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Scandal: The case of Woods & Pirie v. Cumming Gordon & the inspiration behind The Children's Hour.


Scandal in the schoolhouse. - Two teachers accused of engaging in "irregular sexual practices and lewd and indecent behaviour” together- Within 48 hours all students removed from the school in response to the allegations. - Defamation case bought against Lady Cumming Gordon, for the ruinous collapse of the school and subsequent loss of income, - Case initially lost, but won on appeal. 10K costs sought. - The reputations and livelihoods of the teachers irrevocably ruined.


Edinburgh 1810.

Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie, schoolteachers and founders of an exclusive Seminary in Edinburgh's Drumsheugh Gardens were accused of improper intimacy and displays of " inordinate affection" by a student in their care.



Accused.

The school girl, 16-year-old Jane Cumming who shared a bed with teacher, Pirie, claimed she was frequently woken to find Miss Woods visiting their bed and would hear odd noises, witness kissing, embracing, the raising of their shifts and lying above one another. When forced to acknowledge that not much of this could have been seen in the dark, she agreed that this was mainly ascertained by sound: "motions of the body, quick and high breathing, and a shaking of the bed" (Faderman, p.60). Pressed at trial to describe the incriminating sounds in more detail, she answered: "It was like putting one's finger into the neck of a wet bottle. " (ibid, p.147).


Jane Cumming reported this to her grandmother, Lady Cumming Gordon, on a visit home. In response, Lady Cumming Gordon proceeded to notify several other parents of the allegations made by her granddaughter and permanently removed her from the school the following week, urging the other parents to follow suit. She claimed to be acting in good faith in the interests of the other students, however never informed the school mistresses of the allegations made against them.


Within 48 hours all of the students had left, leaving the business in collapse and depriving the founders of their livelihood and reputation without so much as an explanation as to why or an opportunity to defend themselves over the claims.


The last to know, when Woods & Pirie instruct a lawyer to sue Lady Cumming Gordon for defamation, they finally find out the nature of what they have been accused of via the defence particulars. Denying the charge, they proceed to seek damages of ten thousand pounds for the ruin of their business and reputations, which have not only cost them their present income but the likelihood of ever being engaged in any future teaching work.


The School.

The Woods-Pirie school had only opened the previous year in 1809. Both Pirie and Woods invested their life savings into the venture, having both worked previously as governesses and tutors and built excellent reputations in their fields.


Starting the school from scratch, renting the building and furnishing it at their own expense, the two teachers carried out most of the supervision and tutelage of the students themselves, with only two part-time external teachers and some domestic servants to assist.


The school quickly flourished into a profitable establishment, subscribing five day boarders and ten night boarders at the time of its collapse. Annual profits were submitted to the courts for the sum of nine hundred and eighty-two pounds.- A handsome figure for a new establishment and for two teachers in their 20s from humble backgrounds.


Ironically, much of the school's success had come about on high recommendation of Lady Cumming Gordon, prior to her reversal.


Racism and resentment.

It is believed that Lady Cumming Gordon's influential patronage was offered in exchange for the school mistresses 'overlooking' her granddaughter's illegitimacy and mixed ethnicity, in accepting her into the school. - Two matters deemed to be to her detriment at a time of unabashed prejudice. Jane Cumming, being of half Indian, half Scottish descent and born out of wedlock, would not have been deemed a respectable prospect were it not for the influence of her aristocratic grandmother.


Whilst she was accepted into the school, it appears that Jane did suffer from racist slights during her time there and it is possible this was part of her motive in reporting the teachers. Pirie, having a reputation for being bad-tempered and stern, made no secret of her dislike of Jane Cumming. This likely compounded feelings of resentment given that Jane had been little more than tolerated since leaving India at age eight.


Was this an opportunity for Jane to seek revenge for her ill-treatment? There is much evidence that points to this being the case, including her wish to leave the school and the strict regime she did not like. In addition, it appears that she may have harboured a bit of a tendre for Miss Woods, which may have also added insult to injury in her rejection of Jane.


Whatever the motives, genuine or duplicitous, the tables were turned and the power shifted into Jane's hands. It was her word against her schoolmistresses and she spent four days apprising the court of her account, keenly offering up many details to her examiners and appearing to relish in the limelight.


Regardless of the outcome of the legal proceedings, the Woods-Pirie school was finished. All that remained now, was a question of liability and recompense.


Hushed up legal proceedings.

The case came to court the following year in 1811. By this time both Pirie and Woods had lost the house in Drumsheugh Gardens and were living in drastically reduced circumstances. Their reputations were ruined and the taint of association with the Woods-Pire School deemed so bad, that ex-pupils were refused admission into other reputable schools on account of having attended it.


Scandalous enough, there was no desire for the establishment to inform or excite the idea of female homosexuality in the public mind and great lengths were taken to keep the matter as contained as possible. The trial was conducted in secrecy and behind shut doors, the case records under sealed cover and only released directly to counsel when needed.


