Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 10 - Women's Schools and Colleges

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CHAPTER X

WOMEN'S SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES

(1896)

    THERE is a mistaken impression among Americans that the English girl is dull and awkward. Shy and silent she is apt to be until she is addressed by her elders. She does not volunteer her opinion very often, although she has opinions; but she habitually defers to superior age and wisdom. The English girl, ordinarily, is a most retiring creature; plainly dressed, kept in the background, she is consequently spared aging prematurely and does not acquire precocity that would add nothing to her charm.
    Nevertheless, she is neither unobservant nor heedless; she is watchful and ready to do any little kindness, to render any unobtrusive attention; your sofa pillow is adjusted at a more comfortable angle; the foot stool is quietly slipped under your feet, the screen is placed before the too fervid blaze; the shade is quietly drawn and all these friendly offices are performed by the same deft hand-the little maiden who comes and goes as silently as a shadow.
    If you talk to the intelligent English school-girl you will find a characteristic thoroughness in all that she has acquired. You will discover that she is not only well read, but that she assimilates what she reads, and can criticize and weigh and compare with surprising judgment and accuracy. A little girl of sixteen sat by me one day at an informal luncheon; her cheeks were as pink as a rose; her clear skin showed the salutary effect of the cold [-101-] bath and daily exercise. Her glossy hair was smoothly parted, a silky fringe softening the outlines of her brow, and the thick locks were braided and tied with a knot of ribbon, like a young child's; she wore a simple but perfectly tidy gown of brown merino. She was not asked nor expected to join in the conversation, but her close attention made it very evident that she was listening with interest and with perfect comprehension to all that was said. Presently her mother remarked:
    "Ellen has just passed her exams at Girton and we all feel very much relieved." And yet the little maid had given no hint of being other than almost a child not long liberated from the nursery. To use their own phrase the English girl always "goes in" for some especial study or accomplishment. Among well bred middle-class people she is taught the useful and practical household arts; to make her own plain clothes, to darn and mend, and this acquired, the finer branches of needlework. She is also taught to cook and to keep accounts. This latter is considered most essential, and the English girl is generally a very well trained accountant. It is undoubtedly this early teaching which makes many English women such thorough women of business. Carelessness, inaccuracy or ignorance in the matter of expenditure they regard with about as much disapproval as we show toward insufficient knowledge of spelling or the multiplication table.
    Young girls of well-to-do families are usually skilled in all out-of-door sports, in tennis, golf and rowing, and now that they have overcome their prejudice against the wheel they have become admirable cyclists - having learned that they may venture forth unchaperoned and return unhindered, in safety. The bicycle in England, as in the United States, is doing its salutary work in freeing young girls from needless convention, rendering them self-reliant and independent, with no sacrifice of their modesty.
    [-102-] There is, however, a very marked contrast, even under the new dispensation, between the status of the English and the American girl in the family. In the United States, in ninety-nine cases out of an hundred, it is the daughter for whom sacrifices are made, and economies practiced; it is the daughter who must be well dressed, well educated and, when it is possible, have the advantage of travel. It is unquestionably the daughter who has an all-powerful influence over her father. The English parent says "my girls;" the American parent says "my daughters" and the difference in the two terms tells the whole story. But American parents reason, and not without justice, since there is no entail upon the family estates, that it is far easier for the sons than for the daughters to earn a living, and it is a salutary training for young men to be thrown upon their own resources. For this reason sons and daughters usually inherit equally and where a discrimination has been made, it is apt to be made in favor of the daughter. The reverse is true in England and it is somewhat painful to note the subordinate place which the daughter takes in the English household, as compared to the sons; how she fetches and carries and makes herself the willing servant of the lad fresh from Eton or Harrow, or the undergraduate coming home from Oxford or Cambridge for his holidays. It is not to be inferred from this that there is lack of affection for the girls in the family; strong affection exists but it differs in kind, rather than in degree, from that which the American girl accepts as a matter of course, and which it often happens she does not value as she should.
