That Detestable Place: Virginia Woolf And Cambridge

‘That detestable place,’ as she referred to Cambridge, remained a lifelong source of resentment for Virginia Woolf. Despite telling the composer Dame Ethel Smyth, ‘I hate Cambridge, and bitterly though I’ve suffered from it, I still respect it,’ she was never able to reconcile herself to her own exclusion from the University and, as she saw it, the continuing injustices it insisted upon committing against its female students. Yet her resentment was not without foundation.

During the 19th Century, two women’s colleges had been established, Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1871, but women were not admitted as full members of the University. Furthermore, although they had been granted the right to sit Tripos exams in 1881, and were offered University certificates on passing, they were unable to accept the titles of degrees. In fact, many female students even felt that their presence was not welcomed by the University and at times, both faculty and male undergraduates could be openly hostile to it. One Newnham student even claimed that, when women walked, male students sometimes followed them and mockingly ‘clumped and stamped in time with each of their steps.’ 

In her memoirs, Frances Partridge (née Marshall), who went up to Newnham in 1918 (and would eventually become affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group through her marriage to Ralph Partridge) remembered the enforcement of rules which she considered outmoded and traditionalist. Partridge recalled how she had cunningly bypassed the strict college rules requiring Newnham students to have chaperones, ‘by inventing an imaginary duenna called Mrs Kenyon, whose services I called on quite often.’ However, Patridge noted that, ‘there was gunpowder in the air, and it finally exploded at a meeting between students and dons, convened to consider the question of chaperonage, when a brave girl stood up and asked why it was that an exception was made for those girls rich enough to have a sitting-room as well as a bedroom. In a dead silence she enquired: “Is this because it is thought that the sight of the beds in our bed-sitting-rooms would be too much of a temptation?” This occasion, if not this actual remark, sounded the death knell of chaperones. After this we met the men freely, played tennis with them went punting and on picnics, and above all danced with them.’

Whilst providing an entertaining account of college life at that time, the validity of Partridge’s claims must be questioned. Dr Gillian Sutherland has maintained that the use of chaperones continued, even after this meeting. A letter sent to The Cambridge Review in 1932, by Helen Marion Wodehouse, the Mistress of Girton, stating that ‘A woman student does not go alone to an undergraduate’s rooms except with such special sanction as is given, for instance, to a sister visiting her brother,’ also implies that Partridge exaggerated the extent to which interaction between the sexes was permitted.

In any case, the increasingly conspicuous presence of female students, did not prevent the defeat of a 1921 motion calling for University membership for women, by 908 votes to 694. Cambridge had, therefore, unequivocally refused to follow the lead of Oxford, which had granted women the status of full members the year before.


To celebrate this defeat, a group of male undergraduates severely damaged the bronze Clough Memorial Gates of Newnham by attempting to break-in using a coal trolley. Nevertheless, from 1921 onwards, women were granted degree certificates, although these “titular degrees” as they were known, differed from the certificates awarded to men. Five years later, the first female University Teaching Officers were appointed.

In 1928, the year women were granted equal voting rights, Virginia Woolf was invited by the Literary Societies of both Girton and Newnham, to read  her paper “Women and Fiction,” which she later used as the basis of her 1929 book, A Room of One’s Own. The paper’s argument, was that women had largely been prevented from becoming successful writers, not because they lacked ability, but because they often lacked an income of at least £500 a year, and a room of their own in which to write.

The paper met with varying reactions from the students. Kathleen Raine, a Natural Sciences student at Girton, who would later become an acclaimed poet, recalled that, A Room of One’s Own made claims on life far beyond mine: a room and a small unearned income were, to me, luxuries unimaginable.  At Girton I had a room of my own; but while feeling it my due, I did not expect it to last anymore than a dream lasts; and yet, within that dream, we accept all that comes as a matter of course.’

