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.
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.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of the most remarkable characters of the eighteenth century, yet she remains relatively unknown outside eighteenth century scholarship. This is certainly undeserved, as she was an influential courtier, a prolific writer, and the author of the entertaining Turkish Embassy Letters, in which she wrote of her experiences living in Istanbul in 1717. The letters reveal a woman who was highly intelligent, witty, and open-minded. Her fascinating portrayals of Turkish life remain fresh due to the striking absence of popular European stereotypes and a willingness to take Ottoman elite society on its own terms.
Born Lady Mary Pierrepont in 1689, Mary spent her childhood educating herself from her father’s extensive library at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire. She suffered under a governess whom she despised, but managed to teach herself Latin, and corresponded with the bishops Gilbert Burnet and Thomas Tenison, who supplemented her learning. Her literary talent showed itself early on; by the age of fourteen, she had written two albums filled with poetry, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modelled after Aphra Benn’s Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684).
By 1710, her father was looking around for a suitable match for Mary. She ended up with two serious suitors: Edward Wortley Montagu and the fantastically named Sir Clotworthy Skeffington. Mary’s father put pressure on her to accept Skeffington, but seemingly desperate to avoid this fate, she eloped with Wortley Montagu, despite the fact that she had apparently fallen in love with another man. Mary and her husband lived a secluded life in the countryside for a while. She gave birth to a son, also named Edward, and Wortley Montagu kept himself busy climbing the political ladder. Eventually he was made MP for Westminster and a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. To aid his career, the couple moved to London, where Mary’s wit and beauty enabled her to shine in the most distinguished social circles. Among her friends she could number the most celebrated men and women of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay, Mary Astell, Abbe Antonio Conti, and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, to name just a few.
Lady Mary is most famous for her Turkish Embassy Letters(published posthumously), and without them it seems unlikely that future generations would have remembered her at all. However, it was actually only by chance that Mary ended up accompanying her husband on his embassy to Istanbul. While she had been lying in bed with smallpox in 1715, someone had circulated her satirical court eclogues. These were taken to be an attack on Princess Caroline, and Mary was consequently disgraced. Following this, as she was unable to return to court, Mary accompanied her husband on an embassy to Turkey. The small family set out in 1716 and travelled a long and dangerous route across Europe, reaching Istanbul after seven months.
Although Mary initially chafed at the fact that, as a woman, she was not allowed to move in mixed-gender social circles in Istanbul, she soon learnt how to circumvent such conventions. She came to emphasise in her letters that she, as a woman, could visit places which male travellers were not permitted to enter, such as the imperial harem and womens’ bathhouses. She used the freedom the Turkish veils gave her – the drapery entirely concealed her identity – and explored the city’s markets and mosques, visiting the Bosphorus, the Seraglio and its gardens, even managing to observe the army’s military maneuvers. Learning Turkish meant that she could actively socialise with Turkish women, which was hardly common among European diplomats’ wives. As a result, Mary felt able to mock the travel writers who were ‘very fond of speaking of what they don’t know’, and scolded one correspondent for their letter being ‘full of mistakes from one end ‘t’other’, which came from reading old, inaccurate travel accounts of Turkey. Mary wrote:
‘Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removd from Truth and so full of Absurditys I am very well diverted with ’em. They never fail giving you an Account of the Women, which ’tis certain they never saw, and talking very wisely of the Genius of the Men, into whose Company they are never admitted, and very often describe Mosques, which they dare not peep into.
Mary was very interested in the position of women in the Ottoman Empire, frequently remarking upon it in her letters. She was impressed with what she observed of the status of (upper-class) Turkish women, finding the fact that women owned property in their own right particularly striking, given the situation of her female English contemporaries. She confided to her sister in April 1717:
Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their Husbands, those Ladys that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ’em upon a divorce with an addition which he is oblig’d to give ’em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire…’Tis true their Law permits [the men] four wives, but there is no Instance of a Man of Quality that makes use of this Liberty, or a woman of Rank that would suffer it.
