07 November 2015

The Pleasure of a Name Inked on a Page -- Nora Kershaw

Recently I posted a brief review of Simon Cook's J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology, in which he argues that Tolkien's engagement with Hector Munro Chadwick's 1907 work, The Origin of the English Nation, was essential to the formation of the legendarium we all know as Middle-Earth, and which Tolkien in part regarded as a restoration or rediscovery of a lost mythology of England. I found Simon Cook's treatment of this subject so interesting and persuasive that I decided to read not only Munro's The Origin of the English Nation, but also his later work, The Heroic Age (1912).

While it was the work of only a few minutes to find e-books of both, I am still quite fond of tree-books, especially old ones. They have a heft and a texture that lends them a presence I cherish. If the paper and ink are of a high enough quality, you can even feel the letters on the page. So, despite all the advantages of e-books -- which are many and I own many -- tree-books are my first love, and you know you never get over that. For books like these, I wanted the real thing.

Again the search didn't take me long. I found first editions of them both on Biblio.com at fair prices, the one in the US, the other the UK. Within a couple of weeks I was unwrapping them, feeling their weight, even sniffing them to see if they had that old book smell (juuust right, not too musty). Then I opened The Origin of the English Nation to the title page, which was pretty normal:

It was when I turned to the inside of the front cover and looked at the inscription that things began to get interesting.

I glanced over the end page quickly, having owned many old books with names inscribed at the front. The first detail that caught my eye was the date, April 1912. That was when the Titanic sank.  A coincidence to be sure, but a mildly interesting one that makes you wonder about the person's life for a moment. Did she buy the book before or after she heard the news? Was she reading it when she heard? Did she know anyone on the ship? Did she exchange a few words with the bookseller about the disaster as he wrapped the book up for her to take home?  

And any mention of steamships in these years always brings to my mind another young woman of this era, my grandmother who left Ireland in 1910 for New York, returned home at some point during the First World War, intending to stay there  -- her ship was stopped and boarded by a German submarine -- but was persuaded to go back to New York by an Irishman she met on the ship, my evidently rather smooth grandfather. 

All these moments, lost in time.

Another part of the story this page tells came with Newnham College, a women's college not even forty years old in 1912, and only the second such college at Cambridge, promoting the radical idea that women should have the same educational opportunities as men. As Anne Jemima Clough said in 1875, a college of their own was what women needed:
How much more effectually, & with how much less mental strain, a woman can study, where all the arrangements of the house are made to suit the hours of study, – where she can have undisturbed possession of one room, – and where she can have access to any books that she may need. How very rarely, – if ever, – these advantages can be secured in any home we all know, and it is surely worth some sacrifice on the part of parents to obtain them for their daughters at the age when they are best fitted to profit by them to the utmost.
(quoted in Short History of Newnham)
Not that the process went smoothly. Though many illustrious women received an education through Newnham and colleges like it, they were for many years denied real degrees for their studies and full membership in their Universities. A failed attempt to win these privileges in 1897 led to riotous behavior that caused expensive damage in Cambridge's market square, but it wasn't the women protesting their rejection who did this. It was their male counterparts 'celebrating' it (Short History of Newnham).  Women in fact received the right to vote (1918, limited; 1928, universal) before Cambridge granted them (1948) the privileges that were their due as students who had satisfactorily completed a course of studies.

Enter Nora Kershaw. I saw her name in the midst of this tale, (presumably) a young student in 1912, right after what some have called The Perfect Summer, and right before the First World War came crashing down on Europe. But who was she? How does she fit into this context, this history? 

Perhaps the best thing about the internet (cat videos notwithstanding) is all the information it offers up with a few keystrokes. So I searched for Nora Kershaw, and the story got better. For what follows I want first of all to acknowledge my debt to Sandra Ballif Straubhaar's article on Nora Kershaw, An Extraordinary Sense of Powerful Restlessness, in Women Medievalists and the Academy (Wisconsin, 2005, ed. Jane Chance) 367-379. 

Born in 1891, Nora Kershaw read English and Old English at Newnham from 1910 to 1914. Of the next two bits of information, the first made me laugh out loud in recognition. A friend of Nora Kershaw's once recounted: 
I remember Nora’s tussle with her mother over her clothes.  Then one day she came to school in a state of great delight and excitement as she had been given a dress allowance and henceforward was to be responsible for her own clothes.  That afternoon she went downtown and came back jubilant with a Chaucer, a Spenser and I don’t know how many other books that she had bought with her dress allowance--no clothes of course. 
(quoted in Straubhaar, 367)
The second made me first realize precisely why she purchased the book I had in my hands, and then made me sit up in surprise. While at Newnham Nora Kershaw studied Old English with Hector Munro Chadwick (1870-1947), who was quite open-minded and advanced when it came to women at University.
Even in the earlier days of his career, when the position of women in the University was not officially recognized, [H. M. Chadwick] treated them with the same consideration as his men students, always convinced of the important part they could and did play in learning.  Whether men or women, his students met with the kindliness and old-world courtesy which ever marked his bearing to his fellow humans and, more than that, they were treated as fellow scholars 
 (quoted in Straubhaar, 368)
Ten years later in 1922, after returning to Cambridge and publishing her first book -- Stories and Ballads of the Far Past -- Nora Kershaw married him, becoming Nora Chadwick.

Wait. What? Nora Chadwick? One of the most prominent and prolific medievalists of the 20th century? The one who wrote -- among many, many other more important works1 -- The Celts and The Druids, which I had read as a young man? Yes, that Nora Chadwick.*

And here I was, holding this book that had been hers, in which she had written her name. To me this is cool.  Can't do this with an ebook.

Thank you again, Simon Cook.


Regrettably, I have not been able to find a photograph of Nora Kershaw Chadwick to include in this post. An image comes up pretty quickly in a google search, but further investigation indicates that it is not Nora Chadwick, but another scholar by the name of Mary Boyce. If anyone could supply me with an image or a link to one, I would be grateful.  --- update 13 November 2015 -- thanks to the kindness of a reader, I now have a photo of Nora Kershaw Chadwick here.

1 For a complete bibliography of her more than 50 published works, see Straubhaar's article.


  1. You were looking for a photo of Nora Chadwick ... see page 3 of the following: https://www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/alumni/newsletters/newsletter-2012.pdf ... bonus extra: photo of her husband.

  2. Thank you very much, John Machin. I appreciate your taking the time to help.