On the other hand, Woolf’s paper was not as appreciated by some of the other attendees. Muriel Bradbrook, remembered, ‘we undergraduates enjoyed Mrs Woolf, but we felt that her Cambridge was not ours’ and Hermione Lee notes that one girl wrote in her diary, ‘had a lecture by Mrs V. Woolf – very boring’. Elsie Phare, who, as President of the Newnham Literary Society, had invited Woolf, even found her ‘haughty’ and ‘patronising’ and felt that Woolf had been far more interested in ‘gossiping with her friend Pernel Strachey (the Principal of Newnham)’ than in the Newnham undergraduates.

Recording her impressions of these undergraduates in her own diary, Woolf described them as, ‘starved but valiant women…Intelligent eager, poor, and destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals.’ Woolf also believed that they had not shown enough reverence for her age or reputation, which had left her feeling ‘elderly and mature.’ But the intelligence and confidence of these young women, had made Woolf optimistic about the future, and she ended her diary entry accordingly, ‘I fancy sometimes the world changes. I think I see reason spreading.’

Woolf drew upon her experiences at Girton and Newnham while writing A Room of One’s Own, which famously contains a passage contrasting a lavish lunch of partridge at a male Oxbridge college, with a far more meagre dinner of beef and stewed prunes at ‘Fernham,’ a fictional women’s college, based upon those of Cambridge. This description was clearly intended to affirm Woolf’s conviction that economic adversity stifled the creative potential of women. 

Elsie Phare later revealed that she had been dismayed by Woolf’s portrayal of ‘Fernham’ and that, ‘it was disquieting to learn later, when I was in Paris as a research student, that Mrs Woolf had brought out a book (A Room of One’s Own) describing her Newnham dinner. Her purpose was, of course, to evoke pity for the poverty of the women’s colleges: but at the time it made us, her hosts, decidedly uncomfortable.’ 

For the most part, Woolf’s words had not resonated with these young women, who had little memory of battles fought by the Suffrage Movement, only a few decades previously. In the 1936 text, Our Freedom and Its Results (published by the Hogarth Press), the novelist and women’s rights advocate, Ray Strachey voiced such an opinion, asserting that, ‘modern young women know amazingly little of what life was like before the war, and show a strong hostility to the word ‘Feminism’ and all which they imagine it to connote.’  By the late 1930s, the status of women no longer commanded great attention, and was commonly thought of as irrelevant compared to the spread of Fascism in Europe and the looming threat of War.

It was not until 1938, that Three Guineas, the follow-up to A Room of One’s Own appeared. Three Guineas attempted to combine Feminist ideas, with more contemporary Pacifist and anti-Fascist ones, but there was a sense that the book’s message had come too late. E.M. Forster, who believed it to be the least significant of Woolf’s works, declared, ‘in my judgement there is something old-fashioned about this extreme Feminism; it dates back to her suffragette youth of the 1910’s…By the 1930’s she had much less to complain of, and seems to keep on grumbling from habit.’ 

Indeed, the status of women in Cambridge, or lack of it, still troubled Woolf. She did, however, acknowledge that her concerns had been overshadowed   by the outbreak of War, writing to the anthropologist, Judith Stephen, in December 1939, ‘I was asked to lecture the Cambridge English Society too, but really I’ve so often said lectures are damned things; also that no woman should give tongue in Cambridge until Cambridge has done its duty and made them members of the University – but what’s the use of protesting? With this war on.’

At the start of the Second World War, only 10% of Cambridge students were women, compared with a national average of 25%. Just two of the hundred or so Professors were women, and female students were subjected to a quota, stating that not more than five hundred of them could study there against five thousand male ones. Most importantly, they were still not full members of the University. A decade after Woolf had addressed the female students of Cambridge; relatively little had changed for them. It would be nearly another decade, until full membership of the University was finally granted to women in 1947. Like the defeat of the Axis Powers, it was a victory that Virginia Woolf would not live to see.

Selected Sources:

The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume III 1923-1928 – Edited by Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (1980)

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume III 1925-1930 – Edited by Anne Olivier Bell (1981)

Memories – Frances Partridge (1981)

Virginia Woolf: Interviews and Recollections – John Henry Stape (1995)

Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind: The Cloughs and their Circle – Gillian Sutherland (2006)