The Dining Club, 1890

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The husbands were left to fend for themselves for the evening. Some wandered off happily to college dinners, thinking about important matters to be discussed. Others were having solitary suppers in their studies, books piled up around them. Their wives had arranged the suppers, given instructions to cooks and servants, written letters and lists for the following day, and dressed for the evening.

Caroline Jebb glanced at her reflection and approved. Her black velvet dress set off her auburn hair and her creamy complexion seemed to glow. She could still pass for much younger than fifty, she thought. When she went to say goodbye to Richard in his study, he looked up from his papers and sighed.

‘Must you go?’

‘I must. You could still have dinner in college if you wanted to.’

‘Too much work to do here. Don’t be late, Carrisima.’

Outside, Melbourne waited by the carriage. He had squeezed into his navy blue coat and put on his top hat for the occasion. As he drove her to the Darwins’ house he told her some fascinating news about the cook’s marital problems until Maud climbed into the carriage, apologizing and explaining about children’s toothaches. Caroline shook her head impatiently.

‘Did you read the article I sent you, Maud? About this evening’s topic?’

‘Yes, well, most of it, you know. George had another bad head, so I had to sit with him, and he doesn’t like me to read. He says I rustle the pages too much.’

This was too vexing. If only Maud would follow her advice she would do quite well, Caroline thought. She was still a pretty girl, though since having children she had allowed her waist to thicken and it made her look positively matronly. She was wearing something in the new style from London, but Caroline suspected she had just come from the garden. Maud caught her look.

‘It’s real nice of Mrs Creighton to invite me, though of course, I should never have got a look-in if it hadn’t been for you, Aunt Cara.’

Caroline frowned.

‘Try not to say ‘real nice’ or ‘look-in’ when you meet Mrs Creighton, Maud, remember. That sort of language should stay in Philadelphia. Come to think of it, it might be best if you said as little as possible.’

The carriage swung into a wide driveway. The Creightons’ home was one of the newer Cambridge houses, rather square and featureless, but Louise had spent money on landscaping the garden, Caroline noted with approval. The maid showed them into a hall which had a new blue carpet on a freshly polished rosewood floor. As Louise came out to greet them, Caroline looked up to see a row of children in white nightgowns peering down at them, faces pressed against the banisters. One child said wonderingly,

‘Mama, mama! What are all these ladies doing here?’

Louise shooed them off to bed before ushering Caroline and Maud into the drawing room, explaining that she had asked the maid to prepare a fruit punch.

‘Mrs Lyttelton and I decided to have no champagne at our dinners, so that our minds are sharp for the discussion at hand,’ she explained, handing them each a glass.

The other women arrived in twos and threes, some walking, others by private carriage or rented hansom cab. A gong was sounded and they were shown into the dining room. Caroline surveyed the table. Dark-haired Ellen Darwin was whispering to her sister-in-law Ida. Louise had seated them together because Ida was good at putting Ellen at her ease. Fanny Prothero was sitting on the other side and saying little, as usual, but it was not Caroline’s job to draw anyone out this evening, thank goodness. Mary Marshall was on her left. Good, Mary always had something interesting to say. She was talking to Eleanor Sidgwick who looked flushed, her eyes shining. She loved these discussions and could not wait to address the group. Eliza von Hügel was looking gracious and spiritual, with her huge crucifix around her neck.

At the end of the table Kathleen Lyttelton shuffled a heap of papers in a business-like way. Dear me, Caroline thought, I hope she doesn’t speak for too long. Louise rang a small bell.

‘Welcome, ladies. May I introduce the topic for this evening? It is a subject which affects us all, and on which everyone here will have very different views. It is, of course, the marriage question.’

Ann Kennedy Smith

Coda: In August 1888 Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’. The Daily Telegraph took up the debate, asking its readers ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’. In the following two months over 27,000 readers replied, for and against. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s. I think it is likely that Caroline Jebb and her friends would have discussed it.

Sources: Carolyn Christensen Nelson, A New Woman Reader: fiction, articles and drama of the 1890s (Letchworth: Turpin, 2001) pp.184-224.

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