Mary Cartwright never symbolised anything except herself, but her life echoed that of the generation of real and fictional ‘new women’ who after the First World War took the men on at their own games and trounced them. She was born in 1900 into a middle-class family with a tradition of public service. Her father was rector in a small Northampton village. Two of her brothers were killed in the First World War and one became deputy chairman of the British Steel Corporation.
She hesitated between history and mathematics at Oxford but chose mathematics. The first two years were hard, she found the lecture rooms overcrowded (they were filled with men returning from the war) and she felt herself ill prepared for the course. When she received only a second in the second year examination she seriously considered switching to history. However she persevered, and at the end of her third year an event occurred that was to change the course of her life.
[A friend] asked me to accompany her to a party on a barge in Eights week. I think the chaperon rules of those days permitted her to accept the invitation provided that she had a woman companion of any status and not necessarily a formal chaperon. Actually I do not remember much about the party, but [one of the guests] was V.C. Morton, later professor at Aberystwyth.[…]