Singing the Blues

Noël Annan

  • A History of Cambridge University. Vol. IV: 1870-1990 by Christopher Brooke
    Cambridge, 652 pp, £50.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 521 34350 X

Who better to be our guide to modern Cambridge than the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History? Christopher Brooke was brought up in Cambridge, the son of the professor of medieval history and himself a post-war Apostle. He begins by whisking us round the colleges telling us what each was like in Victorian times and how the abolition of the religious Tests and the Royal Commission (1872) transformed Cambridge from being a provincial seminary and a federation of colleges into a university of faculties and departments where the dons could marry and no longer had to be clergymen. But on such a tour there is always a pest who asks questions. What, he wonders, are the colleges like today? Did Snow give an accurate account of Christ’s? What about the way Nevill Mott was treated as master of Caius that led to his resignation? What of the delectable days of Lord Dacre in the Lodge at Peterhouse? Surely space could have been found to praise the leadership Trinity gave to science by using her great wealth to found the Science Park and the Isaac Newton Institute, and make Cambridge a scientific city as well as a university.

Brooke replies that he is writing the history of the university not the colleges. Winstanley wrote his history of later Victorian Cambridge by minutely analysing institutional change. Brooke will have none of that. The history of a university, he believes, is the history of the contribution its scientists and scholars have made to learning. He shows how chemistry and biology grew out of the demand for medical students, who went on to do their clinical training at the London teaching hospitals; how physics emerged from mathematics and how the Duke of Devonshire built the lab that Clerk Maxwell, J.J. Thomson and Rutherford made synonymous with the history of physics; and how history and law were established by student demand. In later chapters he covers the vast proliferation of subjects and their departments – from modern languages to cosmology and from engineering to the social sciences.

Brooke is entirely right to put scholarship first and no one will dispute the eminence of the scholars he chooses to praise. But doesn’t he praise rather too often the scholars from his own college, asks the pest. But why not? Caius is now very rich and has for long been distinguished in both humanities and science. Yet why, the pest continues, are four of his 18 chapters devoted to religion and theology? Brookes explains. Christianity was more fervent and theology more challenging after the Test Act was repealed. Does one detect the faint distaste of the historian for the social sciences? No mention of Keynes’s circus, a veil over anthropology after Frazer, and you sense his approval that Cambridge took its time before climbing on the sociology bandwagon (no reference to the work of W.G. Runciman). Odd, too, that Appleton and Aston are missing from the roll-call of the Cavendish. Still, there is only one staggering omission. He describes the genesis of physiology under Michael Foster but never mentions Adrian, Hodgkin or Huxley, all Nobel Laureates and masters of Trinity, who immediately after the war worked in the most prestigious biological department which pullulated with FRS.

The greatest change in social life? Brooke is in no doubt. Women. He writes with generosity about the establishment of the women’s colleges, with shame of the decision after the First World War to refuse women degrees, and with sympathy about their revenge when such men’s colleges as held out against the admission of women had to capitulate because ‘the quality of applicants to all-male colleges plummeted’ – though the proportion of women to men (roughly two to three) is still below the national average. He also has words of sympathy for that self-sacrificing group: dons’ wives. But he does not mention the extreme difficulty women have in obtaining university teaching posts, thereby inflicting a crushing financial burden on Newnham, a single-sex college – as indeed on all colleges which want to appoint women fellows to match their female undergraduate intake.

What was it like to be an undergraduate in Edwardian, Georgian or Elizabethan days? I haven’t time for that, Brooke replies: you should read some memoirs. A pity, because his history begins in the days when Sammy Woods could reside as a member of his college for 12 terms, playing rugger and cricket for Cambridge, while failing monotonously to pass the university entrance exam. Edwardian etiquette decreed that if you called on a fellow undergraduate and he was out, you could help yourself to a cigarette; but it was bad form also to help yourself to a whisky and soda. The contrast between the years before 1931 and after 1951 could hardly have been greater. The Trinity flat-cap of the Pitt and the Blues of the Hawks Club receded and were replaced by the editors of Granta and Varsity, who had an eye on Fleet Street and were keener on lay-out than content, and by producers and actors determined to storm the RSC. He writes with sense and sensitivity of the student unrest which, in the Sixties and early Seventies, changed the relations between dons and undergraduates. But does he not think it odd that for a long time Cambridge undergraduates were subject to fines and petty punishments that would have amazed any Continental student?

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