In 2007 I went on a night jaunt up Mount Sinai and a tour of St. Katherines monastery at its foot, the only relief in a week long, ill-advised package holiday on the Red Sea. I went because two characters Dorothy Dunnetts Niccolo series of books, which were set in the Renaissance, made the trip too. I wish I had also known about Agnes and Margaret, the Scottish twin sisters whose lives are written about in Janet Soskices book, Sisters of Sinai.
The twins became famous after they discovers the Codex Sinaiticus, a handwritten copy of the Bible in Greek which remains a priceless treasure. They went on to further discoveries and travels, visiting Sinai six times in all, travelling in Egypt and to U.S. and to Jerusalem.The extraordinary thing about these ladies is that they did this all in a time when women were not seen as equals in any sphere let alone the academic one.
Agnes and Margaret were born in Scotland in 1843 and brought up by their father (their mother died two weeks after their birth)to be independent and intelligent Presbyterian ladies. They settled in London and travelled to Greece and the near east. Both were fluent in a number of languages. Both married in their 40s to men who were intelligent intellectuals. Both marriages lasted only a few years ending with the death of their respective husbands. They settled finally in Cambridge.
I won’t go into too much detail reviewing this book here, I just wanted to highlight why these ladies are so inspiring to read about. The twins, Agnes being the leader, were powerful characters borne through life on a firm Presbyterian faith that inspired them to put their money to good use.
The money that their father left them made it easier but they still had various obstacles to overcome. As women they were outsiders on the Cambridge intellectual circuit. Women were allowed to attend classes at Cambridge from 1882 but could not be awarded degrees or accepted as full members of the university until 1948 despite their embarrassingly good performances right from the start. Hilariously, one of the main objections to women attending classes was that they arrived early and got all the good seats.
Despite this, on returning from their first visit to Sinai the twins embarked on learning Syriac as well as becoming educated in ancient manuscripts due to their friend Rendell Harris bending the rules to allow Agnes to sit in on his paleography course. They also learned photography. Between them they learned 12 languages. By the end of their lives they were recognised as intellectuals, lectured widely and were awarded with various honary degrees from Halle, Heidleburg, St. Andrews and Dublin. Cambridge never did honour them.
They did all this not because they were feminists per se, in fact they are largely silent on womens rights in public and they seem to have been without rancour as to the state of affairs for women. They even endowed Westminister college in the Cambridge to allow non-conformists become full members of the Oxbridge universities. They lived their lives as they did because they wanted to, because they believed in contributing to their faith and to humanity.
What is interesting about this story for me, besides the doughty spirits of these two ladies, is the way so many men helped them along. They had the support, admiration and friendship of a number of men of standing in the intellectual throughout their lives, Rendell Harris and Robertson Smith being foremost among them.
When two (male) intellectuals and their wives who accompanied on their return to Sinai attempted to claim Agnes discovery for themselves they were unable to due to the good advice of Harris who went on to assist in educating them to university standard.
I am all for equal rights myself, in fact I cannot understand how anyone can think themselves superior based on their physical make up and I dislike being patronised by the type of men who think they are superior merely because they have a mickey but I think these men are either in the minority or the majority hide their feelings of superiority well 🙂 and that’s good enough for me. In fact, I happen to like men. The people who disturb me most are the women who are denigrating and even aggressive towards men, blaming them it seems for every slight we women have suffered. These women I think, I hope, are in a minority, but still, they aren’t helping anyone least of all women.
The twins story shows that there are idiots and heroes of both genders and even in a time when women were not accepted as equals there were men ready to step up to the plate in defence of truth and knowledge, and to use their place in society to offer a hand up, regardless of any silly social mores that got in the way.
The other wonderful thing about these doughty ladies is that the most fruitful part of their lives began in their 50s. Their 50s!Even today we ladies are written off by then. Back then they would have been considered relicts.
But no matter, they charged on. Not only did the twins travel and make discoveries they established societies to help young men and women, they bought housing to rent cheaply to the poor, they built a library for St. Katherines amongst numerous other generosities. These were the ladies who just kept on giving.
This is a racketing good read. I probably would have liked to hear more directly from this eccentric pair in their thick Ayrshire burrs but still, I was more than glad to meet them and ended the book yelling, G’WAN THE GIRLS!