January Books 3) Sisters of Sinai, by Janet Soskice

Back when I was an undergraduate I spent two years living in the “Colony”, the sprawl of buildings owned by Clare College at the foot of Castle Hill. The central building of the complex is a late Victorian mansion called Castlebrae, which had the following inscription on a plaque in the front hall:

This house was originally the home of
DR AGNES SMITH LEWIS (1843-1926) and
Inseparable twins, tireless travellers, distinguished Arabic & Syriac scholars.
Lampada Tradam. [Let me hand on the torch]

I never went much to Castlebrae (see melancholy footnote at the end of this review) but was always intrigued by the plaque and hope that some day I would find out the story behind it. Thanks to Janet Soskice’s book, Sisters Of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels, I now know much more: the Smith sisters, Agnes and Margaret, born in Scotland and fabulously rich, developed a strong interest in the roots of ancient scripture and had the means, motivation and ability to cultivate the monks of St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, where in 1892 they discovered a palimpsest which contained the oldest Syriac text of the Gospels known today. Then in 1896 they alerted Jewish scholars to the existence of the Cairo Genizah, which is still being transcribed in Cambridge to this day (see Mark Glickman’s awestruck account of a visit to the Porter’s Lodge at Castlebrae). For these efforts the University of Cambridge gave them no official recognition at all (it was not until 1921 that women were even awarded degrees for which they had qualified, and not until 1948 that they were given formal equality with men in the university). They also founded Westminster College, which nestles at the corner of Madingley Road. Janet Soskice has made it a fascinating story of women infiltrating the intellectual establishment (granted, rich women who had no children and no need to actually work) in the social and geopolitical context of the day. Strongly recommended.

One small point that interested me personally was reference to Sir Robert Ball, the Irish astronomer, as being a fellow-worshipper with the twins at the small Cambridge Presbyterian church (which opened in 1891). Ball, a Protestant from Youghal, Co. Cork, and former professor at Trinity College Dublin, must surely have been brought up Church of Ireland rather than Presbyterian; in addition I happen to know, because he wrote about this in a letter to Oliver Lodge which I have seen, that he was in fact an atheist, but deliberately concealed this from his very devout wife. Her father was from Belfast and I guess it’s therefore more likely that she was a Presbyterian, so presumably Ball himself mixed with the church circle (and probably attended even though he did not believe). You’ll find them both buried under a large Celtic cross in the cemetery off Huntingdon Road. John Couch Adams, Ball’s predecessor in the Cambridge chair who famously failed to discover the planet Neptune, lies under another Celtic cross not far away (his wife was also Irish).

Both of the Smith sisters married rather late (Agnes in 1883 and Margaret in 1887), and each was widowed after only three years of marriage, a grim coincidence. The only person who I knew at all well who lived in Castlebrae was a charming medical student, a year or two younger than me, who often invited me for delicious meals which she would cook with her boyfriend, a fellow medic, studying at Churchill College. They got married shortly after their graduation, and I’m sorry to report that he fell ill and died about three years later; he was only 25. I’ve totally lost touch with her now; her married name is not uncommon, and I think she may have become a GP in the south of England (at least Google reveals two GPs in the south of England with that name). That is my melancholy footnote.

One thought on “January Books 3) Sisters of Sinai, by Janet Soskice

  1. I’m a bit confused, so just to make sure I haven’t misunderstood anything, I must ask:

    Are you saying that the cover at the top of this post is that of the 1948 edition?


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