In its early days, the Conversazione Society's membership came exclusively from St. John'sAshley Van Haeften / Wikimedia Commons

“If I were a member of the Apostles, I couldn’t tell you,” says a rumoured insider in response to my emailed enquiry. “If I were not, I wouldn’t have much to tell.”

The Conversazione Society, better known as the Cambridge Apostles, dates back to 1820. Just like any other secret society, its doors remained bolted to all but a chosen few. Unlike other secret societies, it assigned its members extra essays.

Every week, members assembled to eat sardines on toast and discuss an essay read by one of the Apostles. Faithful to the moniker, there have never been more than twelve Apostles at one time. The Society remained exclusively male until the 1970s. Past members include John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, Henry Sidgwick (of the Site), and at least three Nobel Prize winners.

“A haven for the scholar who had been rejected by the bloods and athletes”

Naturally, the Society has been the subject of much myth-making. The twelve founding members — Tory evangelical students from John’s — would have baulked at some of the rumours, from its alleged ties to the Soviet Union (two of the Cambridge Five were members) to its supposed function as a protection society for “the homosexual mafia.” The mother of one Apostle, upon reading her son’s private letters, accused the Society of being “a hotbed of vice.”

Upon retirement, an Apostle took ‘wings’ and became an Angel. Apostles and Angels sponsored potential candidates (‘Embryos’) at evening parties, where they were judged for suitability. Being selected, says economist Amartya Sen, was generally seen as “a big deal.”

In the early days, their essay topics were very proper — “Has the Norman Conquest been beneficial to England?” (1822) — but the group’s interests broadened as the century wore on. Matters of politics and religion gave way to philosophy and art. Essay titles included “Ought We to be Hermaphrodite?” and “Shall We Wear Top Hats?” Other essays written for the Apostles came to have a real impact on academic circles, including Frank Ramsey’s “Is There Anything to Discuss?” (1925).

One source describes the Apostles of the early 20th century as a haven for “overt, full-blooded—almost aggressive—homosexuality.” Much to the indignation of some older members, J.M. Keynes and Lytton Strachey were continually “on the prowl” for sexually eligible undergraduates who might be made Apostles. “Can you imagine the torture of knowing for a fact that someone for whom one would be disembowelled is prostituted to Keynes?” Strachey said of one aspirant Apostle.

The Apostles shared letters, poetry, holidays, dance lessons—but not all members were sympathetic, and the Society itself remained only a discussion group. Rupert Brooke reacted with horror when a fellow Apostle embraced him in his bedroom. Said Apostle, panic-stricken, then wrote: “Oh God! He’s in love with a woman. Why did we think him a Sodomite?”

The Apostles coined their own coded language to separate the ‘real’ (anything related to Apostolic activities) from the ‘phenomenal’ (everything else, including women and work). They saw themselves as Cambridge’s intellectual aristocracy—or, in the words of Strachey, “the terribly intelligent, the artistic, the overwhelmed.” As you might expect, not everyone else agreed. Strachey himself—lanky, yellow-haired, shrill-voiced—was dumped into a fountain by some Trinity athletes during his time at Cambridge.

Ludwig Wittgenstein thought the meetings a waste of time and lasted only one term. Similarly, Tennyson’s brief tenure came to an end in 1830 when he failed to complete an essay on ghosts—he tore up his draft and resigned on the spot. The Apostles saw this as an ejection rather than a resignation, with a fellow member writing that he had been turned out for being “incurably lazy.” (He used to lie on the floor in meetings and never contributed to discussions.) But when the Apostles tried to make amends a year later, Tennyson refused.


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Virginia Woolf, whose father and husband were both members, said the Apostles in their elite world gave her the urge to “vomit a green vomit,” and described them as “deficient in charm and beauty.” Leonard Woolf, perhaps more charitably, painted the Society as a “refuge for the outsider—a haven for the scholar and intellectual who had been rejected by the bloods and athletes.”

For the most part, the Apostles were just a well-connected group of friends with an interest in debate. Angels of decades past joined undergraduates at their weekly meetings. Henry Sidgwick described his attachment to the Society as “the strongest corporate bond” he had known. Jack Kemble, another member, recollected: “No society ever existed in which more freedom of thought was found.”

Amartya Sen notes that the Apostles’ annual dinner has now become “a somewhat erratic occurrence,” and the only publicly known members attended Cambridge in the 1970s or before. Are the Apostles still active? If they are, they’re good at keeping it quiet.