But, you may say, we asked you to speak about Newnham and poets and Mary Beard— what, has that got to do with a blog of one’s own? I will try to explain.
Based on her 1928 lectures given at the Cambridge colleges, Newnham and Girton, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own stands foundational as an ur-text of modern(ist) feminist thought, a passionate defence of female education and an attack on the literal and ideological barriers that prevent female emancipation.
Woolf’s rich influence is one I feel each day in my own voyage out into the enlivening field of academia. My English department’s building at King’s College London bears her name, its walls plastered with her pioneering words, her picture standing proud and prominent in the foyer: the foundations of the building itself. My love for her is one born out of a fierce, fervent feminism and a deep identification with the profound and aching agonies of depression she describes: ‘one goes down into the well and nothing protects one from the assault of truth. Down there I cannot write or read; I exist however’ (Virginia Woolf, Diary 3, p.112). This soul-abiding admiration for Woolf’s work, comes not only from her words, but from the incomparable teaching of Professor Anna Snaith. If ever there were an advert for the education Woolf demands for women, it has been Anna’s teaching. A kind of teaching that attests to the capacity for education to really transform the lives and ambitions of young women, enliven them as individuals and open doors. For as Woolf and the pioneering female academics in our classrooms remind us: ‘there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind’.
And it is admiration for that fearless, fabulous fleet of female academics that unexpectedly led me to Newnham myself on Saturday 28th February to recite some poems for the Newnham Literary Archive Event 2015, Newnham and Poetry. I, unlike Woolf, received my invitation via Twitter. Enraged by the vile and deeply misogynistic online abuse Newnham classicist, Professor Mary Beard, faced for the CRIMES of being a woman in the public eye, over the age of fifty, with an opinion; I hurriedly scribbled a poem, recorded it in my pyjamas and tweeted it to her as a small token of solidarity.
(Here’s me pyjama clad reciting said poem)
Before I knew it, lots of people had watched me saying it in my pyjamas, had shared it online and I was on the front of a book cover, in resplendently blue stockings, proclaiming ‘When I Grow up I Want to be Mary Beard’.
Mary’s kind appreciation and support of the poem, and the book it subsequently spawned, was glorious enough- for a very young bookish, overly-eager and socially awkward aspirant academic any words, encouraging or otherwise, from such an inspirational source are pretty great! However, receiving a keen tweet from the Newnham Roll inviting me to perform at the event offered even greater delight.
So, here I was! Able to walk on the grass of the college, as Woolf never could in her fictional Oxbridge quadrangles:
‘he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me’.
I must confess to having a little feeling of Woolf’s gravel dweller, the trespasser audaciously ‘strolling through those colleges, past those ancient halls [in which] the roughness of the present seemed smoothed away’. However, the welcome I received at Newnham allayed all these fears. A day full of warm, wickedly witty and wonderful women and their words further fuelled my gratitude to our ‘ansisters’ who have paved the way for women in academia; from gravel to grass, the poor offshoot college that is Woolf’s Fernham to the home of some of the most revered female poets and people of the 19th,20th and 21st Centuries.
To hear the work of Newnham poets, past and present, read aloud was a joy, from the impassioned delivery of the greats by alumnae actresses Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams and Genevieve Gaunt to the work of modern poets such as Gillian Allnutt and Esther Morgan.
There was not merely food for thought, but also excellent food- for as Woolf reminds us ‘one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’! Unlike the Fernham of Woolf’s writing in whose ‘plain gravy soup[…]there was nothing to stir the fancy’, illustrating the lack of funding for the women’s college, the tables were generously adorned, ‘the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled’. Equally nourishing was the conversation I had with Dr Sandeep Parmar, an academic whose work on Newnham poet Hope Mirrlees I greatly admire. (Once again this love of Mirlees, such a bold, inventive and under appreciated modernist, is due to the kind and keen lectureship of Prof Anna Snaith!)
The day celebrated all that I value about being a poet and a woman: good wine, inspiring women and celebration of fierce female intellect and creativity. The day also acknowledged the hardships, the battles that women confront daily and the fragile balance of power and vulnerability that we face as literary and academic women. The suicides of three of those extraordinary Newnham and Newnham associated women, Amy Levy, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath attest to the difficulty and hardship of life as a woman writer. Gillian Allnutt fearlessly explored the burdens of depression as a woman writer through the suicides of poets Virginia Woolf, Plath, and Marina Tsvetayeva: ‘I cannot say it is love stops short / of the rope / or the river / the quiet caress of gas in an uncaring winter’. Whilst Dr Rosamund Paice saved Tennyson’s Lady of Shallott from her fate as romantically tragic heroine, instead inscribing her own tale of the experience, in Paice’s poem ‘Nearing Camelot’.
Woolf informs us ‘the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder’. It is the beauty of the world and the words these amazing literary women have created that keep my heart from being cut asunder, their enlivening voices that force me to voyage out, to write and to shout my poems from the internet, to dingy London venues, to the halls of Newnham College.
We have been quiet and voiceless long enough:
‘Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics’.
Thus, I leave Newnham enlivened, inspired and content. I meet my two dearest female friends (the bluestockinged literary ladies who flank me on my book cover), Imogen and Aja, at their flat for dinner. We don’t sit at long Newnham dining tables with a lavish three courses; we sit on the floor, eat pasta, watch Brideshead Revisited, toast to my Master’s place at Cambridge and share in that glorious commingling of academically-inclined young female minds: serious, silly and sentimental in equal measure.
So here’s to all the female academics, the writers, the thinkers and friends who enjoy so many rich privileges that our literary ansisters did not live to see, and continue to fight for those that still evade us.
Here’s to Newnham Roll for allowing me to shout rhyming feminist things in those halls so steeped in rich literary history.
And here’s to Mary Beard who has taught so many of us the value of female speech and having the courage and conviction to be erudite, insightful and incisive, for (giving the last words to Woolf):
‘so long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say’.
You can buy When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard by clicking here! A cheap plug I know but we as women writers are still oppressed by the fact that we ‘must have money’ as well as that room of our own in order to write.