IT took the great universities of Cambridge and Oxford six centuries to decide to admit women in the later years of the 1800s. In the years since then women have established their right of access to education and to an equal place in most sectors of public life.
Nonetheless, it is not difficult to understand why some still feel it necessary to draw attention to discrimination that they suffer and to their still unequal participation in the higher reaches of society. Eliminating the prejudices against women accumulated during those lost centuries is a slow business. Jane Robinson's book is not the first on this subject but it benefits from the inclusion of many first-hand accounts from over one hundred women who were among the pioneers of the early 1900s and who knew the few who had preceded them.
All had to show resolution and some had to display courage to overcome the irrational hostility shown to them and the ignorance displayed by supposedly learned men. Henry Maudsley, after whom the psychiatric hospital in London is named, argued that if women cultivated their minds rather than their bodies the result would be a puny, enfeebled, and sickly race.
A professor advanced the theory that too much study would cause women's wombs to wither and another backed his belief that women were unsuited to education by claiming that on average their brains were 150 grams lighter than mens'. The breakthough came in 1872 when Cambridge reluctantly recognised the pressure for change and admitted five women to what would become Girton College. Yet twenty-five years later when a vote on admitting women to full membership of the university was held it was rejected in by 1'712 to 663. Such institutional rebuffs were reinforced by other more hurtful slights; in one interview which the author conducted with the early graduettes she was told of the occcasion on which a Cambridge professor finding only women in the lecture hall announced, As there is nobody here I shall not lecture today. By 1939, when Jane Robinson ends this book, they were tolerated if not genuinely accepted at many British universities. This story of the defiance and determination of the early Bluestockings is both inspiring and instructive.(Bluestockings is Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, daily at 10.45am.)
An Education by Lynn Barber (Granta, 8.99 pounds; 183 pages).
FOR the past thirty years Lynn Barber has been one of the most incisive interviewers of people in the public eye. A collection of her interviews is called, not without reason, Demon Barber.
Her first job as a journalist was with Penthouse and she went on to the Sunday Express, Independent, Vanity Fair, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and most recently The Observer. Remarkably, at the age of 65, she has turned her formidable interrogative techniques on herself in An Education.
Nor does she spare herself; she despises her parents, who are both still alive, she is frank about her promiscuous years at university and strips her feelings bare over the death of her husband of thirty years -- an entirely good man -- after a failed bone marrow transplant. Lynn Barber was picked up by a plausible con man at the age of sixteen and after two years was persuaded by her parents to marry him and forget about university.
After discovering that he was already married with children she escaped to Oxford, a good degree and a successful career.
Her hostility towards her parents derives partly from their lower middle-class pretensions and partly from their failure to recognise and protect her from a sexual predator. From that experience she believes she learned not to trust anybody and that her whole life has been conditioned by it. It is not immediately clear from An Education why Lynn Barber should have wanted to do to herself what she has done to many others.
But it may have something to do with the fact that a film about her early life, written by Nick Hornby and starring Rosamund Pike, is due in the cinemas next month.
The Smell of the Continent:The British Discover Europe by Richard Mullen and James Murson (Macmillan, 20 pounds; 380 pages).
THE two historians who collaborated on this engaging book must have been making marginal notes of appropriate anecdotes and quotations about the British in Europe for years while undertaking their more serious research.
The result is a delightful insight into the way in which the British explored Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War One a century later.
It was the habit of travellers of that time to write about their experiences at some length -- wish you were here scratched on the back of a postcard would not suffice -- and as a result there is a wealth of material to draw on. The authors trace those early days of tourism from the imperious travellers of the first half of the 19th century to the first signs of package tours encouraged by rail connections before the World War stopped them.
In the first category were the likes of Lord Palmerston who thought it degrading and offensive for an Englishman to have to carry a passport since his presence on any spot of the earth's surface is proof enough of his existence.
Those of us who today cannot procure a decent document of identification in Spain will sympathize with Palmerston.
And what would Ryanair think of the sportsman who travelled to Rouen with three carriages carrying six friends, a coachman, dog-feeder,falconer, keeper, two grooms, three hawks, 10 horses, 30 guns and 120 hounds?
Doors Open by Ian Rankin (Orion, 7.99 pounds).
THE Edinburgh Festival is again in full swing so this new paperback is timely even if Inspector Rebus is absent -- rather like imagining a Parisian detective story without Inspector Maigret. As it happens, though, Ian Rankin takes the opportunity to put Edinburgh itself at the very centre of this thriller in which two former schoolfriends -- one a millionaire and the other a gangster -- join forces to bring off what they hope will be the perfect art robbery.
Ashes to Ashes by Marcus Berkmann (Little, Brown, 16.99 pounds; 313 pages).
BERKMANN subtitles his book 35 years of humiliation (and about 20 minutes of ecstasy) watching England v Australia.
The question, obviously, is whether another year of humiliation is about to be added or a few more minutes of ecstasy at The Oval next week.
This account of one-sided encounters since 1972 is enlivened by Berkmann's acute observations: for instance, Boycott's hundredth hundred, evoking a sense of destiny, the sheer irresistibility of his will.