A Man’s World

Gray stone walls enclosed the University of Oxford, barriers warding off the prosaic and welcoming the privileged to its rarefied air. An assemblage of chosen people lived within, the intellectuals and the high-born, supporting one another’s sense of superiority, reinforcing each other’s sense of distinction. Gertrude’s acceptance bolstered her already strong self-esteem. As unhappy as she had been at Queen’s College, confined to a middling female world, she had proven herself an outstanding scholar. Now, in a far more appealing atmosphere, with the Bells’ drive and determination, she would rise to the highest levels.

Since the twelfth century, clergymen, kings, prime ministers, diplomats, philosophers, scientists and academics had secluded themselves behind the Oxford walls to breathe the fresh air of thoughts and sample a feast of ideas. Each college hall, each cobbled path, echoed with the footsteps of powerful leaders and pioneer thinkers. Men like Roger Bacon argued in the thirteenth century for experimental methods of inquiry. In the sixteenth century Sir Thomas More defended the Catholic Church over the will of Henry VIII, and in the seventeenth century Oliver Cromwell, the country’s leader, served as Chancellor. There were scientists like Edmund Halley, who discovered a new comet, and, in the nineteenth century, Thomas Huxley, who brilliantly defended Darwin’s ideas of evolution. There were architects like Christopher Wren, who designed the Sheldonian Theatre and, later, artists like William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, whose stained glass windows lit up Christ Church Cathedral; poets like Matthew Arnold, who immortalized the school’s spires; philosophers like John Ruskin, whose books could be found on the shelves of the Radcliffe reading room. From the rule of the Plantagenets until the reign of Queen Victoria, the brightest young men, but only men, had entered Oxford; in exchange for the freedom to think, they cloistered themselves in austere surroundings, clothed themselves in simple robes, and undertook a life of celibacy. But the tone of Oxford changed in 1874, when male students were allowed to marry. And it changed even more dramatically in 1879, when Miss Elizabeth Wordsworth, grandniece of the poet, became the first principal of Lady Margaret Hall, for young women. Only a few years later, in 1886, LMH would serve as home for Gertrude.

As principal of the women’s school, Miss Wordsworth felt her first priority was to see that her students married. She was convinced that God intended woman to be “Adam’s helpmate,” and to fill that role properly, she insisted, a young woman must develop the “minor graces” of “neat handwriting,” “skillful needlework,” and “the ways of opening and shutting doors.” Her girls were allowed to sit in on lectures and to have their own tutors, but the pursuit of intellectual ideas was still considered questionable, not just for women but for the country. As the contemporary philosopher Herbert Spencer put it, thinking was dangerous for females; “the overtaxing of their brains,” he declared, would lead to “the deficiency of reproductive power.” When Gertrude arrived, the halls of New College Chapel still reverberated with the recent sermon of Dean John Burgon: “Inferior to us God made you, and inferior to the end of time you will remain.” But Gertrude Bell hardly felt inferior: at eighteen, she was already sure that she was the equal of any male, and if anyone doubted her word, she had her father to back her up.

Oxford!, she exclaimed at the top of her first letter home, in May 1886, and she reveled in being one of only a handful of girls in the company of hundreds of men. Round-faced and chubby, exuberant and ebullient, she arrived “half child, half woman,” her new friend Janet Hogarth said, “rather untidy, with vivid auburn hair, greenish eyes, a brilliant complexion, and a curiously long and pointed nose.” Notably she added, Gertrude had “a most engaging way of saying, ‘Well you know, my father says so and so’ as a final opinion on every question under discussion.”

On the first day of class, Gertrude walked hurriedly with Mary Talbot, a colleague in the History program, and their requisite but doting escort, Miss Wordsworth. Dressed in their long, loose black gowns and black laced boots, square black caps firmly planted on their heads, the young women chatted in nervous anticipation, stepping briskly across the old stone walks. Like Alices in Wonderland, they had to “fly” from the farthest outposts of Oxford, where they lived at LMH, through the grassy University Parks, to arrive in time for their History lecture in Balliol.

Climbing the stairs, they reached the alabaster hall and saw before them, perpendicular to the lecturer’s platform, rows of long, green baize tables and, seated at them, some two hundred men. No space was reserved for the two young women, however, and no one showed any inclination to make some room. Instead, they were led to the platform, where the professor presided. Sliding into their seats, the women listened intently while the tall, gaunt Mr. Lodge lectured on English History. “We felt it was a great event!” Gertrude wrote to her parents. Not even the thrill of her first class, however, nor the lecture by the well-known teacher could dull her sharp tongue; all that he said was straight out of his book, she scoffed. It “would have been said much better if he had read us the first few chapters.”

