Dante, Darwin and Dickens
On 1 June 1903, a Monday, 'a meeting of ladies was held at Hadley Cottage, Bay Road, to consider the advisability of establishing a reading Club in Sandringham'. Thus began the 42-year existence of the Sandringham Ladies Reading Club. Five ladies attended the first meeting and duly formed themselves into a club. Their purpose was to 'keep in touch with the literature of the day, by reading, at home, poetry, high class fiction and standard works, and discussing the books at monthly meetings'.
The Sandringham ladies embraced a serious and ambitious reading program and were very thorough in their approach. One or two members would undertake to read at least one critical work on the selected reading, another would prepare a biographical sketch of the author. Members unable to attend were expected to send in their reading notes. They read Shakespeare, Dante, Darwin, Dickens and George Eliot; they subscribed to The Bookman and compiled a small reference library containing works like The Classical Dictionary. Their purpose was clearly towards education and the formality and structure of their meetings resembled a university tutorial as much as a ladies' social occasion.
The minutes (1903–1945) record both the consensus and dissident views of the book at hand and are impressive in their often nuanced expression. They are a rare testimony to the efforts of a group of middle-class women to educate themselves in a time before society accorded women many such opportunities.