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Reference group
Bluestocking circle [bluestockings] (act. c.1755–c.1795)
 Bluestocking circle (act. c.1755–c.1795) by Richard Samuel, 1778 [Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo] Bluestocking circle (act. c.1755–c.1795) by Richard Samuel, 1778 [Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo]
was a network formed around a group of women who from the mid-eighteenth century introduced a new kind of informal sociability and nurtured a sense of intellectual community. The chief bluestocking hostesses were Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and Frances Boscawen, all of whom were wealthy and well-connected women who used their influence to attract the leading minds of their day to their London homes. Here they aimed to combine learning with pleasure, scholarship with sociability, and luxury with virtue.

The group originated as a particular assembly of notable individuals, of both sexes, who met regularly from the mid- to the late eighteenth century. But such was bluestocking support for female education and writing that by the 1770s the term started to refer solely to women. One of the most significant achievements of the original bluestocking hostesses was to encourage, by example and through patronage, women who might not have considered publishing their work to enter the public literary sphere. The bluestocking circle may be compared to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French salons, from which it drew significant inspiration. However, the British bluestockings were distinct from their French counterparts in insisting upon sexual and moral virtue and also in offering an arena that was parallel to, but separate from, the royal court. Bluestocking assemblies were socially mixed, providing the opportunity for a broad range of politicians, artists, musicians, actors, writers, and thinkers to enjoy intellectual exchange. Originally used to identify a specific and intimate circle of friends (who continued to meet into the 1790s), by the late eighteenth century the term ‘bluestocking’ had achieved a wider currency, evoking independent women bound together by a common spirit and inspired by the example of others to create their own literary and social circles, both in London and the provinces. At a time when women had little access and no right to education, let alone legal or economic equality with men, the bluestockings achieved remarkable cultural visibility and even celebrity for the intellectual woman.

Creating and shaping the circle

Montagu, Boscawen, and Vesey met in the early 1750s and while the circle's precise starting date is not known it is believed to have been in the middle of this decade. Meetings took place at the London homes of Montagu in Hill Street, of Vesey in Clarges Street, and Boscawen in South Audley Street. At a time when many members of the aristocracy squandered vast sums of money in gambling, the bluestockings wished to give leisure a more improving emphasis. Card playing and alcohol were replaced by conversation and tea drinking. While Montagu seated her guests in a large semi-circle in order to unify discussion, Vesey preferred more random, scattered groups: to her Hannah More addressed her poem The Bas Bleu, or, Conversation (1786), which gives a vivid portrait of bluestocking parties, where conversation formed the ‘noblest commerce of mankind’ (line 250). The bluestockings encouraged a new openness at their meetings, welcoming a diverse range of guests, several of whom believed in encouraging female learning. Individuals exchanged ideas in a comfortable, harmonious, and fashionable setting. Bluestocking culture was initially built on the foundation of intimate friendships but developed and was later extended through the social networks of patronage, correspondence, and conversation.

The term ‘bluestocking’ had first been used to abuse members of Oliver Cromwell's Barebone's (or Little) Parliament in 1653. A century later it was revived when the scholar Benjamin Stillingfleet appeared at one of Elizabeth Montagu's assemblies wearing blue worsted stockings instead of the more socially acceptable white silk. James Boswell reported this story in his Life of Johnson (22 April 1781), adding that the excellence of Stillingfleet's conversation was so greatly missed when he was absent that it used to be said, ‘“We can do nothing without the blue stockings;” and thus by degrees the title was established.’ Stillingfleet's informality was embraced by Montagu and her circle and gradually ‘bluestocking’ was applied to all Montagu's guests, who included the classicist Elizabeth Carter, William Pulteney, first earl of Bath, the painter Joshua Reynolds, her fellow hostess Frances Boscawen, the essayist Hester Chapone, the diarist James Boswell, the actor and theatre manager David Garrick and his wife, the dancer Eva Garrick, the writers and politicians Edmund Burke and George Lyttelton, the diarist Hester Thrale [see Piozzi, Hester Lynch], and the critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who christened Montagu Queen of the Blues in acknowledgement of her central role in creating and overseeing these assemblies. Later guests included the author Hannah More (who attended from 1778) and the novelist and diarist Frances Burney, who in the same year was invited by Hester Thrale to meet Mrs Montagu: ‘I truly said, I should be the most insensible of all animals not to like to see our sex's glory’ (The Journal and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D'Ablay), ed. J. Hemlow and A. Douglas, 12 vols., 1972–84, 1.109).

