Literary ladies at Cambridge - and who's minding the baby?
There are many nice things about being a fellow of Newnham. I could go on at great length about the virtues even (or especially) in 2009 of having a college for women only. But I will spare you, till later. This weekend I've been thinking instead about Newnham's literary inheritance. Amongst our alums (as I have now almost got used to calling them) is a range of the best, and best known, writers of the twentieth century: A S Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Claire Tomalin, Sylvia Plath, Joan Bakewell, Germaine Greer, Katharine Whtehorne, Sarah Dunant -- and many more.
So it was partly in celebration of this that the Cambridge Wordfest (the local literary festival) held some appropriate events in Newnham this year, and the college hosted a dinner for the speakers and assorted others, me included. Almost all of us had some connection with Newnham; most had been students or on the staff at one time or another.
There were fourteen of us 'girls', and those at my end of the table included Frances Spalding and Isabelle Grey (who was in my year in Newnham when I was an undergraduate), plus Jean Wilson. And after dinner I quaffed -- I confess -- a lot more claret with Isabelle and Rebecca Abrams, and the college Vice Principal Catherine Seville.
So how was the conversation?
Well, over dinner I talked about to Frances about work. She was about to do a Wordfest session with Susan Sellers on Virginia Woolf (featuring the very table around which Woolf famously dined at King's in Room of One's Own -- an iconic piece of feminist furniture recently loaned to Newnham) and she has a book on the Pipers coming out.
But after dinner we fell increasingly to talk, as women do, about a woman's lot. Why is it, when everything should be swimming for women, that there is still such a gap between men's and women's lives and careers?
A lot of that is about the 'conceptual economy' of domestic responsibility. I sit down at lunch with the mothers who work at Newnham and know that, whatever else they have been doing (from splitting atoms to lecturing on the Anglo-Saxons), they have never left their home life entirely behind. Their heads still must have space for the lost ballet shoes, the nursery Christmas party and the up-coming vaccinations.
Most men, I am convinced, however much they share the domestic chores when they are at home, leave them all behind as soon as they shut the front door. I watch Cambridge academics at seminars in the early evening. Suppose the discussion is going really well. You see them calculating if they can stay later than they should -- and quite how apologetic they are going to have to be when they roll up home an hour late. Will flowers be enough to compensate? Or a bottle of wine, or a dinner out? The women don't have a choice; they just leave.
We finished the evening with a tragic reductio ad absurdum of just that point. Isabelle remembered the story of a guy in America who went to work and simply forgot that he had the baby in the back of the car, to drop off at daycare. At the end of the day the baby was found dead, locked in a very hot car in the parking lot.
An urban myth? No, it really happened. And it gives new depths to the old joke .."Oh my god, I left the baby on the bus".