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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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.