“My 25th birthday. how beastly to be a quarter of a century”, Mary Gladstone wrote in her diary on 23 November 1872. I couldn't help chuckling when I read this. Wouldn’t it be great to be twenty-five again?! What a different perspective from the other side of that first quarter century. But then ... I can sympathize. I remember feeling similarly when I turned twenty-five.
I was in Oxbridge then, as Mary was for her twenty-fifth birthday. However, I was a student and able to take advantage of the equal education that Mary's circle helped to make possible. Such an opportunity was closed to Mary herself. At the end of November 1872, Mary was in Oxford to see family and friends, converse, attend chapel, and listen to music. She participated as much as she was allowed to do and enjoyed it so tremendously that she felt "dreadfully sad" (Diary) when she departed. Likewise, in March 1877 after her first visit to Cambridge, Mary found herself "bored + everybody beyond flat after my Cambridge friends." (Diary).
Despite being denied access to Oxbridge teaching, Mary was still an inspired contributor to University life and thought. Although her world differs dramatically from ours today, many of the opportunities that we now consider rights grew out of the ways in which Victorians sought to actualize their beliefs.
Mary turned twenty-five about 143 years ago. As daughter of the then-current Prime Minister, she received some enviable gifts that suggest how different the world was. Mama sent a fashionable Normandy cross – a piece of jewelry made popular because of the French display at the London International Exhibition of 1872. From Papa, Mary received glasses from the O’hara Glass Company in Pittsburgh. O'hara had displayed at the exhibition, too, in an enormous show case dedicated to Pittsburgh glass manufacturers (90 feet long, 6 feet deep and 14 feet high). The gifts communicate parental love in desiring to bestow something special, but they also display this Victorian family’s cosmopolitan, fashionable and devout identity.
When she received these presents, Mary was staying at Keble College, Oxford with cousin Lavinia (Lyttelton) Talbot and her husband Edward Talbot, the first Warden of this Anglican college. At this time, Girton and Newnham Colleges in Cambridge were in their infancy and Oxford’s ladies colleges did not yet exist. Just imagine what Mary felt visiting all-male Oxford in 1872, a year before the establishment of a ‘Lectures for Women’ committee. She doesn't seem to have noticed not having rights (Oxbridge had always been like that), but change was around the corner. In 1877, Mary persuaded her parents to allow her sister Helen to matriculate at Newnham, where Helen would become Vice-Principal five years later – the same year that Selwyn College opened its doors across the road with Lavinia’s brother, Arthur Lyttelton, as Master. In 1879, Lady Margaret Hall would open in Oxford – the High Church college that Edward and Lavinia Talbot helped to found. Mary did not have the opportunity to attend university, but she nonetheless participated in this yeasty period of change for women's education.
Oxford's sumptuous musical scene drew Mary, too. This premier's daughter was a gifted pianist who played chamber music with friends for hours at a time in the early 1870s. Lavinia and Edward thus bestowed an appropriate gift of “The Bach 48” (The Well-Tempered Clavier). Mary's brother, Harry, similarly asked her to choose a score by the music publisher Novello for her birthday. This is how she responded to Harry’s birthday letter:
Mary requests one of Handel’s scores, either the oratorio Joshua or Ode to St Cecilia. The last is a musical setting of John Dryden’s poem, “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day” (1687), as a choral worship cantata in honor of the patron saint of music and musicians. St Cecilia’s feast day, 22 November, was a day before Mary’s birthday. Handel was famous in Victorian Britain for his oratorios, but Mary’s choice reveals her as connoisseur, for Joshua was something of a novelty piece in 1872 (Beale, Charles Hallé, 152; Block, Amy Beach, 23). That said, the soprano aria, “Oh had I Jubal’s Lyre,” from Joshua was popularly performed.
The musical scores would make possible and supplement Mary’s lived practices in the early 1870s (hours of dedicated music-making, as pianist, singer and listener). After lunching with her brother Herbert, Mary’s twenty-fifth birthday was filled with music-making, from listening to a salon performance of Handel, Corelli, Mendelssohn and Chopin to attending a high church service at Magdalen College where Walter Parrett had newly been installed as organist. There, she heard a chorus from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, “Lift thine eyes + he watching’ sung to perfection.” (Diary).
More complexly, Mary requested scores that recounted musical beginnings: Jubal introduced music to human communities and Miriam sang prophetically. "Oh, had I Jubal's lyre, / Or Miriam's tuneful voice! / To songs like his I would aspire / In songs like hers rejoice", runs Handel's libretto. Dryden wrote (and Handel set): "From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began". As I explore at greater detail elsewhere, Mary thus performed a musical message that fit a heritage of liberal thinking about the importance of beauty (Linda Dowling calls this "Whig aesthetics"). Such a vantage point suggests a latent emotional force behind the calm presence depicted in Mary's beautiful carte-de-visite (displayed above).
I hope that you'll listen to the links above to get a sense of the sort of music with which Mary loved to commune. The music expresses a feeling world (linked to a specific, textual message), which seems to me to be just as important as the world of ideas to Gladstone's daughter and her circle. When you listen to "Oh had I Jubal's Lyre" or "Lift thine eyes," it's easy to imagine how such music inspired leaders in Victorian educational and social reforms.
The rest of Mary's letter gestures to the way in which music-making interleaves with Mary's joyful zeal, as we see in Mary's report of a musical tea, her jump to a funny incident between Albert Lyttelton and Edward Talbot, and then a final commiseration with Harry for missing a performance of Handel's oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus.
I'll let the remainder of the letter speak for itself, except for a couple of explanatory notes at the end.
Jeremy Taylor was a 17th-century Bishop and theologian. Harry may have given Mary the long essay, The Liberty of Prophesying, which urged religious tolerance.
Auguste Schlüter, lady’s maid to Mary and Helen Gladstone, was only a little younger than the sisters. Mary’s quip that maybe she should find a husband in Oxford was nearer the mark than she realized. Her future husband, Harry Drew, was at Keble College from 1874 to 1878.
The dream suggests that the academic Edward Talbot was frequently seen with "a big fat book"!
[Letter transcription follows citation information.]
Weliver, Phyllis. “A 25th Musical Birthday in Oxford.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. 18 September 2015. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/9/17/y9mn037j82kr6m9fxc0qyy8ntqfnf3).
Weliver, P. (2015, Sep 18). A 25th Musical Birthday in Oxford. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/9/17/y9mn037j82kr6m9fxc0qyy8ntqfnf3