Exploring gender, patriarchy and masculinity
Explorations of sexuality and scandal underpin a new biography of the orphan Jane Cumming, analysed by Louise Heren.
As Scottish historians well know, Scotland’s archives are rich with fascinating material and the legal archives are particularly copious and informative. Plucking Jane Cumming’s case from the archive of the early 19th century, Francis B. Singh has landed on a personal narrative that encompasses historical themes of gender, patriarchy and masculinity, as well as socio-judicial attitudes to female complainers. As an orphan, a bi-racial minor, an outcast and a woman, teenaged Jane first precipitated a cause célèbre in early 19th-century Edinburgh and then, in its aftermath, found herself unable to shake off the notoriety for the rest of her short life.
Jane was born in Patnah, India, around the end of 1795 or early in 1796. She was the daughter of George Cumming, the errant son of a Scottish laird from the north-east, and an Indian woman, who remains unnamed throughout the book. Shortly after her father’s death from fever, and possibly drink, Jane and her younger brother Yorrick were deposited in an Indian school for colonial orphans. Once their father’s death became known back home, their grandfather sent for them, and after a lengthy, arduous sea voyage accompanied by their Indian nurse Coongee, the group disembarked in London on 24 May 1803. Jane was around seven years old.
The children stayed with their uncle in a fashionable area of London for about a fortnight before their onward journey to Scotland, this time accompanied by a schoolmaster, William Tulloch. Jane was boarded out to a small, local school for some time, but her story picks up pace when she arrived in Edinburgh, at the school selected for her by her paternal grandmother, Lady Helen Cumming Gordon. This school for the daughters of Edinburgh’s polite society was run by Ann and Marianne Woods, an aunt and niece collaboration, and their partner Miss Jane Pirie. It became the locus for accusations, by Jane, of cruelty and lesbianism between Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie. There followed society gossip, court cases and appeals. Jane married, then separated from, the highly unsuitable Mr Tulloch. She died in 1844, aged only 47. Her husband, who was 20 years her senior and had cheated on her publicly, was buried alongside her. She left behind two sons and an estate valued at slightly more than £550. Despite her sons’ requests for them to honour the terms of her will, members of Jane’s father’s family declined to act as her executors.
In reaching the desolate end of Jane’s life, Singh guides the reader through contemporary attitudes towards bi-racial children, particularly girls, in 19th-century Scotland. Described as dark skinned, there is little doubt that Jane would have been remarkable to passers-by on Edinburgh’s fashionable streets, and that her morality would have come under scrutiny. Her grandmother clearly had qualms that may have been substantiated by Jane’s behaviour in her earlier life, and that were most certainly supported by the accusations Jane made about her teachers.
In the court case, which began in 1811 shortly after Jane insinuated to her grandmother that her teachers were lovers, the legal minds deliberated over what Jane did or did not witness on her voyage to Britain. Had she seen sexual congress among sailors and passengers? What had she been exposed to in her Calcutta boarding school? Could that school even have been a cover for some form of bawdy house?
None of this can be known for sure since records for Jane’s early life have not survived if they ever existed, but this is where the otherwise superb and careful
Shortly after her father’s death from fever, and possibly drink, Jane and her younger brother Yorrick were deposited in an Indian school for colonial orphans
dissection of the court case that is pivotal to understanding Jane’s adult life begins to unravel.
Singh’s use of secondary sources and other contextualising material to sketch early 19th-century Edinburgh as a city under construction brings Jane’s surroundings to life. However, there is a boundary line in ‘painting the historical canvas’ which historians should not cross. Using secondary sources and newspaper articles to describe the construction site that was Edinburgh in the early 19th century adds colour; Jane would very likely have seen labourers working on scaffoldings on her walk to the court from her grandmother’s residence on Charlotte Square. However, the line is crossed when the reader is asked to imagine how Jane scuffed her shoes or muddied or ripped the hem of her dress en route. If the archive does not contain the evidence to describe it, neither can we know what Jane wore on the days when she gave her testimony and her grandmother declined to attend, although Singh provides a vivid description of the black attire she may have selected. In the same sentence, Singh acknowledges that she is unsure whether Jane had a female family supporter with her on the days she attended court. Unsubstantiated details detract from the otherwise useful historical portrait and landscape painting that Singh employs throughout the book.
