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Strachey, (Joan) Pernellocked

  • Rita McWilliams Tullberg

(Joan) Pernel Strachey (1876–1951)

by Ray Strachey, 1921 [Strachey sisters [left to right]: Philippa Strachey (1872-1968) and (Joan) Pernel Strachey (1876–1951) ]

© Estate of the Artist's Daughter / National Portrait Gallery, London

Strachey, (Joan) Pernel (1876–1951), college head and French scholar, was born on 14 March 1876 at Stowey House, Clapham Common. She was the eighth of ten surviving children (five daughters) of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Strachey (1817–1908), Indian administrator and president of the Royal Geographical Society, and his wife, Jane Maria Strachey (1840–1928) [see under Strachey], suffragist, daughter of Sir John Peter Grant (1807–1893) and Henrietta Chichele. Lytton Strachey, the well-known essayist, was her brother, as were Ralph Strachey, Oliver Strachey, and James Strachey. Philippa Strachey and Dorothea Bussy were her sisters. Ray Strachey, née Costelloe, was the wife of Oliver. She was educated at Allenswood, South Fields, Wimbledon, a school run by a Frenchwoman, Marie Souvestre, who moved in radical and freethinking circles in London. Souvestre became a close friend of the Strachey family and part of its unconventional lifestyle.

Pernel went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1895. She initially read history, but switched to modern and medieval languages, specializing in French. She continued her French studies in Paris and was appointed lecturer in French at Royal Holloway College, London, in 1900. She returned to Newnham College in 1905 as lecturer in French and Romance languages, becoming director of studies in modern and medieval languages in 1917. From 1909 she was heavily involved in administrative work for the college and in 1923 was appointed principal, holding the post until her retirement in 1941. Though a gifted French scholar, Strachey's published work was slight, amounting to the editing of a fourteenth-century French poem on the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary which was published in the Cambridge Anglo-Norman Texts Series in 1924. She also edited other poems for the Anglo-Norman Text Society but these were never published.

Pernel Strachey was exposed at home to the cause of women's advancement, especially in the fields of education and enfranchisement, by her mother, who was a friend of Millicent Garrett Fawcett and active in the women's progressive movement. Pernel was a devoted follower of Fawcett and the efforts of the suffragist (non-violent) movement to gain votes for women. As a member of the Newnham College staff, she took a leading part in the unsuccessful joint Girton–Newnham campaign in 1921 to win degrees and membership for women at Cambridge University.

Variously described as 'quiet, observant and witty' (Holroyd, 373), 'vague and wispy' (Phillips, 132), 'shy in manner with a humorous quizzical and wholly endearing personality' (ibid., 149), and 'charming, with undoubted intellectual distinction and integrity' (private information), Strachey was much appreciated by her language students for her breadth of reading, subtlety of translation, and deep understanding, in particular of medieval French poetry. Tall and thin, like her mother and brother Lytton, she was known to students as the Streak. As principal she steered the college with a light hand, accepting that her students were young adults and accommodating their desire for increased social freedom with the tact that was necessary from a women's college, the existence of which at Cambridge was still questioned by many. She gave particular encouragement to women coming to Newnham from other countries and cultures as well as to the entry of women into new fields of employment, sponsoring, for example, the University Women's Appointments Board. In her final years as principal she devoted her energy to raising money for urgently needed modernization and extension of college buildings.

Family friendships and the fact that when in London she kept a second-floor room in the family home, 51 Gordon Square, gave Pernel Strachey peripheral involvement in the Bloomsbury Group. In January 1909 she is described as sitting for a portrait painted by Duncan Grant (Skidelsky, 1.201). A close friend of Virginia Woolf, she had the Woolfs to stay in her Newnham flat when, at the students' invitation, Woolf gave the talk at Newnham (and then Girton) in 1928 upon which A Room of One's Own was based. A warm description of Pernel Strachey can be found in Woolf's Diary (1.188–9).

After retirement in 1941 Pernel Strachey hoped to find time for research in her chosen subject, but wartime concerns and ill health did not permit this. She died at 51 Gordon Square, London, on 19 December 1951 from bronchitis. A memorial service was held for her in King's College chapel, Cambridge, on 19 January 1952.


  • E. Welsford, ‘Miss Strachey's retirement’, Newnham College Roll Letter (1942), 11–17
  • C. D. Rackham, ‘Joan Pernel Strachey, 1875–1951 (N. C., 1895–1899, 1905–1941)’, Newnham College Roll Letter (1952), 29–33
  • Newnham College Roll Letter (1952), 33–4
  • [A. B. White], ed., Newnham College register, 1: 1871–1923 (1964)
  • A. Phillips, ed., A Newnham anthology (1979)
  • M. Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: a biography, rev. edn (1971)
  • The diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 1 (1977)
  • E. Duncan-Jones, ‘Enid Welsford, 1892–1981’, Cambridge women: twelve portraits, ed. E. Shils and C. Blacker (1996), 203–19
  • R. J. A. Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, 1 (1983)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • private information (2004)


  • BL OIOC, letters to her mother and from her brothers and sisters
  • Emmanuel College, Cambridge
  • Newnham College, Cambridge
  • Women's Library, London, corresp. and papers
  • Henley Management College, Henley, PowerGen Library, corresp. with Dame Katherine Furse


  • D. Grant, portrait, 1909
  • R. Strachey, double portrait, photograph, 1921, NPG [see illus.]
  • group portrait, photograph, 1924 (The Four Principals), Newnham College, Cambridge
  • H. Lamb, oils, 1926, Newnham College, Cambridge
  • R. Strachey, oils, NPG
  • photograph, Newnham College, Cambridge
  • photograph, repro. in Newnham College Roll Letter (Jan 1942), frontispiece

Wealth at Death

£11,154 1s. 5d.: probate, 14 June 1952, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]