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St. Martha's College, Cambridge, had been staggering along on a shoestring for decades. Then alumna Alice Toon leaves her old school a huge fortune. The dons immediately fall to fighting over the spoils. The Virgins, led by Dame Maud, believe the bequests should be spent on scholarships. The Dykes — fewer in number but better streetfighters—want to raise a center of Gender and Ethnic Studies. The Old Women (mostly men) dream of fine vintages to be laid down in a decent new wine ...
St. Martha's College, Cambridge, had been staggering along on a shoestring for decades. Then alumna Alice Toon leaves her old school a huge fortune. The dons immediately fall to fighting over the spoils. The Virgins, led by Dame Maud, believe the bequests should be spent on scholarships. The Dykes — fewer in number but better streetfighters—want to raise a center of Gender and Ethnic Studies. The Old Women (mostly men) dream of fine vintages to be laid down in a decent new wine cellar. Impasse!
They've reckoned without the Bursar, Jack Troutbeck. She elects to infiltrate her own agent, Robert Amiss, a former civil servant with a talent for sorting things out. No sooner does he arrive on the scene where the Virgins are getting the upper hand than Dame Maud is murdered, leading us into "An acidly funny romp... Superbly bitchy on the none-too-fragrant groves of academe."—Mike Ripley, Daily Telegraph
Copyright © 1994 Ruth Dudley Edwards.
All rights reserved.
The trouble with Jack Troutbeck, wrote Amiss to Rachel, is that though she is a particularly splendid old bird, and one with whom I worked and occasionally caroused very happily in the civil service, once she has decided you're intelligent it's almost impossible to get any information out of her: she assumes you pick up everything by osmosis. However, I applied myself to extracting the salient details and have now got a grip and awfully entertaining it all sounds.
St. Martha's has been staggering along on a shoestring in an undistinguished sort of way for 80 years or so. It's the least well-known of the Cambridge colleges for reasons which I haven't yet sussed out. Jack said something darkly about the founder wanting them all to be seamstresses rather than scholars. They seem, these days at least, to have people who can't get in anywhere else and don't really want to come to them in the first place, and that applies to dons as well as students.
Now the even tenor of St. Martha's life has been disrupted by a shattering event. An old girl has left a bequest of ten million quid to be used at the discretion of the Mistress for a specific project. This is the root of the problem: apparently the benefactor, Miss Alice Toon, was not one of those who fears lest her left hand find out what her right hand has been up to. She wished her light to shine free of bushel, hence the stipulation of something that can have her name attached. Forget minor improvements and running costs. What St. Martha's really needs is money to cure the dry rot in the loo seats and the rising damp in the under-gardener, with a bit of money thrown in for scholarship. But that isn't the sort of thing Alice Toon had in mind. She saw it more in terms of the Alice Toon Memorial Ante-Room or the Alice Toon Chair of Cosmic Understanding or whatever.
The decision has to be taken by the end of this term, and the Fellows are at war over what it should be. With her customary delicacy, Jack describes the two main tribes as the Virgins and the Dykes, with a minority party called the Old Women.
The Virgins are what you might expect. Head Virgin is the Mistress, Dame Maud Theodosia Buckbarrow, who is a medieval historian—a 'decent old biddy', according to Jack, who was contemporaneous with her at St. Martha's forty years ago, but not a bag of laughs. She lives, breathes and exhales footnotes and lives a life of abstraction, purity and fixed routine.
Equally virtuous is Emily Twigg, the pint-sized Senior Tutor, who is an authority on Beowulf, looks like an intellectual grey squirrel and, according to Jack, is a complete innocent about everything except, of course, English literature. There are a few other similarly chaste and dedicated ancient bluestockings in the college, all minded to keep the fires of rigorous scholarship alight. To this end they are devising the Alice Toon Postgraduate Scholarships in Theology, Palaeography, Medieval Law and so on. Dame Maud Theodosia is compiling a definitive list at present of the most unpopular subjects anyone can think of.
The second lot, the Dykes, are fewer in number but they're better street-fighters. For instance, their leader, Bridget Holdness, was clever enough to get a Visiting Fellowship for her frightful sidekick Sandra Murphy, who turned out later to stand for everything that Dame Maud hates. Jack thinks Holdness is an apparatchik who is using the politically correct movement entirely cynically and marshals her troops well. Her lot want to spend the money on a centre for Gender and Ethnic Studies.
The Old Women are in fact men. I don't know how they came on the scene but there are three of them, who also have some nascent support among the uncommitted Fellows. The one Jack mentioned, Francis Pusey, inspired her to a rush of expletive-spattered denunciation which escapes me now but the gist of which was that he was a namby-pamby mummy's boy who spends most of his time doing embroidery. What Pusey and his pals want is to call the whole college after Alice Toon and spend the money on making it extremely comfortable for the Fellows—rewired, replumbed, equipped with a decent wine cellar and a good cook. Jack is morally on the Virgins' side, in her heart she's on the Old Women's side—but all that matters is to do down the Dykes.
