| LETTER FROM CAMBRIDGE |
WHITE GODDESS GHOSTS
by Kristina Zdravic Reardon
The Montréal Review, February 2011
"Graces and Airs" (Oil on Canvas) by Rachel Deacon at Cambridge Contemporary Art Gallery (6 Trinity Street, Cambridge, CB2 1SU)
The colleges on King's Parade, one of Cambridge, England's main streets, are tall, craggy giants. They crowd the narrow street with their cathedral arabesque, intricate stone tinsel and ribbon wound loosely round buildings from another era. I am walking past them: King's College, then St. Catherine's, Clare and Trinity. After a half mile, I turn, and the city of Cambridge lets out its previously-held breath: green trees line the quiet, wider avenue, as I follow wrought iron gates, not much taller than me, walking another half mile.
I blink my eyes. In front of me is the next street, a lone bicyclist dragging his wheels over the pavement. Where was Newnham, one of only three remaining all-women's colleges at Cambridge University? I turn back to the gates, until I see a break in their line. My eyes squint, the way they do when I'm trying to figure out what I've done wrong, as I read the sign, embossed in gold:
All enquiries should be made at
the Porters Lodge, Sidgwick Avenue
I turn back, crumpling my map, and fall into step behind a young woman. I follow the echo of her heels toward another small opening, which I'd failed to notice as I walked by the first time, so intent was my gaze upon the street.
I straighten my blouse, glance around the stout, brick entryway, pull open the twenty-first century glass door, and step inside, just as writers Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf did years ago.
§ § §
Sylvia Plath arrived as a Fulbright scholar at Newnham in 1955, when she was exactly my age, twenty-four. I feel a tug of connection to her legacy here: as a woman; as a writer; as a student at Cambridge (though studying at different colleges); because of our age; as a native of the same state, Massachusetts; and as a Fulbright scholar. She has drawn me here, to Newnham.
When I first arrived in Cambridge a week or so ago, I found the center charming-yet also found my breathing irregular as I rounded street corners. I did not know what was wrong; I love to travel, and the city is beautiful. Yet when I arrive at Newnham, I feel more at ease. In front of me are gardens: sun-burnt grass as far as my eye can see, extending into playing fields, lily ponds, monuments, and fountains. There is space and air.
Perhaps, I think, I am reaching toward the familiar: this campus looks more like an American one, with an overextended quad. But that is not it; I am longing for home. I read Plath's first letter home to her mother in Massachusetts, searching for some key to my emotions:
Oct. 2 1955
I don't know how I can begin to tell you what it is like here in Cambridge ! It is the most beautiful spot in the world, I think. I can see out into the Whitstead garden to trees where long black rooks (ravens) fly over quaint red-tiled rooftops with their chimney pots.
Newnham, first opened in 1871, preserves the aesthetic of the turn of the century-with its Victorian swirls of wallpaper and wooden floors, with its rustic overgrown grass and wildflowers in front of the Old Labs.
The crowded antiquity of some of the more prestigious colleges at Cambridge is stifling to me; the center is a wonderful place to walk, to explore, and to visit-so rich in its history. Yet even when women were allowed to study at Newnham in the late 1800s, they were not allowed on other campuses in the center without a male escort. The Old Labs were for use by female scientists before Cambridge became co-ed, since women weren't allowed to access the better-equipped ones.
"We have an amazing library, as women weren't allowed in the University library for a long time," says current Newnham student Caitlin Devereux. "They thought we'd distract the men!" Her joking manner reveals contentment with the current Newnham. She is glad she chose to study here, as she and other young women at the college enroll in co-ed classes across the university, but come home each night to an environment of all female students.
All three women's colleges-Newnham, Girton, and Lucy Cavendish-were built outside the city center. My walk from King's Parade was almost a mile. There is a physical space separating women from the rest of the university.
Even when women began to integrate into the other colleges at Cambridge , they weren't allowed to earn a full degree until 1948, or take exams in the same rooms at men until 1956. It wasn't until 1988 that the last-standing all-men's college-Magdalene-finally allowed women to matriculate as students. In protest, many male students wore black arm bands. Magdalene flew its flags at half-mast-a tradition which leaves room for the invisible flag of death at the top of the flagpole.
Studying for the summer at the six-hundred-fifty-year-old Gonville and Caius, I feel a sense of guilt as I pass through the gates that now allow me in all over Cambridge-but kept generations, hundreds of years' worth, of women like me out. It is only luck or some fragile, intangible thing that allowed me to be born in 1986 instead of 1886, or longer ago. Plath earned her degree less than ten years after women were first allowed to take degrees; our shared literary hero, Virginia Woolf, could speak at Newnham-but in her youth could not study at Cambridge .
I feel, as I walk through the rest of Cambridge , much like I do when I enter a Catholic cathedral: small, in awe, dazzled by the historic beauty and integrity of the walls. and, despite my lifelong faith, like I am woefully out of place.
But, like Plath, I find Cambridge -and Newnham especially-beautiful. At Newnham, I see my reflection in the water of the fountain pool, blurred by the splash of raindrops: here, I think, the gates were never closed to me; here, I think, I could find my place.
