The Alumnae’s Lunch

Eat­ing with a book is one of the great pleas­ures. Eat­ing while talk­ing about books is anoth­er, and second to that comes talk­ing about books that have eat­ing in them. I once gave a lec­ture at Newn­ham Col­lege, Cam­bridge about Vir­gin­ia Woolf. Newn­ham was the ven­ue for Woolf’s talks about women and fic­tion which formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own. In it, she con­trasts the grim, gravy soup that stu­dents at women’s col­leges sur­vived on and the plump part­ridge and sole that fuelled the men.

The lunch at Newn­ham on the day of my lec­ture bore no rela­tion to Woolf’s brown broth. I’d half-expec­ted the kit­chen staff to tip a know­ing wink at A Room of One’s Own and give me a bowl of gravy. (I admit that I was in para­noid mood that day, hav­ing just been to the launch party for a new knit­ting book and been giv­en blue-dyed spa­ghetti with bread-stick ‘needles’ poked in.) But the meal was as plen­ti­ful as it was deli­cious and I couldn’t help think­ing how pleased Vir­gin­ia Woolf would have been that the status of women, as meas­ured by our lunches at least, had soared.

I thought of Woolf, Newn­ham and brown soup today as I sat down to lunch with three female friends with whom I share a par­tic­u­lar bond. All four of us star­ted PhDs at the same time. Between us, we pro­duced doc­tor­al theses on Con­rad, Shakespeare, Vic­tori­an fem­in­ist poetry and con­tem­por­ary fic­tion. (One of the enter­tain­ments when doing a PhD is to mar­vel at the appar­ent insan­ity of every­one else’s choice of sub­ject; my favour­ite is still ‘the motif of decay­ing flesh in the works of J. M. Coet­zee.’) If there’d been a med­ic­al emer­gency in the res­taur­ant and someone had shouted out “Is there a doc­tor in the house?” we could have yelled back “Yes, four”.

Our lunch was a mil­lion miles from the parsi­mo­ni­ous meals of Vir­gin­ia Woolf’s exper­i­ence; the food wasn’t par­tic­u­larly spe­cial but we had more laughs than I’ve had all year. Laughter is a vital com­pon­ent of the PhD exper­i­ence, giv­en that so much of it is gruelling, sol­it­ary, hard-dentistry and that it goes on for so, so long. Per­haps it was a lack of laughs that added to Woolf’s misery about her soup. Much as I love Woolf, her work is as thin on com­edy as her Cam­bridge meal was thin on part­ridge. If she’d had three good com­pan­ions to share her grue­some gravy with, she might not have noticed the food at all.



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