She was keen to expose the common travellers’ myth which maintained that Turkish women spent all day engaged in amorous dalliances. She insisted that the female bathhouse, so often viewed by European men (who had never entered one) as a haven for sordid sexual practices, was merely ‘the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc’. Although the ladies were ‘in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked’, she found nothing improper about the scene, saying that ‘there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them’.
Mary recounts a particularly amusing incident in the bathhouse in which a group of Turkish women, horrified by the sight of the corset she was wearing, exclaimed that ‘the husbands in England were much worse than in the East, for [they] tied up their wives in little boxes, the shape of their bodies’. She could not, however, entirely avoid confirming some European prejudices when describing a dance performed by the maids of a high-ranking official’s wife, which she was invited to watch:
Nothing could be more artfull or more proper to raise certain Ideas, the Tunes so soft, the motions so Languishing, accompany’d with pauses and dying Eyes, half falling back and then recovering themselves in so artfull a Manner that I am very possitive the coldest and most rigid Prude upon Earth could not have look’d upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.
Yet notwithstanding her considerable rehabilitation of Turkish women from their dubious reputation in Europe, Mary was neither naive nor overly romantic about the situation of even upper-class women in Turkey. She recounts incidents of honour killings committed when a wife was found to be unfaithful, and describes the immense social stigma attached to women who could not conceive. She wrote that ‘in this country ’tis more despicable to be marry’d and not fruitfull, than ’tis with us to be fruitfull before Marriage’, and describes the ‘Quackerys’ which Turkish women resorted to in order to ‘avoid the Scandal of being past Child bearing’. Mary was herself pregnant while in Istanbul, and she quipped to Anne Thistlethwayte that although she was rather worried about her approaching confinement, she was ‘in some degree comforted by the glory that accrues to me from it’.
An embassy such as Wortley Montagu’s would generally last around twenty years, but due to a combination of national and international problems, and Wortley’s own incompetence, he was recalled prematurely in 1717. Upon the family’s return to England, Mary divided her time between the education of her children and producing a considerable literary output of letters, essays, poems and fairy tales. Having seen the benefits of smallpox inoculation as practiced in Turkey, she inoculated her own children and worked vigorously for the introduction of smallpox vaccination in England. After some initial success, the campaign faltered due to widespread distrust of the practice among the medical establishment. Meanwhile, she and Edward drifted apart, and in 1739 she left England, purportedly to travel, but in reality in order to meet a certain Count Algarotti. Though never formally dissolved, the marriage effectively ended at this point, and Mary lived abroad for most of the rest of her life, writing to her children and friends from Italy and France.
In January 1762, tired and ill, she returned to England, and people rushed to see ‘that extraordinary Phenomenon’ whose reputation had preceded her. Mary was suffering from the advanced stages of breast cancer and was living in somewhat straitened circumstances, but Horace Walpole told friends that she was still very lively. Her last months were spent in receiving friends and admirers, and she died in August 1762. Her letters from Turkey were published in May 1763 and met with immediate success. However, the publication was unauthorised, and Lady Bute, Mary’s daughter, was furious and concerned about the effect this publication might have on the family’s position. To avoid any further possibility of such scandal, Lady Bute burned all of her mother’s diaries, which stretched from her marriage to death. In doing so, Lady Bute robbed posterity of what would have been a fascinating collection of sources.
Stretching from the West End to the City, the coffee-houses of 17th and 18th century London formed the capital’s intellectual and social heartbeat. Coffee, a relatively new and exotic import, was only half the attraction: coffee-houses were forums for intellectual discussion, havens for dirty business deals and places where lords and sharpers won and lost enormous fortunes.
When coffee-houses first appeared in London in the mid-17th century they were largely indistinguishable from one another. However, as they faced ever-stiffer competition over time, each coffee-house developed its own character, playing host to diverse clienteles and catering to different needs. Some coffee-houses became so closely identified with specific groups or interests that Tatler, an early newspaper-journal, decided to group its stories under the names of coffee-houses. The first issue, in 1709, proclaimed that “all accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’ Coffee-house”.
