December 19, 1949
Evie Stone sat alone in her tiny bedsitter at the north end of Castle Street, as far from the colleges as a student could live and still be keeping term at Cambridge. But Evie was no longer a student—she remained at the university on borrowed time. The next forty minutes would decide how much she had left.
The room's solitary window was cracked open to the cool December air, which was about to vibrate with the sound of Great St Mary's striking two o'clock from precisely three miles away. The interview with Senior Fellow Christenson was for twenty minutes past that—exactly as long as it would take her to arrive at Jesus College. Evie always had her walks perfectly timed.
Christenson scheduled his appointments for twenty minutes past the hour, one of many famous eccentricities for which he was known. The students jokingly referred to this arrangement as CMT or Christenson Mean Time. Resounding bells of St Mary's or not, Evie could have guessed the exact minute almost down to the second. She had honed this skill as a servant girl at the Chawton Great House, where for two years she had secretly catalogued the family library. Without the benefit of a clock, she had passed hours every night going through all 2,375 books, page by page. At a clear two-foot distance, Evie could now eyeball anything from a Gutenberg-era tome to a carbon-copy document and not only predict how long it would take her to summarize the contents but to quickly skim each page as well. These were skills that she kept to herself. She had long known the value in being underestimated.
The male faculty around her only knew Evelyn Stone as a quiet, unassuming, but startlingly forthright member of the first entry class of women to be permitted to earn a degree from Cambridge. After three years of punishing studies at the all-female Girton College, Evie had been awarded first-class honours for her efforts, which included a lengthy paper on the Austen contemporary Madame de Staël, and become one of the first female graduates in the eight-hundred-year history of the university.
Christenson was the next hurdle.
He needed a research assistant for the upcoming Lent term, and Evie had applied before anyone else. She also needed the job more than anyone else. Since graduating with a First in English, she had been assisting Junior Fellow Kinross with his years-long annotation of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel, Vanity Fair. With this project finally at an end, Evie's current stipend was scheduled to dry up on the very last day of 1949. As Christenson's newest research assistant, Evie could continue to spend countless days on her own, without supervision, methodically working her way through the over one hundred libraries at the university—a prospect that remained more exciting to her than anything else at this stage of her academic career.
The minute the bells started to ring out, Evie—already clad in her thick woollen coat for winter—stood up, grabbed her leather bag, and headed for the door. Twenty quick steps down to the street, five and a half minutes until she passed the Castle Inn, and then a clear ten before she saw the bend of the River Cam. There the Bridge of Sighs loomed above the river, Gothic and imperious, the stonework tracery in its open windows designed to keep students from clambering in. This was the type of campus foolery that Evie would never seek to join—or be invited to.
Jesus College, Evie's immediate destination, was rich in history, having been founded in 1496 on the site of a former nunnery. The grass beneath Evie's feet had been kept long for centuries, reflecting its historical use as fodder. During the Second World War concrete shelters had been situated under the gardens to offer protection from German air raids. In this way, the medieval university had begun to bear the scars of modern existence, as well as its fruits: only a few years later, the women of Cambridge were finally permitted to graduate.
Evie didn't think about any of this as she crossed the grounds. Instead, her brain kept time to the rhythmic crunch of frost- covered lawn beneath her lightly booted feet. With every crisp, measured step, her weathered leather bag swung steadily against her hip, weighed down by the writing sample inside: nearly one hundred pages dissecting individuality and resistance in the works of de Staël for which Evie could not have done better, having received the highest mark possible. The bag also contained a letter of reference from Junior Fellow Kinross. This time Evie could have done better, but didn't know she needed to.
Mimi Harrison had written to Evie earlier that fall in anticipation of her upcoming need for employment. Mimi had urged the young girl to accept a letter of referral from her husband, who had recently finished a three-year professorship at Jesus College and returned to Harvard along with his new wife.