I'm being dragged into this simply because Jack is ever a woman to seize an opportunity and I am that opportunity. Jack had screwed out of her ex-colleagues in the civil service the money for a temporary Research Fellowship to study the relationship of government and academia: the holder is to examine the situation on the ground, as it were, and come up with a thinkpiece on how Whitehall and academe could snuggle up together more productively. The person chosen has dropped out at the last minute and having heard from a mutual friend that I was resting, she thought it would be a good wheeze to get me along to hold her hand through the weeks ahead. She's persuaded her civil service contact to insist that work start on the agreed date, i.e. at the end of the next week, so she's been able to cut corners in getting a shortlist together for the selection committee to meet next Tuesday. She's rigged it to the best of her ability and now I've got to pass muster with a rather disparate group which includes one of the Dyke faction and the midget (sorry, vertically-challenged) Senior Tutor. My instructions are to be cunning, play it by ear, and dress the part. 'What part?' I asked. 'Work it out', she said and abandoned me to my fate.
Of course, I'm going to give it a whirl. It will be a good billet, if I get it, from which to job-hunt and besides, I like old Jack. I still remember with deep pleasure the occasion when she became even more frank than usual at a Permanent Secretary's sherry party and told a Treasury mandarin where to put his Public Sector Borrowing Requirement: the only effect alcohol ever seems to have on Jack is to make her even less inhibited.
Now I'm off to choose my wardrobe for Tuesday, working on the principle that the Virgins won't notice what I wear, so I'd better dress for the Dykes. I can see I'd better take advice.
Amiss was quite pleased with the general effect. The black woollen collarless shirt and trousers were the clothes of an earnest person: over them he wore a donkey jacket, purchased in the local charity shop. Yet some touches were needed to compensate for his overall unrelieved white Anglo-Saxon maleness. It was obviously imperative to cloak his other twin disadvantages of heterosexuality and good health.
He had spent a long time agonizing over the choice of book to carry with him: even the Dykes presumably wouldn't be gullible enough to be taken in by a volume of poems by 'Black Sisters in the Struggle'. In the end he took Ellmann's Oscar Wilde, unsubtle but credible, and, besides, a book that he would actually enjoy reading on the train to Cambridge.
Amiss had practised his limp assiduously and as he inspected his hobbling figure in various shop windows he congratulated himself on the general effect. However, by the time he had got halfway up the long drive of St. Martha's he was beginning to wish he had taken a less tiring route to winning the sympathy of the selection board. The slowness of his gait gave him ample time to make a judgement on the architectural merits of St. Martha's, which were nil unless one happened to have a penchant for neo-Gothic piles with overhanging turrets and lots of narrow windows peering out of the scarlet brick. He could appreciate the Bursar's crie de coeur about the need for an extra gardener. In a city crammed to the gills with rolling swathes of manicured perfection, St. Martha's lawns, by contrast, were a sorry spectacle of ragged vegetation. Great dark hedges and bushes of evergreens were clumped glumly here and there and all were in need of a good trim: the dangling ivy cluttered around bits of the building lacked both restraint and direction.
St. Martha's architect had clearly been enjoined to provide adequate protection for the precious inmates: the front door was made of an oak so heavy and thick as to be capable of resisting a phalanx of mad axe-men. As on Amiss's last visit, it was open: once again, his nose wrinkled in distaste at the pervading institutional smell provided by a kitchen free of air-conditioning and a great deal of polished linoleum. He rang the bell marked 'Office' and the college secretary came rushing into view.
'It's Mr. Amiss again, isn't it?' she asked brightly. 'Now what have we done to ourself? Why have we got a stick?'
'An old complaint, Miss Stamp. Polio as a child and all that. Get a recurrence sometimes—a bit like malaria. Don't let's talk about that.' He silently applauded the stoicism that shone valiantly through his cheery tone. Shamelessly, he continued. 'Let's talk instead about that nice jumper you're wearing. Absolutely beautiful.'
Miss Stamp simpered and gazed down at her tiny chest, which was encased in a remarkably elaborate construction of blue and pink embroidered butterflies on a white mohair background. In itself it wasn't bad, thought Amiss; it might have looked quite fetching on an eight-year-old girl.
'Francis, I mean Dr. Pusey, made it for me. Well, that is, I knitted it and he embroidered it. We help each other out in our sewing circle. Can you sew or knit, Mr. Amiss?'
''Fraid not. I'll have to get you to teach me—if I get this job.'
Excerpted from Matricide at St. Martha's by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Copyright © 1994 by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.