Having just celebrated this year’s International Women’s Day, I have been inspired to find out more about the women who are part of the history of Classics at Newcastle University. My research has led me to discover the remarkable Christina Keith, a pioneering female scholar in the field of Classics and beyond.
Christina Keith joined Armstrong College (the first incarnation of Newcastle University) as a lecturer in Classics in October 1914, making her one of the earliest female scholars in the department’s history. This was the first lectureship of Christina’s academic career, following on from several years of study in higher education. Although not the case nowadays, pursuing higher education was a rare and unusual choice for a woman in the early 20th century, and Classics in particular was a traditionally male subject. A brief survey of Christina’s time at university makes clear both her natural aptitude for academia and the particular challenge she faced as a woman in pursuing it.
Despite having no previous training in classical languages, Christina excelled in her study of Greek, Latin and classical archaeology at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1910 with a First Class Honours. During this time, Christina was one of two women in a class of eleven. She then went on to study for another three years at Cambridge University, where she again achieved a First Class in both parts of her examinations (officially termed the ‘Classics Tripos’). Achieving this result despite not knowing the Greek alphabet a few years before is a feat that students new to Greek will have a particular appreciation of as impressive!
Yet more impressive is that Christina achieved all this at a time when women in Britain were not on an equal footing with men in academia or indeed in wider society. Despite her achievement at Cambridge and her attendance at its Newnham College – founded on the promotion of higher education for women – women were not permitted at that time to graduate alongside their male peers. It is Christina’s perseverance and courage to pursue Classics as well as her natural ability that makes her an inspiring figure in the history of the subject at Newcastle.
Christina’s appointment to Armstrong College immediately following her studies coincided with the outbreak of World War I. As she began lecturing, the effects of the war soon reached as far north as Newcastle, with many of the College’s buildings requisitioned to house the 1st Northern General Hospital and the Department of Classics relocating to Newcastle’s famous Lit & Phil library. Over the next four years, Christina came into contact with recovering soldiers while living and working in Newcastle, as well as witnessing her male relatives and students leave to join the fighting overseas.
It is perhaps no surprise then, that when Christina left Newcastle in 1918, it was to join the British army’s education scheme, which was at that time overseen by Sir Henry Hadow, a former Principal of Armstrong College. Over the next year, Christina tutored soldiers behind the frontlines in Dieppe, France, in English and foreign languages. When the Armistice was declared in 1919, she was still living among the soldiers and was one of the first women to traverse the battlefields after the fighting had stopped.
With the war over, the education scheme was disbanded and Christina returned to lecturing in England, this time as a Senior Classics Tutor at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University. She continued to work there for another six years before moving back to her hometown of Thurso in Scotland. From there, she turned to writing and published several works, including what remains a respected biography of Sir Walter Scott, before passing away in 1963. This same year, the Christina Keith prize, an academic award, was established as a lasting legacy of her promotion of the study of Classics.
The story of Christina Keith is truly fascinating, not only because she defied contemporary gender norms to become a pioneering academic, but because she took her passion for learning beyond the classroom to the trenches during a challenging period in British history. While she was teaching in France, Christina wrote a memoir about her life during this time, including her experience of travelling across the deserted battlefields. This work – an important piece of history in its own right – has recently been published along with a detailed biography written by her great-niece, Flora Johnston, as the book War Classics: The Remarkable Memoir of Scottish Scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front. Flora has also kindly provided me with a lot of information about Christina and her remarkable life, and if you would like to find out more, I recommend you visit Flora’s blog, or pick up a copy of War Classics for yourself.
And if you would like to read about another pioneering female scholar in the history of the School of History, Classics & Archaeology, click here to discover the story of Mable Atkinson.