Saturday, March 13, 2010

Glorious Nonfiction

Once again, being reminded how much I love reading nonfiction. I've seen a couple of reviews of Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, by Jane Robinson, but the one that made me immediately order it from the library was Cornflower's post about it. In the course of reading the book, she realized she had known one of its subjects, which really drives home the point of the book--that the women whose stories are told made a very real and tangible difference to the next generations of women.

Actually, my very ability to read this book says something for its story. It's not published in the US, so of course my public library didn't have it. My university library didn't even have it, but they managed to interlibrary loan it from a college in Oregon, which incidentally is the other college I might have gone to. So it was my being a college student which enabled my reading about women's fight for college education.

The first women's colleges in England were established at Cambridge in 1869. Incidentally, Cambridge was also the last university in England to grant women real degrees--in 1948. This book doesn't even stretch that far; its scope pretty much ends with the late 1930s. It's not the numbers in the book that make it wonderful reading, though. Bluestockings is stuffed full of lovely anecdotes, and that's really the best way to tell the story. The personal stories and many quotes from diaries and letters make the woman who brought education to their daughters very real.

Having applied to college in recent memory, a favourite anecdote of mine is this one. Elizabeth Smedley applied to St. Hilda's College, Oxford, in 1928. At her admissions interview, the interviewer
"sat in a dim light, by the fireside, making the shadows of different animals appear on the wall by manipulation of her hands. I was full of carefully prepared brilliant thoughts on Shakespeare etc. and was utterly taken aback on being urged to try and make a rabbit or an elephant appear beside hers."(pg. 105)
Miss Smedley got in.

It's not the funny stories, of course that make this book so valuable. One Oxford student, Trixie Pearson, was forced to contemplate leaving her studies because she was unable to afford them. But "discreetly, with infinite sensitivity, the college invented grants and bursaries to help, some of which - Trixie discovered later - came straight from the pockets of her tutors" (pg. 3). Many of its stories are inspiring, some infuriating, all thoroughly worthwhile reading. Bluestockings gives me a profound desire to make the most of my college education. I also rather want to buy a pair of blue stockings.

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