Despite these strictures, a vast amount of detailed case records survive and provide a rich and vivid record of proceedings and witness testimony. These records formed the basis for Liliain Fadermans book Scotch Verdict where she extensively references the trial proceedings having visited the archives and pieced together as much information as she could.


The Trial.

On referral to the Inner House after the initial hearing by Lord Meadowbank, the case was tried before a panel of seven Judges at the Court of Session in Edinburgh in a trial lasting several days, centring predominantly around Jane Cumming's testimony.


Whilst the judges express varying opinions in their case notes, they are uniform in condemning the notion of female homosexuality as disgusting and abhorrent, some finding it an impossible or absurd notion, and others more accepting of the possibility still having a hard time ascribing such behaviour to two (previously) reputable women.


Another common opinion of the judges alludes to Jane Cummings racial background and its presumed polluting effect on the extent of her sexual knowledge before she came to Scotland (age 8). - Having spent early life growing up in India where (in the opinion of the judges) women were considered hypersexual and exotic and more inclined towards the knowledge and acts of homosexuality, she was presumed to have been educated in these forward notions by domestics in India, -This was referenced by more than one judge who ascribed Jane's allegations as fallacious and a consequence of a foreign acquisition of unusual sexual knowledge.


Race, Class & Sexuality collide.

What were the judges to believe? That two respectable, Christian, Scottish school teachers such as Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie could have, or would have engaged in this lewd behaviour? Or, that a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl had fabricated the whole story?


What was the more palatable issue? Acceptance of sex between respectable middle-class, Scottish women, or the creative and warped imaginings of Lady Helen Cumming Gordon's exotic Grandaughter, acquired from abroad?


Had the granddaughter in question been one of Lady Cumming Gordon's white, legitimate, Scottish granddaughters it might have proved a trickier case for the panel given that they themselves were all from the aristocratic Scottish class. However, Janes's background, colour and illegitimacy offered them a preferable alternative to openly acknowledging lesbianism as a real possibility. - Something the panel had great difficulty contemplating and expressed being deeply troubled by the dilemma they were faced with in adjudicating on a matter of this nature.


Reading through the judge's case notes it is very illuminating of the type of opinions and beliefs held around female-female sexual activity, its alleged impossibility and inadequacies. Their interest in the preservation of middle-class Scottish femininity was both self-interested and political in attempting to safeguard the perceived 'natural' order of society. - Deviant sexual activity was attributed to the lower classes and other ethnicities, not to women like Pirie & Woods. Any notion that it could be, was dangerous and unsettling to the social order.


"I am happy to express my belief that to this moment, no such crime was ever known in Scotland or in Britain. I do believe that the crime here alleged has no existence." (Lord Gillies in Faderman, p.282).


In other words, lesbianism was a non-British occurrence. Female sexual deviance of a homosexual kind is an external problem, not a concern of the Scottish courts. Such beliefs amongst the judges are significant since, although the case was not primarily concerned with whether or not Woods and Pirie were 'guilty' as accused, but, whether they had been wrongly defamed and were entitled to redress, there could be no adequate defence to defamation of an act which was deemed as good as impossible to commit. If the allegations were absurd and spurious, could Lady Cumming Gordon be considered diligent in advising others to withdraw from the school? Lady Cumming Gordon's defence was one of acting in good faith and in the best interests of the students, but it could not stand if it had no valid basis, i.e if the teachers had done nothing untoward.


Lovers, friends or enemies?

According to the research undertaken by and documented in Faderman's book The Scotch Verdict, it would appear that Marianne and Jane were likely romantically involved. Faderman is of the view that the pair set up the school with a mind to settling down and forging a stable independence together.


At the time of opening the school in 1809, they had already been friends for seven years and despite both women having prior opportunities to leave Edinburgh in the course of their employment, both refused to do so. Did they wish to remain close to one another and actively sought a way to remain together in the longer term by forming the school?


Were they simply sharing their savings, desire for independence and industry together in this venture, or were they sharing these things because they shared everything else together, too?

Whatever the case was at the outset, the relationship appeared to turn sour fairly soon after the pair began running the school. Seemingly mainly on account of the interference and burden of Marianne's aunt Mrs Woods, who appears to have proved a dividing force between the two school teachers. Letters between the ladies, just weeks prior to the accusations made against them, show that things had become hostile and they were planning to part ways shortly. An excerpt taken from one such letter is given below:


"God sees all hearts and He knows that I was willing to sacrifice everything on earth for her who professed to be my friend. But I believe that you knew the line of conduct you meant to pursue in respect to Mrs. Woods and me, and you must have told her you would sacrifice me at the same time that you were declaring sincere love and friendship for your too credulous friend. I see now that your system of establishing Mrs. Woods in opposition to my interests has been uniformly pursued from the very start of our school." (Letter from Jane Pirie to Marianne Woods, cited in Scotch Verdict, p.48).

