The ‘lesbian’ teacher scandal that shook society

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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IT WAS a salacious scandal that rocked the upper echelons of 19th-century Edinburgh society to the core. Two female teachers at an exclusive boarding school for girls had their careers ruined after being accused by a pupil of having an affair.

Now, more than 200 years on from the case that scandalised the capital and saw all the pupils withdrawn suddenly from the school, the story will be brought to the stage in the city.

The Signet Library, in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square, is being lined up to play host to the production, thanks to a little-known link to the case.

In 1809, Marianne Woods, 27, and Jane Pirie, 26, ran a small but successful boarding school in Drumsheugh Gardens in the city’s New Town. Among their pupils was Jane Cumming, the illegitimate child of Lady Cumming Gordon’s late son and a Bengali servant girl.

ON 4 November, 1810, Miss Cumming visited her grandmother at 22 Charlotte Square and accused her two teachers of “inordinate affection” for each other. An appalled Lady Cumming Gordon wrote to the pupils’ parents warning of immoral behaviour. Every child was withdrawn and the business was ruined.

Woods and Pirie lodged a claim for £10,000 compensation each from their accuser and set in motion a drawn-out court case that shocked Scotland with schoolgirls’ lurid claims that the pair had shared a bed, lay on top of one another and called each other “darling”. Although they eventually won their case, the pair’s reputations and finances were in tatters.

The scandal had been largely forgotten about until a set of papers relating to the case was discovered at the Signet legal library in 1931 – and then featured in a book of notorious cases called Bad Companions by lawyer and crime writer William ­Roughhead.

It was subsequently turned into a controversial American play, The Children’s Hour, by Lillian Hellman, in what was her first attempt at a stage ­production.

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine starred in the Hollywood adaptation of Hellman’s play along with James Garner, and Keira Knightley ­appeared in a production in London’s West End two years ago.

Edinburgh author and playwright Richard Stirling, who has spent years researching the case, said the new production would be radically different from Hellman’s as it would portray the two teachers as far-from-innocent parties.

But he insisted the script would be based on true accounts of the case, including the original paperwork which is still held in the library’s archives.

Stirling told The Scotsman: “I was drawn to the drama of the untold story, of the conflicting accounts of what actually happened at the school at Drumsheugh and what happened to the women after.

“Although the trial was documented and judged by men, the actual story is completely female.

“Although Lillian Hellman fictionalised the story as The Children’s Hour, she passed over what I think is the key point – that Jane Cumming, the little girl who caused the mayhem, was a mixed-race illegitimate child of an aristocratic father and a servant girl.

‘Had the father, George Cumming Gordon, and the girl married, Jane Cumming and her brother would have been the heirs to the estates of ­Gordonstoun.

“As it was, Jane’s grandmother tried to cover her family’s shame by sending the girl to an exclusive new Edinburgh school, where, it is my contention, she started the stories to get attention and ­approval.

“What is dramatic is how each of the protagonists attacked the others as the best means of defence. And this attack went on long after the court case had ended.”

A one-off performance of the play is planned at the Signet Library in October in the hope of raising financial backing for a full run in 2014, with an all-female cast – half of whom will play pupils at the Drumsheugh School – by London-based Evergeen Theatrical productions.

Hellman set her story in New England after being given a copy of the original book by her then author lover Dashiel Hammett. It made her a celebrity at the age of 29, although the production was banned in several US cities.