Today the term ‘bluestocking’ is applied to women who do not conform to the supposed feminine stereotype. In the eighteenth century, it had not yet gained that automatic sneer and referred to any woman distinguished by learning and intelligence. So who were the Bluestockings? Were they the prototypes of today’s feminists? Or is that also a simplistic view that doesn’t do justice to their impact on Georgian England?
For a start, the Bluestocking circles often included men. What distinguished their gatherings was the emphasis on learning and rational discussion, not gender. They were not all wealthy, society ladies either. Many amongst the Bluestocking groupings were neither aristocratic, prominent socially nor wealthy. Their common characteristic was that they were learned. They could hold their own, even shine, amongst some of the most intellectually gifted men of the time.
Many were women of letters or authors. Elizabeth Montagu wrote a book on Shakespeare in 1769 that achieved wide acclaim. Others wrote poetry, plays, works of philosophy and produced translations of the Classics. Nearly all engaged in serious correspondence with one another and leading male thinkers. Some achieved fame by then publishing these letters. Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773) became a standard handbook for young ladies learning to become respectable middle-class women.
Escaping from Politics
The salons headed by the Bluestockings differed from those led by other Society hostesses of the day by avoiding political controversy. There were some amongst them, like Catherine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft, who took prominent roles in political discourse, but a good many of their number were as socially and politically conservative as most people at the time. They were more interested in studying the world around them than in changing it.
In the middle of the 18th century, particularly in the turbulent period between the end of the Seven Years War and the French Revolution, opportunities to take part in conversations free from political factionalism were rare. Many of the men invited to join Bluestocking ladies would have been leading figures in the government or opposition. A chance to enjoy an evening of serious discourse without political arguments must have been highly valued.
Study was central to Bluestocking groupings. The subjects discussed ranged widely, but many of them focused on topics long thought “suitable” for well-brought-up ladies, such as the study of nature or the new natural sciences.
The explanation usually given for the term “Bluestocking” involves an otherworldly Norfolk clergyman called Benjamin Stillingfleet. Born in Wood Norton in that county, Stillingfleet spent a good part of his life at Felbrigg Hall near Cromer as tutor to the young William Windham. He also achieved prominence as a botanist. His book, Flora Anglica of 1761, was the first application in England of Linnean principles of classification to botany. He was certainly not a wealthy man, so the tale that he was unable to afford proper formal dress with black silk stockings is entirely believable. When a group of intellectual ladies invited him to share his knowledge of botany with them, he had to attend wearing his everyday blue, worsted stockings. This gave him a nickname, which was transferred to the group itself.
Women as Umpires of Politeness
Men valued spending time amongst the Bluestockings for other reasons. Formal standards of politeness in Georgian times required good manners and restraint in the presence of women. Instead of resorting to trivia, the Bluestockings discussed serious but non-political matters. Many leading Bluestockings were also well-known for their skills as hostesses. They knew how to provide stimulating conversation in a civilised atmosphere, however much some of those present might disagree in other circumstances. Elizabeth Montagu, in 1772, wrote admiringly of Elizabeth Vesey’s skills in bringing together “all the heterogeneous natures in the World” in her Tuesday assemblies.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the Bluestocking circles in English society of the time. Their salons and gatherings cut across political and social boundaries, as well as those of gender. They helped important people make contacts outside circumstances likely to generate strife and dissension. People bitterly opposed at other times could see their antagonists as human beings again.
In our polarised world of today, I can’t help thinking how useful it would be if the rancour and ill temper could be replaced by something of the atmosphere these 18th-century ladies drew around them.