“Newnham College, Cambridge, is an extraordinary institution with a distinguished tradition of women’s education and many achievements in the field of literature. With Sylvia Plath, Iris Murdoch, A.S.Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Katharine Whitehorn, Claire Tomalin and Ali Smith among our alumnae, we have much to celebrate in women’s writing.
To commemorate the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge, we are building on this heritage to expand our literary archive and develop a programme of events that will raise funds to support and enrich the current teaching of English, a subject which remains a key priority for the College.
So we are delighted to invite you to take part in a unique series of private events celebrating a key moment in women’s education and women’s writing – Virginia Woolf’s visit to Cambridge and the lectures she gave there which formed the basis of her influential book, A Room of One’s Own.
The Iconic Table
In October 1928 Virginia Woolf was invited to luncheon in Kings College by Dadie Rylands, one of its Fellows and a friend of various members of the Bloomsbury Group. The other guests belonged to the Apostles, a Cambridge society to which Dadie had been elected on the recommendation of John Maynard Keynes.
Dadie bequeathed the table at which he and Virginia dined to the Charleston Trust, which has generously offered us the chance to showcase it for the next five years. Thanks to the generosity of one of our alumnae, the original eight chairs have now also been restored, and are back round the table for the first time since they were left to Charleston .
The table and chairs are now situated in one of our private rooms. Although these are museum pieces, the table remains exactly as it was – the original rings created by the wine glasses used by the Apostles evoke a wonderful sense of history which we are thrilled to be able to share with our invitees.
A Room of One’s Ownis a partly fictionalised account of Woolf’s visit to Cambridge. Luncheon in Dadie’s rooms ‘began with soles, sunk in a deep dish’, spread with the ‘whitest cream'; the effect was to light ‘half way down the spine which is the seat of the soul, not that little electric light which we call brilliance… but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse’. Course follows course whilst wine flows, College silver sparkles and servants abound. Intellectual discussion and debate fill the afternoon in the luxurious surroundings of Kings College.
A sense of well-being is generated in Woolf, but, as she leaves this privileged and male-dominated environment from which she, as a woman, is excluded, she feels that world closing behind her: ‘… gate after gate seemed to close with gentle finality behind me. Innumerable beadles were fitting innumerable keys into well-oiled locks: the treasure house was made secure for another night.’ As a woman unaccompanied by an exclusively male member of the University she is refused admittance to the University Library, and gets into trouble for walking on a hallowed Kings College lawn. (It is still forbidden to walk on the grass in most Cambridge Colleges today.)
As dusk draws in, Woolf walks down to the road to a very different College, a women’s College, ‘Fernham‘ (her fictive hybrid of Newnham and Girton). There she notices a student ‘race across the grass’ with no one to stop her, and dinner, whilst nourishing, is plain – she is given broth and water (no wine).
Woolf used the contrast between the two meals as a metaphor for the difference in the funding of men and women’s education, asking ‘What were our mothers thinking of that they had so little wealth to leave us?’ She concludes that a woman needs a ‘room of her own’ if she is to be able to intellectualise, write, expand her education and develop her ideas.
Newnham – where you can still race across the grass – remains one of two all-female undergraduate Colleges at the heart of the University of Cambridge . Founded in 1871, the College’s statutes enshrine a progressive commitment to freedom of thought, fairness, outstanding education, learning and research – ideals as relevant now as they were then. The College takes pride in continuing to break down barriers and seeks to ensure that the education we provide can be available to all, regardless of background or circumstances.
We are delighted to offer two opportunities each year to host an exclusive and intimate event based round Dadie Rylands’ table in one of the College’s private rooms, previously used by a Senior Member (our name for Fellows), with lovely large windows overlooking the gardens, among the most beautiful in Cambridge.
We propose that eight guests sit round the table and sip champagne whilst listening to an eminent scholar speak on some aspect of Woolf, Bloomsbury or women’s writing and education.
The format of each event can be tailored to the host’s request, but the College head chef has devised a modern menu to reflect the food served in Kings eighty years ago…and a full wine list is available for discussion with the High Table Steward. Woolf would be pleased to see that Newnham now has its own College silver which will of course be used, and each guest will receive a copy of A Room of One’s Own as a memento of the evening.
With a formal place setting, eight guests would be unable to dine comfortably on the table itself (and this would also involve the table being covered for protection which would be a pity), so we propose that, following pre-dinner drinks, guests move to a larger table in the same room to enjoy their meal at leisure whilst being able to talk informally with the chosen speaker.
If a larger event were required we would propose that a maximum of 20 guests have pre-dinner drinks round the table during the talk, with dinner served in either College Hall or our new modern room – the Lucia Windsor Room.
We are of course flexible and will try to meet the requirements of the host as to subject matter and speakers, but have connections with a number of eminent Cambridge and other writers and lecturers, including our Graduate Tutor Dr. Pam Hirsch, a seasoned speaker on both radio and television who lectures on A Room of One’s Own, and alumna Isabelle Anscombe, author of Omega and After: Bloomsbury and the Decorative Arts, who met many surviving members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Dadie Rylands, and spent a few weeks living at Charleston, the Sussex home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
Our English students are incredibly excited to have such an inspirational and iconic artefact housed in College, and it is entirely appropriate that they should benefit from this wonderful loan. We therefore intend to apply funds raised to support teaching in English.
Oxford and Cambridge have a unique system of small group tuition (supervisions) which we are determined to preserve. This involves College Teaching Fellows in intensive teaching. College Teaching Fellows are appointed initially on a five-year contract, which costs £225,000 for five years. To endow a position in perpetuity costs £1,125,000.
We are delighted to announce that we have received a gift of £25,000 to ‘pump prime’ this initiative and are now at the first stages of fundraising to build from this excellent start.
To host dinner for eight, we propose a minimum donation of £5,000, or £10,000 for the larger event of up to twenty. If however a donor was interested in naming the College Teaching post (either for the 5-year period or in perpetuity) we will of course be delighted to discuss an additional donation to secure this recognition.
We believe this will be a unique opportunity to host an exclusive event in very special surroundings whilst contributing to the costs of a key priority for the continued tradition of Newnham. Should you wish to take part, we are sure that your support for women’s education, especially in the study of literature, would be applauded by Virginia Woolf, whose spirit surely inhabits both Newnham and Dadie Rylands’ iconic table.
We very much hope that you will be interested in talking to us.”
For more information please contact:
Development Director and Registrar of the Roll