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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 June 2018

Looking at a faded Victorian photograph, Malcolm Guite brings to mind a subversive performance

THIS is the time of year when time itself gradually intensifies for our students. I feel it even as I pass under the Gothic arch of our gatehouse tower; I sense the pressure and concentration as stressed-out undergraduates pass me in the corridor and scurry off, book-laden, to libraries and study rooms.

In most colleges, this intensity deepens and darkens for the next week or so, until it passes through the black hole of Tripos itself and emerges, on the other side, in an explosion of fireworks, feasting, and celebration through May Week.

But, in Girton, there is a special celebration offered on this side of the Tripos-horizon, and for a good reason. The College Feast commemorates Cambridge’s long-delayed admission of women to degrees; and the 70th anniversary this year has coincided with the 100th anniversary of giving some women the vote. The feast is always held before Tripos, and no one wears a gown, as a gesture of solidarity with all those generations of women who did the work and took the exams, but were never given degrees.

But just outside the hall in which the feast is kept is a poignant Victorian photograph. Taken in 1891, it shows a group of Girton students in the grounds of the college, with its Gothic towers and turrets in the background, all of them fully robed and gowned, some wearing or carrying mortarboards, the signs and insignia of everything that they were being denied. They were members of the newly formed Dramatic Society, giving a performance of The Princess, Tennyson’s thought-provoking medley, published 40 years earlier, a fantasy about the founding of a women’s college.

Indeed, the debates in Victorian society which The Princess provoked may well have contributed to the changes of heart and mind which led to the actual founding of colleges for women. And Tennyson’s imaginary college, half castle, half cloister, almost certainly influenced Alfred Waterhouse when he gave Girton its Gothic arches, and all its little fairytale towers and turrets.

So those early students had the perfect setting for their dramatic reading. I look closely at their clear, intelligent faces, and wonder with what sense of irony, subversion, prophecy, and bravado they donned those gowns. I sometimes wish that I could summon some sound from the faded sepia on our wall and hear in what tones, and with what hopes, they proclaimed Lilia’s lines from near the beginning of the poem:

Quick answered Lilia “There are thousands now
Such women, but convention beats them down:
It is but bringing up; no more than that:
You men have done it: how I hate you all!
Ah, were I something great! I wish I were
Some mighty poetess, I would shame you then,
That love to keep us children! O I wish
That I were some great princess, I would build
Far off from men a college like a man’s,
And I would teach them all that men are taught;
We are twice as quick!” And here she shook aside
The hand that played the patron with her curls.

Lilia’s 21st-century sisters are still having, all too often, to “shake aside the hand that plays the patron”, but there has nevertheless been some real progress from that day to this. If I long to hear again the sounds sealed in that silent photograph, I also sometimes wish that we could give those early students a glimpse of graduation now.

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