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Tracking twins

Autumn in Cambridge, 1999, with a pale sun shining after a frost, and patterned light falling through the chestnut and lime trees. The academic year is three weeks old, and students are predictably dashing about in gowns and on bikes, or punting slowly along the Cam. In Chesterton Lane, a friend and I eventually find a certain house, Gothic Revival Castlebrae, now a part of Clare College. A bored receptionist shows me the plaque I have come so far to see: 

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

Lampada Tradam. Let me hand on the torch. Later I go alone to Westminster College, an institution originally established in London for the training of Presbyterian ministers, but one that owes its current Cambridge incarnation to these twins, born Agnes and Margaret Smith, for they gave the college its land, and also founded several scholarships. A trimmed and decorated late Victorian red brick edifice, the building is a mere hundred years old.

I enter. Raised an Australian Presbyterian, I feel the past settle weightily on me the minute I cross the threshold, and automatically expect to see stretches of blue fleur-de-lis carpet along the corridors, and multiple copies of the old Scottish Psalter and Church Hymnary ranged on the various shelves. Even the ld-books-and-wood-and-dust-and-midday-dinner smell seems familiar. But this is the purposeful present, and so I am led straight to the dining hall, where ruby light filters through stained-glass windows bearing improving mottoes, and where I view the portraits of Agnes and Margaret. By an unknown artist, alas. The pictures sit above High Table, and my guide turns discreetly away as I kick off my shoes and climb on a chair in order to take several colour snapshots.

Neither Agnes nor Margaret ever attended university, but they were painted in full academic dress, as holders of several honorary degrees. The portraits face each other, and the women are wearing identical red-buttoned black robes and red hoods; both hold books, and their grey hair is swept back under mortarboards. A fluted column is a heavily symbolic part of each picture, for the twins were formidable classical scholars and travelled extensively in the Ancient World. 

1843. This was the year of the Great Disruption of the Church of Scotland, and the resultant emergence of the Free Church, and also the year that ancient Nineveh was discovered. It was then that solicitor John Smith, of Ayrshire, Scotland, lost his dearly loved wife, mother of the three-week-old Agnes and Margaret. Smith lived on for more than 20 years, but his grief was so protracted and austere that he forbade his wife’s name to be mentioned again, and it never was. Smith made his daughters the centre of his life, and successfully educated them out of the local marriage market by ensuring that they learned Latin, French and German from a very early age. He also bribed them with travel, taking them to the Continent several times before they were 14.

In 1866, when the young women were only 23, Smith died, leaving them the then huge sum of a quarter of a million pounds, at a time when a doctor with a thriving practice could expect to make about £1000 a year. The twins had no relatives; their greatest attachment was to a young teacher called Grace Blyth, whom they had met at their Kensington finishing school. Eventually they moved to London to be near her.

In London Agnes and Margaret, as Scots, overeducated, unmarried and merely middle-class, with no domestic or maternal model, and devout in their Presbyterian faith, were very much on the margins of life. It is difficult to comprehend today what it once meant to be a practising Nonconformist. In 1673 Charles II had been forced to consent to the passing of the Test Act, which prevented both Catholics and Nonconformists from holding state or municipal office; the Act was repealed only in 1828, a mere 15 years before the twins were born, and the social consequences of the Test Act can be said to linger on. ‘Never admit to being Presbyterian when in England,’ a friend once warned me. ‘In class terms, it’s the equivalent of saying you haven’t got a garden.’

As a Nonconformist you have to earn your place in the world. No automatic rituals (confession, penance, absolution) can rescue you; in matters of conscience you confront your Maker directly, and you are responsible for your actions and their consequences; you have a Puritan horror of idleness; you acknowledge the overriding importance of always doing your duty. You also know your place. Thus Agnes, in signing her name in the Astronomer Royal’s Visitors’ Book, added: ‘We are servants.’ She and her sister were strict sabbatarians as well. But Nonconformity aside, theirs is the familiar story of Victorian women, for Agnes wanted to study medicine and Margaret science, futile aims for the females of the time. They set themselves to study ancient and modern Greek instead, and filled in the rest of their time with writing, sketching and painting.

Both sisters eventually married, choosing Cambridge clergymen of an academic turn, but remained childless. Margaret was already widowed when Agnes married; they went on each other’s honeymoons and always lived together. Their biographer, A. Whigham Price, contends that neither the Reverend James Gibson nor the Reverend Samuel Lewis could ‘hope to compete successfully with twin-sister’, so that there was ‘nothing for it but to die quietly and become a beautiful memory; a condition which both achieved with a minimum of fuss’. In Victorian society widowhood could mean both status and liberation, and as widows the twins had wedding rings, the married style, wealth, respectability and the freedom to follow their interests, chief among which were travelling and the learning of languages: at the time of their deaths they had mastered 14 between them.
Once an incentive to learning, travel later became a distraction in time of trouble: in 1868 Agnes and Margaret, dragging a reluctant Grace along with them, journeyed to Egypt and Greece in order to recuperate from the shock of Smith’s death and from the strain of 18 months’ strict mourning. Nothing daunted the twins: they endured rat-infested cabins, rows with river-boat captains, tumbles from the backs of camels and the disquieting knowledge that several travellers had been killed by bandits along the track from Jerusalem to Jericho a mere week before they went that way themselves. Agnes had become gravely ill with fever in Vienna, but recovered, and went on to keep her diary assiduously: Eastern Pilgrims was published in 1870. Unsurprisingly, the travels were part of a mission: to prove that ‘any woman of ordinary prudence (without belonging to the class called strong-minded) can find little difficulty in arranging matters for her own convenience’.

