‘People like us don’t get buffeted by the wind. We change its course.’
So says Celia Willbond, one of the four female scholars attending Cambridge University in Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, currently running at Oxford’s Old Fire Station. The “people” to whom Celia refers are four brave, intelligent and witty young women attending Cambridge’s Girton College, in the face of Victorian male intolerance and scrutiny. Swale’s play centres on the year 1898, and the girls’ turbulent journey towards achieving a degree-level education at one of the country’s most prestigious universities. Above and beyond their personal tribulations, the debates surrounding whether women deserve the right to graduate as full members of the University, as their male counterparts could, set the play firmly within this ground breaking period of women’s academic history.
Girton College, and its history of female academic endeavour, plays a vital role in Blue Stockings. Set just outside of the centre of Cambridge, the college was established in 1869 as a place for women to study. By 1898 it was home to female undergraduates, staff, and some male colleagues sympathetic to the cause of female academia. The students of Girton could attend the same classes as male students, sit the same exams — and yet were denied the opportunity to graduate. Swale dives into this oppressive, misogynistic society, and offers a glimpse of the struggles borne by these brave women, who were faced with male revulsion and the derogatory name “blue stockings” if they chose an academic path instead of motherhood and family life. Celebrating the pioneers of female equality, Blue Stockings narrates a story centred on real events and people: mainly Mrs Welsh (Helen Taylor), the innovative mistress of Girton College, Dr Maudsley (Nick Quartley), the bastion of male academic chauvinism, and the events of 1898 leading to the Senate vote on female graduation.
ElevenOne’s production was flawless in its vivid depiction of life at Girton College in the late nineteenth century. Particular praise is due to Tracey Rimell, whose role as the protagonist Tess Moffat required not only compassion and wit, but also raw fury, passion and anger, all of which were delivered beautifully. The company conveyed very well the sense of oppression felt by women in male-dominated corridors and Cambridge lecture theatres. The odious Dr Maudsley gave a particularly vitriolic monologue to the students and the audience on female hysteria and the “wandering womb” syndrome. The uncomfortable looks on the faces of the female students on stage were reflected exactly by the ladies of the audience. It was difficult, as a female scholar myself, to grit my teeth throughout Maudsley’s diatribe of chauvinistic hate: in this way the company certainly gave modern women a sense of the alienation felt every day by those early advocates of female education.
The motto of Girton College is ‘Better is wisdom than weapons of war,’ a sentiment echoed by the brave Mrs Welsh throughout the play. ‘Degrees by degrees,’ she claims, is the best way to encourage men to accept women at universities. The dynamics between the patience-preaching Mrs Welsh, and the ideas of justice and political movement espoused by Miss Blake (Ida Persson), were beautifully created and nuanced. The audience becomes party to the awful choice faced by bright, intelligent women — to become academics, and to face a life without husband and family, reviled by society — or to become a dutiful wife and mother, and forgo the joys of learning and the pursuit of knowledge. We are asked the question – what would you choose? However, to reduce this performance of Blue Stockings to a political statement on the importance of female academic equality would be to miss the humour, wit and laughter with which the performance was infused. The awkward scenes of first love played out against the backdrop of Cambridge’s streets held a charm of their own, as did the scenes of camaraderie experienced by the four students and their teachers. These moments of joviality served particularly to highlight the oppressive academic background against which the play is set.
Despite some minor technical malfunctions, which are normal during the first night of any production, the performance had the atmosphere of a professional and very well presented company. In the final scene, it is revealed to the audience that women were finally given the right to graduate from Cambridge in 1948 — fifty years after the play takes place. We leave the theatre reflecting on the extent to which times have changed. Are women still faced with the dilemma of academic and professional success, versus a fulfilling family life? Can we really “have it all?” We are left to reflect on the current barriers to university education, such as the debates about tuition fees, and also to consider the new frontiers for female education. The text of Blue Stockings is dedicated, in fact, to Malala Yousafzai — a direct link to the current challenges facing women all around the globe attempting to gain an education, faced with misogyny and violence. And finally, we leave the theatre with a sense of pride in these characters who fought so hard for rights which we today hold to be guaranteed. Blue Stockings should be performed on every university campus, as a reminder to students of how lucky they are to have access to university education.
‘Blue Stockings’ runs at the Old Fire Station until Saturday 26th November. More details and ticket information can be found here.