    England has known the stress of hard times during the past ten years, and this, with her better and more practical training, has made the English girl of to-day restless under uncomfortable conditions which she feels confident that she has the brains and energy to improve. [-103-] In Great Britain, as in our own Eastern States, the female greatly exceeds the male population-the younger sons having emigrated to South Africa, to Canada, to India or to the Australian colonies. In large families it has become more and more difficult to provide for the daughters who remain at home, and for whom satisfactory marriages cannot be arranged, as might have been done once, when tastes and customs were simpler and less was demanded by society. English girls, therefore, like their American sisters, are becoming interested in the important question of earning a livelihood - a far more difficult matter in over-crowded England, where the inevitable disparity exists between the wages and salary of men and women engaged in the same pursuits, than in the United States. The employment of women in banks, in telegraph and post-offices has given employment to thousands; stenography has furnished work to other thousands, and in London and the larger cities women have opened offices, occasionally employing a large force of assistants, and these have done extremely well. Women are also succeeding as physicians and dentists and the trained nurse is in demand, not only in all the hospitals, but in private families, even accompanying the army in its foreign campaigns - an important part of the surgeon's staff - and a contrast to the disfavor in which they are held by military authorities in the United States.
    Photography has been successfully studied and several of the most fashionable photographers in London are women - one at least of whom holds the royal warrant. Amateur photography is a favorite amusement and I have seen some collections that would have done credit to professional photographers of high repute.
    Educated English women are far greater lovers of nature than American women; they not only have an appreciative affection for the fields and woods, but they [-104-] spend every available moment of the short summer out of doors. Many are accomplished botanists, and are as skillful with the brush and pencil as with the pen; sketching in England seems to be regarded as necessary an accomplishment as writing, and there are very few among the educated classes who do not sketch from life more or less cleverly. They take great pride in their herbariums; others study ornithology and make collections of eggs which they arrange and catalogue with great skill.
    I met at Birmingham a charming young girl who was devoting her spare time to the study of the butterflies of Great Britain. She had almost all the species, beautifully mounted, the work of her own skillful fingers. She told me, with much diffidence, that there was a delightful excitement in getting together such a collection. She had spent a part of the summer on the Yorkshire moors and said that she had chased butterflies with her net, scrambling over stones, through thickets of brake and heather, sometimes for miles. Her especial deed of prowess of which she was very proud, was the capture of two fine specimens of the "Purple Emperor."
    "These," she explained, "are very difficult to catch; they live in the top of oak trees, but they can be tempted to come down by putting under the tree a mutton bone that has gone off' a little; they can smell it - their sense of smell is very keen - and then they come."
    She also confided to me that certain rare and beautiful moths could be taken after dark "by sprinkling the trunks of trees with beer and sugar."
    One of the most striking differences in the training of English and American girls is the active life of one as compared with the disposition of the other to remain indoors. Our growing taste for athletics, however, is fast reforming the latter evil. But with the rich food and confectionery which very young American girls are per-[-105-]mitted to eat, their theatre and dancing parties, the hothouse air which they breathe, the premature appearance of the lover upon the scene, it is doubtful if they will ever acquire the ruggedness and simplicity of the English girl. It will be some years, even after golf and tennis shall have done their perfect work, before the American girl can rival in physical robustness her more symetrically developed sister - a result to be desired where intellectual vigor and physical strength are equally balanced.
    While boys in England are sent to the great public schools, or to smaller and less expensive schools, girls are taught at home, or they, too, are sent to boarding school, either in England or on the continent. But the latter is not so common a custom as in the United States, and there are few colleges corresponding to those like Vassar or Bryn Mawr in the United States, in which the daughters of the wealthy are educated. Even in Girton, Newnham and Mary Somerville the daughters of families of high position are a very small minority. The standard schools corresponding to, though very unlike the public schools of this country, are patronized by the poorer classes only, and rarely, if ever, by persons who are at all able to pay tuition in private schools, or employ a tutor or governess.
