My single night as a Girtonian

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Bastion of sanity in late-Victorian Grim

“I give lessons to Amalie, chiefly in history; she reads a lot and we talk. History is my thing. My Cambridge degree is in history. I’m a Girton girl. If I have any spare time I work on my own notes, which might be a book some day.”

So says the governess Ruth Nibsmith about her young charge, as she conspires with art apprentice Francis Cornish, her partner in intelligence work for the British  in the years leading up to World War II.

Ever since reading those lines in Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone, Girton College has retained an certain cachet for me.  So naturally I jumped at poet Gwyneth Lewis’s invitation to attend the Girton’s annual guest night.

They aren’t “Girton girls,” however, the Welsh poet explained.  The phrase she used often in my brief tour was “Girtonian.”  She herself is a Girtonian, and now the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow Commoner at her alma mater.  She’s currently working on a fascinating verse play about the “lost years” of Clytemnestra, and just published a new collection, Sparrow Tree, this year.

Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Girton College is way out on the outskirts of Cambridge and is decidedly not one of the architectural wonders of the city.  It was built in the 1870s in the grim, late Victorian style – rumor has it that the backup arrangement was for the building to house an insane asylum, if the college plans fell through.  This was England’s first residential college for women – but you never know what high-powered edjucation might do to the wimmen.

To that end, of course, it brings up the theme of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, which tackles the prejudices these early women scholars encountered – that novel, however, was based on Somerville College at Oxford.

Gwyneth took me past the Girton room where Virginia Woolf delivered her landmark talk, later published as A Room of One’s Own in October 1928.

We also visited Hermione, a very early woman scholar, in the Lawrence Room – the Roman-period Egyptian mummy (circa 20-40 A.D.) was found in Hawara, in the Fayum, in 1911.  We don’t know much about her.  She apparently died when she was younger than 25, and she’s identified only as Hermionê Grammatikê,  or “Hermione the literary lady” or “Hermione the language teacher.”

Most reminiscent of Gaudy Night was the formal dinner in the grand, high-ceilinged dining room, presided over by Girton’s glamorous Mistress, the geographer Susan Smith.  (I sat next to her husband at the candle-lit table; he’s early-music cornettist Jeremy West, who will be performing in Berkeley next February.)  Sherry to begin, white wine and red wine courses, a cheese course, a chocolate-and-coffee course, and postprandials by the fire.

Chillin'.

I have to take that last bit on faith.  Gwyneth whisked me to the station just as everyone was moving to the fire for more conversation – last train at 11.15 p.m.

Too quickly, alas, to meet the most endearing character of Girton:  Buster.  The once-feral tomcat has been not only adopted by the college, but given some sort of endowment guaranteeing lifetime food and medical care.  Gwyneth says he’s still not above swiping those who become overly familiar.

I’ll have to take that on faith, too.  All I saw was a food dish and his comfortable haunts. Bursar Deborah Lowther kindly provided a photo from her iphone.

Postscript on Nov. 13: Gwyneth kindly sent me the words from the note I saw posted in a hallway, from George Eliot to Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College. The letter, supporting women’s education in the proposed college, is dated 20 November, 1867:

My Dear Miss Davies,

We strongly object to the proposal that there should be a beginning made ‘on a small scale’. To spend forces and funds in this way would be a hindrance rather than a furtherance of the great scheme which is pre-eminently worth trying for. Every one concerned should be roused to understand that a great campaign has to be victualled for.

M.E. Lewes (pen name: George Eliot)

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(Gwyneth on camera below)

SiCa Presents: Gwyneth Lewis from SiCa on Vimeo.


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