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Somerville College – Including the Excluded

One of the first two colleges to be set up especially for women; we talked to Principal Dr Alice Prochaska
Non-conformist multi-denominational multi-faith international college

Just the simple act of walking across the grass nicely sums up why Somerville College is considered the most progressive of all Oxford University’s institutions.


The normal ‘rules’ of Oxford have never applied here, and the lack of ‘keep off the grass’ signs are just the tip of that iceberg.

Set up by radicals, its desire to provide an education free of Church and state has meant it not only opened doors for women in a time of exclusion, but today carries on offering an education to many who would otherwise miss out.

Current Principal Dr Alice Prochaska spoke to OX Magazine about her role at Somerville College and why she thinks it has become a breeding ground for great writers.

 “I am a Somerville graduate myself. I’ve always loved the college. It did a great deal for me as a young undergraduate and I stayed in touch off and on throughout my life. You can imagine what a huge privilege it was to be invited to be the Principle towards the end of my career.” Says Dr Prochaska, who is affectionately known by current students at Somerville as “Ali P”.  “It was a no brainer really. I couldn’t resist the idea of coming back to run my own old college. I’ve always been so proud of being associated with Somerville. It has always been the standard bearer of the highest standard of achievement for women in the country.”

Somerville College was one of the first two colleges to be set up especially for women, who were barred from studying at any of the other Oxford colleges. Although women were not able to gain a degree from the University until 1920, a group of academics came together to discuss the idea of an educational institution at Oxford University for women who wanted an education.

“We were one of the first two women's colleges to be founded at Oxford in 1879.” Says Dr Prochaska. “The other one was Lady Margaret Hall. A group of very progressive minded people, who had come together to enable women to have an Oxford education, ended up dividing in two. Some of them wanted the college to be set up according to Anglican principles, and the others didn't.” The matter was resolved by the creation of two colleges for women; Somerville and Lady Margret Hall.

“Somerville is the non-conformist multi-denominational multi-faith international college of the two that is also not based on establishment principles,

so in addition to being fair to women for the first time at Oxford, it was also open to people of absolutely any form of belief and any background.

There is a tradition of including the excluded, who in 1879 meant women but we've always had that tradition and we try to be as open as we can to people of very high ability who haven’t necessarily had all of their chances in life. We do have the highest proportion students from overseas and the highest proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds which is down to this tradition of openness. The college was named after Mary Somerville, a very famous scientist who was very accomplished considering she was female in a time when most women were excluded from education. She died seven years before the college was formed, but it was a fitting legacy and an ideal person to represent the college.”

The aim of equality in education has certainly had a strong effect on the alumni of the college since its formation. “There seems to be something about that tradition that encourages people to aspire.” Adds Dr Prochaska. “For example, we have a very long tradition of well-known novelists and our recent graduates include people who are writing novels too. There are probably well into 100 published novelists in the records of Somerville alumni.

We are also very strong on science. We are the college where the only British woman to win a Nobel prize in science, Dorothy Hodgkin, was a Fellow and an undergraduate.

There are also two prime ministers in the alumni too – Indira Gandhi and Margret Thatcher – and quite a few other well-known politicians too including Shirley Williams.”

One of the most famous students to graduate from the college though was Vera Brittain. Her ‘coming of age novel’ Testament of Youth has become a well-loved classic and is a vital insight into everyday life during the First World War and was recently adapted into a stunning period film. Her time at Somerville college is also featured in the book. “She came here to read history in October 1914. Then after a year she left to become a nurse at the front and in London. She returned to Somerville in 1919 to finish her degree.”

Somerville College itself would actually prove to have a starting role in her success as a writer.  A past student of the college was the famous novelist Rose Macaulay. Alice takes up the story of how Vera reached out to her for advice. “In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain writes about her own early efforts to get her first novel published and she was having absolutely no luck at all. This was around 1920 to 1925.

At some point she read in the paper that Rose Macaulay had just won a literary prize and she knew that Rose had been to Somerville, so she wrote to her out of the blue. She had never met her before. The college link was enough for Rose to write back and say ‘send me your manuscript and I will take a look at it’. The manuscript passed between them several times and Rose kept making suggestions for amendments, which Vera dutifully made. Rose also made several introductions to publishers for her too and eventually, after quite a lot of work on Rose’s part, Vera’s first novel was accepted to be published.

“It’s a very nice example of how people reach across the generations to help other people who they feel a common bond with. And in this case, the common bond was Somerville.”

Alice, herself a graduate of the college, is keen to uphold the radical tradition of Somerville which helped form writers such as Vera and Rose as well as all the other famous politicians and scientists that fill the records of past alumni.

“I’ve always loved the college. It did a great deal for me as a young undergraduate and I stayed in touch off and on through my life and you can imagine what a huge privilege it was to be invited to be the principle towards the end of my career. I couldn’t resist the idea of coming back to run my own old college. I’ve always been so proud of being associated with Somerville because it’s one of the great high flying colleges.”

Testament of Youth is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms now, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment.


Related Articles: The Life of Vera Brittain | Testament of Youth Film Review | Culture Comes Before Curriculum