An Oxford exam from 1884

Coming across a compilation of University of Oxford women’s exam papers from the 1870s and 80s was something of a treat for me. Having studied History and German at Oxford from 2011-2015, I was eager to find out how the exam papers from 130 years ago differed from those now. Imagine, then, my horror when I realised how many details of the examinations remained unchanged. Exams are still of the same duration (3 hours), they take place at the exact same time of year, and even at the exact same time of day (9:30-12:30, 14:30-17:30).

Worse still, some of the questions were eerily similar to those I answered on my own Finals papers. For instance, ‘Summarise Milton’s arguments against the censorship of the press. Which do you consider the most convincing, which the most rhetorically effective?’, and ‘Explain, by reference to this or any other of his prose writings, Milton’s idea of Liberty’ (funnily enough, I didn’t do especially well on that paper). However, I have to admit that the English to German translations in the 1884 paper are more difficult than those now, though there was no speaking exam as there is today.

In terms of difficulty of questions, they are something of a mixed bag. For the arts subjects there are rather a lot of factual questions alongside the argumentative essays which would be standard now. Questions such as the following are not uncommon: ‘Give the origin of the following suffixes’; ‘Write a short life of Pope Paul III; ‘What acquisitions of territory were made by France in 1643-1678?’ There are some very old-fashioned judgemental questions which particularly amused me, including the following from the English exam: ‘Are there (1) any signs of the immaturity of Shakespeare’s genius in Richard II; (2) any parts of Macbeth which seem so unworthy of Shakespeare as to justify a doubt as to their being genuine; (3) any traces of a failure of dramatic power in the Tempest?’.

Notwithstanding the shallowness of some of the questions, female students were expected to have a good grounding in all subjects, particularly for the First Examination (Prelims). For the first examination female candidates were expected to pass in English Composition, Arithmetic, Euclid, and any two of Latin, Greek, French, Italian or German. In the Second (Final) Examination for Honours candidates, women had more opportunity to specialise. They were required to sit exams in languages, as well as one of the following: ancient history; modern history; mathematics; physical science; logic and political economy (clearly the forerunner of PPE). Students could also offer themselves for examination in ‘Rudiments of Faith and Religion’, which basically meant comprehension questions on the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – no aethistic or methodistical material could be allowed to pollute the firmly C of E university precincts!

The introduction in the 1880s of the ability to specialise in subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology and geology reflects a wider trend in English universities. By the latter half of the 19th century, German universities had moved far ahead of their English counterparts in scientific research. Britain, as a Great Power, could not of course be left behind, so the traditional focus on theology, Classics, languages and history was widened to include the sciences. For a long time, however, sciences were not considered quite the thing; most upper-class students still read a traditional subject such as Classics.

The beautiful Radcliffe Camera, part of the University of Oxford’s central library

I must reiterate that this was a set of exam papers for women; sadly, I haven’t been able to find a men’s examination paper from the period to compare. I do wonder whether the questions would have been more challenging. However, the prologue to the 1884 women’s paper claims that ‘the standard of attainment both for Pass and Honours is the same as that required in the corresponding [male] Public Examinations of the University’. It was even promised that the women’s results would be published in the University Gazette, alongside the men. It is perhaps unlikely that Oxford would wish to dilute its academic prestige by offering exams which were seen as easy, even if they were only for women.

Students at Lady Margaret Hall, one of the first women's colleges in Oxford (late 19th century)
Students at Lady Margaret Hall, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford (photo 1880s)

Further reading

University of Cambridge Women’s Examination Paper for 1871

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On being over-fond of animals

I was recently rather amused by a chapter in an 18th-century advice manual for women, entitled ‘On being over-fond of animals’. This anti-pet diatribe comes from a 1756 publication called The Wife, which also features charmingly-named chapters such as ‘The danger of living in the same house with any Relation of the Husband’s’, ‘Sleeping in different Beds’, and ‘The great indiscretion of taking too much notice of the unmeaning, or transient gallantries of a Husband’.

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‘On being over-fond of animals’ rails against what the author sees as the excessive fondness of well-to-do women for their pets.

‘Among all the various foibles of which the softer sex are but too justly accus’d, I know of none more preposterous than the immoderate fondness shewn to monkeys, dogs, and other animals; – creatures which were not made to be caress’d, and have no higher claim from nature than barely not to be abus’d or mercilessly treated.

