‘Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind’: it would be hard to devise a more off-putting title for Gillian Sutherland’s sympathetic account of the Clough family. It’s slightly misleading too, because her book is not much concerned with religious faith. The history it presents is shaped by faltering Christian conviction among the liberal elites of the 19th century, and the pursuit of justice and progress that survived Christianity’s decline. Sutherland wants to explore a humanist faith, a belief – as she puts it – in people rather than God. The heroine here is George Eliot, and F.W.H. Myers’s familiar memory of Eliot’s secular sermon in Cambridge, so serious that it has come to seem laughable, is evoked without irony: ‘Taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the trumpet-calls of men – the words, God, Immortality, Duty – [she] pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.’ Sutherland’s point is that such forbidding sentiments were anything but a joke for the Cloughs. Duty and the service to which it led were the inevitable consequences of a disciplined vocation, a solemn price demanded by the emancipations of agnosticism.
The story that emerges is more complex and generally cheerful than this might suggest. Like George Eliot’s work, it is rooted in evangelicalism and provincial enterprise. The Cloughs had their origins in North Wales, but were attracted by the turbulent commercial opportunities of early 19th-century Liverpool. James Clough was an adventurous and irrepressibly optimistic merchant, determined to succeed, and prepared to take risks. In 1822 the flourishing transatlantic cotton trade tempted him to move his family to Charleston, in South Carolina. The road to prosperity turned out to be bumpy, however, and eventually his fortunes collapsed and the Cloughs returned to England. Witnessing their father’s financial difficulties, and his ebullient refusal to be defeated by them, the young Cloughs – Charles Butler, Arthur Hugh, Anne Jemima and George Augustus – learned to value independence and courage. Meanwhile, their mother equipped them with an appetite for learning, together with the scrupulous gravity that characterised evangelical households. In Charleston the family’s uneasiness about the ever-present slaves sharpened a growing sense of responsibility for others, though this did not erase the social aspirations that commonly accompanied mercantile ambition. The boys could not become gentlemen in Charleston and so had to return to England for their formal education. Arthur, packed off to school at the age of nine, took the separation especially hard. The early dislocation may not have caused Arthur’s lifelong insecurities, but it can’t have helped.
There was no question of giving Annie, the capable and energetic girl of the family, an English schooling. She gathered what education she could from her mother, supplemented by lessons in French and, increasingly, her own strenuous programme of reading in history and theology. After the family’s return to Liverpool, she wrote: ‘I desire knowledge I do not think so much for its own sake but for the sake of exerting my faculties in acquiring it. There is an uneasy restlessness about my mind & it is only by constant exertion & constant employment it can be in any measure appeased & kept quiet.’ Other motives were beginning to press. The family’s unpredictable prospects meant that if Annie did not marry – a step she showed no inclination to take – she might need to earn her own living. Teaching was the only realistic option if she was to remain a lady. For Annie, this was more than an expedience. Charitable work among poor children, another task imposed by her gender and class, persuaded her that she had found a vocation. Those who knew her as a self-effacing girl would have been astonished to learn that she became the first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge and a forceful figure in the gradual development of higher education for women. Sutherland’s book is mainly about her achievements, and those of her niece, Thena, who followed her at Newnham.
Little was expected of Annie, and she didn’t expect much of herself. A great deal, however, was required of Arthur, the anxiously conscientious pupil of Dr Arnold, and he was haunted by the dreadful prospect of falling short. Annie couldn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, but set about remaking the world for the women who came after her. It was assumed that her talented brother would conquer the world as it had already been made. A distinguished career at Oxford was seen as a matter of course, and Arthur was humiliated by his failure to take a first-class degree. He had a painful struggle to gain an Oxford fellowship, and was traumatised by then having to renounce it, his religious doubts making it impossible for him to declare his Anglican beliefs as the job required. Like his friend Matthew Arnold, Clough was rescued by the rapid professionalisation of education. It offered what his increasingly accomplished and innovative poetry could not: a gentleman’s occupation, and the salary he needed in order to marry. But his post in the Education Department of the Privy Council Office, though very respectable, seems to have been neither satisfying nor exciting. Arthur was vulnerable, and his health uncertain. He died in 1861, at the age of 42.
Annie was devastated, but his death freed her. Family service was no longer even a possibility: she was unmarried, and her parents were dead. She had been devoted to Arthur, but he had not answered her worship with much respect. Perhaps self-doubt left him with the need to feel thoroughly superior to someone, and his little sister fitted the bill. He had condemned her early efforts to found a school, writing to their mother of her hopes with a withering condescension that is hard to square with the generosity revealed in his poems. But family discouragement did not prevent Annie from studying to be a teacher, and by the time Arthur died she already had good experience running her own school in Ambleside, where her pupils included the tempestuous Mary Arnold, later Mrs Humphry Ward.
