Monday, 11 April 2016

Review | Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale

by Jessica Swale

My Rating: 

A moving, comical and eye-opening story of four young women fighting for education and self-determination against the larger backdrop of women’s suffrage.

1896. Girton College, Cambridge, the first college in Britain to admit women. The Girton girls study ferociously and match their male peers grade for grade. Yet, when the men graduate, the women leave with nothing but the stigma of being a 'blue stocking' - an unnatural, educated woman. They are denied degrees and go home unqualified and unmarriageable.

In Blue Stockings, Tess Moffat and her fellow first years are determined to win the right to graduate. But little do they anticipate the hurdles in their way: the distractions of love, the cruelty of the class divide or the strength of the opposition, who will do anything to stop them. The play follows them over one tumultuous academic year, in their fight to change the future of education.

I don't usually review plays - I don't tend to read them very often, if I'm perfectly honest - but last year, on my birthday, I went to see Jessica Swale's Olivier Award-winning Nell Gwynn (reviewed here!) at The Globe Theatre in London, and because I enjoyed it so much I was eager to check out Swale's other historical play, Blue Stockings.

Blue Stockings is the kind of story I enjoy. Historical fiction about women fighting for the right to graduate from university? Yes please.

The story was infuriating, in a good way. It was so frustrating to have to acknowledge that women who wanted an education, who wanted their minds to be valued in the same way as a man's and to have more opportunities than to be a wife and mother, were treated so despicably and denied what is a basic human right. Education is for everyone.

We follow four women - Tess, Carolyn, Celia and Maeve - who are all attending Cambridge to study science. While I enjoyed the play, I would have liked more scenes about them receiving their education, about them studying and solving stuff out together and supporting one another. There is some of that, of course, but as the play wore on it became more and more about Tess and her first forays into love, in fact I feel like I barely knew Carolyn and Celia at all. There's even a scene in which Tess is shown to care more about the man she loves than about her education and is starting to fail her classes because of it. I couldn't believe that an intelligent girl who had to fight so hard just to be at university would risk throwing that away. For a play about women's education, I thought it was a bit of a shame that so much of it focused on Tess's love life.

My favourite character by far was Maeve, who absolutely broke my heart. What happens to her, in particular, made me so angry. I'd happily read another story about Maeve, whether it's a play, a novel or a short story, because I adored her. Carolyn and Celia are a lot of fun too, but reading the play they felt rather overshadowed by Tess. Perhaps if I'd seen the play I might feel differently, particularly as plays are meant to be seen rather than read.

All in all I enjoyed it, I think it's a very important piece of history to remember, but I didn't love it like I hoped I would. I still recommend checking out Jessica Swale's work, though, and if you have the chance to see Nell Gwynn make sure you take it!

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