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A Scandalous Trial In Fact and Fiction

ISSUE:  Summer 1984

Scotch Verdict. By Lillian Faderman. Morrow. $17.50. Quill (paper). $8. 95.

Lillian Faderman’s scrupulous mining of the original documents and court transcripts of a scandalous 1810 Edinburgh trial in which two mistresses of a fashionable girls’ boarding school sued a wealthy matron for besmirching their names and ruining their school has resulted in a gem of a book, Scotch Verdict—part fiction, part fact— which convincingly illustrates the shifting attitudes over the years regarding romantic love between women.

The Misses Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods were accused of sexual misconduct, their alleged indiscretions having been committed in the same bed in which Dame Helen Cumming Gordon’s 16-year-old granddaughter was supposedly sleeping. The child also convinced her grandmother that such carnal goings-on between the two women went on routinely both in her bed and in the bed in the next room in which another pupil, Janet Munro, slept. Horrified by her young charge’s accusations, Dame Gordon immediately withdrew her from the school without offering reason or excuse. She also saw to it that the parents and guardians of the other nine children in the school did likewise.

Seven red-robed, wigged judges of the Court of Sessions in Edinburgh—the highest court in Scotland—tried the case of Pirie and Woods against Dame Gordon behind closed doors and sought to keep the transcripts from being printed (the usual procedure), fearful that the iniquitous contents, if disclosed after the case was settled, would corrupt the morals of any who chanced upon them. The school mistresses won their case by a vote of four to three. They were suing for ten thousand pounds in damages, complaining that Dame Gordon had destroyed their enterprise and damaged their reputations so that it was impossible to get fit employment elsewhere. The judges who sided with the plaintiffs simply could not believe that two middle-class, Christian, Scottish ladies would engage in sexual activity with each other. They believed the story to have been fabricated by young Jane Cumming, an illegitimate child of Dame Gordon’s eldest son, George, and his 15-year-old Indian lover, begotten while the young man was stationed in Patna in the service of the East Indian Company. At 26 George Cumming died in India, whereupon his mother brought the child, now nine, to Edinburgh. Dame Gordon changed her mind about educating her grandchild to a trade when the genteel school in the wealthy New Town section of Edinburgh was opened by Pirie and Woods. The women were reluctant at first to accept a girl “of color” but acquiesced when they considered the advantages of having the matriarch of a powerful Scottish clan recommend their school to other pupils, including her own legitimate grandchildren.

During the trial the judges made frequent reference to Jane Cumming as the “Indian girl” and concluded that she must have learned about lesbianism in her own “hot Eastern clime,” where such corruptions may well have occurred, but “no such case was ever known in Scotland, or in Britain,” remarked one judge, who added that “the crime here alleged has no existence” among British women. In response to the ladies’ admission that they often visited each other in bed to talk over the day’s events and to plan future activities for their pupils’ welfare and education, the head of the court replied: “According to the known habits of women in this country, there is no indecency in one woman going to bed with another,” The judges saw the relationship between the two women as a romantic friendship and their visits to one another’s beds natural. “Where is the innocent woman in Scotland if these two women are considered guilty? If one such is known to your Lordships, she is not known to me. I hope none such will ever be known to me, whose intimacies do not ripen into friendship, and whose friendship would not permit her to sleep in the same bed with her friend when necessary,” insisted another magistrate; or as another said: “I admit that I have grave doubts about an act such as the one described being possible. It is as if I were told that a person heard thunder playing the tune of “God Save the King.”“

When Lillian Faderman, now a noted American feminist, was an aspiring actress of 12 at the Theatre Arts Showcase in New York, she played Mary Tilford, the adolescent bully in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour who charged that her teachers were cavorting sexually in bed. It was then, through her role in Hellman’s play, that Faderman made the unsettling discovery that a crush such as she herself had on the executive director of her acting school could possibly lead to someone’s ruination. Faderman learned, too, that Hellman’s young school mistress (Martha Dobie) was so guilt-stricken when she realized that her long-repressed feelings for her friend and partner in their school (Karen Wright) were actually lesbian passions that she committed suicide after confessing her love, whereupon Karen blithely made plans to marry her fiance, Joe Cardin. Hellman’s audience had no choice but to assume that the young couple would live happily ever after despite the loss of their school and their defeat in court because only heterosexual people are allowed to survive with hope and promise and that lesbians ultimately perish.

Many years after her youthful encounter with the conflict and resolution depicted in The Children’s Hour (while researching for her Ph.D. dissertation on the popular treatment of women under the law) Faderman came upon the actual court case on which Hellman based her play. Despite the efforts of the seven judges in Edinburgh to see that all copies of the trial’s transcripts were destroyed, four copies survived into the 20th century. The case was discovered by William Roughead, a Scottish law historian, who transposed his findings into a chapter in his book of sensational court trials, Bad Companions, published in 1931. Hellman came across Roughead’s popular book soon after it appeared and was sufficiently captivated to see in the Pirie/Woods case the makings of a play.