One of the chief aims of bluestocking conversation was to bring people of different backgrounds together in the common pursuit of knowledge. The bluestockings believed in refinement through the exchange of ideas and mutual improvement through engagement. Elizabeth Montagu described Elizabeth Vesey's talent for creating concord in a revealing letter to Elizabeth Carter:
I delight already in the prospect of the blue box in which our Sylph assembles all the heterogeneous natures in the World; and indeed in many respects resembles Paradise, for there the Lion sits down by the Lamb, the Tyger dandles the Kid. (4 Sept 1772, Hunt. L., MS MO 3304)
Vesey's apparent artlessness was in fact a calculated attempt to define her assemblies against those of Montagu. As Fanny Burney later observed:
Her fears were so great of the horror, as it was styled, of a circle, from the ceremony and awe which it produced, that she pushed all the small sofas, as well as chairs, pell-mell about the apartments, so as not to leave even a zig-zag of communication free from impediment: and her greatest delight was to place the seats back to back, so that those who occupied them could perceive no more of their nearest neighbour than if the parties had been sent into different rooms.
While Burney conveyed the absurdity of Vesey's interventions, she ultimately emphasized both the quality of her parties and the role of conversation as a leveller that bound the company together:
There was never any distress beyond risibility: and the company that was collected was so generally of a superior cast, that talents and conversation soon found—as when do they miss it?—their own level: and all these extraneous whims merely served to give zest and originality to the assemblage. (F. Burney, Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 3 vols., 1832, 2.276)
.Burney also described Montagu's parties, which paid greater heed to social control and the proprieties of hierarchy:
At Mrs Montagu's the semi-circle that faced the fire retained during the whole evening its unbroken form, with a precision that made it seem described by a Brobdingnagian compass. The lady of the castle commonly placed herself at the upper end of the room, near the commencement of the curve, so as to be courteously visible to all her guests; having the person of the highest rank, or consequence, properly on one side, and the person the most eminent for talents, sagaciously on the other, or as near to her chair and her converse as her favouring eye and a complacent bow of the head could invite him to that distinction. (Burney, Memoirs, 2.270–72)
Though her observations were playful, even satirical, in tone, Burney also praised Montagu's conversational powers, which she described as ‘strong, just, clear, and often eloquent’, revealing the self-consciousness with which the bluestockings sought to reform mixed social intercourse (ibid.). By the 1760s Montagu was referring jokingly to the existence of a ‘bluestocking philosophy’ (to Elizabeth Carter, 17 Aug 1765, Myers, 8), a phrase that suggests her affinity with broader Enlightenment ideas regarding freedom of enquiry between the sexes. David Hume, in his essay ‘Rise of the arts and sciences’ (1742), had identified what would become a key tenet of bluestocking ‘philosophy’: ‘The more the refined arts advance, the more sociable men become … Particular clubs and societies are everywhere formed [where] … both sexes meet in an easy and sociable manner’ (Hume, 278). In turn Alan Ramsay's portrait of Montagu (1762) depicted her leaning elegantly on the latest volume of Hume's History of England, thus aligning the bluestocking founder with the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment—an intellectual movement that gave a central role to women as agents of civilization and social progress.

A growing network: influence and patronage

Montagu's most profound legacy was to forge a public identity for the female intellectual as a virtuous and socially useful individual, through both her own scholarship and her encouragement of others. Her Essay on Shakespeare (1769), in which she powerfully refuted Voltaire's criticisms of England's national poet, consolidated her reputation as a critic while efforts to promote literary and artistic work meant that by the 1770s ‘bluestocking’ referred specifically to female participants in what became an increasingly diffuse cultural network. Outcomes of this promotion of fellow writers included Hester Chapone's Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773), a revised version of her private correspondence to her niece, which Chapone dedicated to Montagu in gratitude for her support. Hannah More, with the help of Montagu, also promoted the work of the poet Ann Yearsley, a milkmaid from Bristol. Montagu organized a subscription list of over 1000 of her friends, including members of the aristocracy, churchmen, politicians, and celebrated writers. However, More and Montagu were unwilling to see their protégée rise too far above her station and the episode ended in scandal when Yearsley publicly accused her patrons of defrauding her by retaining control of her literary profits. Contrary to Montagu's and More's fears, Yearsley went on to manage her career with shrewd business acumen, opening a circulating library in Bristol and setting up one of her sons as an apprentice in the print trade. The episode reveals the opportunities for social and economic improvement available to women writers of this period, as well as Montagu's need to exercise control and her rigidity on matters of social status.

