Long before he became famous as the gloomy, domineering father of Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. After he left in 1864, he wrote a series of affectionate and sardonic essays about university life, published anonymously in 1865 in a little book called Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don.
In the first chapter, Stephen describes Trinity Hall as ‘the ideal of a college’, with its ancient cloisters and courts surrounded by tall trees, organ music drifting through the air and the sounds of high-spirited young men making their way to lectures, as they had done for centuries. Now this scholarly idyll was under threat: women were encroaching on its hallowed ground.
We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls, but threatened by an invasion of croquet, for female influence is slowly but surely invading our cloisters. Whether, like the ivy that gathers upon our ancient walls, it may ultimately be fatal to their stability, remains yet to be seen.
The young Leslie Stephen was far from being a conservative. He argued passionately for university reform, and, unlike most of his fellow academics, he was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. He was a tall, athletic figure and a keen Alpine mountaineer who once, on a hot day, walked 50 miles from Cambridge to London for an evening dinner at his club.
In Stephen’s time the University of Cambridge was still an all male institution, as it had been ever since it was founded in 1513. Only a handful of college masters and professors were permitted to marry, and even the name for students was ‘men’. Men lived, studied, taught and dined together as celibates in their colleges (in terms of marriage at least – prostitutes were a thriving town business). Stephen claimed that during the fourteen years he spent at Cambridge, first as a student, then a fellow, he spoke to no woman apart from his bedder (college cleaner) and a handful of masters’ wives.
But now, for the first time, women at Cambridge were becoming a reality. Separate lectures for women were already being held, and by the late 1860s the first ladies’ colleges at Oxford and Cambridge would be established.
The prospect of female students did not worry Stephen particularly. It was another sort of invasion that he feared. He thought that the university wife would break up Cambridge’s exclusively male scholarly world and ‘destroy the strong college spirit which formed such a pleasant bond of union; a married fellow will, I fear, oftener think more of his wife than his college’.
Whether he wanted it or not, the women were coming. After the university reforms of the 1850s, colleges were keen to adapt to changing times and to attract the best students and teachers. Most male academics did not want to have to choose between a university career and having a family, and by the 1870s most colleges permitted their fellows to marry.
By then Stephen had resigned his fellowship because he refused to accept the university’s religious rules. He moved to London, began an uncertain career as a literary journalist, and married Minny Thackeray. However, he still kept in touch with his Cambridge friends, including the brilliant Irish classical scholar Richard Claverhouse Jebb. After Jebb married the American widow Caroline Slemmer, Stephen approved, and wrote to him that he was glad that ‘the idiotic rule of celibacy’ had been dropped. When he met Caroline in 1874 Stephen liked her immediately. Although she had received little formal education, Caroline was well-read, clever and charming, and they formed a lasting friendship .
What did she make of him? In a letter to her sister soon after meeting him Caroline summed Stephen up as one of the men ‘whose regular business, not their genius, lies among books… Such men are in harness because they have not combativeness & destructiveness enough to make their largeness of intellect tell in life.’ It was a characteristically astute and insightful assessment of Stephen on Caroline’s part, which seemed to foresee some of the unhappiness of his later life. It would have fitted well into the great work of biographical scholarship that would later dominate Leslie Stephen’s life, the Dictionary of National Biography.
Naturally, one of the first things Caroline arranged when she moved to her new home in Cambridge was a croquet lawn.
Sources:’Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Leslie Stephen Sketches From Cambridge by A. Don (MacMillan, 1865) http://bit.ly/28OLB8x; Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber, 1960)
Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Leslie Stephen: An invasion of croquet’, (July 24, 2016) https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)