Living with Arthur’s well-connected widow allowed Annie to mix with women of radical ideas and public ambition: Florence Nightingale, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Emily Davies. Her feminist instincts took shape in such company. She began to take a part in public affairs, presenting evidence on the education of girls to the Taunton Commission, established in 1864 to consider educational provisions in institutions other than the major public schools. Despite the conciliatory tone of her contribution, she was beginning to encourage the movement away from the prevailing domestic model for female education, a development that eventually led to the founding of Newnham. In Cambridge, as in Oxford, women’s colleges had their origin in the modest step of opening the teaching of the university to interested women, in informal ways that posed no threat to masculine primacy. There was a need to provide safe and economical accommodation for such women, and in 1871 Annie accepted Henry Sidgwick’s invitation to preside over something not much grander than a hostel, housing five students. The transformation of this small enterprise into a full-blown Cambridge college took many years and was fraught with every conceivable financial, political, academic and personal difficulty. Newnham was the first institution, in Oxford or Cambridge, to be without any denominational affiliation, and Annie never wavered on this point. But her resolution made the college’s early years more arduous, since it closed the purses of many potential donors and hardened the suspicions of the university’s greybeards. Yet Newnham made its way, inch by inch, largely because Annie – and the colleagues who began to cluster round her as the institution expanded – would not give in. She had learned about persistence from her father, who didn’t see bankruptcy and ruin as anything more than mild inconveniences on the way to wealth. The lesson now served her well. So did her lack of aggression, for her iron resolve was concealed beneath a manner that seemed reassuringly deferential and wholly unthreatening. It was always easy to underestimate her.
A daughter had been born to Arthur shortly before his death – Blanche Athena, always known as Thena. Like Annie, she was to make a career of women’s education, as an administrator rather than a teacher. Clever and resourceful, Thena was oppressed by more than her share of the family’s inclination to self-distrust. Leisured gentility did not suit her: there was too much room for brooding. But a life of service – first as her aunt’s secretarial assistant, then as the college’s all-round mainstay, and finally its principal – turned out to be what she needed. Like her father and aunt, Thena was driven and sustained by a sense of duty. Her easy girlhood was irksome: ‘My life is one of self-indulgence but there is in my composition an ought which has to be reckoned with.’ She encountered much that would test her fortitude. Cambridge’s obdurate refusal to concede the equal academic status of women continued long after Annie’s death in 1892. In 1921, fifty years after the foundation of Newnham, jubilant male undergraduates celebrating the vote to continue the exclusion of women from Cambridge degrees wrecked the bronze gates that were Annie Clough’s memorial in the college. Thena stood to face them, undaunted; but not until 1948, long after her retirement, were women permitted to graduate on an equal footing with men. She died in 1960, almost a century after her father, an indomitable survivor in a world she and her aunt helped to transform.
Thena felt obliged to support Annie, and to promote her ideals after her death. But this wasn’t the only reason she stayed at Newnham: ‘My object in staying was still my own development.’ The largely inactive life of a young lady could only have deepened her tendency to depression. More outspoken than Annie had ever been, unsentimental, atheistic, a cigarette-smoker, Thena was attracted to the thinking of Bloomsbury. It is no accident that A Room of One’s Own developed from after-dinner talks given in Newnham and Girton, or that Thena’s friend and successor as principal, Pernel Strachey, was a fully-fledged member of the Bloomsbury set – ‘a shy, faintly amused giraffe’, as a contemporary recalled. Thena’s alliances were with those who rejected Victorian earnestness, and her own style was tough, direct and modern.
Yet she was bound and sustained by the moral values of her father’s generation. This was to her advantage. Concepts of duty now look so stiffly old-fashioned that we have lost sight of their comfort, and their use. Wordsworth saw the point in his powerful and unlovely ‘Ode to Duty’, published in 1807, and composed at some distance from the intoxications of Romanticism: ‘Me this unchartered freedom tires/I feel the weight of chance desires.’ Duty’s foundation in what Wordsworth called ‘the confidence of reason’ allows for that exercise of the faculties that Annie Clough had wanted, without the need for supernatural justification. Thena was more emphatically hostile to religion than her father or her aunt, claiming that ‘she did not understand what was meant by God,’ and that the New Testament seemed to her ‘a kind of fairy story’. ‘Do I believe in the Xtian religion? Vigorously not.’ Duty was defined by loyalty, the service of her family and of the students whose welfare her aunt had nurtured. Though it was not a matter of religious faith, the absence of such faith made it more needful. ‘If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?’ Maggie Tulliver asked in The Mill on the Floss, as she renounced wilful happiness in favour of a life of service. Thena’s comparable choice should be remembered with gratitude.