Athena Clough, who came to the college as a student in 1884 and stayed to assist her aunt, Anne Jemima Clough, during her Principalship. In 1920, Blanche Athena Clough followed in the footsteps of her aunt to become Principal and fought for the right of women to become full members of the University, although this final step was not taken until 1948.[7][8]

The George Eliot volumes are treasures of the Newnham College Library as they clearly serve as important pieces of literary and college history.

Kirsten Southard, Library Graduate Trainee, 2012-13

[1] Jane Harrison, Reminiscences of a Student’s Life, p. 44. London: Hogarth Press, 1925.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, p. 45.
[4] Mary Hutton, Personal Letter, [3rd of June?] 1877.
[5]  Gill Sutherland, "Anne Jemima Clough, 1820 - 1892", Biographies, 2004 [http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about-newnham/college-history/biographies/content/anne-jemima-clough, accessed 19 April 2013]
[6] For a picture of Anne Jemima Clough with students at Merton Hall see http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about-newnham/college-history/history/content/History-of-the-college
[7] Gill Sutherland, "Blanche Athena Clough, 1861 - 1930", Biographies, 2004 [http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about-newnham/college-history/biographies/content/blanche-athena-clough, accessed 19 April 2013]
[8] Gill Sutherland, "Equality at Last?", History of the College, 2001 [http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about-newnham/College-History/History/content/history-of-the-college-3, accessed 26 April 2013]

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