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  • Writer's pictureSharon Michalove

Two Oxford Colleges: Somerville and Balliol

Philip Allfrey - The Hall (left) and Maitland Building (right) of Somerville College, Oxford

Peter Trimming, Balliol College

The first time Max and Cress meet, they are both students at Oxford. Max is third-year student at Balliol. Cress is an American graduate student at Somerville on a Rotary scholarship. The year is 1993. Newly arrived, Cress is riding a borrowed bicycle, unsteadily. Max is meandering down the Broad with his cousin, Guy. A recipe for disaster or love at first sight?

“Watch out!”

By the time the warning registered, Max Grant had already hit the ground, tangled together with a girl and a bicycle.

His cousin Guy rushed over and helped her up, then dragged the bike out of the way while Max slowly got to his feet, brushing himself off.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she cried in an American accent.

Max looked down and was immediately enraptured by her mesmerizing hazel eyes. She had a mass of dark curly hair, a round face, and big, round glasses. Her academic gown, stained with dirt and her long flowered dress with a grease spot and a tear at the hem from getting caught in the chain, were ungainly on her petite frame. She was bright red with embarrassment.

At First Sight (deleted text)

Infatuation for Max, while Cress just wanted to escape as quickly as possible.

As the author, I get to choose everything--except when my characters tell me otherwise. Fortunately, Max and Cress were both happy with the colleges I chose for them. Why Somerville and Balliol, you might ask?

Somerville College was founded as a women's hall in 1879 at aa time when Oxford did not admit female students. Founded at the same time as Lady Margaret Hall, the nondenominational school was named after scientist Mary Somerville. In the first year, twelve women are admitted although they are not allowed to attend lectures or take a degree. However, progress was made and in 1880, Somerville purchased its own building. Women were also allowed to attend chemistry lectures. As more lectures were opened to women, the men at Oxford were not happy.

When, in 1884, women are allowed to sit examinations, the women of Somerville students celebrated, singing a parody from the song "He is an Englishman" from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance."

In spite of all temptations to avoid examinations

We will do them if we can

In 1894, with enrollment rising, Somerville Hall is renamed Somerville College. No longer just a hall of residence, Somerville's status is elevated. The college goes from strength to strength, building its own library at a time when the Bodleian was not open to women and, under the leadership of Emily Penrose, pushing for the granting of degrees for women, which Oxford does in 1920. The Unversity of London was forty-two years ahead of Oxford, Cambridge twenty-eight years behind. In the meantime, Trinity College, Dublin, offered women at Oxford and Cambridge from 1904 to 1907.

"Steamboat ladies" was a nickname given to a number of female students at the women's colleges of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge who were awarded ad eundem University of Dublin degrees at Trinity College Dublin, between 1904 and 1907, at a time when their own universities refused to confer degrees upon women.The name comes from the means of transport commonly used by these women to travel to Dublin for this purpose. (Wikipedia)

My own knowledge of Somerville comes from two women, both writers, who I admire. One is Vera Brittain. When Testament of Youth was broadcast on PBS in 1980, I was enthralled. I sought out her writings. Perhaps even more compelling to me, however, was that another alumna was Dorothy L. Sayers. When I visited Oxford for the first time, in the 1980s, I bought a Somerville sweatshirt.

Other prominent alumnae are Avril Cameron, an eminent historian; Daphne Park, Clandestine senior controller in MI6, Indira Gandhi, and writers Winifred Holtby, Iris Murdoch and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Cress is happy to be numbered among such luminaries.

And now onto Balliol, Max's alma mater. It's not surprising that Max is on Broad Street when the accident occurs. That's where Balliol is located. Founded in 1260 after a violent dispute between the Bishop of Durham and John Balliol, the latter was required to make a substantial act of charity, the college received its endowment and statutes in 1282. Alumni include prime ministers and other politicians, literary figures, Nobel prizewinners, musicians, and Archbishops of Canterbury among others. For me, the most famous is Dorothy Sayers fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. And of course, Harriet Vane attended Somerville (never explicitly named), like her creator.

Max is in good company.

Note: the information on Somerville and Balliol is derived from their respective websites.

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