My new book, Bodies of Light, comes out this week. When I was asked if I wanted to dedicate it to anyone, I said no, as I always do. A dedication seems an odd gift: not for my husband and children, who might reasonably be decidedly ambivalent about my writing. Not for my extended family, who know me in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with books. Not for friends, whom I value for reasons other than their various interests in my work. Non-fiction has many contributors, but a novel isn’t, usually, in anyone’s gift.
I still think that’s probably right, but I keep thinking about the Edinburgh Seven, the first seven women to study for medical degrees in Britain. I decided that because I wanted Bodies of Light to be recognised as a work of art rather than a work of historical scholarship, and because the seven pre-date my heroine’s career and weren’t directly relevant to the story, I wouldn’t mention them. I pursued my usual mode of research and read for the novel exactly as intensively as I would read for an academic monograph, but having done that I wrote, as I always do, into the lacunae in the historical record. Fiction, for me, begins where history falls silent, and the Edinburgh Seven are part of history:
In 1869 Sophia Jex-Blake led these women in forcing their way into and through Edinburgh University to study medicine. She had persuaded the University Court to state that it was not opposed to the medical education of women, although the statement added that the University could not make special provision for one woman. 180 male medical students signed a petition against the admission of women, on the grounds that lecturers would have to modify teaching for mixed audiences so that certain subjects could not be covered and that the admission of women would ‘degrade the University.’ Nevertheless, the General Council allowed the women to matriculate (to sit entrance exams), without committing itself to allowing them to graduate. All passed, four among the top seven, and all continued to excel and win prizes when allowed to take examinations, but it was the beginning of three years of misogyny and bullying that is still shocking even in the era of anonymous social networking. Some lecturers encouraged male students to abuse and insult the women as they entered lecture-halls and classrooms. They were assaulted by fellow-students with more or less official support from eminent professors. They had to arrange and pay for their own tuition where they were refused entry to some classes, and all against a background of letters in the medical journals accusing them of unnatural and indecent interest in the male body, stupidity, greed, ugliness and cheating. In 1873 the University ruled that after four years’ study and outstanding results in all examinations, they were not allowed to graduate and would not be able to join the Medical Register or use the title ‘Doctor.’
Most found other ways, graduating instead in America, Ireland, Switzerland or France and then returning to England to practice. Gradually, because of their relentless work and the support of huge numbers of women who wanted to be able to consult female doctors, things began to change, but the resistance of the medical establishment was extraordinary. In 1874, Jex-Blake gave up on existing universities and founded the London School of Medicine for Women, which is the basis of Ally’s medical school in Bodies of Light. So the end of their story is, more or less, where I began. They’re not part of the book, but if I dedicated it to anyone, it would be them.
(There’s surprisingly little accessible scholarship about the first women doctors, but if you want to know more a good place to start is Catriona Blake’s The Charge of the Parasols: Women’s Entry to the Medical Professions, published by The Women’s Press in 1990).