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Introduction to Women's University Fiction, 1880-1945

Introduction to Women's University Fiction, 1880-1945

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Introduction to Women's University Fiction, 1880-1945, book 5 in the series, Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace, published by Pickering & Chatto
Introduction to Women's University Fiction, 1880-1945, book 5 in the series, Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace, published by Pickering & Chatto

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Published by: Pickering and Chatto on Sep 23, 2013
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– 1 –
Tis is the sort o novel every young woman at university reading English imaginesshe can write … Tere is something peculiarly touching about the details o daily liethat [she] includes, even i her characters are stereotypes and sticks. She describes thebathtubs in Somerville College, water running down her arms when she punts, col-lege gardens, electric kettles, cofee bars, the Bodleian library, as though these thingshad never been seen or described beore. Tis has a curious efect on the reader, orthey have in act been described
 so ofen
that they have a kind o banal mythic orce …[She] might write well i she had something to write about. And why is not Oxord,and young love, and Shakespeare something, I do ask mysel. Because it lls me witha kind o nausea I suspect would not be peculiar to me. It is déjà vu in its youth andnewness. It is a reason why sensitive young women should rerain rom writing sensi-tive young novels about Oxbridge. All the same, having done these pages, she mightdo something else?A. S. Byatt,
 Babel ower 
(1996), pp. 154–5Oxord has been ortunate in her novelists; they have rarely been brilliant but they have never been unkind.Norman Longmate,
Oxord riumphant 
(1954), p. 153
‘So this is the city o dreaming spires,’ Sheila said.‘Teoretically, that’s Oxord,’ Adam said. ‘Tis is the city o perspiring dreams.Frederic Raphael,
Te Glittering Prizes
(1976), p. 27
o describe a text as any sort o ‘institutional’ ction necessarily implies a vexedrelationship to the institution depicted. Despite its air o post-modern jokiness,the quotation directly above, taken rom Raphael’s 1976 novel
Te Glittering  Prizes
, neatly highlights the central and oen emotionally wrenching tensionthat lies at the heart o university ction, between the realities o educationalexperience and the privileged cultural position occupied by the idea o the uni- versity. As Raphael’s pun suggests, in university ction, ‘dreaming spires’ and‘perspiring dreams’ unction as complementary and related aspects o the tex-
Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945
tual university. Not only is the ormer requently used as a romantic backdropor exploration o the latter, but, in a subgenre in which almost all authors arerecent products o the institutions they describe, the act o writing itsel isimplicated in the very experience it tries to capture. Nor is the act o reading university ction ree rom this type o ideological baggage; Paul Deslandessconession in the opening pages o 
Oxbridge Men –
that, as an outsider, herst experienced and became ascinated with Oxbridge culture through ction
is one that represents a normative, although certainly not universal, read-ing experience. University ction orces the reader to consider not only the place o university lie in the world, but necessitates a renegotiation o his orher own position towards university lie, a position that may range rom Des-landes’s eeling o alienation
‘the sense o separation I elt rom this world was palpable’
– to the sense o almost celebratory ownership displayed by studieslike Elaine Showalter’s
 Faculty owers
(2005). What this diversity o reading/ writing approaches suggests is that university ction has an important role to play in both reecting and shaping cultural views o the nature and purpose o higher education.In my own study o university ction, perhaps or some o the same reasonsthat Deslandes admits to in the opening o his study, I have chosen to ocuson those who regarded themselves as outsiders. Te study considers ull-lengthctional narratives written about British student lie by women in the latenineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during a time in which both highereducation generally, and the education o women in particular, were undergoing rapid expansion and change. My selection o novels requires some explanation;shared generic characteristics rather than setting have been my main tool o cat-egorization.
I deliberately chose to ocus only on novels describing student lieat universities; unlike today, most university ction o the period describes thelives o students rather than the aculty politics o later novels like David Lodge’s
Changing Places
or Malcolm Bradbury’s
Te History Man
 When I reer to‘university ction’, thereore, unless explicitly stated I reer to novels o studentexperience, the Oxbridge
which I discuss in more detail in Chap-ter 1. Another actor in the decision to narrow down my source texts has beenmore practical. No studies o the British women’s university novel exist and as aresult, most bibliographical sources remain remarkably incomplete.
Identiying and locating university novels, many o which were not considered o lasting literary value at the time o their publication, has been an exciting but di culttask. O the ction that is accessible, the vast majority is set at Oxord and Cam-bridge, where, perhaps not coincidentally, women experienced one o the mostchallenging and visible struggles to gain admission and equal status as under-graduates.
Carol Dyhouse sums up what appears to be the general view among historians o women’s education when she points out that Oxord and Cam-
bridge, where women were not granted degrees until 1919 and 1948 respectively,occupied a conservative position relative to other higher education institutions:‘Oxord and Cambridge can in the main be seen as having unctioned to conrm privilege rather than to ofer opportunities or social mobility’.
Dyhouse’s own pioneering study o women in civic universities,
 No Distinction o Sex?: Womenin British Universities 1870–1939 
, also conrms this hypothesis. By concentrat-ing on Oxord and Cambridge ction, I do not in any way argue that it can orshould be read as broadly representative o women’s experience in higher educa-tion at the time; on the contrary, the ‘abnormal’ conditions within the ancientuniversities oen contribute to the ction’s idiosyncrasies, conrming and com- plicating class issues with gender politics.Indeed, my ocus on Oxord and Cambridge ction has not only shapedbut also indicates the direction o my approach. Any purely historical study o  women’s widening access to higher education would benet much more romnonction primary source material by emale students at redbrick universities,in which the larger history o eminist struggle is perhaps more directly reected.Instead o being primarily historical, my study aims to ofer a mediated accountocusing on the
o genre, narrative and history 
the aim here is notonly to examine how university ction represents Oxord or Cambridge, butequally, to examine how institutional representation shapes and distorts c-tional patterns. While I do not deny the historical importance and politicalrelevance o university ction, thereore, I approach it as a literary scholar whoseoremost interest is in the texts’ internal politics. When those internal tensions point towards a denable external impact, I have noted it; otherwise, I have triednot to draw unsupported real-world conclusions. Te history o access to highereducation is, in one sense, too important to be le to novelists to document; inanother sense, the novels themselves, despite their varying literary quality, aretoo complex to be attened into convenient historical exemplars.My approach to these novels, thereore, has been twoold. I have used thestructure o the
as a starting point or analysis, building on the work o scholars and theorists to investigate how emale writers negotiated theideological demands o this orm while trying to represent the uncomortablerealities o their lives at university. Each chapter then grounds its literary analysisin a specic historical context based on memoirs, letters and autobiographiesand the writings o educational historians, in order to illuminate and challengethe novels’ presentation o the university experience. Tis volume aims to show readers not only what these novels reveal about a very understudied area o  women’s experience, but also how and why the novels structurally repositionand distort that experience in order to comment on the
itsel. Ineach chapter I have included a range o ‘primary’ university texts about women, published between 1894 and 1945. In most cases I have also included at least

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