Singh also adds opinion where the evidence may point in bifurcating directions. For example, the signature page on her testimony offers physical evidence of Jane’s handwriting, a ‘bold and even script’, but the size of her signature squeezing out those of the judges signing beside her cannot provide conclusive evidence of her ‘dominance and defiance of men old enough to be her grandfather’ (p.130). Perhaps Jane simply had a childishly large script? Further, the use of Matthew 8:12 and 13:42 to explore the meaning behind Jane speaking ‘with teeth and bitterness’, as one judge described her, appears to have been introduced in order to reach the conclusion that Jane was now ‘closer to outer darkness than social acceptance’ (p.141). Was the judge quoting from Matthew? If he was, then that should have been made clear in the text. Otherwise, why the diversion?
The construction of Jane as a pawn in a hegemonic patriarchal commentary comes through in spades in Singh’s anatomising of the court record; there is no need to ladle personal comment onto a historical society’s behaviour.The historian should not judge or embellish, but in this book both practices have been liberally indulged. From the ‘projecting of rage and despair’ (p.141) Lord Hope may have felt Jane exhibited in her accusations against her teachers, to the use of an American publication from 1965 examining American ministers’ wives’ feelings about their position superimposed on Jane’s married life 150 years earlier, there is much in this book to upset the academic historian. In fact, a connection made towards the end of the book concerning the loss of the Gordon Cumming’s family estate (p.199) may discomfit the governors and alumni of Scotland’s best-known public school, Gordonstoun, due to the superfluous mention of ‘the Asian subcontinent’.
However, the book’s strengths lie in the discussion of female sexuality and patriarchal control, and the exploration of women’s emotions. Singh’s dissection of the court case provides insight into female agency, or lack thereof, in the period, although discussion of contemporary attitudes towards illegitimacy relies too heavily on research about familial and employment practices among the working class in north-eastern Scotland. Andrew Blaikie has shown that tolerance of illegitimacy displayed towards young single mothers in this region aided those women in their return to work and ability to earn their keep. However, it is arguable that a landed gentry family with an estate in the north-east would have adhered to similar notions, particularly when resident in their Edinburgh home.
There are numerous insightful analyses of the drama that became Jane’s life. Considering the nuances of the words Jane claimed to have overheard one teacher say to the other during their lovemaking, Singh takes us beyond semantics into an exploration of historical attitudes toward homosexuality among colonial officers. Her lengthy discussion of the education of young women, based on Elizabeth Hamilton’s contemporary theories, provides considerable context for understanding the narrow education allowed for even privileged young women in Edinburgh society.
Singh clearly has a deep passion for the literary and theatrical legacies created through reworkings of Jane’s life, and her desire to enquire into the real Jane Cumming is applaudable – so much painstaking research has gone into this book. However, her professional background in literary criticism and creative writing may be the reason for strings of words that ‘reflected, refracted, reconstituted, converted, or transposed to another context’ (p.114), which disrupt the reader’s enjoyment. So do the number of typos and printing errors sprinkled throughout the text.
As Singh admits towards the end of the book, her characters are dead and in certain interpretations of their motives, she has resorted to guesswork. This conjecture and speculation undermine the book. However, as a pacy, highly readable and detailed account of the fascinating life of a young Indian-Scottish woman who might so easily have disappeared from history, crowded out by the men who populate her story, there is much to be enjoyed and learned from this book.
Having graduated many years ago with a degree in Scottish History from the University of St Andrews, Louise Heren has recently returned to academia and her alma mater to complete a doctoral thesis researching male sexual violence in interwar Scotland.
Singh guides the reader through contemporary attitudes towards bi-racial children, particularly girls, in 19th-century Scotland