§ § §
Days before my arrival at Newnham, I listened to an audio tour on a bus around the city. The generic, male voice through my headphones intoned that women had finally achieved equality at Cambridge University, and as such, that it was "ironic" that all the men's-only colleges had been made co-ed, but that of the thirty-one total colleges, there still remained three women's-only colleges..
The admissions guidebook I found at the Newnham porter's house shed some light on the issue.
"So why is Newnham a College for women?" it asks in a catchy display of text and graphics. "The answer is simple: in order to do the very best for our women students."
In has only been sixty years since women were allowed to earn degrees at Cambridge , which, with all its prestige and renown, lagged far behind other institutions in the U.K. in granting women this right. The guidebooks boasts that Newnham is, and has always been, "progressive and liberal" and assures students that nowadays, everybody at Cambridge is "absolutely committed to equal opportunities and to fostering a community for men and women on equal terms." Yet even it acknowledges that drastic changes don't happen overnight-or over the course of sixty years.
"Even now only 12% of the University professors are women," the guidebook reports, reflecting only a small degree of the struggle women have faced at Cambridge, a topic on which whole books have been written. "By coming to Newnham you guarantee that you will be taught personally by some of these top women."
In an America where, even at a conservative, Catholic college, I completed coursework in women's studies, it never occurred to me that at a prestigious university such as Cambridge, a student might never have a female professor.
I compare, as I walk around Newnham's premises, the gates to those I've just passed on King's Parade: they are shorter and less imposing; newer and, when I find the entrance, open. I can't help but remember that, for seven-hundred-forty-one years of Cambridge's eight-hundred-one, the beautiful and imposing wrought-iron and gold swirls on King's Parade kept women like me out.
§ § §
I stop at the porter's lodge, where Porter David Simmons greets me. He's a soft-spoken middle-aged man.
"It's got the largest corridor in Europe, aside from Versailles," he says, as we speak in hushed tones. He pauses to recite a list of the famous alums, whose names I already know: Rosalind Franklin, pioneering radiologist; Jane Goodall, whose work studying chimps is world-renowned; Emma Thompson, a well-respected actress; Iris Murdoch, philosopher and author; and, of course, American Fulbright scholar, poet, and novelist Sylvia Plath. He reminds me that Virginia Woolf gave her famous talk 'Women and Writing' here-the talk that would become the iconic essay A Room of One's Own . We pause to ponder the legacies of these women, whose work flourished in an environment of encouragement unique to a college whose mission is to challenge the old boys' club of the institution of which it is a part. In 1921, when the Cambridge Senate voted on the idea of granting women full degrees for the second time, male undergraduates loudly objected and stormed Newnham's gates.
Years ago, in 1957, on a July day much like the one on which I visit Newnham, Plath writes in her journal: Episodes: exterior: the white wedding cake walls of Newnham: concrete was no one has been concrete: the American innocence on the saturated spot of history. Worn walks, scooped stone steps: scooped by whom? famous names?
I can't help but wonder in whose footsteps I am walking when I tread over the scooped stone steps of Gonville and Caius. I am walking over six-hundred-fifty years of history, the stones scooped so deeply near the middle that I often try to tiptoe along the sides closest to the walls so I don't trip on my way up and down winding staircases. At Newnham, the steps do not bow as deeply; they have been tread across for just over one-hundred years. But I know, here, that I am walking in over one-hundred years of women's footsteps.
"It's quite funny when you walk around and look up at the windows." the Newnham porter says, and I can't fully hear the next part as his voice fades off, but, as I imagine the silhouettes of Woolf and Plath in the shadows, I think he says: "It's as if famous people are still here."
He leaves me, tracing nearly invisible footsteps, to find my ghosts.
§ § §
I enter Clough Hall, not realizing until later that it is here, in the very dining room into which I peek, that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous talk in 1928, telling the girls of Newnham: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
I reflect, for a moment, on Woolf. I imagine her eyes grave, her voice impassioned and fierce-her rail-thin body swelling with strength as she impresses her thesis upon a rapt crowd of young women my age: that for most of history, 'Anonymous' was a woman. That Shakespeare's fictional sister Judith was a talented writer, a playwright even better than her brother-but because of her gender, could never write a word. I imagine thunderous applause; that women hold fast to the edges of their seats; that there is standing room only; that one woman, nearing the end of her years, lets a single tear slip out of her eye: she may not have had the opportunity to write, or to pursue the career of her choice, oh, but, look at these girls! she might whisper. Look at what they do!
The Clough Hall dining room is preserved-redecorated, I am told-to look nearly exactly as it did when Woolf delivered her speech. The ceiling stretches toward the heavens, with gothic grace. Pink paint, popular in the Victorian area, accents the white swirls of trim; the Hall looks cleaner, newer, than the interiors of other Cambridge colleges I'd visited. Wooden tables, set with white china and crystal lemonade glasses, stretch in long rows across the room, toward giant panes of glass that cover an entire wall. Woolf biographer Hermione Lee writes that the atmosphere is nearly the same as it was when Woolf first entered the room: "The chairs still scrape, the doors still bang and swing."
