- University Women in Frances Marshall's Fiction
A virtual unknown in recent literary studies, Frances Bridges Marshall, writing under the pseudonym of Alan St. Aubyn, was well known during the late nineteenth century as an author of women's varsity novels.1 Sally Mitchell's The New Girl: Girls' Culture in England, 1880–1915 provides much needed—and the only to date—critical attention on Frances Marshall but provides little in the way of biography, literary history, or background on the writer.2 Marshall wrote several books about the first bright young women university students in late nineteenth-century England. Her strong, likeable women characters excel in their university studies and grapple with discussions about gender and education. From one perspective, the subject matter alone was a protest to many traditional and cultural expectations for women. In The Junior Dean (1891), The Master of St. Benedict's (1893), and A Proctor's Wooing (1897), we see Marshall wrestling with society's fears that women students will choose careers over wife and motherhood. But rather than contradict society's fears about educated women, Marshall's novels ultimately reinforce cultural attitudes and arguments against university education for women. Such ambivalence seems surprising to a contemporary reader. Why write books about aspiring young women going to university for the first time and then criticize them for doing so? As we shall see, in a sense the novels serve as late-Victorian morality tales. Young women are seduced into a college education, but only the lucky ones escape to happy and healthy lives as wives and mothers. More important, Marshall's equivocation may be traced both to changing cultural milieu and personal economic struggle. [End Page 331]
Economics, Education, & Class
An archived entry from Who's Who shows Frances Bridges Marshall was born on 31 December 1837 in Surrey, England, as the youngest child of George Bramstone Bridges, a lawyer and dramatist. She married Matthew Marshall of St. Aubyn's, Tilverton, north Devon, from which she takes her pseudonym, "Alan St. Aubyn." Her education is listed as Essex and Cambridge; however, there is no evidence at Newnham or Girton that Marshall attended university.3 A member of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, she was both an author and an archaeologist,4 publishing more than fifty novels as well as numerous short stories, articles, and essays in publications such as the Quiver, Cassell's Magazine, the Queen, and the Temple. She also regularly published children's books for the Religious Tract Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and she was an expert on Old English embroidery.5
At the time of her death in 1920, Frances Marshall's books were recognized as foundational texts in the varsity novel genre. G. H. Hardy writes in his introduction to A Mathematician's Apology that Marshall's A Fellow of Trinity (1891), while "a worse book than Marie Corelli's … can hardly be entirely bad if it fires a clever boy's imagination" and inspires him to go to Trinity College, Cambridge.6 Similarly, Alice Margaret Stevenson wrote in her 1920 campus novel, Hilary: The Story of a College Girl, about a young university woman educating her friends about women's colleges in Oxford: Brownie "spent the rest of the time giving them information about the women's colleges in Oxford, information which made up in luridness what it lacked in accuracy, and on every occasion she referred them to Allen [sic] St. Aubyn as the authority on the subject."7 Although both writers poke fun at the accuracy of Marshall's depiction of college life, it is clear her books were relatively well known and drew a diverse audience.
Marshall's struggling economic situation may have been a significant cause for her ambivalence about women's education. Writing was always a necessity rather than a choice for Marshall. Her husband's death combined with the loss of their savings in the Australian stock market meant Marshall had no way to support and educate her five children. She published her first novel at fifty-three and wrote feverishly until ill health incapacitated her. In a letter to the Royal Literary Fund (RLF) dated 16 February...