Josephine Elder is a writer I've been meaning to get around to for quite a while now. But despite the fact that I already had three of her Greyladies titles resting patiently on my "to read" shelves, I couldn't resist adding yet another of her titles to the collection when I went on my recent Girls Gone B[u]y-ing spree.
The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge (1926) is, according to the Girls Gone By website, considered the third book of a trilogy, after Erica Wins Through (1924) and The Scholarship Girl (1925), though as far as I can tell the first of these titles has an entirely different heroine from the other two. I would usually start reading a trilogy at the beginning, but in this case, as I think I mentioned before, I was just too seduced by the thought of reading of a young woman's experiences at Cambridge in the 1920s to resist making a bee-line for volume three.
The novel, of course, focuses on Monica's time at Cambridge, where she is fortunately joined by her school-friend Francesca. The story proceeds from Monica's initial ambivalence and then relief at finding herself accepted and excelling, to a bumpy patch when she determines to transform a rather self-absorbed and lazy fellow student into something more palatable to her and her friends, and on to her eventual triumph as a serious but well-liked, scholarly young woman.
It's charming right from the beginning, and I loved this evocation of Monica's arrival at Cambridge:
Monica, left to herself, explored her sitting-room. It was on the ground floor in the old wing, looking over the smooth grass of the old court to evergreens and a yellowing birch. To the left, the window of a library jutted out, and a row of little graceful arches marked a passage-way. It was a pleasant, peaceful view. Monica was glad that she was to live here, rather than in the new wings on the other side of the tower. Francesca was over there, miles away—in Top Chapel, the maid had said. Monica had only the very vaguest idea how to get there. She felt very much alone.
She left the bare sitting-room for the box of a bedroom, which opened out of it, and took off her hat and brushed her short black hair. She seemed to herself such a very different Monica from the leggy, red-tunicked girl who had galloped about Greystones and ruled it. She was grown up, a student, and must walk discreetly, and mind her manners. It was very terrifying.
It is perhaps because she is so aware of the changes that have occurred in her own personality that she decides to take on the surly, sluggish Hester, whose room is next door. She convinces herself that Hester, disliked by all of Monica's friends, is just an earlier version of herself, and that she can be transformed into another Monica with a little bit of patience and a worthy example.
You can perhaps read into that last paragraph that I at times found this subplot a bit irritating. Monica's friends come off as rather priggish and judgmental in regard to Hester (though they do have a point), and even Monica, who is determined to befriend Hester, does so in a somewhat condescending way. She doesn't like Hester as she is, or offer her any real affection, but merely imagines what a glorious thing she will become when she has become more like Monica herself. I was happy to read in Sarah Woodall's introduction that she perhaps related a bit more to Hester than to Monica (as for me, although I didn't particularly like Hester, I certainly recall being her—give or take some minor details—when I was an undergraduate), and when Monica discovers that Hester has made new friends behind her back, her reaction really challenged my liking for her:
Monica disliked them intensely. They were horrible people—lazy, self-satisfied, unwholesome people who sneered at everything that was healthy and honest and unaffected. They were bad for Hester. She must not be allowed to get too friendly with them.
Hmmm, just a bit self-righteous, perhaps?
And yet, as I continued reading (and the novel was never less than compulsively readable for me, all self-righteousness and irritation aside), I thought a bit more of about Monica's reactions and about the novel's treatment of Hester. As Woodall notes in her intro, Elder is fair enough to allow Hester a considerable bit of redemption in the end—although it's clear she has no real affection for her—but she also allows us to see Monica's development: how the friendship, such as it is, has grown out of Monica's own insecurities and efforts to adapt to her new, disciplined, and perhaps unexpectedly successful self. Her occasional veering toward the judgmental and intolerant may be a kind of defense.
And in the end, I was sold on Elder's story despite my early reservation. It's really a rather unique portrait of a truly serious, hard-working, and ambitious young woman, and of the sacrifices she has to make in order to succeed. Even Monica's professor—who has undoubtedly made such sacrifices too (as Elder herself would have done, in becoming a doctor long before such an achievement was common for women)—warns her to watch out for the pitfalls of social entanglements:
'You're a good worker,' she said surprisingly. 'You'll never get shoddy—at least, not unless something extraordinary happens to you. A nice, crisp, tidy worker. Stick to your work, Miss Baxter.'
A look of alarm shot into Monica's eyes. What about the games which absorbed so much of her energy?
Miss Hepburn's steely twinkle responded. 'Oh, I don't mean you to stop your games. You must keep fit, of course. But don't get mixed up in a lot of human relationships. You'll always find them difficult. And they're the things that make people shoddy—sentimentality and all that twiddle-twaddle.'
Miss Hepburn's is possibly not a recommendation very many of us would like to follow, and yet, it might have been an essential one for a young woman seeking more than society would have expected her to have—and perhaps even more than she had ever expected for herself.
Most remarkable of all to my mind, no charming prince appears in the end to sweep Monica off her feet and bring her to a realization that what she really wants is to be his charming wife. Which made me realize just how astonishingly rare such stories are (perhaps even today)—stories in which women's ambitions and career pursuits are treated with genuine seriousness, and the sacrifices they require made clear. This is true (unless I'm forgetting some) even among women authors, who more often than not have their characters flirt with careers before love transforms their lives, or else portray women who must work but are discontented about it. In that sense, then, The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge seems well worth reading, even for those readers who aren't otherwise interested in school stories, and my irritations with it faded into background noise. Monica might not be the most likable of all school story heroines, but she is a unique and interesting one.
Happily, the result of my compulsive collecting of Elder's novels even before I had ever read a word of her work is that I have three more of them to be getting on with—all of them, it seems, similarly concerned with professional women. Greyladies has been working steadily over the past few years reprinting almost all of Elder's adult novels, which mostly seem to be drawn to some extent from her own experiences as a doctor, and I am now more intrigued than ever by them, and wondering how the harsh realities that Elder managed to suggest even in an entertaining "girls' story" will play out in her adult novels.