THE true story of a secret all-female intellectual club in 18th century Edinburgh inspired Lucy Porter to write her debut play, the stand-up tells Jay Richardson
The morning I speak to Lucy Porter turns out to be a false dawn for feminism. With the Sun seemingly setting on Page 3, I suggest that the imminent tour of her play, The Fair Intellectual Club, based on a real secret society of proto-feminist teenage girls in pre-Enlightenment Edinburgh, seeking enrichment and expression for their brains rather than their bodies, might just have overturned editorial policy at the tabloid. “Yes! Murdoch got wind that change was afoot!” she jokes.
In truth, Porter is modest about her playwriting debut, yet the issues her funny, compelling drama raises still resonate strongly.
Cecilia Cunningham, Beatrice Bateson and Marjory Drummond founded The Fair Intellectual Club in 1717 as a weekly meeting where women could aspire to the same intellectual stimulation and educational opportunities as men. Recruiting six more young women, aged 15-19, they took their names from the nine classical muses, keeping the society clandestine lest their reputations be compromised.
In Porter’s dramatisation, directed by Marilyn Imrie for Stellar Quines theatre company, Thalia (Caroline Deyga) is a gossipy beauty with an English mother, snobbish about the Scottish and planning to marry above herself; Clio (Jess Hardwick), a serious-minded mathematician, is envious of the opportunities afforded to her less intelligent brothers; and Polly (Samara MacLaren), a poet, is betrothed to an elderly man she does not love.
Their story “taps into the so-called new wave of feminism, because it’s about young women who decide to do something about society and aspects they aren’t happy with,” says Porter. “It called to mind Lucy-Anne Holmes of the No More Page 3 campaign and Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism, trying to affect change.”
Equally, the play touches on secularist ideals, the influence of science and rise of scepticism, “which all fed into the Enlightenment”.
“These things never go away. But we’re very much talking about the role of religion in society, fundamentalism and free speech now,” she adds. “The world of Edinburgh in the early 18th century suddenly seemed to me incredibly relevant to Britain in the 21st.”
It was a passing reference in Robert Crawford’s book, On Glasgow and Edinburgh, that first introduced Porter to the club, but otherwise she could find little information about it. One of the Fair Intellectual’s poems had appeared in the Edinburgh Miscellany, and a pamphlet with the group’s rules and constitution was published in 1718 after they were exposed “when one of [their] members fell in love with a young man from a local Athenian Society,” claims Crawford.
With this pamphlet as her starting point, Porter infused the play with a sense of the intellectual excitement that would flower in the Enlightenment, allied to that of her own participation in the DIY ethic of the Riot grrrl movement and the clubs she set up with friends as a teenager. Films like Mean Girls and Heathers were touchstones, and there are mischievous nods to The Only Way Is Essex. But while Thalia in particular has some of the traits of a stand-up, the comedian stresses that the Fair Intellectuals are too important to trivialise.
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Resisting her instinctive desire to “want to go into the audience, make everyone laugh, ratchet up the drama, tension and emotion more”, Porter sought to create more artfully paced dramatic moments. “While it’s a light-hearted play, you don’t want to feel like you’re making light of these women’s plight,” she maintains. “It’s about balancing an evening’s entertainment with being true to the story and giving them rich and rounded lives rather than making them mouthpieces.”
The characters are thus recognisably teenage girls. However Porter never underplays the importance of them preserving their good names for securing a marriage.
“Women’s lives at that time were so dominated by domestic concerns,” she reasons. “Their story is so interesting because for girls to decide they wanted to study anything outside of what was needed to make good wives, like singing and deportment, they must have been incredible to step outside of that. And from reading diaries of other women of the time, they were as bright, inquisitive, playful and hormonal as teenage girls today.”
She laughs. “Living in a post-Victorian age, we always think of women in the past as being incredibly chaste and virtuous. But actually, they had a little bit more freedom than we might have expected to walk with young gentlemen. So yes, I’ve exploited that to the full and given it a little sexy edge.”
Since it was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, the world has changed, at least in some respects. References to the Darien Scheme and Scotland’s relationship with England obviously bring to mind the Independence referendum and Porter will be tweaking the script to “comment on the result”.
Meanwhile, Malala Yousafzai has become the Nobel Prize’s youngest winner, and militant Islamists are continuing to target schoolgirls.
“[Malala] just wanted to be educated,” Porter points out. “Which is quite humbling. One thing to come out of writing this is that I realise I’ve taken for granted my right to an education and to be able to express myself, to be interested in anything I want to do. Even to write a play.
“For women, that’s something that’s only relatively recently become possible. Yet in some parts of the world, it’s still not, and becoming increasingly less so. So when people criticise the No More Page 3 campaign, saying there are worse injustices out there, my feeling is that those of us with privilege have to fight to defend it. Because there are people fighting to take away our rights to education.”
Since Edinburgh, Porter’s commitment to The Fair Intellectuals has endured. Notwithstanding one expert’s view that their pamphlet “may have been a hoax written by men”, and the general paucity of knowledge about them, “women’s lives having not been deemed worthy of record”, she’s continued researching and wants to write a book with the academic Derya Gurses Tarbuck. The comic was delighted to be informed by Tarbuck that, even after taking artistic licence into account, “I hadn’t been too far off. Some of the wild suppositions I made actually turned out to be not too wide of the mark”.
What’s more, she is writing a sitcom about the club for Radio 4. Made with Absolutely Productions, of the Scottish sketch show fame, the six-part series will feature appearances from a young David Hume and Voltaire.
Acknowledging Imrie for the way in which she helped her shape her first play, the comic hopes the director will work on her next stand-up show as well, to make it more “theatrical, with less fear of longueurs between the laughs”. And she’s already thinking about her next dramatic production, focusing on sectarianism in Glasgow and Northern Ireland. Her father was a Catholic in the RUC and “there are some other little true stories from my family” that she’d like to bring to the stage.
Delivering her stand-up show, Me Time, in Glasgow on 21 February, Porter is also planning to host Q&A sessions after some of The Fair Intellectual Club performances.
“After years as a solitary, lonely comedian, being involved in something a bit more collaborative is really nice,” she says. “Slightly tragically, I tend to hang around the play more than the writer needs to, hanging out with the cast. It’s a little club of our own – a glimpse of sociability in an otherwise bleak stand-up world.”
• The Fair Intellectual Club is at the Tron, Glasgow, from 19-21 February; Morningside Church Theatre, Edinburgh, 23 February and on tour around Scotland, including further Edinburgh dates at the Assembly Roxy on 3 and 4 March, www.thefairintellectualclub.co.uk