The Magazine

Gospel Twins

The Cambridge women who unearthed a buried treasure.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By DAWN EDEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As the author attempts to hide her editorial voice behind her research, the reader is left free to ponder the contrast between the Smiths' uniformly dry demeanor and the ethereal glow of the book's most memorable woman. Persis Burkitt enters the story as her Cambridge-professor husband becomes one of three professors taking part in an 1893 excursion with the Smiths to St. Catherine's to examine the palimpsest Agnes had discovered. As she joins them for the camel ride across the Sinai, the pre-Raphaelite beauty conquers souls with her exquisite manners and her unexpected command of gutter Arabic. She is as joyful and lively as the twins are antiseptic and scrupulous.

Burkitt spent several years of her childhood in Lebanon, where her mother did missionary work, taking the girl with her on a donkey as she distributed New Testaments to villagers. As a result Persis acquired not just colloquial Arabic, but the salty vocabulary favored by donkey drivers and, it now appeared, camel drivers. She upbraided the Bedouin in their own colorful dialect and was from that moment their firm favorite. They called her "Princess."

She left her young son with a nanny back home in Cambridge, but not her maternal instinct. Her adoring camel driver, a boy of 12 whose father had recently died, poured out his heart as he led her beast across the Sinai sands. The poignant image of the graceful English madonna lending her ears to the fatherless boy is particularly striking since Persis is effectively the only mother in the book.

When the travelers return to England, Burkitt quickly drops out of the picture as the Smiths enter into a dispute with her husband and another professor over who should gain credit for bringing the palimpsest to the attention of academia. Eventually the twins' scholarship would earn them honorary doctorates from St. Andrews, even as their adopted home of Cambridge was barred by its own rules from officially recognizing them.

Soskice cleverly uses a dramatic photo to drive home the extent to which women were personae non gratae at Cambridge. Taken on the day in 1896 when the university's undergrads voted overwhelmingly against awarding degrees to women, it shows throngs of young men in boater hats outside the Senate building awaiting the results of the referendum. Suspended from a window above the crowd, like a grotesque piñata, is an effigy of a bloomer-clad young woman astride a bicycle.

But surely the undergrads' vote was not targeted against the 53-year-old twin sisters whose collaboration with biblical scholars at the university had increased Cambridge's prestige.
Soskice admits as much, writing that those against women's matriculation mainly feared that the presence of ladies would force them to "cut back on their drinking, gaming, and carousing, and other pleasures that made undergraduate life so sweetly memorable." It never seems to enter her mind that, perhaps, some students were concerned not with what those progressive young women on bicycles might bring but, rather, with the opportunity for full-time marriage and motherhood that they risked leaving behind.

However much a modern-day female theologian like Soskice might find inspiration in the Smiths' breaking of barriers, very little in the twins' lives was specifically feminine. Being widowed and childless, they had no need to finesse a work/life balance. As Rabbi Schechter might have put it, if either one of those bubbes had baytzim, her impact on history would have been the same--albeit with a Cambridge degree to show for it.

Dawn Eden, a writer in Washington, is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste.