In the study of unusual sexualities, erotic utopias are one of the more curious phenomena. Every now and then, circumstances allow for some enterprising person to take their fantasies beyond their bedroom and, more importantly, beyond the little spare time allowed by daily chores; through much effort, they create groups of like-minded people, and with them they create whole communities. Not in the current and somewhat reductive meaning of sharing an interest mostly online, but in the literal one of a physical location entirely dedicated to those erotic fantasies.
Thinking of just the past century, I recall the examples of the tragic “pansexual anarchy” of the Weimar Republic, the Casa Susanna transvestites resort in early Sixties’ United States, the hedonistic and polyamorous commune of Lafayette Morehouse still running after fifty years, the inscrutable failure of the Other World Kingdom, a gynarchic micronation in the Czech Republic – or the much smaller volunteers-based leather camping initiative of Denmark’s SISC. Most of the time, they are either short-lived experiments or half-assed attempts to scam enthusiasts who are in love with the concept. Sometimes, however, we hear stories that are so bizarre they suggest something quite different at work – a fascinating mechanism that can potentially teach us something significant. That is the truly incredible case of the mysterious and everchanging St. Bride’s academy.
This group’s history is especially complicated because of its members’ thirty-year-long deliberate efforts to smear the truth by continually changing their identities and versions of events. Despite the enormous amount of false clues they scattered over the decades, what follows is the best reconstruction I could come up with.
The caning sisterhood
It all began in 1971 with a lesbian culture and social rights club founded within the Oxford University. Things take an odd turn right from the start, with the invention of the matriarchal “ancient cult” of Lux Madriana, the goddess with ten-thousand names. In the whirlwind of schisms, subgroups, fringes and currents characterizing every subculture a whole literary universe arises: Aristasia, some kind of a high fantasy world reminding of a female equivalent of the Gorean delusions. Its followers claim to be disgusted by the moral degeneration of the ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ culture, and they dream of bringing their peculiar mix of feminist instances and patriarchal ideals in the real world. This subculture keeps churning out an immense quantity of literature up to the turn of the millennium, even building a “virtual embassy” in Second Life, now abandoned as much as the Aristasia official websites.
In 1982 some members of the original group resurface in Burtonport, in northwestern Ireland, under the name of Silver Sisterhood. They are merely seven people (including one man) living in a decrepit building left behind by a hippy commune. They present themselves as a sort of European-style Amish community: they reject any sort of modernity and ostentation, speak an improbable archaic English, and to make a living they run a tea room seemingly out of the Middle Age. Among them there are two rather peculiar ladies: the first will use through the years at least five different pseudonyms, the most frequent of which is Ms. Marianne Martindale; the other calls herself Priscilla Langridge, and is a transgender man who for three decades will always appear with their face hidden by veils, fans and other expedients not to reveal their original identity. Martindale is very enterprising, so much so as to become the de facto group leader, causing yet another split. The more spiritual sisters flee off to found the Daughters of Shining Harmony, outraged by the woman’s obsession for corporal discipline and authority. In fact, Ms. Martindale declares that «some maids like to tell others what to do and some maids like to be told what to do» – and if they don’t, they are sternly punished with a cane on their bottom.
In 1984 a sign appears on the door of the Burtonport mansion. ‘St. Bride’s’, short for ‘Saint Brigid’s Academy’, describes itself as a resort where adult girls of any gender get transformed into model schoolgirls. The headmistress is of course Ms. Martindale, who now only wears Victorian dresses she also uses when she drives her predictably vintage care to the nearby village to go shopping. For 120 pounds a week, you can live like in a particularly stern boarding school of old, taking calligraphy and posture lessons… and very frequent canings and spankings to correct your every error. Once again, the “school council” methods aren’t universally liked: in one case Martindale is even put to trial and sentenced for indecent assault with her inseparable cane, a true icon of the legendary British discipline. Some say that the sentence is suspended due to the intercession of an important London politician, who also supports her campaign against the “barbaric” decimal system.
The academy’s erotic side is after all an open secret. The schoolgirls wishing to pay to get caned in such a joyless context are far and few, so in addition to selling handmade Victorian costumes its main income source is the attached The Wildfire Club publishing house, printing lesbian books and fanzines written by the tireless headmistress under an infinite range of pen names. Although the overall story is so morbid to attract the attention of journalists all over the world, the whole enterprise would quickly go bankrupt if it wasn’t for one detail even more absurd than its phylosophy of «there are two genders in nature. They are both female, but brunettes are dominants and blondes submissives».
Even if the school lives immersed in an ukronia of candlelit rooms «since electricity is just a vulgar party trick», Priscilla Langridge also uses the St. Bride’s brand to author the videogames she writes all by herself. They are rather original and well-written text adventure games featuring especially strong and independent female protagonists. Her most famous creation probably is Jack the Ripper, that the publisher’s marketing office manages to elbow into history as the first British video game prohibited to minors: it is supposed to be about finding out Jack’s true identity, but the story pretty soon drifts toward occult and masonic subplots, where the player uses ‘their purest feminine soul’ as a weapon. The one truly interesting product, however, is something else.
