Dr Angharad Eyre is an expert on religion in Victorian Britain, including its impact on women’s lives, education, and careers. In this blog post she describes the emotional life of Westfield College Principal Constance Maynard, and the unusual friendship network she maintained, via correspondence, among her former students. It provides an insight into the combination of intimacy, improvement and inspiration that made up Victorian friendships, and a comparison with other female friendship networks explored in ‘Five Hundred Years of Friendship‘.
Like many of the first women’s college principals, Constance Maynard (Westfield College 1882-1913) found her work all too often unrewarding and lonely. She had refused an offer of marriage soon before starting as principal and she remained unmarried for life. As scholars have noted, her relationships with the women in her college were often fraught; she became involved in love triangles among the staff, and developed troubling relationships with students. In her diaries she often admitted to being deeply unhappy and this, combined with the stresses of managing a college, led to depression and at least two bouts of long-term illness. She countered these conditions with holidays, cycling, vegetarianism, and, most importantly, friendship. It was in letters to her alumnae, whom she saw and addressed as her ‘dear friends’, that she could admit to her feelings of despair and receive the comfort of their support.
Maynard initiated a unique form of correspondence with her alumnae, which is most easily understood as a kind of chain letter. Maynard would write a letter to the first student on the list, who read it and sent it on with one of her own to the next person on the list, who then added hers, and so on. When the bundle came back to the original authors, they replaced their initial letters with new ones and continued to send the bundle round. In this way all were involved in a correspondence ‘ring’, receiving each other’s news along with the news of Westfield. This method was perfect for busy, professional women, wishing to maintain contact with each other but having no time to copy whole letters to numerous correspondents – as in traditional correspondence circles. The old letters were then sent back to Westfield for safe-keeping and were later disseminated to new generations of correspondents in separate ‘rings’, as more students graduated and became alumnae. By the time Constance Maynard retired there were eight rings of letters circulating. Unfortunately, the early secretaries of Westfield only preserved Constance Maynard’s side of the correspondence, and between 1887 and 1903 only two letters remain written by other authors. Conclusions as to the nature of the students’ letters can, however, be drawn from Maynard’s responses.
Importantly, the form of the correspondence enabled Maynard and her friends to maintain a virtual female community, following on from the actual community that had been developed at college. The correspondence therefore reflected a new idea of a female group identity, with all the young women corresponding equally with each other rather than with particular friends. And it reflected the new experience for women of being part of a corporate whole, and responsible for upholding the college’s ethos and traditions. Maynard described the correspondence to her students as working ‘on the time honoured principle of the Irishman’s knife’, meaning that it would be maintained and passed on, from one generation to another, as their college inheritance. What was being passed on was the college’s core moral discourse, in the form of useful information, exemplars and a network of contacts in the professions, as Maynard described:
How many of you would like to join a Correspondence Society? I have no name for it but the thing I understand very clearly, and I for one want to belong to it. There is quite a long list of you now out in the world […] Now and then, especially when any change takes place, we want to have a little picture of what you are saying and doing and experiencing and striving after! (letter, June 1887)
Maynard implies here that she will belong equally with the alumnae. She also creates the expectation that it is not just she who needs to be kept informed of her alumnae’s work, but that it will be the desire of the entire college collective.
Certainly, Maynard had her own reasons for hearing her alumnae’s news. Her ambition was for her college to create serious women, who would go on to work for social and moral reform. She hoped especially that they would become missionaries, or at least would carry on their social work in a religious manner. In early letters to each ring, Maynard’s friendship is that of an ex-principal, still informing her alumnae of their duty to the college. In the very first letter she demands: ‘What is the use of our College if it does not turn out “soldiers and servants” waiting and working and living first of all for this end?’ (letter, June 1887), and at times she scolded them for not writing enough about their work, saying: ‘You are altogether too diffident!’ (letter, January 1894).
Though at times Maynard was disappointed with the slow pace of her alumnae’s progress, many of the students, like women graduates of other colleges at this time, did go on to work for the temperance movement, University Settlements and foreign missions, as well as going on to work as teachers and principals in girls’ schools and colleges. There is evidence that they found much-needed encouragement and sympathy in the correspondence ring. From the tone of one of Maynard’s letters, it is apparent that one of the students had been writing rather despondently about her work. Maynard replied:
Pioneer work seems to creep from point to point till one is tempted to think that nothing has been done and it needs a brave spirit to go on in the face of such reflections. But cheer up! Such progress follows the law of a falling stone, it goes on, not with equal, but with increasing energy with the lapse of time. (letter, January 1894)
Maynard communicates a good deal in these two sentences. She legitimates her friend’s feelings of dejection, sympathising with her in their shared experience of the frustrations of ‘pioneer work’. She also suggests a respect for her friend’s bravery in continuing her work. Finally she attempts to cheer her friend with a jolly ‘cheer up!’, and communicates her own faith in eventual success to bolster that of her friend.
In the late 1890s, when Maynard’s health and spirits were failing, her letters reveal that the correspondence rings, rather than being simply opportunities to influence her students, became more important to her for their emotional value. She wrote on a number of occasions that the letters were: ‘like a long row of your faces, and I am very glad indeed to think I can have a word with you every one’ (letter, June 1899). To some of the rings she felt able to admit to her depressive tendencies: ‘I confess I do sometimes get disappointed with the students in college, each generation as it comes. So very much is given them, and the spontaneous response seems so small’, and implies that, though she is temporarily cheered, she fears the ‘duller, damper feelings’ will come again (letter, January 1899).
Dear friends, we are one family, one circle, and we can sorrow together and also trust and give thanks together. (letter, October 1897)Though we cannot know exactly how her students responded to these confessions, Maynard had set the tone for a sympathetic response a year or so earlier, when writing of the death of one of her students’ children:
This was the nature of the friendship Maynard’s correspondence ring was to foster among women. Made possible by the new women’s colleges, it proved an invaluable support to the first generations of women college graduates.
Read more about religion, love, and Constance Maynard
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