From cold toast with lifelong friends to being inspired by Daphne Park, our alumni guest speaker at the 1980-91 gaudy, Elenore Falshaw (1987, English), shared her memories of Somerville and reflected on how Somerville has changed and grown over the decades since her student days.
“Baroness Royall, Honored Guests. Well, this is a unique perspective. In my very undistinguished time at Somerville I never sat at High Table and I must say this view is lovely, especially as everyone present has not aged a day. In this room I developed a lifelong taste for stone cold toast, done on one side only, and realized how distinctive my northern vowel sounds were when I called out to ‘Jo Roscow’.
The greatest gift Somerville gave me were my friends. I am a proud member of the Somerville 6. Not a crime gang or a terrorist organization, but a group of 5 girls from the North of England plus Irish Lisa Gygax. For 35 years these women have been friends, sisters, travel companions, dancefloor champions, counselors, godparents, potential organ donors – maybe not the liver this weekend – in short, a lifelong blessing. I know you have your own versions of the Somerville 6 and are probably swapping stories and memories, one of the joys of events like these. After dinner tonight we plan to make some more at the Bop – please join us to see if Lisa’s knees are still up to some of her legendary dance moves. Jo, Pri, Liz, Joanne and Lisa, thank you for being a joy to my life.
While I realized in the first two minutes at college that I had reached my intellectual peak at A levels, what a thrill it was to be here. I had visited in Trinity term and had a meal at Brown’s surrounded by girls in ballgowns and boys in black tie. It was impossibly glamorous and I wanted in. From the moment I had my interview with Daphne Park I desperately wanted to come to Somerville – not Oxford generally, Somerville in particular. I wanted to be in the company of women like her. Heather O’Donohue telling me I had a cool writing style consoled me for not being FR Leavis, and Katherine Duncan-Jones grace and kindness will stay with me forever. It was good to take a lesson in humility here after being “the best” at a small school – listening to Helen Beech and Jane Linstead in tutorials I was gobsmacked by their intellect – but at the time I didn’t know the life long calling card Oxford admittance gave me, especially after moving to the states. This is the second gift I am thankful to Somerville for. Not just the cachet of the name but the opportunity I had to be around minds much greater than my own. Things may have changed but I recall it wasn’t the done thing to say you went to Oxford when we were here, instead we would mumble we went to ‘college’. Silly girl. Now, if I reach for a Bridgerton instead of an Elena Ferrante I can remind myself I once read Dream of the Rood in Old English and give myself a pass.
Speaking of Daphne Park, at my interview she asked me why I chose Somerville. I didn’t want to tell her ‘because my headmistress told me to’, so after a moment of panic, not the last I’d have, I stumbled on to describe what has turned out to be a defining principle of my life. I truly believe in the transformative power of single sex education spaces for girls and women. I went to an all-girls’ school, a women’s college, worked first in publishing and for the last 18 years back in an all-girls’ school in New Orleans. I have clearly drunk the single sex kool-aid. Back to that winter evening interview, Daphne considered my answer and gave me a little smile and a nod and always afterwards remembered my name – I hero-worshipped that woman. When we later learned that her career in the Foreign Service included espionage, as we had always suspected, my crush was complete. A Margaret Rutherford shaped 007 with the intelligence of ten men – take that Ian Fleming.
So I was a little miffed when shortly after we had graduated the decision to let men attend was made. C’est la vie!
Carry on Somerville – from reading the college’s excellent publications, following your just-right social media accounts, hearing updates from Liz and Lisa on alumni affairs, there is so much to be proud of, from helping lead the fight against COVID-19 to becoming a College of Sanctuary. The college looks amazing, with all the new buildings and improvements. I am staying in the lovely Catherine Hughes Building, with an en suite, very smart. There will be no buildings named for me but I work in development and know the difference that small bequests make cumulatively for the future of great institutions like Somerville so do consider this. I owe this college so much, not least an apology for you having to repaint my room in Vaughan after first year as 3 of the Somerville 6 were smokers and I had a telly in my room.
Thank you for your leadership Jan. Even though I wouldn’t have a chance in hell of getting in these days, and even though there are boys here, I would apply here all over again.