The second assignment for my travel class included wandering around Cambridge U. and finding one of the 31 colleges to profile. On a whim, I decided I’d walk further–not just stay nearby at King’s, or Jesus, or St. Catherine’s, or Emmanuel or something. I wanted to tour a place to which I had some sense of attachment–somewhere I would know about, or had heard about, but that was somewhat obscure, so that I could construct an intersting personal narrative within the text of the tour. After all, who really cares what I have to say about the history or facts of these colleges? Better researchers have written about all of them before me, and there are countless books on each that anyone could pick up and read.
Finding a college that I could ‘care’ about to write about in a significant way was a bit of a challenge. That was, until I stumbled upon Newnham College, and after a bit of research realized that: 1) that is where Sylvia Plath spent her Fulbright years (1955 – 57), meeting Ted Hughes; and, perhaps more importantly to me: 2) that is where, in a dining room, Virginia Woolf first delivered her speech ‘Women and Writing’ in 1928–later to become the iconic text A Room of One’s Own (1929).
I felt my eyes get watery as I walked around Newnham, knowning Woolf had been there, too–I was so overwhelmed. Woolf is my most favorite writer, ever, in the whole wide world, and has been since I first read one of her novels back in the fall of 2003, when I was beginning my senior year of high school.
So off I went: down past King’s College and St. Catz (as they call it), and up over the Cam and away from the city center, to a place where a frog’s voice could almost drown out the construction noise that wakes me up every morning at Caius. The College was so differnt from those in the city center. It’s one of only three remaining all-women’s colleges at Cambridge, but it has a completely different feel. Most of the other colleges in the city center are cramped, ornate quarters, each wall feeling so historic you wonder if your very breathing defiles it. But Newnham is newer, only a little over a century old. Its buildings are brick and not yet covered with ivy; the carpet was worn, but still plush, in the stairwells. The insides have been kept in their original decor–which is turn-of-the-century style, much cleaner and more modern feeling than the deep oak of the other colleges.
And, more than anything, is the space, the air there to breathe, amidst greens that stretch beyond what I could see; a number of playing fields and courts, and so much grass that whole sections of it are left overgrown, wildflowers in the mix. There are corridors made of glass on both sides, overlooking lily ponds. And, second to the Louvre, it’s got the longest corridor in Europe.
I immediately felt comfortable on the Newnham campus, for some reason, in a way that I don’t at Caius. I mean, Caius is beatiful, and wonderful, and all sorts of good things… but I don’t know. I got a weird feeling after I toured some colleges as a high school student. Some, I felt, were too pretentious, and that kind of academic pretension makes me feel weird on the inside, and so, even if the schools were good, I didn’t apply. That kind of feeling can really undermine studying–the feeling that you’re not prepared or equipped to do work there. It’s a gut sort of feeling, and it can change over time. I know, because one of the campuses in the US that completely repelled me as a potential applicant (even though the tour guides were so nice, and there was nothing anyone did or said that made me feel weird) was BC. But only a few years later, I returned there to do research with a professor, and I didn’t get that vibe at all–I thought the campus was pretty, and I kind of liked it. Inaccurate gut instict, or just a bad first impression? Not sure which, though I am sure that, in terms of my opinions of colleges, both can be overcome.
Anyways, that’s a really round about way of saying I liked Newnham better than Caius. OK. There. I said it: it was prettier, and I like pretty things, and also it looked ever so much more new and clean, and I also like new and clean things. It’s a completely superficial attitude. Completely ridiculous, I admit. But it’s an opinion, and we all have them, right?
Woolf gave her ‘Women and Writing’ lecture there!!
I spent the next several hours poring over books in the library, pulling quotes from Plath’s letters and diaries, describing her time there, and mining Woolf’s more extensive collection of the same, plus rereading sections of the Hermione Lee biography.
A thought from Plath, on the college, from her unabridged journals (Anchor Books 2000): ‘…The white wedding cake halls of Newnham: concrete as no one has been concrete: the American innocence on the saturated spot of history. Worn walks, scooped stone steps: scooped by whom? Famous names?’ A perfect description of how I felt walking around.
And, more hilariously, some remarks from students who saw Woolf speak (from Lee), and then Woolf’s diary entries about them!
One girl: ‘Had a lecture by Mrs. V. Woolf–very boring.’
Another: ‘I am deeply ashamed to confess that I slept right through it.’
And, finally, Woolf: ‘Thank God, my long toil ad the women’s lecture is this moment ended… They were very eager, egotistical, or rather not much impressed by age & repute.’
If I can have this much fun poring through books in a library, then, indeed, it may be that I am on the right track after all, applying to PhD programs in literature…