It was a strange segregation of females and males, as though the women’s very presence would poison the atmosphere. But to Gertrude the separate table on the platform added to the awesome prestige of being privy to an Oxford lecture. And when Mr. Bright, who taught History, had them sit in the room with their backs to him, it made her laugh. The problem was his, she believed. Certainly she did not mind sitting “cheek by jowl” with a roomful of men.

She enjoyed the routine of lectures in the morning, lunch at LMH, reading at the Radcliffe library and private tutorials on Saturdays. Together with Mary Talbot, she penetrated the male-filled halls of the Bodleian and hunted out books under the glaring eyes of the librarian. After receiving the requested books, she wrote her parents, they felt they “really were members of the University.” Earlier, when she had first arrived and did not yet have her student pass, she had been rebuffed at the Radcliffe reading room. It had come as a shock to the young woman who got almost everything she wanted. But now she was comfortably secure. The tall, dark-eyed Mary Talbot, a niece of Prime Minister William Gladstone, soon became Gertrude’s closest comrade. Edith Langridge, who lived in the room next door and was an earlier graduate of Queen’s College, looked after her. Janet Hogarth, whose older brother David was an Oxford scholar and an archaeologist doing work in the East, would also become a lifelong friend.

She appreciated the care of the “very nice” Miss Wordsworth, although it must be noted that the principal thought Gertrude was not a woman one could count on. “Would she be the sort of person to have in one’s bedroom if one were ill?” Miss Wordsworth asked. In fact, except for her father, Gertrude had little patience with other people’s problems. She did enjoy the respect of her tutor, Professor Hassall, who praised her work, and she was fortunate to have the company of her childhood companion Horace Marshall. Her cousin was at Trinity College at Oxford, and Gertrude received permission from Miss Wordsworth to go alone with him on “discreet little walks.” Other young men had also come into her life, and although one of her friends from home had announced her engagement, and another had already wed, for Gertrude these flirtations marked the first stirrings of her sexual awakening. She wrote to Florence about her “good friend” Mr. Raper, who took her skating, and the “fascinating” Mr. Cockerel, who invited her to his rooms for tea (always with a chaperone, of course); and on visits to London she enjoyed the company of her handsome cousin-by-marriage Billy Lascelles.

She was thriving at Oxford and, as Horace’s mother noticed, she was even “a shade thinner.” Her posture was not yet up to par, and her shoulders were curved from her stooping. But half an hour’s walk every day with a back board would help, her aunt suggested, assuring Florence: “Every time I see the child I think her more charming. I am sure Oxford is doing much for her.”

Oxford made her more self-reliant than she had ever been. “One goes as one likes,” Gertrude announced enthusiastically, clearly flourishing on her own. If it was a distant cry from today’s universities, where coed dormitories and shared bathrooms are the norm, it was still a far different atmosphere from the stuffy world of Queen’s College, where women were constrained by rigid Victorian customs. At Oxford it was a man’s world and the rules for men were far more lenient; Gertrude could accommodate herself to them.

She still wrote to her family every few days, and although she suffered mood swings, sometimes ecstatically happy, sometimes inexplicably depressed, she rarely talked of being homesick. Instead, her letters were filled with reports of her classes and her success at extracurricular activities: playing tennis against Somerville, Oxford’s only other women’s college; arguing at the Debating Society, where her team won the case for women’s right to vote (only a few years later she would fight against the suffragettes); swimming, rowing, playing hockey, acting, dancing and, though she was never religious, attending church. Her younger half-sister Elsa noted later that a sense of security pervaded Gertrude’s letters: “There is no vestige of anxiety about the future. Why should there be? Gertrude’s experience of life had been that she had only to want something in order to get it.”

She still asked Florence for advice on fiction and consulted her more and more about clothes. “I wish you would tell me what to have for a best dress this summer,” she begged. “It must be very smart.” As Gertrude came into her own, her tense relationship with Florence eased. She praised Florence as a mother and told her, after a country weekend with the family of a friend: “I’m very glad you aren’t like Mrs. Kynston. She never takes any interest at all in what her daughters are doing.”

While Florence was in London, working on the production of one of her plays, Gertrude wrote to Hugh, engaging in long discussions about history, philosophy and politics. “Will you disinherit me when I tell you that I don’t believe in competition at all?” she teased the great industrialist. “No, you will crush me by pointing out that my knowledge of political economy is exactly three weeks old!” When Hugh’s mother died, Gertrude penned him a note of sympathy, but carelessly forgot to mail it. Her father was hurt, and she answered endearingly: “You must know, whether you get letters or not, that anything that makes you sorry makes me sorry too and that I care very much for whatever you care for.” Only a few months later, when a manager of the coal mines died, Hugh was upset that he had not been with the man. “Your just being too late to see him is bitterly sad,” Gertrude wrote prophetically. “Oh you dear father, I know so well what it would be to have to die without you there, and never to see you again.”