    The difficulty of popularizing University training for girls amongst the wealthier class is incomprehensible to Americans, accustomed as they are to the patronage which their own higher institutions receive everywhere throughout their own country. It is all the more difficult to comprehend since the life of both students and teachers at Newnham and Girton impresses the visitor as being almost an ideal one. For the young women in both colleges there is a judicious mixture of work and recreation, both of which are pursued with great diligence and enjoyment. It should be explained that the method of instruction dif-[-106-]fers wholly from the methods employed in our colleges, there being nothing that corresponds to our recitation system. Students "read," that is, study in their rooms, or in rooms set apart for them, with the assistance of a "coach" or tutor; they attend lectures, and take notes, studying for themselves the subject which the lecturer presents, the examination being the test of what has been acquired. Except for the law exacting residence at the University for a stated period, and the necessity of attending the lectures, a student might study elsewhere than at Oxford and Cambridge coming up only for examination.
    Girton is two miles from Cambridge, a gradual ascent all the way, the stately buildings of the college crowning an eminence which commands an extensive view of the surrounding country. After one has left behind the narrow, crooked streets of the old town, the road is bordered by green meadows and woodlands and at the time of my visit the eye was delighted with blossoming hedgerows and blooming gardens while the ear was enchanted with skylarks and singing thrushes. The outer gates stood open and I drove to the entrance alighting under the arch to ring the bell which was answered by a white-capped portress. I was shown into a large well-lighted, stone-paved hall, the arched ceiling supported by slender stone columns, two or three good pictures relieving the bareness of the grey walls; a window commanded a view of a grassy tennis court, and as I waited groups of girls came and went talking and laughing gaily, though not noisily, the picture of radiant health. They seemed to be under no surveillance, and I first saw here that naturalness and freedom from petty restraint which is so apparent and so delightful at both Girton and Newnham. The students appeared to be much younger and less mature than those of our colleges, their short dresses and braided hair giv-[-107-]ing them an air of extreme girlishness. I was told, however, that they were really older than pupils in similar schools in the United States, eighteen being the minimum age at which students can matriculate at Girton. Miss Welch, the Head Mistress, was engaged, but she sent one of her assistants to show me about, a clever and agreeable young woman who told me that she had studied three years at Bryn Mawr and the University of Chicago, where she had taken her degree. She spoke in the highest terms of both institutions, the opportunities which they offered to women and talked with much enthusiasm of the United States and the friends she had made while there. I was first shown the sitting-room of the Head Mistress which was beautifully furnished, filled with books, pictures, flower-laden tables, lounges and comfortable arm chairs. The students' rooms were like those in American colleges - a sitting-room and bed-room in each suite and these, too, were well ventilated, well lighted and most cheerful and attractive, beautifully furnished, with flowers everywhere, on mantels, tables and window-sills; plants growing thriftily in pots, bowls of roses and mignonette and single lilies in slender crystal vases. The individuality of the occupant was very apparent in the collection of tennis rackets, cyclists caps and photographs, but the poster craze had either passed, or had never reached Girton, and cotillion favors were not among the trophies that the American girl-student prizes and so lavishly displays. Near the head of each stairway, framed and glazed, was a collection of visiting cards each bearing the name of a student having an apartment in that especial corridor. In the hall below, an automatic indicator showed whether the occupant of the apartment was "Out" or "In." The lecture rooms at Girton are very small compared to those in most American colleges and they are carpeted and furnished, though less ornamented, [-108-] quite like the sitting-rooms at Smith or Vassar. Around a large table in the middle of the floor sit probably half a dozen girls with the instructor at the head of the table; each student is supplied with pen, ink and paper and notes are taken as the lecturer proceeds. The quill, it may be said, has not yet been superseded by more modern inventions, either at Girton or Newnham. There is no royal road to success in any English school or University-and the student can make no progress and attain no honor which has not been faithfully earned by impartial marks, and it is this conscientiousness, both in achievement and award, that has made an English degree of such intrinsic value and such an honor to the man or woman upon whom it has been conferred. It is also one and the chief reason why its refusal is such a serious injustice in England-this and the fact that with many of the degrees at the English Universities go substantial scholarships worth several hundred pounds per annum. Not only are degrees refused, but the girl-students of Girton and Newnham are not permitted to wear the cap and gown, although the colleges are practically adjuncts of the University, the lectures and all the requirements being the same as in the older colleges.
