Sophia is the story of Scotland’s first female doctor and her pioneering campaign against a hostile, all-male medical establishment. It not only draws our eye to forgotten women’s histories but interrogates the biographical process itself: how a life is presented on paper, who presents it, what is included and what left out.
Playwright Frances Poet nimbly entwines Sophia Jex-Blake’s groundbreaking battles with the story of her “official” biography in this audio play, part of the Sound Stage series by Pitlochry Festival theatre and the Royal Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh.
The exact nature of the relationship between Jex-Blake (Madeleine Worrall) and her biographer, Margaret Todd (Fletcher Mathers), is one of this play’s surprises; the book is the framing device that returns us to the late 1800s and Jex-Blake’s unrelenting activism.
Occasionally the play speaks its message aloud: “How many extraordinary women have lived throughout history – healers, pioneers – but their stories have not been told so each generation of woman has been forced to prove her worth?” These moments might seem heavy-handed but they do not jar and certainly make valid points.
Directed by Janys Chambers, the play initially mirrors the tone of Todd’s biography, which captures Jex-Blake’s achievements through a faithful record of protests and speeches, dates and facts. These convey Jex-Blake’s drive and determination but her personal life is missing, according to Sophia’s lover, Ursula DuPre (Natalie Grady), who asks: “Where is the real flesh-and-blood Sophia?”
Gradually, we begin to see this side of her. Worrall provides a fearless, articulate and stubborn voice, never sounding strident. Her relationship with DuPre is tenderly portrayed as well as her sometimes sniping friendship with flatmate Edith Pechey (Clare Perkins).
Jex-Blake and her circle are breaking boundaries specifically within Scotland’s medical establishments; the physician and surgeon Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is mentioned in less than hagiographic terms, becoming the subject of debate over whether she opened the door for all women or simply let herself in. There are disagreements between characters on activism, too – how to pave the way for future generations and how much personal sacrifice is required for the cause. “We are pioneers – we cannot afford the luxury of love,” Jex-Blake says, referring to the comforts of married life, though she finds love anyway.
Another discussion touches on how the medical profession fails to understand women’s illnesses fully or to listen as keenly to female patients. It is a gendered bias that still resonates today.