From the middle of the century the success enjoyed by bluestocking women, and especially by writers, prompted a number of eulogies, anthologies, satires, and biographical dictionaries, including George Ballard's Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, who have been Celebrated for their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts and Sciences (1752), John Duncombe's Feminiad (1754), and Mary Scott's The Female Advocate (1774). The celebrity of writers associated with the bluestocking circle reached new heights in the 1760s and 1770s and may arguably be linked to Britain's growing cultural confidence after victory in the Seven Years' War (1756–63). In art Richard Samuel's portrait Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo (1778; NPG) featured founding and later members of the bluestocking circle, and provided a powerful group image of nine cultural figures of national standing: the artist Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Carter, the poet Anna Barbauld, the singer and author Elizabeth Sheridan [see Linley, Elizabeth Ann], the historian Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu, the playwright Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah More, and the novelist Charlotte Lennox.

While various networks of friendship, literary correspondence, and intellectual exchange can be traced between Samuel's subjects, it is unlikely that they ever met together at the same time. Portraits in the Characters of the Muses is therefore a highly idealized group portrait, not painted from life, in which Samuel responded to the contemporary celebrity of the bluestockings, no doubt hoping that the subject would advance his own reputation at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition, where the painting was exhibited in 1779. What interested Samuel, and is historically remarkable about the portrait, is that every woman represented, with the exception of Montagu, made a living from her work. As Montagu wrote to Carter: ‘it is charming to think how our praises will ride about the World in every bodies pocket … I do not see how we could become more universally celebrated’ (to Elizabeth Carter, 24 Nov 1777, Hunt. L., MS MO 3435, Eger, ‘Representing culture’, 122–3). The combined output of these women was voluminous and included poetry, educational pamphlets, history, paintings, political theory, novels, and Shakespeare criticism. Though possessing few legal rights, they demonstrated their right to the ‘life of the mind’ with writing providing a route to autonomy and the possibility of an income.

Patronage played an important part in spreading bluestocking ideas beyond the confines of the circle's assemblies. Montagu's shrewd management of her husband's Northumberland coalmines ensured great wealth, which she ploughed into cultural projects in London. On becoming a widow in 1775 Montagu granted annuities to her fellow writers, including Elizabeth Carter, Sarah Fielding, and Anna Williams. She also built Montagu House, a mansion in Portman Square where her parties continued on a grand scale. Here, in a rather ostentatious display of her compassion for the poor, she held annual breakfasts for London's chimney sweeps. James Barry's important series of paintings for the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture (1784), includes a group portrait, The Distribution of the Premiums, which gives pride of place to Montagu. In this record of the society's annual prize-giving ceremony Barry depicted her recommending the handiwork of two impoverished young women to two duchesses of the realm. Dr Johnson is shown pointing to her example in approval.

The provision of education, alongside morality and refined sociability, was central to the bluestocking project. References in Montagu's correspondence to the ‘Bluestocking Lodge’ (to Elizabeth Vesey, 17 Feb 1764, Hunt. L., MS MO 6375) and the ‘Bluestocking Club’ (to Elizabeth Carter, 15 Dec 1783, Hunt. L. MS MO 3565) indicate how participants saw their meetings creating opportunities for women denied access to formal clubs, secret societies such as the freemasons, and to the universities. In her novel A Description of Millenium Hall and the Country Adjacent (1762) Montagu's sister Sarah Scott depicted a utopian vision of a harmonious female community which, secluded from public attention, pursued a life of arts, manufactures, and acts of charity. In doing so Scott developed the earlier feminism of Mary Astell, who, in her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694–7), had urged the foundation of protestant convents, or ‘seminaries’, in order to offer space for the life of the mind and spirit. Early bluestocking ideas about education and literary independence were transmitted to a younger generation of women writers, often of diverse political views, including Burney, More, Barbauld, and the radical poet and letter writer Helen Maria Williams. Williams dedicated her poem Peru (1786) to Elizabeth Montagu and in the preface described her circle as an arena where ‘deserted genius’ can rest his ‘drooping spirit’ and find new ‘energies of soul’.