The Verdict & Aftermath.

The result of the proceedings was anything but straightforward. The verdict in the first trial was found in favour of Lady Cumming Gordon by a motion of 4:3, and Pirie and Woods swiftly launched an appeal. The result on appeal reversed that decision and found in favour of Piie & Woods, also by a motion of 4:3. Lady Cumming Gordon then sought her own appeal in the House of Lords which was unsuccessful.


Despite winning their case, it took almost a decade to recover costs and it is understood that the ladies settled for significantly less than the ten thousand pounds initially claimed. Of this, the lion's share was swallowed up in legal fees and both women were left in difficult financial circumstances thereafter, never financially recovering.


There is limited information as to what happened to them afterwards: it is known that Marianne moved to London and found part-time employment there.


Jane remained in Edinburgh and was unable to find employment. Her circumstances drastically reduced she lived a humble existence and her mental health took a severe decline.


Bluestockingbard says...

I think Pirie & Woods were in a committed sexually active lesbian relationship, however, I do not think they were guilty of what they were accused of in terms of having sex in the bed whilst sharing it with the students. - I think it's possible they could have let the odd kiss or lingering look/embrace slip when they thought no one was about or awake to notice it, but I don't think they would have been foolish enough to risk all their hard work and precious reputations by exposing themselves this radically. These were smart ambitious women who understood the necessity of their good names in the success of their careers. They were devoted and vigilant in all other areas of running their school, it would seem remiss to take such reckless risks in exposing their charges to any kind of sexual behaviour at all when they would be sensible of their duty to impress high standards of virtue into their charges, as well as instructing them academically.


I think it more likely that Jane Cumming was aware of the true nature of their relationship through subtler cues, perhaps gleaned by her spending some of the holidays with only the two teachers, where deeper regard for each other might have proven more noticeable in such an intimate grouping away from the usual company of the other students. And whilst I reject the idea of any racial attribution to Janes's sexual knowledge, I believe Jane did understand the possibility of sexual attraction between women. Not because she witnessed this between the teachers or was taught by Indian domestics, but it would appear she might have experienced same-sex attraction herself, both for one of her fellow students and also to Miss Woods, who she was very fond of. She had previously asked to share a bed with both but was refused. At a fractious time in adolescence, this rejection and unexplored sexual curiosity may have caused Jane to feel spurned and resentful. This, alongside often being in trouble and punished for it at the school, may have led Jane to want to leave and return to the family home she had never really got to settle into, having been always sent away to boarding schools since her arrival in Scotland. But how could she convince her grandmother to consent to withdraw her from her education - an exercise deemed necessary in turning Jane into a true Lady and marriageable prospect as Lady Cumming Gordon had more recently decided upon?


I believe that these grounds, coupled with a cantlet of adolescent fantasy and negative attention-seeking, formed the basis of Jane's motives for making allegations against her teachers. She wasn't lying about everything - she had correctly understood the true nature of the relationship between her two school mistresses and exposed it to the world, but not because she had witnessed overt sexual behaviour, but because she had her own reasons for sensationalizing the story. The underlying objective: to justify her premature removal from the school and to avenge her treatment (particularly by Pirie) as well as to vent her jealousy from a stifled crush on Miss Woods and her subsequent rejection.


She likely had no notion of how this would escalate to such a great scandal that would go down in socio-legal history, and probably only accounted for adequate effect to meet her intended ends, and little beyond it.


Intentional or not, the lives of two women were destroyed overnight, a power neither Jane or her grandmother, should have had the ability to effect, but did in such a time where reputation, virtue, class and rigidity in beliefs about female sexuality held such weight.


The sad thing being, all four of the women involved were made victims of their time in one way or another. Jane for being always treated as an outcast and made to feel it due to predominant attitudes over race and legitimacy, her grandmother for being publically humiliated and financially stung, for protecting her liability of a granddaughter, and the two teachers for being in a relationship the world was not ready to acknowledge or accept as anything less than scandalous and punished them cruelly for.


In the end, whether these accusations were true or false, we'll never really know, and it doesn't really matter now. But this case gives us a rare and rich account of attitudes to lesbianism and the societal sentence for it, in the early nineteenth century. It also reminds us of alternative herstories that might have gone unrecorded had it never been made a matter of record through court proceedings. How many other such stories went unrecorded?


If this captured your interest and you would like to know more, I highly recommend a read of Faderman's Scotch Verdict.


I have also recently found a new book, Scandal and Survival in Nineteenth Century Scotland, which focuses more on research around Jane Cumming's life which will be going on my TBR list, and I shall update with a review in due course.



References:

Faderman, Lillian. Scotch Verdict: Miss Pirie and Miss Woods v. Dame Cumming Gordon. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1983.

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