In March 1811 a 15-year-old girl testified to the Edinburgh Court of Session that the mistresses in charge of her boarding-school had been ‘indecent together’. They had, she said, regularly visited each other in bed: they had lain one on top of the other, lifted up their night shifts and made the bed shake. And they had produced a strange noise – a noise that was ‘like putting one’s finger into the neck of a wet bottle’. Jane Cumming was giving evidence in the libel suit brought against her grandmother, Dame Helen Cumming Gordon, by the two schoolmistresses. Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie claimed that, acting on the word of her granddaughter, Dame Helen had brought about the ruin of their school and their reputations: she had withdrawn Jane Cumming from the school and caused the other pupils to be removed; she had not given the teachers a reason for her behaviour; the child’s allegations were without foundation.
Lillian Faderman, Distinguished Professor of English at California State University, has worked her way through the transcripts of the trial, and finds in them the source of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, which deals with a similar libel suit in 1930s America. This is surprising, but may be correct. In both cases, the suit is brought against a grand old grandmother; in both a hammy actress aunt causes trouble; both feature evidence obtained by a peep through a keyhole – in a door which turns out to have no keyhole. Hellman could have read an account of the Edinburgh trial published in 1930 by the legal historian William Roughead. Professor Faderman became interested in The Children’s Hour because it treated a once-forbidden subject: lesbianism. Her concern with the Scotch case is also fuelled by proselytising zeal. She has used her transcript materials freely: intertwining her own experiences with her woman lover, Ollie; making dialogues out of depositions; popping character sketches into the mouths of judges, and mingling speculation and quotation in a way which makes it difficult to separate fact from special pleading. The effect is ramshackle, but the story she has unearthed is striking.
Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods had been friends for seven years when they decided to start a girls’ school together: to become, as Lillian Faderman quaintly puts it, ‘their own mistresses’. Both were in their mid-twenties and used to giving lessons: Miss Woods had helped her Uncle William – an ex-actor and lush – with his elocution classes; Miss Pirie, with whom Professor Faderman identifies, was a governess, described by one employer as having an ‘ardent’ temper, and by another as finding it ‘crucial to her happiness’ to live in Edinburgh, ‘where she is near a dear friend’. Dame Helen Cumming Gordon was important to them from the beginning. Having enrolled her granddaughter – the illegitimate child of her dead eldest son and an Indian teenager – as one of the school’s first pupils, she became an active recruiter of further students among the upper classes. Her influence was considerable: when Dame Helen sent notes to the mothers of these girls saying she was taking her granddaughter away from the school ‘for very serious reasons’, and advising them to do the same, they complied within days. A year after the school had opened it was without a single pupil.
Jane Cumming was in a good position to know what was going on between her teachers – and in a good position to lie about it. The ten boarders at the school were divided into two dormitories, in each of which one of the mistresses shared a bed with a pupil; Jane Cumming shared with Miss Pirie. Exactly why this arrangement was felt to be necessary is obscure: Professor Faderman thinks the teachers wanted to make sure that their pupils weren’t masturbating; Ollie thinks they wanted to make sure the girls weren’t having sex together. When they went on holiday to the seaside town of Portobello the teachers took Jane Cumming with them: Miss Pirie and Miss Woods shared a bed; Miss Cumming slept in a bed at the foot of theirs. She claimed it was at Portobello that she had first been disturbed by whispering, kissing and ‘shaking the bed’ in the early mornings. She said that on returning to the school and her shared bed with Miss Pirie she was often woken by Miss Woods climbing into the bed, where she ‘lay above’ her friend and ‘began to move’. She said she heard Miss Pirie say: ‘You are hurting me,’ ‘You are in the wrong place,’ and ‘Oh, do it, darling.’ She reported feeling the naked skin of the teachers’ legs as they lifted up their night things, and she reported the wet bottle noise, which was also quite like that of ‘a dairy maid patting butter’.
Her testimony revealed her as a knowing girl who liked to disconcert and who had a flair for rather crude dramatics. She described staging scenes to embarrass the teachers: setting up conversations with the other girls about disturbances in the night and requiring them to stare at the women’s faces to see if they blushed. She recalled giggles among the pupils who saw Miss Pirie leaving her friend’s bed in stockings and a red garter. Some of her evidence was shakily presented: she revised her account of the teachers’ nightwear, from scanty shifts to bundles of bedgowns, wrappers and petticoats. Some of it was discredited by investigation. A maid at the school, Charlotte Whiffin, was said to have spoken darkly about the teachers’ conduct, and to have looked through a keyhole and seen them lying together. Miss Whiffin denied ever saying the teachers had behaved improperly, and the keyhole was found not to exist.
