Etiquette for young ladies at Cambridge

Found - this scarce pamphlet: Say "Thank you" : a manual of university etiquette for young ladies. It is known to be by Jean Olivia Lindsay and is light-hearted in tone. Jean Lindsay was at Girton in the 1930s and published several books on Spanish and Scottish history. The text of this book has (so far) been unavailable. Google Books note the existence of the book but have no text. Although she is very down on jeans and corduroys ('deplorable') the work is quite modern in tone, at one point she suggests you could meet men by joining a religious club 'but there the young men are apt to have very honourable intentions...' There is also a lot of practical advice, some of which probably still holds, like 'It is more important to be polite to gyps and bedders than to the Bursar or Senior Tutor.'



Almost certainly no bluestocking would ever worry whether her behaviour was ladylike or not, so a book of University etiquette for young ladies may appear to be so much wasted effort. However, as the great majority of young women who come up to the University every autumn would hotly repudiate the title of bluestocking, some of them may find these notes useful. Some dyed-in-the-wool donnish bluestockings may even find them amusing.


The most essential garment to bring to Cambridge is a Pair of pyjamas. Undergraduate life is not a round of dissipated cocktail parties, but many parties in the first term begin at 9.30 or 10 p.m., and consist of hair-drying sessions which go on over cups of cocoa till long after midnight. If the fresher is not to fall into bed fully clothed and lose the habit of regular baths it is wise to bath first and attend the party in pyjamas and dressing gown. Cambridge corridors are cold and staircases precipitous and badly lighted, so elegant crepe de chine pyjamas and high-heeled mules trimmed with feathers are not advisable.
The next essential is a cocktail frock. It is advisable to learn how to iron all kinds of exotic materials; it is essential to know how they can be cleaned to remove stains of sherry, coffee, cider cup and ice cream.
One long ball frock is needed unexpectedly soon in the career of all young women with College awards, for in the first term there is a ceremony known as the Admission of Scholars at which Scholars wear full evening dress. Even pensioners, who are exempt from the Admission ceremony, need a ball frock because women's Colleges at Cambridge celebrate May Week just before Christmas.
Cambridge is cold. Most engagements have to be reached after a brisk ride on a bicycle through rain and a high wind. Warm underclothes are essential.
Hats are hardly ever worn in Cambridge, so the problem of how not to look like a hay stack or a drowned rat is acute. It is no solution to buy a College scarf and swathe it round the head, or to wear a 'kerchief for that only makes the fresher look like a displaced person.
It is a well-accepted convention that one must be comfortable in order to work, but even so blue jeans, corduroy trousers, one's brother's discarded grey flannel bags or even black peg tops are all deplorable. They may not be worn by women with academic dress. They should not be worn by women at any time. They either look slovenly or affected, and in any case are regrettable at Sunday lunch. As young ladies of Radcliffe College were reminded, "It is desirable that students should at all times be recognised as ladies: it is imperative that they be recognised as girls."
Another generally accepted convention is that at the University one should be free to express one's personality in one's dress. There is no official prohibition against wearing a diaphanous jumper or a dirndle skirt or a strapless sun top, even if this does look like an old-fashioned pair of corsets.
Clothes for lunch in Hall present peculiar problems. It is not considered chic to come to lunch with hair tied up in a red handkerchief. Admittedly hair has sometimes to be washed, but to appear en déshabille at lunch is like wearing curling pins and bedroom slippers to do a morning's housework at home.
"Youth, beauty and clean linen" is one secret of attractiveness. Colleges have laundry sinks, mangles, and even electric irons. Drying facilities can usually be found with some persistence. Every undergraduate should learn to wash underclothes and how to starch and iron blouses. Before long she will find herself washing rugger shorts and ironing shirts stained with cosmetic tooth paste from a duel scene at the A.D.C.
There is a group of young women known as the Band of Hope who simply tie a knot and go on, but a safety pin sometimes bursts open and a knotted elastic quietly comes untied.
It is a well-accepted convention at Cambridge that whereas young men who live within five minutes walk of the lecture room can look shabby, untidy and even unshaven, young women who have to bicycle 2½ miles are expected to arrive looking "neat and feminine". "Men loathe the girl who appears at an early morning lecture dressed and made up for Ascot. Equally unpopular is the girl who seems to have thrown a few shapeless garments over her pyjamas." But no one seems to have decided how young women undergraduates can qualify as well dressed. Cambridge is certainly a country town but even the most classic tweeds bulge after having been worn for bicycling. It seems generally thought desirable that young women should "look feminine" and that they should press their skirts and clean their shoes, but beyond that public opinion is confused and its advice conflicting.


