- A Travel Rug for Graduate School Girton College in the 1950s
When I got the instructions from my college about what to bring, I was surprised to see a travel rug included among the necessities alongside more expected items such as towels, sheets, pillowcases, cushions, etc. Why would I need a travel rug? I wasn’t an anthropologist going to explore exotic places; my field was modern languages, and I didn’t intend to travel farther than from my home in Manchester to Cambridge, with maybe an occasional trip to London.
Then twenty-one, I had been graduated that summer from Manchester University with a dual honors degree in German and French. I hadn’t quite known what to do afterward—or, rather, I did know but hardly dared to hope for it. My mother had suggested that college teaching would be a fine profession for me; I had had a serious illness in my teens, so I couldn’t contemplate anything too taxing physically. But college teaching was out of the question unless I got a first-class degree, and that was difficult, especially with a double major. To cover all possibilities I had applied to a program for high-school teacher training as well as to a fancy secretarial place in London that prepared educated young women to act as executive assistants to members of parliament or heads of corporations.
In hopes of getting that elusive First, I had looked into opportunities for graduate work too. My search was prompted by an advertisement in the Manchester Guardian inviting applications for postgraduate fellowships at Royal Holloway College, London. I knew nothing about the place but, having lived at home as an undergraduate, I was ready to go farther afield. When I requested a recommendation from the extremely eminent head of the French studies department, Professor Eugène Vinaver, a Russian who had come to Manchester via Paris and Oxford, he quietly asked me whether I had considered going to Oxford or Cambridge. I hadn’t, but his suggestion prompted me to look into it. I wrote to various [End Page 248] colleges and began to study the information, intending to apply to one college in each place. The way I made my choice was not exactly rational. At Oxford there were four women’s colleges: Somerville, which I eliminated immediately because the application form contained the rubric religion, and, having come out of the edge of the Holocaust, I shunned religious discrimination of any kind; St. Hugh’s was ruled out because I didn’t like the name Hugh; Lady Margaret Hall sounded too aristocratic; which left St. Hilda’s, to which I applied. In Vienna we had had a maid called Hilda who was very nice. At Cambridge things were easier since there were only two women’s colleges, Newnham and Girton. It had to be Girton since my headmistresses in both Bedford and Manchester had been to Girton, so I had a kind of family tradition there, though not in the literal sense. The Girton application asked for my mother’s and my grandmother’s maiden names, and I thought, Good luck to them. My grandmother, who came from Poland, had been proud as a woman to be able to read, but my mother had been graduated from medical school in Vienna.
To my surprise I was accepted at all three places. Evidently a double first did count for something, and presumably my recommendations had been favorable. I ruled out Royal Holloway College the moment I saw it: it was a long way outside London in the middle of nowhere, a gloomy building that reminded me of the fact that the women’s prison in London was also called Holloway. I didn’t like to say right away at the interview that I didn’t want to go there; and, since I was going on vacation to Europe and unsure of my route, I left a poste restante address in Pontresina, Switzerland, and had to make a detour to pick the letter up. I had had interviews at St. Hilda’s and Girton too. The one at St. Hilda’s was in no...