In Our Time: The Bluestockings

I’d always thought that “bluestocking” was just a Victorian pejorative for a woman who preferred learning to socialising, and that the term derived from the perceived frumpiness of said women. But the In Our Time episode that we listened to this Sunday disabused me of that notion. The Bluestockings were an influential intellectual “club” in late 18th Century England, which bore some resemblance to the French salons of the same era, involving both men and women. Only later did the term become gendered and pejorative. The three experts who discussed it were Karen O’Brien (King’s College London), Elizabeth Eger (King’s College London) and Nicole Pohl (Oxford Brookes University).

The Bluestockings were not originally conceived of as a movement, instead it grew organically out of informal gatherings hosted primarily by three London society hostesses for the purpose of rational conversation. In the 18th Century the term “rational conversation” meant something along the lines of “improving conversation” – it was about learning and educating each other. And this is in some sense in opposition to the normal etiquette of the time which frowned upon talking about anything you knew more about than the person you were talking to – particularly if you were a woman. The meetings happened about once a month, and members also corresponded by letter and published essays. Very unusually for the time women were not just permitted to attended, they were also heavily involved in organising these meetings and over time came to dominate them. The name Bluestocking, however, was derived from the male attendees – as the gatherings were informal some of the men would wear their everyday blue stockings rather than their court silk stockings.

One of the important hostesses at the beginning of the movement was Elizabeth Montagu. She was born a member of the gentry, and married into the aristocracy. She was a very intelligent woman, who took over running her husband’s coal business when she married and made her family incredibly wealthy. The experts explained that she opted out of the court social circle of the time – as it was stultifyingly boring, particularly for ladies in waiting. Instead she hosted her own gathers – which became meetings of the Bluestockings. She wrote many many letters and also published essays, including an influential one about Shakespeare. This was in reply to an essay by Voltaire, and Montagu was writing to restore Shakespeare’s reputation as an important playwright. The experts pointed out that this is period when Shakespeare isn’t all that well regarded – classical authors and classical styles are still held up as being inherently better than anyone writing in English could be. Montagu’s essay is an important part of overturning this consensus.

Montagu’s gatherings might’ve been informal, but they were still organised – she arranged the chairs in her room in a semi-circle and so everyone was talking to everyone (I think). Another of the society hostesses involved in these was even more informal – she dotted the chairs around the room in little groups before the guests arrived, this meant there would be many clusters of conversations going on. The informality of the English Bluestockings was a contrast to the French salons of this same era – they had topics decided in advance and were more formalised with some degree of rules about who could speak. Another contrast between the French & English models was that the French salons were politically and religiously radical – the Bluestockings as they began were not.

As the first generation of Bluestockings gave way to the next the movement began to become more restricted to women, and to become tarred with the association of the French salons with radicalisation. This is during a period where the establishment was particularly concerned about any hints of political radicalisation, because the French Revolution was an example of where that sort of thing could lead. On the other side of the coin the Bluestockings were seen as too conservative by the new generation of female thinkers – women like Mary Wollstonecraft. So the movement began to fade away, however it had the legacy of having promoted the concept of women as the intellectual equals of men at a time when that was practically unthinkable.

An interesting programme about something I knew nothing about before. I’d quite like to read a biography of Elizabeth Montagu, but a quick google suggests there’s no such thing. A shame, but the further reading list for the In Our Time episode lists several books about the Bluestockings so perhaps I’ll pick up one of them at some point 🙂