    In the beautiful library, which was a large, well lighted room, a group of girls were gathered about a table busily making notes and turning over the pages of encyclopedias and lexicons. One or two glanced up as we entered, but they were all too much interested and occupied to be interrupted by the presence of chance visitors. The great dining-room looked out upon a broad lawn with borders of roses, lilies and honeysuckles which were in full bloom; at one end of the hall was a "high table" - the old distinction which has never been adopted in the United States, and at which sits the Head Mistress and the resident teachers. Breakfast was over and the maids were [-109-] preparing the tables for the one o'clock luncheon, but the cloth was still adorned with bowls of honeysuckles and pansies which had been gathered while they were yet wet with dew. The meals, both at Girton and Newnham, are served much earlier than in ordinary English households -breakfast being at eight, luncheon at one and dinner at half past six. The great dining-hall at Girton and the apartment of the Head Mistress are separated by a corridor and may be thrown together when the student and Faculty are "At Home," the dining-hall being set apart for dancing to which it is admirably adapted. The laboratory was small, but the students attend lectures in chemistry among other branches, at the University lecture rooms at stated hours, those who choose to do so going to and fro in carriages. This single item of expense, I am told, amounted to something like 1,000 per annum. Each day a list of lectures, the hour, topic, name of the lecturer and the names of the students attending each lecture is posted in the lobby at the main entrance.
    Girton is surrounded by fine lawns, and beautiful shrubbery with the most brilliant and luxuriant flowers at every turn. There were no set beds filled with stiff geraniums and foliage plants, but there were clumps of lilies, pansies and forget-me-nots - all the fragrant, old fashioned flowers planted together, but carefully tended and yet apparently growing at their own sweet will; an extensive grass court and one gravel court of equal dimensions were provided for the tennis players, with roads for the cyclists, secluded walks for pedestrians, and sheltered nooks and shady seats for those who love a book and solitude.
    As I came away my guide showed me a "short cut across the grounds-a narrow, shady alley with the laburnums, lilacs and chestnuts meeting overhead and knit together by the wandering tendrils of the honeysuckle, and with borders of rainbow hued annuals all the way. [-110-] Nowhere else in the world do the sweet old fashioned flowers bloom in such profusion and perfection as in England, and my recollections of Girton will always be associated with the fragrance of honeysuckles and roses.
    I had been invited to dine in hall at Newnham the same evening with one of the teachers. The college is within the boundaries of Cambridge, north of Selwyn College, and has accomodations for one hundred students, a similar number being in attendance at Girton, where it has been necessary to convert some of the lecture rooms into bedrooms. Fortunately, although it was somewhat late, my hostess was still waiting for me, and she escorted me into the hall. It was a noble apartment probably one hundred feet in length by forty in width, with a decoration of delicate garlands and tracery. But as the arched ceiling was far beyond reach of the house-maid's brush it seemed miraculous that it could be kept so dazzlingly white; the wide lawns, the shrubbery screening the building from the road and the clean electric light, however, explained the absence of dust and soot. Over the platform set apart for "high table" hung fine portraits of Miss Clough, Professor Sidgewick, the founder of Newnham, and other of its benefactors. Dinner progressed with a buzz of conversation and it had all the gaiety and animation of a large and very congenial party. It was pleasant to perceive the comradeship between the young students and the teachers: there was nothing, on one hand, of the frigid and unbending attitude which sometimes characterizes the manner of the college professor, nor, on the other, any lack of deference and respect; there appeared to be between the students and teachers the best possible understanding, mutual interest and good will. At table, American co-educational and political institutions were discussed, many questions being asked and answered so far as I was able to answer them. It was admitted [-111-] that beginning without the trammels of tradition and custom, it was possible for co-educational universities to accomplish what could not be undertaken in England where there was yet great prejudice to overcome; much strength and time would yet have to be expended in opposing obstacles which we had never known-means and energy diverted from practical undertakings. The question of residence had been one unsurmountable difficulty in the English plan of co-education, and there was a desire to know how this had been obviated. When it was explained that there were separate halls on opposite sides of the quadrangle for the young women, quite removed from those occupied by men, that these halls were presided over by women deans who were members of the faculty, and that all the amenities of a well-ordered home were preserved, it was acknowledged to be practicable enough - for Americans.
