Last week, I had the treat of visiting the Newnham College archives. For a classicist, this is an unusual pleasure – most of the time, particularly for somebody like me who works on Seneca, the relevant material has been available in various editions for many years. The joy that most historians get from uncovering new snippets in archives isn’t something that we get, unless we are working with fragments of papyrus or neglected inscriptions (which, as regular readers have probably gathered, is not where my research interests lie). However, I’ve got myself involved in a new project which means that I get to actually look at the handwriting of real people rather than the printed word for a change.
You may remember that just before Easter, I went off to a conference on women as classical scholars. An outcome of that conference is that Edith and Rosie are now putting together a collected volume of essays concentrating on women philologists in particular. And because I observed at the time that it was a shame that there was no coverage of the woman at Oxbridge in the fin de siècle, that means I volunteered myself to write the relevant chapter. Of course, there’s no way that one can do justice to all the varying environments of women’s education at Oxbridge in that period – each college really was its own closed city, with its own attitudes and customs – so I’m narrowing it down to the classicist women at Newnham from the late 1880s to the early 1920s.
This has meant reading an awful lot about the general atmosphere of higher education at this period, which is a fascinating subject in its own right, but there’s only so far that reading will get you – at some point you have to actually look at documentation. One thing that I particularly wanted to find out was how extensive the records are about who’s doing teaching when, although I have to admit that the main purpose of my trip was to test the water and see how much stuff there was to get through. A project like this, in a way, will take as much time as you give it – I can prioritise my archive activity to pick out certain things that are important, or decide how much time I actually need to work out what’s there.
The answer to that question is that I really need to set aside a week to take a room in Cambridge and just wade through the paperwork. There is, sadly, not a great deal of material left from the women themselves, which surprised me – there are fragments elsewhere in the university, letters caught in other college archives, but sadly little survives in Newnham apart from the infamous Harrison collection. These papers are mainly made up of a selection of Jane Harrison’s correspondence with Gilbert Murray, and according to the Newnham archivist show little concern with the day-to-day matters of teaching and work at the college (and to find out otherwise would take more time than I have available). So for the women themselves, there are a few obituaries in the College Roll Letters, cards with their educational background, some later paperwork, but little else.
Of more substance, however, are the Records of Newnham College, made up of various reports issued roughly twice a year giving an account of the state of the college. These are, frankly, highly peculiar documents, each consisting of roughly the same format with a slight variation of information in each, so you end up skimming over the history of the foundation of the college by the time you get to the Records of 1895 because it’s basically the same as it was last time – but if you skim too fast, you miss the donation of the telescope and the establishment of the observatory mound, or something else that is, in retrospect, quite important for the college’s sense of self. I spent most of my day working through the records from 1882 to 1897, initially with a single aim – to note the names of those listed as giving lectures and instruction in Classics for the college each year, in the hope of turning up some more classical women and to get a sense of how reliant the college remained on male lecturers.
But I found myself finding more and more information in the Records, mainly by accident, and mainly implicitly. There are, for instance, lists of staff and students registered in each of the college halls, which I skimmed past until I realised that these regular census records meant I could see which part of the college relevant members of staff had lived in, and track their movements into new buildings. The list of lecturers who opened their lectures to women was also utterly impenetrable – until November 1892, when the obliging lecturers were ordered by subject, and name of each Professor whose lectures were open was annotated with his subject in a separate list. (I note with especial pleasure that both Professors Jebb and Mayor occur in these lists from the start.) These sorts of observations, which may eventually build into quite an important point in the finished article, only emerge as you leaf through the pages and start noticing patterns which hitherto have escaped you.
There’s a lot more archive diving to do. I haven’t really looked properly at the information held on the relevant women, and I need to finish working through the Records. There are also the Minutes of the Education Committee, which are so far untouched, not to mention chasing down some of those archives in other colleges. Finally, the notebooks of Blanche Athena Clough at the British Library, while more of a personal record, feel as if they might contain an insight into the sort of lives lived by the women who dedicated their lives to the college. (I must thank Gill Sutherland’s excellent book on the Cloughs for telling me that the notebooks existed.) But if my day trip showed me anything, it’s that archives have the same seductive power as fragments – the temptation to fill in the gaps around the edges of the surviving story is almost overwhelming.