Whatever the truth of her statements, it is certain that Jane Cumming was a stirrer: much of the evidence produced by other pupils was found to hinge on conversations with her. Eliza Stirling said that she had once been woken by someone praying very loudly, and that she had thought one of the teachers rather bad-tempered: but it wasn’t until talking to Jane Cumming that she’d known their behaviour was ‘improper’ and had wanted to leave the school. Janet Munro, who shared a bed with Miss Woods, had more to say, claiming that Miss Pirie had often climbed into their bed, and that high breathing and tossing of the bedclothes had followed; she said she had once coughed to alert the teachers, and once nudged a friend to let her know what was going on. Yet when asked if the other girls had been aware of the deafening kisses and gropings, she wasn’t sure; questioned as to how she knew the mistresses were naked, she said she knew because ‘it was the dead of night.’ Her imagination seems to have been inflamed by chatting with Jane Cumming, and with a maid at home, who proclaimed that one of the teachers must surely be a man, and that both should ‘be burned’. After this conversation, Miss Munro, who was a little deaf, took to lying with her bad ear on the pillow.
None of the pupils’ testimony was conclusive, much of it was skimpy, and all of it subject to charges of misconstruction – or fabrication. But the girls’ attentiveness and the peculiarity of some of what they said suggest that something was going on, that strangeness was in the air. One of the least expected and most telling pieces of evidence was offered by Janet Munro, who was not generally remarkable for her shrewdness. Asked if she had thought the teachers’ friendship unusual, apart from their caresses, she replied that she had. Asked why, she said: ‘They quarrelled.’ Professor Faderman, who believes the women were having a romantic but not a sexual friendship, thinks that what the girls construed as sexual deeds may have been the teachers ‘in combat. Shaking each other, out of fury’, and adds: ‘I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Ollie and I have seriously quarrelled in 11 years.’
Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie left records of their squabbles in letters: the very existence of these, written when the two women were living in the same house, could be thought a sign of an unusual partnership. On sending her friend a Bible for her birthday, Jane Pirie wrote a note addressing Miss Woods as her ‘beloved’, and declaring that she ‘would forego all friendship, but her God’s, to possess your’s’. Two weeks later Miss Woods was announcing her intention to leave the school, and Miss Pirie was responding with accusations of duplicity and lack of discretion: ‘The letters I unfortunately received from you shall never be left tossing around for anyone’s perusal as you left mine.’ The main source of discord seems to have been Marianne Woods’s aunt, an ex-actress who had helped the women set up the school and who, like the ex-actress in Hellman’s play, interfered with the teachers’ arrangements and failed to appear for them in court. Jane Pirie wanted her out, and protested against her friend’s protectiveness with wild underlinings: Miss Woods’s behaviour was ‘unworthy’, ‘selfish’ and placed Miss Pirie in a ‘contemptible’ position; some of her letters were, in a favourite locution, ‘tossed’ into the fire.
One of the judges is reported, or condensed, as saying that ‘a man can feel lust towards a woman whom he despises, but women are not so constituted from my observations.’ Faderman believes that these men were ill-equipped to preside over the case, and she presents their judgments with some tendentiousness. Counsel for the teachers, John Clerk, whom sources not cited by Professor Faderman credited with at least two natural offspring, is here said not to have diverted ‘himself much with women’; she stresses the conventionally restricted attitudes of all the judges. First, Dame Helen was the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Penrose Cumming of Altyre, who had inherited the Gordonstoun estate: those who found against her did so with reluctance and regret. Her guardianship of Jane Cumming was thought to overcome even the disability of illegitimacy, while the testimony of a maid was considered of little consequence, since ‘falsehood is the ordinary vice of persons in her line of life.’ Secondly, they were ill-disposed to the non-British, or non-Scots. Jane Cumming, ‘wanting in the advantage of ... a European complexion’, was likely to lie, and was likely to be sexually imaginative: ‘It is an historical fact ... that the language of the Hindoo female domestics turns chiefly on the commerce of the sexes.’ Thirdly, many of them thought that sex between women in Scotland didn’t and couldn’t take place: it was ‘equally imaginary with witchcraft, sorcery, or carnal copulation with the devil’. They were prepared to concede that there was some evidence of women arousing each other in distant countries and times, but such arousal was thought to necessitate either the use of ‘tools’ or an ‘extraordinary conformation’ of the women’s parts – and according to Professor Faderman the Scottish clitoris was forensically stated to be ‘not larger than the nipple of the breast’. Anyway, such excitements had usually taken place merely as a preparation for intercourse with a man, and there was no man in this case. Counsel for Dame Helen produced a list of literary tribades featured in works by Diderot, Lucian, Massinger and others: it was protested that even the Ancients couldn’t say what the women actually did.
These judges can easily be made to seem absurd and literal-minded, as judges often can: one was anxious to know whether Jane Cumming had noticed any ‘puffs of air’ rising up from the bedclothes when the teachers were tussling. Yet they showed some pertinacity in reaching a verdict. They decided by one vote in favour of Dame Helen. The teachers asked that the case be reviewed and, eight months after the first verdict, a slightly different collection of men awarded them damages – again by one vote. Dame Helen then appealed to the House of Lords, who took seven years to decide that she had to pay, and that, in the words of the Lord Chancellor, the case was ‘of such a nature that the less it is discussed publicly the better.’ A long wrangle about the size of damages – for loss of income and for ‘solace’ – followed, with the parties apparently settling out of court in 1821. Jane Pirie stayed in Edinburgh, unemployed and in bad health; Marianne Woods moved with her aunt to London, and taught literature at Camden House Academy.