There were many coffee-houses frequented by literary men, the first famous one being Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. John Dryden and his literary circle, known as the ‘Wits’, gathered there to discuss and review the latest plays and poems, and to read out their own work. As well as serious literary criticism, much amusement was to be had over the latest scurrilous pamphlets. Samuel Pepys records having heard a “very witty and pleasant discourse” at Will’s, though whether this was about weighty matters of allegory and hexameters, or gossip about Charles II’s latest mistress, he doesn’t say. After Dryden’s death, Will’s began to decline: in April 1709, Steele lamented in Tatler that “this place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have only now a Pack of Cards, and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game”.
With Will’s now falling out of fashion, the literary focus of London shifted to Button’s Coffee House, just up the street. This was frequented by the next generation of writers and satirists: Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift among others. Pope’s satirical poem “The Rape of the Lock” was based on coffee-house gossip he heard at Button’s. Addison was particularly influential in raising Button’s status as a literary meeting-place. He advertised it heavily in his newspaper The Guardian; ultimately, it earned its fame from the quirky letterbox which Addison had built next to the front door. It was in the shape of a lion’s head, inspired by those Addison had seen in Venice. The idea was that writers could deposit their writings in the lion’s mouth, and these would then get discussed in the coffee-house by leading literary men.
Other coffee-houses branched out from literature into learned fields such as arts and sciences. Quite a few scientific institutions which are still around today had their beginnings in coffee houses. The Grecian, for instance, was particularly associated with science as it was the preferred meeting place of the Royal Society, Britain’s pioneering scientific institution. You would go to the Grecian to hear lectures and witness novel experiments; on one memorable occasion, several scientists, including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, dissected a dolphin on the premises. The walls of Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse in Chelsea, a favourite haunt of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, were covered with stuffed animals which included rattlesnakes, turtles and crocodiles.
Trade and finance
The 18th century saw a great rise in trade and commerce in Britain, with the development of a consumer society and the expansion of global exchange networks. London’s coffee-houses were central to how business was done, as they were frequent meeting places for merchants and traders. The very first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s Coffee House, hard by the Royal Exchange. Some businesses even started operating out of coffee-houses. The most famous example is Lloyd’s Coffee House, which became the place to go for naval officers and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd’s continued as the focal point for all matters maritime for the best part of a century, and in 1771 a group of 79 underwriters (men who insured ships) formed the Society of Lloyd’s, now known as the famous insurance market, Lloyd’s of London.
Politics The streets around Westminster were also full of coffee-houses, frequented by politicians and observers interested in current affairs. Westminster coffee-houses, which were often divided up on party lines, functioned as political rumour-mills, making and breaking reputations. Richard Steele collected a lot of the political news for Tatler at these coffee-houses: “I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’ Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Roome, as one who comes there to hear and improve”.
Other coffee-houses had purely social functions, such as White’s Chocolate House. White’s was founded in 1693 by an Italian, Francis White. It was increasingly known as a haven for gentlemen gamblers of the highest rank and fashion. Jonathan Swift called White’s the “bane of half the English nobility”, referring to how aristocrats could gamble away their patrimony in a matter of minutes. It managed to outlive most of its coffee-house rivals by turning into a private member’s club, thus enabling it to keep the air of exclusivity which still remains today.
Some coffee-houses were altogether more quirky. At Moll King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden (an area notorious for brothels) you could flick through a directory of local prostitutes which listed their age, appearance, personality and area of expertise. At Lunt’s Coffee House in Clerkenwell Green the proprietor would cut your hair while you enjoyed your coffee. Hoxton Square Coffee House was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where suspected lunatics were tied up and wheeled into the room, awaiting the judgement of the patrons as to whether they should be locked up in an asylum. In an example of how not to be successful, William Hogarth’s father set up the Latin Coffee House in which the patrons were only allowed to speak Latin; perhaps this reminded people too much of dreary school-days spent declining Latin adjectives, as it was a miserable failure.
I have superimposed some of the most famous London coffee-houses, along with brief descriptions, onto a modern map of London. They only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of coffee-houses which London boasted in its 17th and 18th century heyday, but the map also includes coffee-houses I have not mentioned.