Cambridge is a convivial place. In the first week, among the deluge of invitations from societies trying to recruit new members, the fresher will find one or two more personal at home cards. It is advisable to reply at once and in the same form as the invitation. It clearly reveals inexperience to write "Miss Blank thanks Mrs. Bore for your kind invitation", to give no further indication of time, place, date or the kind of party, and to end "I shall be delighted to attend. Yours sincerely, Hilary Twiddle". The reply should not be on a sheet torn from a note book, or folded into a neat little slip and sent off innocent of envelope. One fresher caused much amusement by signing a letter to her Tutor "Miss Snooks".
Guests should arrive on time: they should go early. To arrive five minutes late is forgivable, but more than that has to be explained by a major catastrophe, such as a bicycle chain coming off or losing the way from Girton. It is almost worse to be early: a hostess may have relied on the last five minutes to do the flowers or her hair just as a superior may have relied on the last five minutes to read the essay she is about to return. The guest who really endears herself to her hostess is the one who can go away gracefully. The more dextrous guests seize on some cue in the conversation and use it to get themselves out of the room. Someone says: "I hear Tom has just gone to China", and the guest says smartly, "Newnham's not as far as China but I'm afraid that if I don't start getting back . . ." but even the most tongue-tied, witless and uninspired guest should be able to see the time—a formal coffee party lasts about 30 minutes, tea an hour, and lunch about an hour and a half—or realise that the conversation is flagging, could get up, thank her hostess and leave the house. At least one would think that even the most witless could do this, but it is an established fact that go% of undergraduates and 99% of all freshers are unable to do so.
If a friend in College offers no invitation to sit down and pointedly keeps a book open on her lap, it is reasonable to suppose that she wants to work. It is useless to ask if she is busy for convention requires her to say "No". To ask a friend to tell her visitor when to go is to expect her to be as rude as the guest who outstays her welcome. The initiative in breaking up a party rests on the guest. If there are several guests the most senior must make the first move. One hostess at the end of a Sunday tea party said in despair that she had to go to Church; she came back to find that the guests had stayed to supper.
At a party guests, however shy they may feel, have an obligation to make other guests appear to enjoy themselves. This is done by keeping up an interchange of small talk. One accepted convention is that a monologue does not make anyone happy but the speaker, another is that a guest who sits in silence and simply eats is not only very unhappy indeed but spreads despondency around her. Every guest should make some contribution to the conversation. This should be easier in Cambridge because most of the topics normally taboo—such as politics, religion, sex, money, and one's own emotions—are here among the most popular. When everything else fails it is permissible to ask if anyone has seen the play at the Arts this week. Some shy guests play a game of trying to make their neighbour say some word such as "elephant", or they score points for getting a distinguished visitor to mount his hobby horse, or for provoking a general and heated discussion, or for making everyone present laugh. Any device will serve so long as the guest does not sit "like a walrus on an icefloe, heavy, melancholy and ineffective" with "the brain of a sheep and the eyes of a boiled codfish". The hostess rejoices when a guest obviously enjoys "the pretty and delicate game of talk". Such a guest is said to have earned her dinner, and is invited again to meet interesting people.
Some invitations are to coffee from 8—10 p.m. Guests who stay after 10 are not popular, still less are those who arrive at 9.50. When at someone else's coffee party it is undesirable, but not unusual, to take off one's shoes, to lie on the floor, or to go to sleep on the sofa.
When entertaining fairly strange young men, senior members of one's own College in their second or even third year, and dons of any College it is advisable to issue an invitation a week in advance. It may breathe a spirit of bonhomie to blow into a tutor's room and invite her to come round and drink a cup of coffee, but such informality may be misinterpreted. It is advisable to be in the room properly dressed five minutes before the guests are due to arrive. It is apt to make a guest feel ill at ease if she arrives to find the room empty, cold and in obvious chaos. If she is later sought out and pressed to come and butter crumpets while her hostess removes paint and tells her about the new back cloth for the A.D.C., she may be charmed by this informal and natural friendliness but she will probably decide that her hostess is a muddle-headed, inconsiderate and rather conceited "arty type".
Most freshers can make tea. Coffee should be practised only on more intimate and candid friends until something can be produced which is hot, strong, and free from grounds. Freshers who offer a guest a choice of liqueurs will create a rather different and much less favourable impression than they intended.
Cambridge is convivial and much time is spent at sherry parties. It is often difficult to find the host or hostess but the effort must be made once on arrival and once on departure. Even at a sherry party there is no obligation to drink sherry. Two Professors have been known to drink orange squash. If there is no soft drink it is amazing how long one can hold a glass of sherry in one hand. A guest who writes a note of thanks immediately after a party is entered by a discerning hostess on the short list of charming people to be asked again.
How to return hospitality to dons remains a problem. Usually they are quite pleased to be invited to tea, if they have been very hospitable they can usually be invited to the College Concert or offered tickets for a play in May Week in which the undergraduate happens to be taking part. Most dons appreciate a ticket for the Footlights Review or a Marlowe Society production; even more dons appreciate two tickets.


