The Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was fascinated by flagellation and sadomasochism and wrote extensively about his memories of being caned at Eton. According to his biographer, Swinburne saw “a close connection between poetic creativity and the desire for the rod”.
Some of the poet’s most memorable works on this theme appear in The Whippingham Papers. Edited by St George Stock, and published in 1888 this collection of flagellation stories, poems and plays is still very much in print. They include the titillating drama A Visit to Mrs. Birch and the Young Ladies of the Academy.
In this 3-act play, Mrs Birch is a fierce mistress in charge of a private school of bloomer-wearing teenage girls. “A visit to Mrs. Birch” always seems to involve a nice vigorous birching of one of her pupil’s bare bottoms!
An extra layer of interest is provided by the character of Miss Tickeltouch whose voyeuristic fascination in the birchings clearly mirrors that of the play’s gentlemen readers, who would have poured over the script in private.
It was thought never to have been performed. But that all changed in October 2002 when a drama company called Thrillpeddlars brought Mrs Birch and her blushing young ladies to the San Francisco stage as part of “Shocktoberfest” an annual Halloween-themed drama festival. The publicity boasted that there would be:
Stiff admonishments from Joan Elman, and pert, bare bottoms from a cast of young, willing ladies in pinafores.
“Mrs. Birch” celebrates the time-honored tradition of corporal punishment in the schools. Our all-female cast will demonstrate the effects of the ‘Birchen Discipline’ nightly. KNICKERS WILL BE DROPPED!”.
With Joan Elman, Terisa Greenan, Emily Jordan, Robyn Ganeles, Lisa Schreiner, Xana Wolf, Christina Vecchiato, Claire Hulme, and Anna May Luke. Directed by Russell Blackwood.
I’ve looked at the Thrillpeddlars site and their Flickr pages and I could only find two pictures from this production. I’ve used them to illustrate the third act of the play. Over one hundred years since it was written, the dialogue still leaps from the page.
(Schoolroom. Scholars in one part of the room and Mrs. Birch and Miss Tickletouch by themselves in another.)
Mrs. Birch – My dear Miss Tickletouch, you have longed to see a whipping, here is now an excellent opportunity. Miss Drawler, although so very beautiful a girl, knows not a word of her lesson. She must be whipped as an example to the others, for were I to excuse her there would be no getting a lesson from any of them.
Joan Elman as Mrs Birch
Miss Tickletouch – Indeed, my dear Mrs. Birch, I think nothing can justify her idleness; and as she can do better if she likes, this only calls the more loudly for punishment.
Mrs. Birch – That is exactly my opinion, so ring at once for Sally. As she has never yet been whipped, I suppose we shall have a fine crying bout of it.
Miss Tickletouch (rings) – You must not mind that, but go through with it with becoming spirit.
Enter Sally (Mrs. Birch’s assistant)
Mrs. Birch – Sally reach me down the rod. Miss Drawler come out. Your neglect of your lessons must be punished with a good whipping.
Miss Drawler – A good whipping, ma’am, why I never was whipped in my life.
Mrs. Birch – That makes no difference to me; as long as you come to my school you must submit to the treatment of a scholar; and that you know is to be whipped for neglect of lessons; so come forward, Miss, and lie down upon the sofa.
Miss Drawler – No, indeed, ma’am, I shall not. I never was whipped yet; and at my age I determined I never shall be.
Mrs. Birch – Very well, miss, we shall soon see as to that. But remember, this resistance will only cost you double.
Miss Drawler – It shall cost me nothing, for I am determined I won’t submit. Leave me alone. Where are you dragging me? Let me go, Sally, let me go.
Mrs. Birch – Now, Sally, down with her across the sofa; that is right. She is now safe. Hold her hands down, I shall throw up her clothes; there they are. A little higher will be better. that will do, her bottom is quite uncovered now. There, Sally, keep her clothes up so, while I tickle her soundly.
(Miss Tickletouch gazes intently on the scene)
Miss Drawler – What are you doing? Leave my clothes alone. You shan’t take them up. Oh, dear, what shall I do? I never was whipped in my life, and I can’t bear it. Oh! oh! good gracious. Oh, don’t hurt me so. Oh, how dreadfully it stings. Oh, my bottom, my poor bottom. I can’t bear it; I can’t, indeed I can’t. Pray, pray let me go. I shall be such a good girl in the future. Oh! for heaven’s sake let me go. I can’t bear any more, indeed I can’t; it will drive me mad. Oh, dear, oh, dear. Oh, this is dreadful. Oh! oh!
Mrs. Birch – There, miss, you see who has conquered at last eh? Well you have now been whipped in spite of your earnest declarations to the contrary. And I hope it will be of lasting service you. You may now retire to your seat, miss, and I hope the next whipping you get you will not be quite so impertinent about it. (Miss Drawler sits down)
(To Miss Tickletouch) Well, my dear Miss Tickletouch, you do seem to enjoy the spectacle of a good whipping.
Miss Tickletouch – I think it the most delightful treat I ever witnessed. The young lady’s personal beauty added so much to the interest of the scene. What a beautiful form she has, and what a complexion! Her bottom is full large, and fair as alabaster itself, or at least was so before the smart application of your rod, which speedily altered its hue; so that, surrounded by the other parts glittering in their unsullied whiteness, it resembled a rose in a bed of lilies.
Mrs. Birch – You speak, my dear Miss Tickletouch, in glowing terms. You must have found it a very interesting scene.
Miss Tickletouch – So much so, my dear Mrs. Birch, that I own I felt a great desire to become a partaker in a similar one, though not in quite so public a manner. It is so many years since I felt the rod that I have but a faint recollection of its taste. This interesting scene has raised in me a strong desire to revive it.
