Tag Archives: women’s issues

A Beauty in Search of Knowledge

As I read Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife in anticipation of review, I’ve been reflecting on how damned lucky I and all fellow females are these days.  Not so lucky as to forget the existence of feminism or the necessity for it, but lucky in that no man may lord over us unless we allow them dominance.  We are not eternally bound by “I do”.  Nor are we raised to be Emile’s adoring, spineless Sophie.  We are beauties in possession of knowledge, not forever and vainly searching for it, but behold the danger in the 18th century.  A young woman is about to ruin her mind at circulating library by renting . . . fiction.  Earlier posts on the subject can be found here and here, and if you’ve read them, you know the absurdity.  If not, reading romances or anything popular in fiction was thought to be a corrupting force in a young lady’s education (does this sound familiar today? A teensy bit).  Only history–but never in Latin–would improve a lady’s faculties and only so far as nature would allow.

18th century mezzotint

Circulating libraries like the one above popped up around London with increasing frequency in the late 18th century.  They served the middle class populace and supplemented booksellers’ incomes by charging a small fee to patrons for access to the entire library. Unlike members-only subscription libraries that offered classical literature, nonfiction, and access to the latest scholarly texts, circulating libraries stocked popular novels and were always eager to accommodate readers with the latest craze, such as the late 18th century’s gothic romances by Ann Radcliffe and others.  Anyone who could read and pay the fee could rent fiction along with travel memoirs, biographies, plays, poetry, and periodicals.

For those who enjoy dates, the first circulating library on the British Isles and the continent opened its doors in Edinburgh around 1725.  By 1750 London and other cities of sizable populations had libraries of their own, a trend that trundled along without competition until the Public Libraries Act of 1850.  The commercial establishments gasped its last breath in the 20th century when they died in favor of free public libraries.

Queen of the Blues: Elizabeth Montagu’s Bluestockings

It all began with a gentleman who liked blue tights and intellectual women.  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen.  The term “bluestockings” was used to categorize the elite female members of England’s smarty-pants club, and it was named after a pair of gams.

You see, once upon a time in the 1750s a lady named Elizabeth Montagu sought to make her home on Hill Street the intellectual capital of London.  She was to be England’s answer to the French salonnière, an aristocratic/upper bourgeosie hostess of late hour assemblies where men and women gathered on equal footing to discuss society’s fashionable arts.  From the written word to the painted embodiment, London’s distinguished came to discuss whatever was itching society at the present moment.  And unlike other club atmospheres of the day, it was a society undressed, the Georgian answer to casual attire and debate en famille.

For a club geared toward the intellectual expansion of women, its attendees were also prestigious.  On any given evening, one might encounter Samuel Johnson’s high-reaching troop including Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Sir Joseph Banks, David Garrick, Adam Smith, and many others.

Depiction of Samuel Johnson’s Literary Party – Joshua Reynolds, 1781

But there was only one man who wore blue stockings or so the legend says.  He was purportedly a philosopher who minded his economics over his fashion sense (ever an admirable trait among the enlightened).  Blue worsted stockings were cheap compared with bleached or black silk and he sported them on his frequent visits to Hill Street, flashing his legs at Montagu’s get-togethers whenever he was in the mood for a bit of high-minded chatting.

Michel Garnier – Elegant Lady at her Toilette (*modified)

As with many clubs, the bluestocking ladies were in constant transition, attending by the year and the inclination.  In the beginning they included Frances Boscawen, Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Talbot, Elizabeth Vesey, and of course, Elizabeth Montagu herself.

Although small in nature, the formation of the society was an achievement both applauded and criticized by society.  Horace Walpole called it “the first female club ever known,” and it probably was in the public sense.  Although feminine hunger for knowledge was admired and even encouraged in the highest circles of enlightened French society,  England still expected their women to uphold the traditional definition of “an accomplished lady.”  She would practice the delicate arts such as painting and playing the pianoforte, but she would not engage in criticism nor would she become a creator, much less of virtuoso.  That is not to say women failed to ascend to the heights of which many 18th century men considered the masculine landscape.  Richard Samuel’s 1779 painting, The Nine Great Living Muses of Great Britain, paid tribute to the torchbearers who led the weaker sex out of their darkened drawing rooms and into the public light.

From left to right: Elizabeth Carter, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Angelika Kauffmann, Elizabeth Linley, Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu (our original bluestocking!), Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah More, and Charlotte Lennox.

Keep in mind the Bluestocking Society gathered some 40 years prior to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and Wollstonecraft was received as a radical, though for a variety of reasons, political, social, and personal.

Over time, particularly in the 19th century where the tightening of morals and social etiquette became the norm, the term “bluestocking” evolved in meaning.  As any romance novel reader knows, bluestockings were known to shake up the natural order.  They indulged in literature when society would rather relegate them to dancing or standing for gown fittings.  Instead of playing the shrinking violet or wallflower, they opined, debated, and asserted their intellectual independence over the common pitfalls of women: restrictive marriages, lack of economy and agency beyond household affairs.  Spinsterhood was uniquely suited to them, but many of the original bluestockings were married.  They were merely women who wanted an avenue of culture and contribution, women who espoused that the improvement of the female mind would benefit society at large.  They were bluestockings and yes readers, they were amazing.

Further Reading:

Reconsidering the Bluestocking – ten essays that “explore the Bluestockings’ social, economic, and intellectual achievements, including the publication of fiction and criticism, their plans for a utopian community, their charitable enterprises, and the management of a large coal-mining concern.”

Brilliant Women: 18th century bluestockings