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As a committed feminist with an interest in Victorian Studies, I always perk up when I come across new takes on Victorian women’s causes. RADA’s production of Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale seemed to fit the bill very nicely.

Girton College, Cambridge

Set in Girton College, Cambridge, in 1898, the play centres on the campaign to allow female students to graduate. By this time, the ‘Girtonites’ were established in their own college, attending the male students’ lectures, and doing the same assignments and exams as their male contemporaries – they just weren’t given a degree at the end of it. It is a great credit to Swale’s writing that the outcome of this vote still leaves the audience on tenterhooks throughout the play – even if we already knew that Cambridge would not in fact begin to award degrees to women for another fifty years precisely.

Swale’s script, taking us around the college to eavesdrop on a range of characters’ conversations, is sensitive to every side of the question. Particularly the character of the head of the college, Miss Welsh, is a triumph in this respect. Contrasted with her younger colleague, a former student of Girton and a politically motivated feminist, Miss Welsh seems both inhibited and inhibitory, unwilling to allow the girls to venture beyond their studies and role within the college. Yet, however much we may think her judgments unjust, it is clear throughout that she is acting in what she perceives to be the college’s best interests. She has fought for years to achieve a position in the university for herself, her staff and her students, and she is terrified it will be lost through slip-ups or imprudence.

The play also paints an evocative picture of what studying meant for the girls themselves. Having battled their way into the college, they are now faced with the fact that they will have nothing to show for their devotion at the end of their course but the stigma of being a ‘bluestocking’. The bond that develops between them is touching, and their collective determination allows them to help one another through difficult periods.

Rowlandson’s early 19th c. portrayal of ‘bluestockings’

Perhaps the unfinished story of the charity girl, Maeve, was a plot twist too many: the play is already a lengthy one, and Maeve’s story, although preceded with various highly enigmatic and dramatic scenes, is suddenly and completely abandoned after Miss Welsh sends her home to safeguard the college’s reputation. However, it does slot nicely into the stories of the girls’ hardships, and contributes significantly to the image we have of Miss Welsh’s character.

The costumes and stage were beautifully constructed, and helped to establish particularly the female characters (who, unlike the men, were not permitted to wear gowns).

And if, occasionally, the tone of the writing slips into the modern – ‘no big deal’ was not a common expression in 1890s Cambridge – this does not harm the overall tone; perhaps it even helps to forge a closer connection between the modern student actors and the Victorian student characters.

Swale’s play gives us an excellent sense of both the historical context and the human experience of Girton College in 1898, and the actors interpret her lines with vivacity and charm. The blurb on the RADA website does not do justice to this production. It ought to be required viewing if you are a woman, a student, a feminist, a history enthusiast, or any, or all of these. It is licensed feminist entertainment of the most enjoyable kind.

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