In College an undergraduate usually has one room in which to sleep, work and entertain. The chief accomplishment which can be learnt after three years practice is to change all one's clothes and leave no trace of stocking or petticoat, to wash one's hair without leaving any stray kirbigrips, comb or wet towel in sight, to keep butter, marmalade and milk in the same cupboard but permanently separate from underclothes and lecture notes.
Some undergraduates invest in a pair of steps to reach the top shelves of their built-in cupboards, others rely on natural agility and an early training in gymnastics.
One of the major problems confronting a fresher is how to boil a kettle on a gas ring half way down the corridor and keep up a flow of conversation with two shy male guests, one of whom is sitting on the bed and the other on a very collapsible pouffe. The correct solution is to turn an electric fire on its back and boil the kettle in the midst of the tea party—but this process often takes go minutes, and if the room is supplied with a space heater the operation is impossible.
Gyp wings have a code of etiquette peculiar to themselves. It is not considered well-bred to brush one's teeth in the washing up bowl, or to boil handkerchiefs in the milk saucepan. Contrary to a widespread belief dish mops in College can be washed and draining boards wiped down exactly like the ones at home. Anyone with a passion for onions and an urge to cook "light suppers" for her male visitors should provide her own Airwick and return the College tea towel. Bathrooms have a code of etiquette not unlike that for gyp wings. People who bathe after midnight should make sure that the waste pipe does not run past the Mistress's bedroom window, or the light shine across a court into the bedroom of the Bursar or one of the College gyps. To leave any personal effects in a bathroom creates an atmosphere of sordid squalor.
Even in the more substantially built parts of College noise carries. It is unwise to discuss intimate private affairs in the passage. It is undesirable to carry on a heated argument with the door of one's room open. No one should make arrangements with a friend at a top floor window when she is herself in the middle of a Court. Most Colleges have recognised Music Hours, anyone learning to play a recorder, or who has simply been given a new wireless, should observe the limits of Music Hours. People who whistle, sing or dance in the corridor after 11 p.m. can only be described as uncouth.
Ladies who sunbathe on the balconies of their rooms or in the College courts are reminded that other people may want to admire the view, that a Cambridge College is not Margate and that distinguished scholars from other Universities are often taken on a tour of the College grounds especially on bright, sunny days.
Meals in College are advertised as being from one hour till another. Most people realise that this means the meal begins at one time but few that it ends at the other. Undergraduates who arrive in Hall five minutes before the meal is due to end and then discuss Plato for threequarters of an hour may get high marks for Political Thought but are ranked very law by the household.
It is not a generally known fact but members of the same College do not need to be introduced. A small, timid creature peering myopically about and hurrying along a corridor may be a Director of Studies on her way to a College Council. but she may be a fresher looking for the Library. In either case the correct etiquette is to smile. For two members of the same College to follow each other in single file along a passage may suggest that each is preoccupied with problems in higher mathematics, but is more likely to appear simply ridiculous. The first person might wait for the second to catch her up: even if she turns out to be a Natural Scientist it should be possible to find some common interest that will last till both reach Hall, Post or the nearest Gyp Wing. Many dons are unknown to freshers until the night of the College Feast, but even at the risk of mistaking a bedder for the Director of Studies in History it is advisable at least to smile at any vaguely familiar person of middle age met on the stairs. At least the Mistress is probably known by sight and can be acknowledged when met. Any don who has actually entertained a fresher can be addressed. There is no need to wait until the don speaks first.
College porters and portresses are more expert psychologists than most members of the University Health Service and more observant than the average member of M.I.5. It is more important to be polite to gyps and bedders than to the Bursar or Senior Tutor.