As school continued, the work piled up: in one week, in addition to a dozen lectures to attend and six essays to write for her tutor, she was assigned to read a biography of Richard III, a two-volume biography of Henry VIII and Stubbs’s history from Edward IV to Edward V. “Now I ask you, is that possible?” she moaned, but her tone revealed that she could easily handle the load. “Don’t think I don’t like it,” she told her mother. She could hardly have liked it more; it confirmed her superior intelligence and reinforced her confidence; and if anyone doubted her opinion, she would cut him off with her favorite retort: “Well, you know, my father says so.” Janet Hogarth commented later that Gertrude “was always an odd mixture of maturity and childishness, grown-up in her judgments of men and affairs, child-like in her certainties, and most engaging in her entire belief in her father and the vivid intellectual world in which she had been brought up.”

By the end of her second year, and twelve months ahead of schedule, she prepared eagerly for Schools, her last written examinations at Oxford. “It’s wildly exciting,” she wrote to her parents. “I feel like a kind of gambler who is staking his last sixpence!” On the first day of exams, she waited anxiously with the others in the entry hall until an electric bell gonged and a voice rang out: “Gentlemen for the History school, North School; to the left, Gentlemen.” As the men went off, Gertrude kept a discreet distance from them and rushed up a back staircase. She made her way to the women’s table in the last row of the room and promptly opened the exam book. Most of the questions were “delightful,” she announced later to her parents, noting that she had had no problem finishing her tests and even had time afterward for tennis and afternoon tea.

Escorted by her cousin Horace, she attended a week of parties and dances to celebrate the end of exams. The highlight of the academic ceremonies was Encaenia, the last remnant of medieval practice, when all of the scholars marched in their colorful robes. Gertrude, who had started out at Oxford careless of her appearance, now had a passion for clothes. Long before the ceremonies, she had gone shopping for something to wear and, returning to Lady Margaret Hall, had burst into Janet Hogarth’s room: “I’ve got a hat, Janet, but a hat! Come see it.” At the Wednesday lunch, her straw hat, its brim drenched in roses, nearly hid her face. “Her outfits for commemoration week had been one of our great interests,” Janet Hogarth later recalled. “She certainly had the dress-sense.”

Still whirling from the festivities, Gertrude now had to confront the orals, the most difficult part of the examinations. On the day of her oral exams, wearing a smart new dress and fashionable brown shoes, she sat calmly at the table, a picture of self-assurance. Like most parents, Florence and Hugh had come to Oxford for the event, and with them behind her, she coolly faced the battalion of male professors. First came the distinguished historian S. R. Gardiner, who started the viva voce with a question about Charles I. As her parents listened anxiously, Gertrude began her reply: “I am afraid I must differ from your estimate of Charles I.” Horrified, the famous don stopped his questioning and turned the baton over to the next man down the row. The interrogation continued on a quieter note until another professor asked her about a German town, noting it was on the left bank of the Rhine. But Gertrude had visited the village the year before. Without hesitation, she replied: “I am sorry, but it is on the right. I know, I have been there.” The room gasped.

Despite her audacity, however, when the results came back, she learned she had received a First in Modern History, the first woman to do so. The announcement appeared in The Times, and along with accolades from her family, she received a flood of congratulatory letters from friends. Her triumph confirmed her predilection to say what was on her mind and declare what she knew was right. Florence called it “her entire honesty and independence of judgement.” Invigorating to some, tactless to others, her assertiveness would exhilarate many and intimidate many more. It opened doors that otherwise would have stayed shut, but it also earned her a reputation for arrogance.

She was brash and immature, and in spite of her dazzling scholastic achievements, Gertrude had failed the most important test of all. Unlike her two friends from home, she had had no one ask for her hand in marriage. She was twenty years old, a snob, a bluestocking, a woman with an “attitude”; her haughtiness and self-importance hardly appealed to eligible young men, and those who dared to court her were soon dismissed. The few she had dated disappeared by the end of school. Mr. Raper’s name melted away with the winter ice, and Bob Cockerel was written off as very nice to talk to and dance with, “but that’s quite all.” As for her cousin Billy Lascelles, whose mother, Mary, was Florence’s sister, she found him amusing but abhorred his “offhand” way.

The time had come to take matters in hand, Billy’s mother advised Florence. The Lascelleses were living in Bucharest, where Mary’s husband, Frank, was the British Minister to Romania. A winter season with foreign diplomats, it was agreed, might help Gertrude “get rid of her Oxfordy manner.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!