Secret of St. Bride’s (which today you can play online for free) is set in the very environment of the Irish school. There is a female protagonist who gets magically transported back in time, there are extracts of matriarchal pseudo-philosophy, there are canings, and above all there is an infamous advertisement. It shows an adolescent girl in a pretty suggestive pose, visibly wearing a garter belt under a skimpy school-like skirt, and her crotch is barely covered by a tactically placed ankle. The title references the dark cartoons of St. Trinian’s, a British answer of sorts to the Addams Family ones set in a boarding school whose both schoolgirls and female teachers cultivate every sort of immorality and cruelty. The point was that the game was only sold by mail, allowing the real school to collect names and addresses of potential real-life clients.
That was a short-lived venture. In 1988 an excess of morbid attentions led Martindale and friends to temporarily reinvent themselves as ‘Victorian romantics’, who described themselves more like extreme cosplay fans than lesbian kinksters. In fact, in her frequent media outings the woman took pains to stress her total rejection of «those sadomasochist silly monkeys» – which may have contributed to definitely shut the Irish experience off. While the Burtonport place rots away, she moves to Oxford and later to London, she updates her personal universe to circa 1940, and for the first time she allows a television crew to film in detail her private life (you can find the full documentary online, divided into three parts: 1, 2, 3).
When the Burtonport landlord eventually gets around to checking out the property, in addition to the “obscene” Wildfire Club publications he finds a big bunch of unclaimed mail also featuring much literature from neofascist organizations. The papers smell an interesting story, and for the first time in three decades they notice that Martindale and Langridge’s works had always featured rather explicit references to extreme ideologies and to the worst interpretations of René Guénon’s thoughts. These inclinations of Martindale are shunned by the BDSM scene too, rejecting her even in her new open identity as a dominatrix. So it comes to pass that the lady seeks fortune overseas: in 2013 she resurfaces in California as Mary Guillermin, widow of the King Kong (1976) director and ‘divine feminine therapist’. My interview requests to clear some aspects of the story received no reply.
So far, such a complicated story only amounts to a nice trivia to be shared with friends (by the way, do it!). What is more interesting though is asking the sole possible question: «why?». What can drive anyone to devote a whole life to such a weird project? How is it possible to damn one’s existence and reputation in the name of something that can clearly bring more problems than advantages? And why so much mistery around what appears to have always been just an erotic game that thousands of other people can much more simply enjoy in the privacy of their homes?
Naturally, it is impossible to find one answer fitting everyone, even if studying the most famous cases you stumble onto some elements which are more recurring than others. A passion for eroticism more intense than the norm, sure. But also intolerance toward authority and social rules, creativity, individualism, horror for conformity and homologation, entrepreneurial spirit, a mostly unhappy childhood. Which are, in fact, the traits I personally saw when I wrote my book La Padrona, the biography of the first professional dominatrix in Italy ever, where all the tragedy and the splendor of an all-encompassing sexual fantasy emerge. In that case, it was the need to embody one’s ideal character; in others, more elements come into play that we cannot underestimate.
St. Bride’s in particular was the fruit of a quite different historical moment than our current one. The ’68 sexual revolution notwithstanding, to come out as a lesbian still involved social consequences most persons could not accept, therefore hiding behind vague philosophical-literary theories was a great strategy to justify certain interests before any prig. Even an apparently coward figure like Priscilla Langridge assumes a whole different meaning when you remember that at the time of her early public appearances homosexuality and transvestism were still crimes that could easily land you in a jail or in a psychiatric institution. Were you in her place or Martindale’s, wouldn’t you have attempted the impossible too to create some place where you could finally just be yourselves, without having to hide what thrilled you the most?
Also, the academy for unruly schoolgirls was built under the very heavy shadow of the old British school system, in which being caned before the whole class had been the norm for every adolescent until 1986 (and up to 2003 in certain territories). That mix of archetypes, pain, humiliation, submission to the authority and shame had inevitably infiltrated the erotic fantasies of countless hormones-addled students, who in addition to this were often kept separated by gender, further complicating any sexual orientation doubt. It is not a coincidence if very expensive professional dominatrixes specializing in the so-called ‘English vice’ had always existed – but their services were generally reserved for male clients, at least due to financial allowances. The hypothesis of a place meant for women therefore was very attractive for those who felt a deep desire to relive adolescent feelings – some times to exorcise the trauma, but more often to satisfy a fetish inculcated through the cruelest Pavlovian training.
Be them simple gay villages or complex pluri-generational experiments, perhaps sexual utopias really are just that: attempts to build safe havens for other people too deeply wounded to keep pretending they can stand the violence of normality, and where the damages inflicted by a terribly hypocritical society can be repaired together. Recklessly, indeed, but also bravely and – above all – with the unshakeable optimism of those who believe that if you really put yourself into it, you can make any dream come true.