But my imagined version of Woolf's speech is far from accurate. After leaving Newnham, I pore over volumes of her diaries and letters, and Lee's biography, which reports the reactions of the original audience members.
"Her mellifluous cultivated voice reading from her manuscript added to the lullaby effect and I am deeply ashamed to confess that I slept right through it," one Newnham alum later wrote. "If only I had known it was to become A Room of One's Own!"
Another young student, recording for posterity the iconic moment of Woolf's visit and speech, simply wrote in her journal: "Had a lecture by Mrs. V. Woolf-very boring."
If I'd have been a student at the time, perhaps I wouldn't have lingered at the door of the Clough Hall dining room for longer than I do today: just for a moment, prying open the heavy doors, looking both ways behind me to see if anyone is witness to my intrusion. I'd have seen 200 women, their places cleared, waiting to leave after dinner; some with their eyes closed, some straining to hear above bad acoustics, and others picking at the hems of their skirts.
How inspiring could Woolf have been, I ask myself, if still, at this time, these women would do the same work as men and yet not earn degrees for another twenty years? 'A room of one's own?' a Newnham scholar may have scoffed. 'I've got that, and money, too. But I'm still a woman.'
For her part, Woolf was more than annoyed that no one seemed to be listening: "Thank God, my long toil at the women's lecture is this moment ended," she wrote. ".Nobody respected me. They were very eager, egotistical, or rather not much impressed by age & repute."
The experience prompted her to begin to draft A Room of One's Own , after comparing her time at Newnham and Girton to her chaperoned visit to the ornate and imposing King's-where she was allowed to visit but not to speak. Perhaps it is this comparison which prompted her to write, in the essay, that she had so often considered how it felt to be locked out-but now wondered how much worse it must be to be locked in.
I consider this, as I pass through the halls. Would I, or Sylvia Plath, have been impressed in 1928, as we sat secluded a mile away from the rest of Cambridge University ? The buildings of almost all the colleges at Cambridge , including Newnham, stand frozen in the time they were built, painstakingly preserved against the changes that time brings. But there is much, since 1928, when Woolf delivered her lecture, that has changed.
§ § §
In the gardens, of Newnham I wander. Students, of both genders, pass me as walk through the grass, down past the manicured gardens to the pathways that dissect what looks like a small meadow: yellowed and overgrown blades of grass, reaching to my waist, blossoms of pink and purple flowers at the tips of some of the stalks. I walk toward what appears to be a brick school house from a distance, but what were the all-women's science labs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It's now a space dedicated to performing arts, currently housing summer classes for students from Pensacola State University.
I walk beneath the windows of the old labs, straining to hear the British professor's voice over the sounds of crickets and toads. I notice Kristen, a Pensacola student who stopped to talk to me earlier. She is sitting with a group of about twenty, all with their desks in a row. The fact that she is a black student makes me think twice on the struggle for equality at Cambridge that I've reflected on thus far: it has largely been a white woman's struggle. The Daily Telegraph recently reported that in 2008, only 14 percent of the 202 black and dual heritage background students who applied to Cambridge were admitted. Some colleges failed to admit any black students; Newnham and Selwyn, another Cambridge college, at that point only enrolled one each, out of the hundreds of white students studying there.
As I flip through the glossy pages of the book, sitting on a bench near the sunken rose garden, I think, now, about how much has changed-but also about how much is still left to change.
§ § §
On not quite, but nearly, this July day on which I am visiting Newnham, in 1957, Sylvia Plath is writing in her journal. Is it humid? Is she giddy with excitement, as one of the first women to have the opportunity to earn a real diploma at Cambridge ? Is she, too, sitting on a bench in the sunken rose garden?
I do not know the answers to these questions. I do know, however, that, on this day, Plath does not stop her reflections on Newnham at thinking of scooped stone steps. She also writes: Virginia Woolf helps. Her novels make mine possible: I find myself describing: episodes: you don't have to follow your Judith Greenwood to breakfast. Make her enigmatic: who is that blond girl: she is a bitch: she is the white goddess. Make her a statement of your generation. Which is you.
Is Sylvia, too, thinking of Woolf's idea of Shakespeare's sister, Judith? The one she will write about: the brilliant poet who never writes a word? The one Woolf says is buried under an omnibus stop?
"She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed," Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own , and maybe says to the group of young women, some nodding off, in the Clough dining hall in 1928.
"But she lives; for great poets do not die," Woolf writes, "They are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh."
When I find myself back at the porter's lodge at Newnham, my wandering having led me back toward the open gate, I cannot leave. Without thinking, I turn around, and run back through the corridors, through the hallway made of glass on all sides that cuts through the lily pond; past the offices and tutors' rooms, and back into the sunken rose garden. I am looking, looking, breathless and squinting in the humid air, looking for my white goddess ghosts.
A 2010 graduate of the University of New Hampshire's MFA program, Kristina Zdravic Reardon is
currently living in Ljubljana, Slovenia on a Fulbright grant. Her work has previously been featured in the South Loop Review, Eastown Fiction, Newport Review, and The Alembic. She writes a weekly column for a dozen newspapers in New England.
Note: The views expressed in this essay are author's
own views and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the