Somerville College Oxford has an impressive number of firsts to its name. It educated the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, the first – and only – British woman to win a Nobel Prize in Science, Dorothy Hodgkin, and the first woman to lead the world’s largest democracy, Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India for much of the 1970’s.
When I started to write my historical novel, Daddy’s Girl, it was my first choice of College for my heroine, the young and very naïve student from Woodstock, Eleanor Drummond. The Staff of Somerville were interested in my project, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and encouraging. I was even given the name of an actual Head Porter, Scroggs. He leaped instantly to life beneath my pen, partly because of his glorious name. It spelled loyalty and discretion.
Set in 1936, I needed to get hundreds of period details absolutely right. There was then only one College telephone. It sat in the Porters’ Lodge and nobody answered it after five o’clock. All the students were girls. They were expected to behave with decorum, especially when out and about in Oxford. Anyone who broke the College rules was either fined or sent down. The 150 students were hand-picked by the Principal, Helen Darbishire, a renowned Wordsworth scholar. She reminded them on a regular basis how lucky they were to be among the chosen few.
They still are.
I met their distinguished Fellow Librarian and Archivist, Dr Anne Manuel, for lunch at Somerville on 24 August 2021. Their Staff are swiftly recovering from problems the pandemic has hurled at all of us. Their kitchens have been totally refurbished. Stunning green ferns in terracotta pots decorate the halls and beautiful reception rooms. Their lovely lawn is being relaid. Meticulous preparations are being made for the return of all their students, both within the UK and from all corners of the world, not only to the College, but to the marvellous cultural life of Oxford itself.
Here is a poem I wrote for them when I got home to Woodstock on 24 August 2021:
Strong women’s faces shine from every wall
Oatmeal tiles decorate the hall
The stairs that beckon us to eat and talk
Still echo with those famous voices. Walk
With me while grass covers rich earth again
And, scattering seeds, we take away the pain
To plan an autumn where with open book
Our Somerville reborn, we dare to look
To plan, to read, to check incoming guests
To nurture minds returning to their quests:
Strong women’s faces shine from every wall –
Our futures beckon and we shall walk tall.