‘Girnham’, despite its name, is not a hybrid of Girton and Newnham. The establishment that Josephine Elder describes so vividly in The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge is firmly rooted in the reality of just one college. All the details, from its location on the Huntingdon Road and its architectural eccentricities (the tower, for example) to its celebrated Fire Brigade, point only to Girton—the college that, under its own name, the schoolgirls Monica and Francesca have already visited in The Scholarship Girl.
To my surprise, reading the descriptions of college life in this book have brought memories of my own years at Girton in the late 1970s flooding back. Despite the huge differences in our worlds (my generation’s experience of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll would of course have been unimaginable to Monica and her friends; on the other hand, the Fire Brigade was disbanded in 1932, so our opportunities for extraordinary heroism were much more limited than theirs) an astonishing amount apparently did not change at all between her day and mine.
The social lives of the students as described in this book—the ebb and flow of friendships, the gatherings in one another’s rooms for work, for fun and for serious talk, and the expeditions by bicycle into town for lectures, for exams and for punting in May Week—were immediately familiar to me. Even the antics of the hockey team in Chapter X ring absolutely true (in my day the Boat Club were the usual suspects, but the behaviour was strikingly similar), though I was amused to read that in the 1920s they seem to have been fuelled by nothing stronger than cocoa. And the unconcerned and rather dismissive attitude (p100) of some students to the funny old ladies (as they appeared to them) who had played such an honourable part in breaking down the barriers and paving the way for their own, much easier, path towards educated adulthood is exactly what I remember. Some things will always be true of a group of intelligent not-quite-grown-up girls, and it’s a measure of Josephine Elder’s skill that they are so recognisable to one who was a student two generations later.
I wasn’t anything like Monica. In fact, I can see more of my young self in the awkward outsider, Hester Williams, than in any of the confident, clubbable public schoolgirls. I met many just like them, though. Clearly Hester is of a type that was not Josephine Elder’s cup of tea, but I was delighted, in reading to the end of the book, to see how fair-minded the author is. Every character is shown to contain something of value, and all are improved and enriched by the influence of ‘Girnham’. That was my experience, too.