Mrs. Birch – I understand you. There is a great pleasure in recalling to remembrance the events of our childhood, and you would like to have done to you something similar to what your governess formerly did.
Miss Tickletouch – You have exactly hit it. I should indeed like to prove once more the effects of the Birchen Discipline.
Mrs. Birch – Well, my dear, after the young ladies are in bed this evening I shall just tickle your lovely bottom a little, though I suppose you would not like it quite so severely as Miss Drawler had it.
Miss Tickletouch – Not quite, if you please; however do it sufficiently to make me feel it, and as a punishment too, or all the effect would be destroyed.
Mrs. Birch – Bless me, what is all that disturbance in the playground? Is Bedlam broke loose? What can it mean? Run Louisa, my dear, to the window and see.
Miss Louisa Birch – Mamma, it is Miss Switchem who is pulling the hair of a little girl who is crying.
Mrs. Birch – Indeed, then desire Miss Switchem to come up here instantly. I shall teach her better behaviour. I shall see what the rod will do for her.
(Exit Miss Birch)
Miss Tickletouch – Why, surely, my dear madam, you do not mean to whip a great girl of eighteen?
Mrs. Birch – Indeed I do – and you shall see it too. If I did not take some authority upon me these overgrown girls would trample upon me. Yes, yes. I shall whip her, and do it well too.
(Enter Miss Birch and Miss Switchem)
Mrs. Birch – Come here, miss. How dare you behave in this extraordinary manner, and torment a little girl so much younger than yourself? Ring the bell, my dear.
(Miss Birch rings)
Miss Switchem – She was very saucy to me, ma’am.
Mrs. Birch – That is no excuse for your behaving so to her, and for this I shall certainly punish you. (Enter Sally) Sally, you are just come in time to assist in whipping this girl, this forward young lady. Come, miss, take up your petticoats. What! you don’t seem inclined, eh? Oh, very well. I dare say we shall be able to manage you amongst us. Sally, hold up her hands; there, that will do. Now I have her petticoats up, and I shall have her drawers down in a trice – there they are about her heels. Now, Sally, horse her as they do in the boy’s school. Give me the rod, Miss Tickletouch – pray take your part in this affair, and hold up her chemise while I warm her bottom . There, miss, I hope that will teach you to behave better to the little girls in future.
The Birchen Discipline: Left is Terisa Greenan who, according to a review of this production, “stands out as Sally, Mrs. Birch’s assistant, who flushes with secret pleasure at the sight of a spanked schoolgirl.”
Miss Switchem – Oh! oh! oh! pray, ma’am, pray don’t – I shall never do so any more. I never will, indeed I won’t. Oh! heavens! Oh! heavens! what shall I do? Oh! pray don’t strike so hard. Oh, dear! oh, dear! Oh! oh! oh!
Mrs. Birch – there, you may let her down now, Sally. And you, miss, put your clothes in order, and go to the playground, and see that you are more careful of your conduct in future.
(Exit Sally and Miss Switchem)
Miss Tickletouch – Really, my dear Mrs. Birch, you are an excellent manager, and I think you use a rod charmingly. What do you think, my dear Miss Birch?
Miss Birch – I know perfectly well how Mamma uses it. I can speak from experience.
Miss Tickletouch – Indeed – do you then ever taste it?
Miss Birch – Frequently. Indeed I would not swear that my bottom is now free from the marks, for it is but four days since I was soundly tickled for neglecting my music lesson.
Miss Tickletouch – but you know it is purely for your benefit.
Miss Birch – It is hard to think so while the lash is descending, for it then stings so dreadfully, but no sooner does the lashing cease than the pain ceases also.
Mrs. Birch – My dear Louisa, see the young ladies to bed and retire yourself.
(Exit Miss Birch)
Now, my dear Miss Tickletouch, the scholars have all retired. This is your time to make the desired experiment, but are you sure you have fortitude enough to go through with it?
Miss Tickletouch – To ensure that, we shall call on Sally’s assistance. She shall hold me as she did Miss Drawler, and I beg that should I exclaim ever so much, she will make me go on until I have received at least two dozen.
Mrs. Birch – It shall be as you wish. Sally – (enter Sally) – Miss Tickletouch has an inclination to try the effect of a whipping, so she requests you will hold her as you did Miss Drawler, while she receives a sound tickling.
Sally – Certainly, ma’am. Come, miss, lay yourself down on your face across the sofa – so – that is right.
Mrs. Birch – Now, Sally, take up Miss Tickletouch’s clothes high enough to leave her bottom completely naked. Why, my dear Miss Tickletouch, you have so charming a bottom that I think it is almost a pity to raise a weal upon it.
Sally – I think so, too. Her bottom – although she is two-and-thirty – is as round and plump as Miss Drawler’s at eighteen.
Miss Tickletouch – pray proceed while my courage is good; and don’t let my bottom be spared on account of its complexion.
Mrs. Birch – Well, my dear Miss T., here goes. One – two – three – and –
Miss Tickletouch – Oh! oh! oh! dear Mrs. Birch – pray – you hurt me – you do, indeed. Sally, let me go – let me go. Oh! dear, oh! oh! oh!
Mrs. Birch – Well, my fair unfortunate pupil – how do you like to be whipped?
Miss Tickletouch – Why, to tell you the truth it seems during the operation almost too much to bear – but immediately after, it leaves a delightful glow which more than repays the momentary inconvenience.
Mrs. Birch – I think you are right, and, if you wish it, you shall have another taste or two of it before you depart. Supper is now on the table. The Doctor has returned and wants your company. Come, my dear, we will join him.