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Muriel sat two sets of exams for entry to Somerville College: firstly, the ‘Entrance Exam’ in June 1913, and then, secondly, ‘Responsions’ in September 1913. ‘Responsions’ were qualifying exams to ensure that students were at a certain standard in Latin, Greek and Mathematics before starting their courses. She must have passed these exams because she went up to Somerville for the Hilary Term – beginning in January 1914 – having been accepted to read English. She was to enjoy just six months of ‘peace’ before Britain entered the First World War.
By Oxford University standards, Somerville was a very young college when Muriel joined it. All-male colleges had been in existence for centuries – for example, Balliol College was founded in 1263. The history of Somerville begins in 1878, when a committee was formed to establish a single Hall of Residence for women in Oxford. It soon became evident, however, that some of the committee were in favour of a Hall under Church control whilst others desired an undenominational approach. As a result, two Halls were opened in October 1879: Lady Margaret Hall, which was under Church control, and Mary Somerville Hall – named after a distinguished scientist, Mary Somerville, whose family kindly allowed their arms to be borne by the Hall.
The period from the establishment of Somerville as a Hall of Residence to the year when Muriel arrived was one of significant expansion: buildings were extended and new ones added; College status was achieved in 1894; and student numbers increased from just twelve private students at the start to one hundred by 1914. Even so, it would be another six years before women could be granted proper degree status, despite the fact that they were already studying to degree level and taking the same examinations as the men.
Soon after settling in at Somerville, Muriel became a member of the Mutual Admiration Society (MAS). The MAS had been formed two years earlier, on 6th November 1912, by a group of first year students, including Dorothy L Sayers, who gathered together in one of the student’s rooms, sharing hot cocoa and toasted marshmallows, “to read aloud our literary efforts and to receive and deliver criticism.” They brought stories, poems, essays, plays, and fables, and they received far more than merely criticism. In the firelight, over economical treats, they created a space in which they could grow beyond the limitations of Edwardian girlhood and become complex, creative adults with a radically capacious notion of what it might mean to be both human and female. It was Dorothy L Sayers, who coined the name for the group - arguing that, if they didn’t give themselves that title, the rest of the College would. From its inception, the MAS achieved a certain notoriety, and membership was sought even by senior years. Election to the MAS was decided by the members on the merit of an original entry in prose or verse. A comment made by a member on Muriel St Clare Byrne, when she was admitted in May 1914, was “An awfully nice child who writes quite good stuff”!
Whilst the female students at Somerville were not discouraged from such informal activities as the MAS, which just involved women. The rules with regard to members of the opposite sex were more than a little restrictive. Thus, when Muriel was at Somerville, female students had to be chaperoned when entertaining men! Until 1893, female students were not even allowed to attend lectures without a chaperon, but, by 1921, the rules had been relaxed to the extent that female students could entertain men at Somerville in a public and authorised way; such as at dances, tea-parties, tennis-parties, and at meetings or debates.
Britain entered the war against Germany on 4th August 1914, and, in April 1915, the decision was made to use the Somerville buildings as a Military Hospital for the duration of the war. As a result, students came up for the summer term of that year to find that the move to their wartime home – the Rhodes block and the St Mary Hall quadrangle of Oriel College (known as ‘Skimmery’) – had been completed. Muriel lived in Skimmery, and she would have spent a significant part of her student life living and working at Oriel.
The MAS effectively ceased as a student Society at Somerville in 1915 due to factors such as the disruption created by the First World War and the departure of several founder members - including Dorothy L Sayers - either as a result of completing their studies or wishing to volunteer for war work. Nevertheless, many of the members of the MAS kept in contact throughout their lives and continued to share their work and to offer criticism to one another. At a meeting many years later, one of the members of the MAS suggested that the initials now stood for ‘Middle Aged Spread’!
Perhaps the most notable relationship between members of the MAS is that between Muriel and Dorothy L Sayers - who became life-long friends and work colleagues - to the extent that Muriel was Dorothy’s executor after her untimely death in 1957.
It is hard to comprehend now that, as Britain entered the First World War, young women at Oxford University required chaperones, were expected to be conservative in their dress and behaviour, were excluded from the award of degree status, and faced the prospect of very limited career options at the end of their studies. At the time, however, spirited and determined young women, like Muriel St Clare Byrne and Dorothy L Sayers, must have relished the fact that they were being offered academic opportunities at Oxford University that fifty years earlier were unheard of. However, it was not until May 1920 that Oxford University passed a Statute, which provided that women could at last be awarded a ‘proper’ degree. So Muriel, who finished her course of study for a degree in English in the Trinity term of 1917, would have had to wait until the latter part of 1920 before she received her Class II degree.
To put these degree restrictions into context, it is helpful to remember that it was not until 1918 that the Representation of the People Act granted all British men over 21 the civil right to vote. Unfortunately, women were not given the same rights as men, because this 1918 Act limited suffrage to women who were over 30 and who also met certain property qualifications. Universal suffrage for British women over 21 was not granted until 1928.
How then did Muriel spend her time as a Somerville student? The late Professor Kathleen Tillotson, a distinguished scholar, recalled that, whilst she was an undergraduate at Somerville in the 1920s, she discovered that Muriel had been one of Somerville’s stars and the College’s historian, and that she studied devotedly Muriel’s lucid instructions on Elizabethan handwriting. Tangible proof of Muriel’s interest in Somerville’s history was the publication, in 1922, of a delightful little book entitled ‘Somerville College 1879-1921’, of which she was the co-author with a fellow Somervillian, Catherine Hope Mansfield.
The Somerville College Archive has a considerable collection of Muriel’s papers and memorabilia – amongst which is a little gem of an album containing some delightful photographs of Muriel and Dorothy as well as others depicting the college buildings of that time.
Exactly how the First World War affected Muriel is impossible to say. Actions speak louder than words, and what is known is that, during the latter stages of that War, Muriel worked with the YMCA in Rouen teaching English Literature to active servicemen. Evidence of the effects of the War was, however, all around her in Oxford. This great University City was almost devoid of young men, apart from those who could not fight and, of course, those who had been wounded in the fighting, and who were then being housed in the Somerville buildings, which had been rapidly adapted to their new role as a Military Hospital. Initially, both officers and men were accommodated at Somerville, but, during the first year of occupation, the College was converted into a hospital for officers alone, a role for which it proved most suitable, helped considerably by its close proximity to the Radcliffe Infirmary.
Not surprisingly, Somerville students took the greatest interest in what they would have regarded as their own hospital, and it is inconceivable that Muriel would not have become involved in the business of helping to make the lives of those damaged men as comfortable as possible during their stay in the Somerville buildings. Many of the casualties housed there were Oxford men – dons, graduates, undergraduates and prospective undergraduates.
In an interview with Alex Hamilton, for the Guardian Newspaper, in May 1981, Muriel recalled her student days at Oxford in World War One - of a university almost cleared of young men except the invalids and the shortsighted, like Aldous Huxley, “sitting beside me looking like a young god, though his photographs give you no idea of him,” - of giving tea to these few, the condition being that a woman friend plus a don must also be present!
With her degree studies completed by the summer of 1917, the chapter on Muriel’s life as a student comes to a close, and a new chapter opens – featuring Muriel as a young woman of twenty-two setting out at the beginning of what was to be a remarkable career.