In 1883, having survived a voyage during which all the windows in the ship’s saloon were broken, several stewards injured, and the ship itself briefly headed the wrong way, the twins spent four months in Greece, an interval that produced Agnes’s successful Glimpses of Greek Life and Scenery, illustrated by Margaret’s sketches. Having checked the spots that are still favourites (Sounion took days instead of hours, and Aegina meant yet another hair-raising and stomach-churning sojourn across stormy seas) and having thoroughly investigated Athens and much of Attica, the twins undertook an extensive tour of the Peloponnese.

Although they were formidable networkers who seemed never to go anywhere without letters of introduction to people such as Dr Schliemann and assorted abbots, in Athens the twins could find no woman who had ever been to the Peloponnese, which then had very few passable roads and a reputation for being a brigand-infested wilderness. But they organised their side saddles and portable beds from England, their Keating’s powder defences against bed bugs, their flannel sleepwear, a bundle of New Testament tracts translated into modern Greek, and hired a courier named Angelos, who then engaged two servants to act as cook and waiter. Five horses and four mules catered for the party and its luggage, the latter animals being cared for by three muleteers dressed in what has become part of Greek national dress, the Albanian fustanella.

From the balcony of my house in the Peloponnese I can see a white rectangular shape set against a mountain some ten kilometres away: the Voulcano monastery. Here the twins spent the Easter of 1883, used their London-acquired modern Greek to engage in spasmodic theological arguments with the monks, and gazed out over most of Messenia, which, they noted, was studded with villages. It still is. The Voulcano was the southernmost point of their travels. They trailed their slow way back to Athens, calling in at Corfu during the voyage to England. 

Some years later, desiring a distraction from Agnes’s recent bereavement, and wanting to investigate rumours of a haphazard wealth of ancient manuscripts, the sisters travelled to St Catherine’s Monastery, arriving in Cairo in January 1892. During the ten days’ journey across the desert, safety was not an issue, for on meeting any Bedouin or would-be brigand Agnes brandished a portrait of the late and heavily bearded Samuel Savage Lewis to great effect.

The monks of St Catherine’s were generally cavalier about the niceties of the table. So it was, according to legend, that they served the breakfast butter on torn pieces of parchment or vellum. And so it was, again very probably according to legend, that Agnes realised that her butter was being served on a fascinating palimpsest. (Agnes could read Syriac, Margaret Arabic.) The topmost layer narrated the lives of female saints and dated from 778ad, but among the blurred edges of the lower layer Agnes perceived the Syriac for Evangelion, Mathi and Luca. At her excited request the monks produced matching bits and pieces, which she and Margaret laboriously steamed apart; they then took at least 350 photographs of the text.

When Agnes and Margaret arrived back in Cambridge, experts confirmed that Agnes had discovered an ancient Syriac text of the four Gospels, dated not later than the fifth century. The language used is the literary form of Aramaic, and so contains the authentic accents of Christ and his disciples. Theological and ecclesiastical circles were enthralled; the text was to the 19th century what the Dead Sea Scrolls were to the 20th.

Professors Burkitt, Rendell Harris and Bensley and the twins then set about the task of transcription with such dedication that the work was published in 1894. Similar dedication went into the translation of the whole document, 358 pages in all; Agnes spent 17 years on this work, and the sisters made four more trips to St Catherine’s, visiting the monastery for the last time in 1906, when they were 63. The twins’ publications run to five-and-a-half pages of titles, but in 1917 Agnes’s final word on her discovery was published: Light on the Four Gospels from the Sinai Palimpsest. 

To the end of their lives the twins continued to work and to see themselves as pioneers for women, and as servants of God. During World War I they helped Belgian refugees and studied Russian. Punctilious worshippers at St Columba’s Church, they followed the lessons in Hebrew and Greek. Every morning they read the Bible; the rest of the morning and the evening were devoted to their scholarly work, which included the writing of letters to academics who shared their interests, while the afternoon was given over to their many callers.

In widowhood Agnes and Margaret shared a double bed with individual territory marked out by a tape tied down the middle. Margaret, the second-born, who always considered herself a mere adjunct to her sister, died in 1920. ‘How very inconsiderate of Maggie!’ remarked Agnes, for they had decided, in the natural order of things, that Agnes should be the one to die first. Separation had always been unthinkable: even after a quarrel they would still go shopping together, with Agnes, always the dominant sister, walking six feet ahead of Margaret.

Agnes survived Margaret by six years, a lengthy period marked by silence, confusion and melancholy: the unique loneliness was very hard to bear. It came to an end in Agnes’s 84th year.

Of the twins their friend Aelfrida Tillyard said, ‘They were like each other and like no one else.’ How right she was. 

Gillian Bouras’s new book, No Time for Dances, a memoir of her sister, is due out soon from Penguin Australia.


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