The Magazine

Ladies Bountiful

The women of words in Augustan England.

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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Brilliant Women

18th-Century Bluestockings

Edited by Elizabeth Eger

and Lucy Peltz

Yale, 160 pp., $50

Though the term is now associated exclusively with women, "bluestocking" originally applied to both the men and the women who would gather, beginning in the 1750s, to drink tea and indulge in the art of conversation in the London drawing rooms of wealthy ladies.

By wearing the blue worsted stockings of the working man, instead of silk ones, the botanist and scholar Benjamin Stillingfleet was said to signal his rejection of luxury and concern for social status. Hannah More's mock-heroic poem "The Bas Bleu; or Conversation" (1787) celebrated the polite learning, elegant conversation, and high moral purpose of this English version of French salon culture, which brought together men of society (the Earl of Bath) with those in the professions and celebrities generally (Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds). Like the French version, these gatherings were a counterculture to the court, a forum of intellectual exchange and socially and politically critical ideas.

Moreover, several women associated with the original Bluestocking circle were writers, and at least two were very learned: Elizabeth Carter, who translated the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and Catharine Macaulay, who wrote a multivolume anti-royalist history of England. The highpoint of the influence of such women was captured in a portrait celebrating female creativity, painted in 1778 by Richard Samuel, in which More, Carter, and Macaulay were featured among "the nine living muses" of Great Britain.

Elizabeth Eger, lecturer in English at King's College, London, lays out this original social constellation in her first chapter. This small, richly illustrated volume accompanied a recent exhibition in London that drew on the resources of the National Portrait Gallery and other British collections. The dominant figure here is Elizabeth Montagu (also one of the "living muses"), who married into wealth and aristocracy and whose opulent mansion in London allowed literary and intellectual celebrity to shine to advantage. Combining philanthropy, culture, and commerce, Lady Elizabeth might be compared to the late Brooke Astor. Though she published a refutation of Voltaire's attack on Shakespeare, her merit resides in her support of worthy individuals, including such writers as the poet Ann Yearsley. She also helped finance an experimental (and short-lived) female community founded by her sister, the writer Sarah Scott.

Eger emphasizes the high moral tone that reigned among the original Bluestockings, which was accompanied by good works; but there is a danger in imputing too much influence to the Blues as a group with a cohesive program. There were many in England, among ordinary religious dissenters and literate laboring people alike, who were autodictats and moral improvers, reaching out to lift up fallen women and succor the poor or disabled. "Reform" was in the air in 18th-century England, alongside competition among the classes for status and wealth. It was a time of intense social, religious, political, and cultural foment and ferment all around.

As in France, the sociability represented by the Bluestockings-in particular the art of civilized conversation-could not survive the French Revolution, an event that, for radicals, signaled a break with any accommodation with the past. The transition is exemplified by Elizabeth Carter and Catharine Macaulay. Carter was a deeply pious and learned woman who chose not to marry. Frequently compared to France's great 17th-century Greek scholar, Madame Dacier, she clearly represents "Before." Macaulay, a prolific writer, is "After." Her History of England was seen in the 1760s already as a radical Whig response to David Hume's Tory History of Great Britain. She also wrote a challenge in 1790, the year before her death, to Edmund Burke's account of the French Revolution.

Brilliant Women contains portraits of both women that link them to classical tradition. Macaulay, however, increasingly became a poster girl for the radical cause, and the images of her, in Roman garb, festooning pamphlets promoting liberty, were clearly propagandistic. In 1777 she allowed the commissioning by an elderly admirer (a Protestant divine, no less) of a portrait-statue of herself as the Roman figure of History. That it was positioned in a Christian church evoked much negative comment. Not long thereafter, at the age of 47, she married a man of no birth at all, a ship's mate of 21. This was too much even for a radical like John Wilkes. Though Macaulay was praised on this side of the Atlantic for her republicanism, the broadsides of the day portray the ridicule her personal behavior brought down on herself and learned women in general.

Though only Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft are mentioned in this connection in Brilliant Women, many women of bluestocking tendencies were also active supporters of the American cause against their own government. (Missing here is any exploration of the connection between female sexual permissiveness and radical politics, exemplified by the relationship between Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.) It is hardly surprising, as Britain reeled from the Revolution and then the war in Europe, that "bluestockings," now applied exclusively to learned women, became an uncomplimentary term.

The most vitriolic in their attacks were the leading Romantic writers who, according to Eger, wished "to protect the masculine strongholds of literary institutions." They included such liberal-minded men as Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and William Hazlitt. Coleridge, as quoted here, wrote a letter to Charlotte Brent in 1813 that praised her for her bad spelling-and then added, "The longer I live, the more do I loathe in stomach, and deprecate in Judgement, all, all Bluestockingism."

For feminists, the increasing ridicule of learned women is a sign that men wished to keep uppity women in their place. Thus, the remaining chapters of Brilliant Women are about "defiance," "subversions," and other tropes that suggest the difficulty women have in their battle for intellectual parity with men. The struggle of women against entrenched institutions for admittance to the well-endowed universities (and especially the perks thereof) received canonical expression in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

A more plausible explanation for the ridicule of learned women may simply be the belatedness with which women embraced learning. Without doubt, historical inequity has characterized the distribution of the affluence that allows gifted individuals to pursue the life of the mind. But the products of such industry, traditionally supported by elite patronage or other subsidies, were increasingly supplanted in the 18th century by popular forms of intellectual consumption for which readers paid their own hard-earned money.

By 1750, there are estimated to have been several thousand writers in London, but there can hardly have been that many patrons. Instead, booksellers and lending libraries sprouted up all over England. The traditional qualification for admission to the literary sphere-classical learning-was superseded as writers (many of them women) increasingly churned out novels. Few of these had Latin, much less Greek. Women who chose learning were throwing in their lot with a product of diminishing cultural worth. The really smart women were those quick to seize the opportunity offered by the market in popular fiction. I suspect it was not the learned ladies, but the smart ones, who scared Coleridge.

You do not need 500 pounds a year to write novels, which Woolf had insisted was necessary for a woman wishing to write. (I wrote two while working full-time.) It is essential, however, if your desire is to become first-rate in, say, classics or physics, fields that take years of training and personal sacrifice to master.

The editors of Brilliant Women stress a perennial feminist trope, "foremothers" of women's creativity, and suggest a line of development from the Bluestocking circle to contemporary feminism by drafting as exhibits sundry female personalities, from Madame de Staël to Germaine Greer. Yet in truth, the original Bluestockings, like today's scholarly women, had their intellectual precursors in the accumulated tradition of Western learning, i.e., the "patriarchy," which feminists like Virginia Woolf have made it their business to delegitimize.

The wonderful portraits of some of the women represented here make this aspect impossible to ignore, and Brilliant Women rightly, if inadvertently, restores the prominence of this tradition in the lives of the original Bluestockings.

Elizabeth Powers is a writer in New York.