Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, by Susan J. Leonardi

I’ve been a longtime fan of Dorothy Sayers and particularly of her portrayal of life at an Oxford women’s college in Gaudy Night, but while researching higher education for women in the 1920s I came across this great book, Dangerous by Degrees, which examines Sayers in the context of five other women novelists who, like her, attended Oxford’s Somerville College in the early 20th century and whose novels touch, to some degree, upon the questions of women’s education and women’s roles.

Not only is Dangerous by Degrees very well-written and interesting to read in its own right, it also introduced me to writers I hadn’t read or heard of before — some realtively well-known like Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby — as well as those who are perhaps less remembered: Muriel Jaeger, Doreen Wallace, and Margaret Kennedy. The focus is not so much on biography, though Leonardi does talk about each woman’s life in the context of her time at Somerville, but rather on literary analysis. Leonardi chooses a few women characters from each writer’s work and shows how each of the novelists handles the themes of higher education for women, women’s work, and romance/marriage for the “new woman.” There are some really interesting insights here, and it made me want to read more by all these novelists. Actually, even if it had only led me to read Winifred Holtby’s South Riding that would have been enough of a revelation, but I’m hoping that I get to hunt down some more novels by these writers (some are hard to find). Both for itself, and for other books it might point you towards, Dangerous by Degrees is highly recommended.

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