Health at the University has a code of etiquette all its own. If one has fallen off a bicycle on to one's face, or contracted glandular fever, it is permissible to spend two or three days in sick bay surrounded by flowers, grapes, shiny magazines and one's friend's wireless sets, but if one has a heavy cold, boils, gastric 'flu, or inconspicuous spots one evades the eagle eye of the Matron and retires to bed in a cold bed-sitting-room where one remains in a state of siege and is brought cold meals by kind friends at irregular intervals till one's gyp reveals the situation to someone in authority or one gets up and staggers to, a dance in full evening dress.
Some undergraduates suffer from insomnia. Anyone in condition should refuse to give good advice after 9 p.m. and should dissuade friends from dropping in when they come home to "go over it all again" and wonder what he could have meant.
An even more frequent undergraduate failing is an inability to wake up. The cure for this is said to be to go to bed at 10 p.m. three nights running, but no one has ever put this to the test.


In Cambridge the ratio of men to women is 10 to 1, at the beginning of term lecture rooms seem entirely full of men, but the fresher often finds it impossible to meet someone to invite to her College Ball in December. Methods of meeting young men vary. There is no need for a fresher to fall off her bicycle in King's Parade. It is always possible to join the Mummers or the A.D.C., though actors are apt to be too busy to be able to attend balls. One might join a religious society, but there the young men are apt to have very honourable intentions and to want to become engaged at the end of the second year. One might join a political society, but here young women are often made responsible for the tea, in which case they meet no-one. A Faculty society holds large meetings, almost indistinguishable from lectures except that they are better attended, but no one makes any attempt to introduce new members to anyone. If a fresher joins such a society as the Strathspey and Reel Club she would be well advised to bring her own partner. The Cruising Club, the Serenading Club, the Standfast Society, the Cloak and Dagger Society, the Footlights, the Hawks Club, the Pitt and the Union might provide just the contacts a fresher needs—if membership were only open to women.
After the first term the main problem for the fresher is how to fit in all the invitations from members of other colleges. At this stage other problems of etiquette emerge. How does the fresher this make it quite clear to a persistent young man that she really does not want to accept his hospitality? Most young women are too kindhearted to be really crushing, so a young man who invites a girl to tea "any day" and is told that she is busy should take the hint and invite her no more. When a girl has accepted an invitation the party sometimes turns out to be very different from what she had expected. Sometimes the male guests' only interest is obviously their host's sherry and their own epigrams. Sometimes the party turns out to be one where there is not enough light, too much drink and loud, discordant and unmelodic music. If a girl dislikes this kind of party she should get the most pleasant young man to escort her and leave at once. There remains the problem of how to dispose discreetly of a young man who insists on escorting one back to College and taking a long, tender and only too audible farewell outside the front gate which happens to be under the window of the Senior Tutor? Another variant of this problem is what to do when in company with an injudiciously demonstrative young man when the whole scene is vividly illuminated by the headlights of one's Tutor's car. Young ladies should ask to be escorted home in a taxi; a private car can be parked indefinitely. Ladies who are asked to take part in a Poppy Day Rag should make certain before accepting that they will not be expected to dance a Can-Can, hula-hula, take part in a strip-tease, appear in a foam bath or otherwise provide copy for the more sensational London papers.
Young men should not be encouraged to cook meals or take baths in College. They should be actively dissuaded from trying to improve electrical installations or from removing or embellishing College property.
Young men who rise to their feet as soon as a lady enters the room and remain standing till she is seated may seem rather oldfashioned and very unrestful, but young men who sit placidly and let their hostess fetch and carry cups of tea are louts. Even young women appear more gracious if they get to their feet when addressed by an older person.
It is common prudence not to become engaged before the end of the May Week following one's ninth term. In no circumstance should a young lady allow her heart to be broken in the Summer Term before either part of the Tripos, though as one Oxford don was heard to say, "We all had our hearts broken and broke those of other people but that never interrupted our work for Schools".

2 thoughts on “Etiquette for young ladies at Cambridge

  1. Edwin Moore

    Looks so like him!

    "We all had our hearts broken and broke those of other people'

    Oh reminded me of Auden –

    The nightingales are sobbing in
    The orchards of our mothers,

    And hearts that we broke long ago
    Have long been breaking others;
    Tears are round, the sea is deep:
    Roll them overboard and sleep.


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