    While the dinner was not elaborate it was abundant and excellent; much better, candor compels me to state, than is ever served to women students in many of our own colleges. There was a nourishing soup-and English soup is always delicious - an excellent roast of mutton, roast fowl with bread sauce, vegetables and a tart. At the conclusion of the meal, which was eaten in the leisurely fashion which we have yet to learn, students and teachers rose and a short grace was said; then the girls raced away to play tennis for the two remaining hours of daylight, or to ride their bicycles around the garden walks.
    After dinner I was shown over the college which, like Girton is modern, comfortable and, with its electric lights, bath rooms, supplies of hot and cold water was a contrast to the venerable colleges for men. The rooms for the students, however, are not en suite, as at Girton, and the rent is consequently less. All were tastefully furnished, however, with dainty modern furniture, the walls prettily [-112-] decorated, while the broad cushioned window seats were very attractive. There were the same small lecture rooms, as at Girton, and examinations being in progress many of the girls, instead of joining in the games, resumed their reading. When we returned to the Lady Principal's charming drawing-room I was introduced to a tall, slender, brown-eyed girl, very modest and shy, plainly dressed and in every way most unassuming. This was a no less personage than Phillipa Fawcett, the mathematical prodigy who had carried off the honors in 1890 and who should have been enjoying the fruits of her triumphs. When I told her what a furore her success had occasioned in America she cast down her eyes and said not a word; she seemed at a loss even to realize that she had done anything very remarkable. Miss Fawcett held the position of instructor in mathematics - one which she has filled with great credit although still very young. The faculty of Newnham were hopeful that justice would finally be done the women graduates in the vexed question of conferring degrees; they did not think that the opponents of the movement represented public opinion; it was the sentiment of the minority who, unfortunately, happened to be clothed with a little brief authority. After a look through the main corridor, we crossed the quadrangle to the library which quite overflowed the quarters assigned it, a new building being then under consideration. Here also, a few of the more diligent students were at work making the most of the quiet and the freedom from interruption.
    "This is the drawing-room for the exclusive use of the teachers," said Miss Clough leading the way down a broad passage and opening a door. The room into which I was ushered was cheerful and attractive in the extreme; flowers in bowls and vases had been placed wherever they could be bestowed, there was a rich fragrance of coffee, and the ladies helped themselves in the pleasant informal [-113-] English fashion, from a generous pot that was kept warm upon the hearth. I gas introduced to Miss Clough's coworkers, many more questions concerning our schools were asked and answered.
    We were to attend a lecture at half past eight and as the time approached I said good-bye to Newnham very reluctantly, turning back for a parting look at the now deserted gardens in which the thrushes were still singing. Lights were shining from the students' windows; they had betaken themselves to their work with as much earnestness as they had shown in their recreation.
    It had been a glimpse of an ideal student's life, tranquilly pursued in that atmosphere of learning, in the seclusion which earnest study demands, and I could not but reflect that young women trained under such happy conditions must exercise a marked and important influence in the future affairs of England, either within their home, or in public life, as they themselves shall ordain.