Jane Cumming: The Minister’s Wife

Frances B. Singh uncovers the life of Jane Cumming in her publication Scandal and Survival in Nineteenth-Century Scotland, from the University of Rochester Press.

Most people, if they have heard of Jane Cumming at all, know her as the India-born mixed-race adolescent who in November 1810 told her grandmother Lady Helen Cumming Gordon that her Edinburgh schoolmistresses Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie were sexually intimate. Helen informed the other parents that the teachers had engaged in wanton behavior. By the middle of December, the teachers had initiated a suit for defamation of character against Helen. In March 1811 an uninhibited Jane spent four days on the witness stand describing their trysts in graphic detail. Much later, the scandal formed the basis of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour.

The real-life case proceedings specified that there was a “tinge” to Jane’s complexion, and revealed that Helen had kept Jane at arm’s length ever since she was brought from India. The proceedings also revealed that Woods and Pirie were romantic friends, that Pirie was besotted with Woods and was racially prejudiced against Cumming, upon whom she had lavished mortifying rebukes, that before Cumming told her grandmother she had confided her feelings in a notebook, that Cumming had developed a crush on Woods, that Woods had brushed her off, that after being brushed off, Cumming had propositioned a classmate who also rejected her, and that Woods and Pirie had once shared a bed.

While the case sits at the intersection of race, sex and class, Jane’s story also sits in the overlap of resilience and revenge: resilience defined as adaptation in the face of adversity, and revenge understood as retaliation in response to a grievance, real or perceived, preceded by anger and motivated by a desire to see a transgressor suffer—but also a kind of ugly coping strategy for dealing with an insuperably painful situation. Jane had been hurt deeply, scorned by one teacher and humiliated by the other, and she struck back. However, in telling her grandmother, wasn’t she also utilizing a respectable pathway toward the restoration of mental health and happiness?

The Judges who Determined the Defamation Case
Source: Kay’s Originals, vol. 2

Questioning from lawyers and judges soon revealed that Jane’s allegation was contrived, but Jane stuck to her guns. When she signed each page of her testimony as taken down by the court recorders, she did so boldly. In centering her signature, she gave herself star billing, turning the two judges who also signed into secondary actors at her performance.

Jane’s Signature on her Testimony
Source: Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, CS235/W/26/2

Jane made no further appearances in the court after she gave testimony. What happened to her?

The Dallas Church

Reader, Jane became a minister’s wife, assuming a role that involves suppression of personal feelings and unconditional support for her husband, lest she damage his reputation as man and minister! In 1818 she was married to William Tulloch; the officiating minister was Richard Rose, known to and respected by both Tulloch and Helen and her son, William Gordon Cumming (he changed the name from Cumming Gordon to Gordon Cumming). Thanks to clout exercised by William Gordon Cumming, Tulloch was installed as minister in Dallas, a village near Elgin, in 1822. She and Tulloch were buried in the churchyard there.

Jane’s Grave
Photos by Keith Mitchell

In June 2010, I visited Dallas. I asked the minister if he thought Jane would have encountered any racial discrimination. He didn’t think so, telling me, “She was the minister’s wife.”

Who was William Tulloch? Around the time Jane was testifying in Edinburgh, Tulloch was accused of impropriety by his ecclesiastical peers. Frequently, those charged with “conduct unbecoming a cleric” had committed sexual offenses. Though Tulloch was cleared, his colleagues held him in low esteem. The Gordon Cumming family were aware of his past. Perhaps they thought that if anybody could teach Jane about subordination, self-control and obedience and set her sexually straight into the bargain, it would be a cleric with a history parallel to their Jane’s.

The records of the Gordon Cumming family are housed at the National Library of Scotland. I had my eureka moment when I discovered, in a file called “Household Accounts,” the story of Jane’s second sexually-loaded allegation. Like the first, it was related to sexual rejection, and just possibly sexual longing for women. Written by Richard Rose, the 1835 letter addressed to William Gordon Cumming described a year-long mud-slinging match between Tulloch and Jane playing out in public in Dallas. Apparently Tulloch had taken to walking about the village with young unmarried women. Jane was accusing him of sleeping with them. The insults and slurs they hurled at each scandalized the villagers, but Rose, noting that Jane’s extreme jealousy had plunged her into deepest despair and misery, was sympathetic to her.

But was Jane jealous because Tulloch was not paying attention to her or because she wanted the girls whom Tulloch had surrounded himself with for herself? Rose thought the former, but if we see l’affaire Dallas as Edinburgh redux, then the latter interpretation is possible. Rose begged William Gordon Cumming either to increase her marriage settlement or allow her to separate so that she could live more happily. Gordon Cumming refused, so the unhappy, possibly sexually fluid wife and the flirtatious minister continued to live together.

However, in 1843 Jane found a pathway to resilience. In that year, in an event called the Disruption, the Scottish Presbyterian Church split into two units, the Established Church and the Free Church. Those who chose to join the Free Church rejected the power of landowners like Gordon Cumming to install ministers. Tulloch, who owed his installation to Gordon Cumming, remained with the Established Church. Jane joined the Free Church, in one swoop politically separating herself from Tulloch, exposing him as a man so powerless that he couldn’t control his wife, and snubbing the family who had married her to Tulloch. Publicizing his sexual infidelity seems like casebook revenge, but in joining the Free Church Jane took a socially acceptable pathway to resilience.

In 1914, a Free Church minister named W. W. Ewing wrote an account of how the Disruption affected each Scottish parish. Ewing named women who helped the Free Church cause, but Jane’s behavior appalled him. In his section on Dallas, he wrote that the minister’s wife and children joined the Free Church while the minister himself stayed with the Established Church, albeit with a much­ reduced congregation.

If Jane’s behavior shows that the distinction between revenge and resilience is complicated, then Ewing’s narrative blurs the line between insult and compliment.


This guest post was written by Frances B. Singh, Professor Emerita at Hostos Community College (CUNY).

Scandal and Survival in Nineteenth-Century Scotland
by Frances B. Singh
9781580469555, Hardback, £58.50 or $71.50