Radicalism and criticism

The more widespread use of the term ‘bluestocking’ by the 1790s, denoting any woman who might pursue literary or scholarly interests, coincided with the rise of women's education and self-advancement. Anna Barbauld's Lessons for Children (1778) and Hannah More's Sunday school system were revolutionary in improving literacy, while Mary Wollstonecraft was deeply influenced by Catharine Macaulay's Letters on Education (1790) when she wrote her own more famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). While Wollstonecraft and Macaulay were undeniably more radical than their bluestocking forebears, they were none the less inspired by the movement's ideals of female friendship and rational virtue, not to mention its members' literary achievements. Chapone's Letters on the Improvement of the Mind was a work singled out for praise by Wollstonecraft in her otherwise scathing critique of conduct literature. By contrast, founding members of the circle were generally cautious of their more outspoken successors. Carter and Montagu, for example, were deeply suspicious of Wollstonecraft's call for rights. Though discerning some ‘sound sense’ in the work, Chapone likewise protested against the ‘odious indelicacies’ of the Rights of Woman (Myers, 238). But notwithstanding these differences of opinion, modern literary historians have noted the importance of moral virtue for both first- and second-generation bluestockings, pointing out the common themes that bound these women together.

By the end of the eighteenth century the combined social and intellectual prominence of so many intelligent women was greeted with suspicion and disgust by many literary men. The onset of revolution in France, paired with radical opposition to the government at home, provoked a conservative backlash. A new repressive climate emerged which halted the slow move towards equality of the sexes and placed greater restrictions on women's intellectual self-expression and personal freedom. The republican historian Catharine Macaulay and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, gained troubled reputations less from their uncompromising politics than from their unconventional private lives. ‘Bluestocking’ became a term of comedy and insult, echoing earlier distrust of women's ‘slipshod’ appearance and morality. Satires included Richard Polwhele's vitriolic Unsex'd Females (1798), which railed against female learning in all areas, from botany to astronomy. In a similar vein William Hazlitt later wrote of his ‘utter aversion to blue-stockings. I do not care for any woman who knows even what an author means’ (‘On great and little things’ in Table-talk, 1822).

Despite these obstructions the bluestockings' promotion of links between women's writing and rights later resurfaced within societies such as the Langham Place and Bloomsbury groups, which—like the original bluestocking assemblies and their evolving cultural networks—brought together women writers and artists. In A Room of One's Own (1929), one of the most influential feminist essays of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf paid tribute to the original bluestockings and especially to the success of many ‘blues’ in securing a living from their writing. As Woolf observed: ‘towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses’ (V. Woolf, A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, ed. H. Lee, 2001, 55).

Elizabeth Eger

Sources  

N. Clarke, Dr Johnson's women (2000) · N. Clarke, The rise and fall of the woman of letters (2004) · E. Eger, ‘Representing culture: “The nine living muses of Great Britain (1779)”’, Women, writing and public sphere, 1700–1830, ed. E. Eger and others (2001), 104–132 · E. Eger and L. Peltz, Brilliant women: 18th-century bluestockings (2008) · H. Guest, Small change: women, learning, patriotism, 1750–1810 (2000) · S. H. Myers, The bluestocking circle: women, friendship, and the life of the mind in eighteenth-century England (1990) · D. Hume, ‘Rise and progress of the arts and sciences’, Essays, moral, political and literary (1963) · G. Kelly, ed., Bluestocking feminism: writings of the bluestocking circle, 1738–1785, 6 vols. (1999) · N. Pohl and B. Schellenberg, eds., Reconsidering the bluestockings (2003)

Likenesses  

R. Samuel, group portrait, oils, 1778 ([Portraits in the characters of the muses in the Temple of Apollo]), NPG [see illus.]