‘Yet the privileges, the immunities, the indulgences which they enjoy under some mistresses, are such as are far from being granted to servants of the human species – a monkey may tear to pieces a fine brussels [lace] head-dress, and be prais’d for his wit, while the poor chamber-maid has a slap on the face, is call’d oaf, awkward monster, and a thousand such like names, if not turn’d out of door [fired], only for having stuck a pin awry, or misplacing a curl’.

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‘Henrietta Child’ – Francis Cotes (1726-70)

Not least among the pet-owning woman’s enormities is the fact that her pet will prevent her from fulfilling the wifely duty of listening to her husband:

‘But in how odd a light must the husband of that woman appear, who, while he is entertaining her perhaps on some important affairs, instead of answering him, is all the time playing with her lap-dog, and after he has been talking for half an hour altogether, cries out, ‘What did you say, my dear – I protest I did not hear you’ – on which he is oblig’d to repeat all he has been speaking, and ’tis very likely with as little success as before’.

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‘Portrait of a lady with her dog’ – Francois Hubert Drouais (1727-75)

Worst of all, the author disapproves of a pet sharing the marital bed, recounting an anecdote which implies that a wife’s insistence on co-sleeping with a beloved pet will inevitably lead to adultery on the part of the husband.

‘…he made many remonstrances to his lady on the inconvenience of lying three in a bed; but all he could urge on that subject was ineffectual, she would not consent to be separated one moment from her dear [dog]; on which he resolved to sleep in another chamber, and accordingly did so, where, ’tis more than whisper’d, he prevail’d on the chamber-maid to supply her lady’s place’.

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‘Lady Mary Fox’ – Pompeo Batoni (1767)

Further reading

Anon., The Wife (1756)

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What did Victorian bachelors think of marriage?

We know from letters, diaries and novels that Victorian bachelors expended much thought and worry on the issue of marriage. When confronted with a potential match, they had to weigh up both the financial and personal aspects of the married state.

Financially, Victorian marriage was an expensive business. Among the very poor, perhaps, neither party expected to get much material benefit out of the union. For the lower middle classes and up, however, it was considered essential that a man was able to offer his wife-to-be an adequate establishment – whether that meant a townhouse in Grosvenor Square with ten servants, a carriage and an account with a Paris dressmaker, or a poky semi-detached on the Holloway Road with one frazzled maid-of-all-work. Men of a certain class were expected to move out of their cheap bachelor lodgings, rent (or more rarely, purchase) a family home, spend money doing it up in a suitable style, and ideally earn enough to make their wives ladies of leisure. Given these expectations, marriage presented a significant drain on male finances and may even have put some men off the idea, at least until they were better situated in life.

Along with the financial considerations came the personal, many of which would resonate today. Questions asked by men in the nineteenth century included: Do I love this woman? Will she make me happy? Can I make her happy? Can I bear to spend every Christmas until death do us part with my parents-in-law? Will I still be able to spend time at my gentleman’s club/favourite tavern, or will I be trapped at home, sucked into domestic drudgery?

Victoria and Albert: the ultimately 'happily married couple'
Victoria and Albert: the ultimate ‘happy couple’

Such concerns about money, love and more are reflected in a note which Charles Darwin penned when he was considering marriage. Like the thoroughly logical chap he was, Darwin drew up a list of pros and cons on the subject, which touchingly reflects the concerns of many of his fellow bachelors:

MARRY [pros]

Children – (if it Please God) – Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved and played with. better than a dog anyhow. – Home, & someone to take care of house – Charms of music & female chit-chat. – These things good for one’s health. – but terrible loss of time. – My God, it is intolerable to Think of spending ones whole life [sic], like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. – No, no, won’t do. – Imagine living all one’s day solitary in smoky dirty London house. – Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with a good fire, & books and music perhaps – Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

NOT MARRY [cons]

Freedom to go where one liked – choice of Society & little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs – Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. – to have the expense & anxiety of children – perhaps quarreling – Loss of time. – cannot read in the Evenings – fatness & idleness – Anxiety & responsibility – less money for books &c – if many children forced to gain one’s bread. – (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much). Perhaps my wife wont like London [sic]; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.

Charles Darwin, family man (1842)
Charles Darwin, family man (1842)

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