I’m writing a book about a young student who goes from New Zealand to England to study medicine. Nothing unusual about that now, but this was 1883 and the student – shock horror – was a woman!
My heroine, an invented young woman called Lenne, meets up with Isabel Thorne, a real pioneering women’s activist and one of the Edinburgh Seven, a group of feisty women who had been blocked from graduating from the University of Edinburgh because of their sex. The seven women go on to form the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874 and Thorne, still unqualified, becomes Honorary Secretary. She devotes her life to helping other women achieve the goal denied to her.
In my story Lenne studies hard and has some success, but, like her predecessors, struggles with the debilitating prejudice and misogyny of the times, despite the fact that she has the support of Thorne and her pioneers. She passes her exams but fails to qualify, not because she is inadequate to the task but because the odds against a woman succeeding in those early days were stacked too high. She returns, defeated, to New Zealand.
I haven’t finished writing the book yet, but, never one for a down-beat ending, was planning for Lenne to return to London to receive her medical degree several years later.
In Saturday’s Guardian, Isabel Thorne herself hits the news. She has returned after 150 years to receive her degree.
Seven women who were among the first females to be admitted to a British university have been awarded posthumous degrees 150 years after they started their studies.
The group, known collectively as the Edinburgh Seven, enrolled to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869. But they faced substantial resistance from their male peers and were ultimately prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors.
Their campaign against their treatment won them national attention and prominent supporters such as Charles Darwin. In 1877, legislation was introduced to ensure women could study at university.
The seven women – Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Sophia Jex-Blake, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne – were awarded posthumous honorary bachelor of medicine degrees as part of a ceremony at the university’s McEwan Hall.
And here was I optimistically thinking Lenne could go back to be awarded her degree after a mere seven years.
The lovely thing about writing historical fiction is that your characters have a life of their own. Sometimes they come back from the past to wave to you.
Hello, Isabel Thorne! I was just thinking about you. You were a truly remarkable woman. Congratulations on your MB.