At Portobello

Susannah Clapp

  • Scotch Verdict by Lillian Faderman
    Quartet, 320 pp, £12.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2505 5

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on the word of her granddaughter, Dame Helen had brought about the ruin of their school and their reputations: she had withdrawn Jane Cumming from the school and caused the other pupils to be removed; she had not given the teachers a reason for her behaviour; the child’s allegations were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.

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