Faderman was alert to the several changes made by Hellman in adapting the Roughead’s tale for theatregoers of the 1930’s. The playwright set the story in the United States in her own day, not Scotland in the early 19th century, and transformed the illegitimate Indian offspring into a neurotic American schoolgirl of 12, an orphan, and the favorite of her grandmother, whose insensitivity and wealth had insulated her from any real awareness of how serious other peoples’ lives were to them and of what it meant for the school mistresses to have their livelihood pulled out from under them. Hellman also introduced the heterosexual love interest into the plot, although none existed in the real case. Hellman’s mistresses lost their lawsuit against the grandmother, unlike the actual case, which Pine and Woods won, as well as the defense against the wealthy matron’s appeal to the House of Lords, who ordered her to make financial restitution to the teachers, (who eventually received only a small fraction of what they sought).

As Faderman pointed out in an aside upon her research, an American judge in 1934 would not have proclaimed, as the Scottish judge did, that “according to the known habits of women in the country, there is no indecency in one woman going to bed with another.” Still another change by Hellman was in the child’s knowledge of lesbianism having come from her reading of Theophile Gautier’s novel about a beautiful androgyne, Mademoiselle de Maupin, published many years after the original case was settled, said Faderman. But the most significant additions made by Hellman to the original story show how influenced she was by the “prevailing attitudes and pseudo-knowledge regarding homosexuality in liberal circles of her day. Liberals of 1934 would not have called the subject of homosexuality “indecent and revolting,” as did the mayor of Boston, who banned The Children’s Hour in his city, but their understanding and acceptance of homosexuality were often specious, as Hellman’s work illustrates,” Faderman insisted.

Like Thoreau, who took certain liberties in shaping his materials for Walden Pond (such as telescoping his actual 26 months in the woods into 12) and produced literary art rather than an exact rendering of his experiences, so, too, did Faderman in shaping her materials. Upon gathering every scrap of information about the principals in the case and the judges who tried it, she admirably recreated the atmosphere of the Scottish courtroom, developed the personalities of the seven magistrates from their commentaries upon the evidence, and scrupulously established the characters and personalities of the school mistresses and their accusers. To do this, Faderman’s liberties with the facts included creating judges’ “notes” on their testimony to avoid reproducing at length their tedious speeches and transposing the depositions into courtroom dialogue, in which the voices of witnesses, attorneys, and judges were heard. She also embellished some of the biographical data to help create “a readable book out of largely unreadable documents.” As Faderman saw it, her account was considerably more accurate than Roughead’s in Bad Companions, but as influenced by her own times as was his version and the various versions of The Children’s Hour (two screenplays based upon Hellman’s account followed a few years later).

A significant and successful narrative device by Faderman in transforming fact into fiction was using the persona of a first-person lesbian narrator/researcher/writer who juxtaposes her own life in 20th-century, contemporary America with that of her 19th-century Scottish school mistresses. Faderman’s narrator in Scotch Verdict goes to Edinburgh with her lover—identified as “Ollie”—who assists her with research and engages her in a running debate about the facts and speculations of the entire matter, such as whether the teachers were lovers in the sexual sense or only in the romantic sense, a topic already sensitively probed two years earlier in Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Man: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (Morrow, 1981). Her earlier book began as a study of Emily Dickinson’s love poems and letters to Sue Gilbert, who married Dickinson’s brother. Faderman next examined the writings of Dickinson’s female contemporaries and their romantic friendships to attempt to discover the primary difference between such relationships and sexual love. Whereas passionate romantic friendships between women were widely recognized, and at times encouraged even, the advent and writings of Freud, Krafft-Ebbing, and Havelock Ellis caused both men and women to cast a baleful eye upon romantic love between women. It was not until the 1960’s that a new wave of lesbian-feminism and independence called for social acceptance of female same-sex love and brought the idea—as well as the reality—”full circle,” in a sense, said Faderman, whose compelling feminist approach in Scotch Verdict is both valid and effective. The book is also an absorbing commentary on the class structure of 19th-century Scotland and its social customs, snobbery, prejudices, and the competence of its judicial system. For example, one of the judges of the trial never heard a case before drinking six pints of claret, and it was not uncommon for the judges to sip port and nibble on biscuits during the trial. Still another judge did not even show up for the trial but came in only to break the tie vote of three-three and voted to dismiss the case against Dame Gordon. On appeal, with several new judges, however, the verdict favored the school mistresses by a vote of four-three.

To Faderman, with her contemporary sensibility, it was clear that young Jane Cumming was the victim of racial prejudice, whose hostility toward the British was understandable. Had she been the legitimate granddaughter of Dame Cumming, her story would most likely have been believed by the Edinburgh judges, all of whom came from titled or wealthy families. Roughead presented Jane Cumming as an “evil child,” the “Dusky damsel from the East,” and her story was told as “the black girl’s blacker charge.” He also chided the child’s grandmother for having accepted “as gospel the revelations of the half-caste.”

Although the truth can never be known with certainty, Faderman is not afraid to entertain the notion that the two school mistresses actually did have a sexual relationship, but she does not contend in her book that they did for sure. She was disturbed personally, however, by her discovery that the mistresses “lacked the fortitude and perhaps the devotion” to fight their battle together. One went to England in the midst of the litigation while the other remained in Scotland; moreover, there is nothing in the records to suggest that they ever took up a life together again or that either married. In the course of writing Scotch Verdict, Faderman faced up to “how impossible it has always been, and continues to be, to treat the emotionally charged subject of lesbianism divested of the attitudes of one’s day—whether it be a refusal to acknowledge its existence among decent women, or a conviction that one so stigmatized must be miserable and suicidal, or a determination to show that lesbians sometimes do live happily ever after.”


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