Lucy Porter play celebrates 18th century heroines

Lucy Porter. Picture: Getty

Lucy Porter. Picture: Getty

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THEY were the daughters of some of the most respectable families in Edinburgh.

Schooled in French and Italian by expensive governesses, they wore the latest fashions, dreamed of going on a Grand Tour, but most importantly of all for young women of the early 18th century, they knew their place.

Yet once a week Cecilia Cunningham, Beatrice Bateson and Marjory Drummond would make their excuses from calligraphy practice, put down their needlework and embark on a clandestine adventure that, should their antics become public, they feared ridicule and scandal.

There were secret meetings at appointed hours, the telling of tales to slip away from polite society, flustered answers should their whereabouts be queried . . . and all so they could meet up to discuss the philosophical issues of the day without any men all too ready to tell them what they should be thinking.

And the first rule of The Fair Intellectual Club, of which these three were founding members, was: don’t talk about The Fair Intellectual Club.

Which could be why comedian Lucy Porter has found information about the secretive club and its members so hard to come by – that and the fact that the intellectual thoughts of women in pre-Enlightenment Edinburgh were less than highly regarded.

Porter, who is best known for her comic acts on the Edinburgh Fringe, is this year also launching her first play “loosely based” on the Fair Intellectuals and their friendships, and believes that the three founders of the club, which began well before Adam Smith was an enlightened twinkle in his father’s eye, are feminist trailblazers whose story deserves a greater hearing.

She has spent the last six months trying to piece together their lives – as well as write a play based loosely on them and their friendships – before launching The Fair Intellectual Club at this year’s Fringe.

The original three members of the club recruited six other like-minded girls and apparently styled themselves after the nine classical muses, which is perhaps why membership was capped at that number. The rules, of which there were 16, also stated that members had to be unmarried, aged between 15 and 20, that they maintained a mutual friendship, attended weekly meetings punctually and could only be accepted to the club on merit.

More importantly, members were not allowed to ridicule each other, could not bring political influences into the club (although differing opinions were allowed), must deliver a “harangue” and give ten shillings to the poor.

“It’s been suggested that a factor in their desire for improvement was to ensure they compared favourably to the sophisticated continental women that upper-class men met on the Grand Tour. But the club was for girls who wanted to demonstrate that women as well as men might participate in intellectual improvement,” Porter says. “But even for them marriage was still the most important thing and they felt the need to keep things secret so as not to possibly damage their prospects.”

Porter says she came across the club while on a long train journey as she delved into Professor Robert Crawford’s book, On Glasgow and Edinburgh, in which the Fair Intellectuals are briefly mentioned and described as a “self-help group”.

The book also reveals that the club was outed when Cecilia fell in love, told her suitor who belonged to an “Athenian society” and from there their discussions became more widely known – indeed one even had a poem published in the Edinburgh Miscellany. Porter was, she says “captivated by the story of these thoughtful, fearless girls”. “Even though the word ‘feminist’ didn’t appear until the late 19th century, these women were already exploring fairly radical ideas.

“They railed against the idea that certain fields of study, such as history and geography, were male preserves.”

Porter admits it was the tale of the women which prompted her to think for the first time about writing a play. “It seemed that the three founder members acted in the absence of any real role models for their own sex. I came to think of the girls as feminists in a pre-feminist world. I thought it might be interesting to bring the club’s story to light now as we seem to be in the middle of a new wave of feminism. It’s certainly a hot topic.”

In January she approached Tommy Sheppard, who runs the Assembly Rooms, about securing a venue for a play. “I took what I already knew about the ladies from their own pamphlet and did more research. I was unable to find out what had become of the women in later years, or whether the revelation of their society did indeed bring the scorn and censure they had feared. I had hoped that they might go on to be involved in the Enlightenment as supportive wives or salonnieres, but there’s no mention of them.

“I find it amazing that in the very early 18th century they took it upon themselves to start their own club – and I’ve always loved the idea of girls having secret clubs. But that meant I was free to imagine their lives and I have the three of them going off in very different directions, one’s a poet, another a scientist and the third’s more of a good time girl.”

Porter also has them discuss the devastation caused by the failure of the Darien venture, and the political and religious fallout from the Acts of Union, the Jacobite Risings, and Thomas Aikenhead, who in 1697 became the last person executed for blasphemy.

“I hope The Fair Intellectual Club would approve. They aspired to intellectual stimulation and moral improvement and their influence has rubbed off on me, almost three centuries later.”

• The Fair Intellectual Club is at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh, August 1 to 24 at 11am, tickets £9/£10. Box Office www.arfringe.com or call 0844 693 3008. Lucy Porter’s stand-up show, Me Time, will be at the Stand One from July 31 to August 10.

GIRL POWER TAKES TO THE STAGE

FEMINISM has become a watchword at the Edinburgh Fringe of late – and mostly in comedic circles.

Last year, stand-up comedian Bridget Christie won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award (what used to be the Perrier) for her show A Bic For Her, in which she lampooned all things sexist from sports commentators to Bic’s invention of an “easy-to-grip pen for women” as well as addressing more serious misogynist matters.

Mary Bourke, another comedian, used her rapier wit to talk about female objectification, injustice and misogyny, based on the tongue-in-cheek suggestion the “outdated” term ‘feminist’ should be replaced with “muffragette”. While Nadia Kamil’s witty take on burlesque saw her peel off wrap dress after tunic after T-shirt without revealing an inch of flesh, but exposing slogans such as “Equal Pay”, “Pubes Are Normal” and “Stop Asking if Women Are Funny”, until whipping out a degree certificate with nipple tassles – proving once and for to how to make a striptease “empowering”.

Feminist trailblazer Jenny Eclair’s show had a withering take on of 50 Shades of Grey, while elsewhere there were feminist authors, cabarets and shows such as Alan Bisset’s Ban This Filth. This year Christie returns, while Rosie Wilby traces the paths of her former colleagues at a feminist newspaper in Nineties Woman, Katherine Ryan explores the beauty industry in Glam Role Model and Adrienne Truscott brings back her award-winning and hugely provocative satire Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy.