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.