The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery (published by Lions) is about a girl named Maria who runs away from school to her uncle who is the Warden of Canterbury College at Oxford. There she is introduced to the ticklish business of original research as she pursues the life story of a young Cavalier boy. She also begins to learn Greek and Latin and displays an aptitude for it which makes it likely that she will one day study at the university.
When The Warden’s Niece is set, in about 1875, Oxford University had just started to admit women the previous year. Five all-male colleges at Oxford: Brasenose, Jesus College, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s became open to female students in 1874 and women’s colleges were later established. In neighbouring and rival Cambridge University, two women’s colleges had been established in 1869 and 1872. These were Girton College and Newnham College respectively.
However, women were not examined or made full members of the university in either Oxford or Cambridge until some years later. Although both universities began to allow female students to sit examinations, they were not given degrees if they passed. In Cambridge, women were examined in 1882 but were not full members of the university until 1948. At Oxford, women could become members of the university from 1920 although women had been passing examinations since the late 1870s.
However, Maria’s ambition goes beyond merely studying at Oxford, she wants to become a professor there too. When Maria first admits to her uncle her ambition of becoming a Professor of Greek he tells her: ‘Now that they are admitting female students into Oxford there is every chance there may be female professors in your lifetime’. Unfortunately, Maria would have had to wait a long time to fulfil her ambition. The first woman to be appointed to a full professorship was Agnes Headlam-Morley. She became Montague Burton Professor of International Relations in October 1948. In Cambridge things moved slightly faster as Dorothy Garrod was made Disney Professor of Archaeology in 1937. As Maria is supposed to be about eleven, she would have been 84 at the earliest possible time of her appointment to professorship at Oxford.
Despite Maria’s enthusiasm for her research, she finds numerous obstacles in her way. As her eccentric tutor, Mr Copplestone, remarks: ‘The pursuit of truth was never an easy task.’ It is even more difficult than usual for Maria, who faces opposition from every quarter because she is a child and a girl. Women have often been hindered in and blamed for their quest for knowledge although it is a worthy pursuit for anyone. It was once believed by educated doctors that too much knowledge could damage a woman’s reproductive system and make her infertile. For this reason, among others, many people looked askance at women’s education.
Maria’s original research sounds much like a (very short) PhD. She wants to discover something entirely new and different. In her quest for knowledge, Maria visits the Bodley Library in Oxford. The head librarian allows her in, against the rules because she was not in the university, because of her uncle’s position. He is firmly against female students and is disgusted that they are permitted in his library, which is very unfair because everyone ought to be helped to learn. Unfortunately, the librarian doesn’t see it this way.
In a similar way to Maria, Eve from the Book of Genesis took a risk in her quest for knowledge, for which endeavour she has been regarded as a villain for centuries. Eve was just the same as Maria in that she wanted to know something but faced heavy opposition. Maria is in fact compared to Eve by Professor Smith after they make an unaccompanied trip out of Oxford. He says: ‘I don’t know whether you acted as Eve the temptress or whether they [his sons] led you astray.’
The similarity between the stories of Eve and Maria can easily be seen in The Garden by Elsie V. Aidinoff (published by Doubleday). This book is an interesting take on the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is depicted as curious, questioning and bright. She explores the world outside the Garden of Eden without God’s knowledge in the company of the Serpent, who is her teacher. When Eve eats of the apple, she does so because she wants to be free and to know more about the world outside. The Garden is a very beautiful and unique re-telling of an old, worn and misunderstood story.
Both books are well worth reading and I hope you’ll leave a comment if you have any other recommendations!
Also, I’m participating in an event for International Women’s Day on much the same theme as these books. See the event’s web page for more information.