Blue Stockings, Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale’s first play, shines a light on something we think we know about but rarely imagine – being a woman in Victorian society. It is through drama and literature that history becomes personal and emotionally meaningful.
Presented by Persephone Productions October 17-27, the play is set in 1896 at Cambridge University’s Girton College, the first residential institution offering a university education to women. It tells the story of the first students’ struggles for the right to a degree after completing their studies, against the backdrop of the fight for women’s right to vote.
As Girton celebrates its 150th anniversary on October 16, there is very little on their website that mentions these experiences, but many are documented in historian Jane Robinson’s book Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story Of The First Women To Fight For An Education, which is based on young women’s actual diaries, interviews and letters. This book, and the discovery that even in her grand-mother’s generation women were actively discouraged from seeking higher education, inspired Swale to write her play.
“When I started researching the history of women’s education for my play…about the first girls to go to university… I quickly found myself knee-deep in records of incidents which I had to read twice to believe,” Swale wrote.
Women had to buy tickets to attend the lectures and were sometimes refused admittance, depending on the politics of the (male) lecturer. Many male students bullied them, by kicking their chairs or throwing paper bullets at them. They were banned from the official dining room so they would not distract the men, having to eat in the labs, where cadavers used for research, surrounded them.
Most humiliatingly, there were no women’s washrooms, so they had to carry chamber pots.
A vote on whether to allow women full membership in the university in 1897 triggered serious rioting from male students, who constructed effigies of prominent feminists in their underwear (which in those days provided full coverage) and burned them.
The prevailing view was that education ruined women, it made them unfit for motherhood and the girls who completed their studies gained an education that stigmatized them and afforded no entry into the professions.
While the story is fiction, the setting and some of the characters are real, such as the prominent psychiatrist Dr. Henry Maudsley (1835-1918) in whose honour the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London is named. “While it may be a pity for a woman that she is created woman,” he said, women who want to learn “do so at a cost to their strength and health, which entails life-long suffering, and even incapacitates them for the adequate performance of the natural functions of their sex.”
When Gabrielle Soskin, founder and artistic director of Persephone Productions, and now a playwright as well, heard that Blue Stockings premiered at the Globe Theatre in London, she knew it was perfect for Persephone. The company’s mandate is to provide work for emerging theatre artists through works of literary and social significance. But there is also a personal connection.
“It means something to me,” Soskin said during an interview at her Westmount home. “I think it reminds us of our history and how far we have come and where we still have to go. We should take strength and confidence from the pioneers.”
The term ‘Blue Stockings’, she explained, originated from a group of women in Victorian England who wanted to improve their minds. “They were women who didn’t just want to play cards and sew. They invited an eminent lecturer to their salon, who wore blue stockings, so the story goes, that all this became a reference point for women with very high intelligence. That lasted for a while but in late 19th century and in my day, the ‘50s it became derogatory, meaning unmarriageable, plain and not to be taken seriously.
Jessica Swale is a young contemporary playwright, and this is far from her experience, but she thought she would resurrect the name Blue Stockings and restore it to its former glory, where it was admirable.”
The power of women is a theme Soskin finds herself returning to again and again. Persephone’s past productions have included Virginia Woolf’s impassioned call to arms for women to fulfill their intellectual potential, A Room of One’s Own, as a one-woman show performed by Soskin, in 2005. That book was the result of lectures Woolf gave at Girton in 1928.
“It is a very interesting arc,” Soskin said, of Blue Stockings. “Somehow, deep in me, I return to the theme: the power of women to have a voice. It must be very profound in me.”
Told that she was “not academic” at an early age, Soskin fulfilled her own dream of earning a degree, at Concordia University. “I got a degree in English Lit with honours. I was so thrilled, I loved it. It is one of the happiest moments I have.”
Blue Stockings, written by Jessica Swale and directed by Gabrielle Soskin, is on October 17-27 at Le Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec, 4750 Henri Julien. Box Office: 514 873-4031 or email@example.com