Meet our first modern day Fair Intellectual – Prof Robert Crawford

To support our current tour of The Fair Intellectual Club by Lucy Porter we have invited a selection of modern day Fair Intellectuals to share their thoughts and insights on their area of expertise. We’ll be sharing their responses with you over the coming weeks. 

Our first modern day Fair Intellectual is Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature and Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews. Lucy’s interest in The Fair Intellectual Club was inspired by a passage she read in Robert Crawford’s book ‘On Edinburgh and Glasgow‘: “During an era when ‘A Looking-Glass for Edinburgh Ladies’ saw spinning work rather than brain power as belonging to “the true character of a Good Wife”, one of the Fair Intellectual Club’s members published verse in The Edinburgh Miscellany … they studied the Tatler, the Spectator, Dryden, and other writers. They were though, advised that “comedies should be read with caution” and their secret group was discovered when one of its members fell in love with a young man from a local Athenian Society.”

Professor Robert Crawford:

I was delighted — and gobsmacked — to hear that the account of the Fair Intellectual Club in my book On Glasgow and Edinburgh had sparked a new stage play by Lucy Porter. When I was writing On Glasgow and Edinburgh, I was conscious that it’s easy to write about the history and culture cities as if they were occupied almost entirely by men and hardly at all by women or by children. So I was on the lookout for material that let me tell a more nuanced, and more widely representative story. I’d read a good deal about Scottish Enlightenment clubs in Edinburgh, but never, as far as I remember, anything about the Fair Intellectual Club, so when I came across it in the 1720 Edinburgh Miscellany it was too good to miss out. On Glasgow and Edinburgh is addressed both to people who know the cities and to people who don’t, so as well as detailing familiar aspects of each city’s life, it tries to offer what’s new or at least unfamiliar. In basing a whole play around this teenage society’s original records, Lucy Porter has gone far further than I did, and has given this pioneering club a whole new life for the twenty-first-century. When I mentioned the Fair Intellectuals, I never dreamed this would happen. It’s great.

Could you tell us more about the Edinburgh that The Fair Intellectuals would have been living in at this time, and what this club would have meant for them?

The Fair Intellectuals’ Edinburgh was very much the Old Town, centred on the Royal Mile and the closes off it: crowded, stinky, and still reeling from the effects of the Act of Union in 1707 and the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. In the eighteenth century one spirited girl rode down the Royal Mile on a pig’s back, chased by her sister, brandishing a stick: it was a mucky, sometimes riotous street, with some of the tallest buildings in Scotland on either side. There were intellectual energies afoot, too, though: the poet and Edinburgh wig-maker Allan Ramsay, for instance, published his Scots Songs in 1718, the year the Fair Intellectual Club was founded, and its members may even have sung some of Ramsay’s words. When he was in his late twenties, Ramsay had set up an all-male society, the Easy Club, in Edinburgh in 1712; its members read the Spectator magazine, and sought ‘Improvement in Conversation’. That’s the sort of model the Fair Intellectuals were following, but whereas Ramsay’s and most of the later clubs of the Scottish Enlightenment — such as the Cape Club or the Select Society where philosophers including Adam Smith and David Hume met Edinburgh lawyers, poets and thinkers — were men-only adult drinking clubs, the Fair Intellectual Club was determinedly different. In Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland university students were teenagers of the same age as the Fair Intellectuals — but they were all male. The Fair Intellectuals would have known local students, but couldn’t have joined their university classes. It’s tempting to hear the word ‘Fair’ in the title of the Fair Intellectual Club not just as a reference to the ‘fair’ sex, but also as a reproach to the unfairness of intellectual life in Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Can you see any relevance for this kind of club in 2015 Edinburgh?

In twenty-first century Edinburgh there would be room for a club for teenage Fair Computer Programmers — Girl Geeks —  but if the club were simply designed (like the eighteenth-century one) to encourage reading, conversation and social skills of an intellectual nature, then surely it would be of more use today to teenage boys than to teenage girls?

With thanks to Professor Robert Crawford. You can buy Robert’s book ‘On Edinburgh and Glasgow’ and read more about this fascinating time.

Nominate your own Fair Intellectual.