Inside Story

“I weep more at a wedding than a funeral”

The earliest bluestockings pioneered a new way of thinking about women like themselves. But what about the wider world?

Kate Fullagar Books 5 April 2024 1617 words

Elizabeth Montagu (seated second from right) and four of Susannah Gibson’s other subjects are among the artists and intellectuals depicted in classical-style robes in Richard Samuel’s Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo (1778). National Portrait Gallery

In my usual manner, I began this book by reading the conclusion. There, Susannah Gibson closes her new book on eighteenth-century intellectual women, Bluestockings, by quoting Virginia Woolf. “It is the masculine values that prevail,” Woolf rued in 1928. “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”

But what if the book is about women who lived through one of the most war-filled centuries in British history? What about the proposition that war shaped every aspect of eighteenth-century British life, even if this is little remembered in the popular rush to curate the Georgian period as a time of big hair, dashing cads and masquerade balls?

You can see that I went back to the beginning of Gibson’s book with some scepticism about the distinction. True enough, Gibson does focus far more on “the feelings of women” than on war, but gradually her chapters turned me around to Woolf’s position. What is lost in the lack of detail about “masculine values” is made up for by carefully drawn portraits of ten or so bluestocking women, each struggling, soaring and surviving in a world designed for another gender. Gibson returns a keen sense of complex female humanity to at least one corner of over-storied eighteenth-century Britain.

The book’s two pillars are Elizabeth Montagu, critic and powerful patron of the arts, and Hester Thrale, writer and general literary busybody in late eighteenth-century London. Also included are discussions of the poet Ann Yearsley, the didact Hester Mulso, the moralist Hannah More, the playwright Elizabeth Griffith, the novelist Sarah Scott, the classicist Elizabeth Carter and the historian Catharine Macaulay. (Yes, those descriptors are inadequate — most worked in other genres too — and, yes, everyone should have tried harder to come up with a greater variety of first names and, also yes, most of these women bore multiple surnames as they moved in and out of marriages: by the end of Hester Thrale’s life, for example, she was more accurately Hester Lynch Salusbury Thrale Piozzi.)

Gibson’s initial chapters set up the two main poles for the bluestocking crowd: Montagu’s glittering and rather controlled Mayfair salon and Thrale’s more relaxed but equally exclusive country house at Streatham, south of London. Both places served as a way for women and men to meet, converse, swap literary news and generally engage in that eighteenth-century pursuit, the “refinement of manners.”

Men could also find this opportunity through other means at the time — in clubs, societies and lecture halls. But for women the chances were scarcer. More than these physical establishments, though, Montagu and Thrale — themselves friends though not coordinated patronesses — helped to create connections between like-minded people that could then be maintained through letter-writing and smaller meetings elsewhere.

It was Montagu who coined the term “bluestocking.” She first applied it in 1757 to a man, a botanist friend of hers who was so obsessed with his studies in his garden that on entering the house he forgot to change from his blue worsted stockings into his white silk stockings. The term became a byword for those who privileged intellectual inquiry over fickle fashion, and it initially attached equally to men and women. By the 1780s, though, it was increasingly being applied only to women; and after 1800, with the death of Montagu and most of her acquaintances and the coincidental tightening of Britain’s gender norms, the term took on a pejorative sense.

More than a hundred years later, Woolf was one of the first to try to revive respect for the bluestockings. Into the twentieth century, some — though not all — feminists took a similar interest, choosing to focus on their mere existence in the face of concerted patriarchal forces (and ignoring their well-known elitism and general conservatism). In her twenty-first-century book Gibson aims likewise.

Carving out a collective existence as intellectual women was no mean feat. And the bluestockings did have a lot of feelings about their efforts to do so, as Woolf would say. Those feelings, though, were not what you might expect — confidence, resolution or pluck. Rather, they were mostly doubt, exasperation and fear.

Griffith, for one, always doubted her writing abilities: “I have none of that charming, flattering Enthusiasm about me, that should support one’s Spirits when their Words are sent to the Mercy of the Public.” On the contrary, she insisted, “I shrink into nothing on such occasions.” Similar feelings might be discerned in the decision of many bluestockings to publish anonymously or with a male pseudonym.

Exasperation was a dominant emotion. It was directed at those things thought to stand most starkly between the bluestockings and the time they needed to write: namely, husbands and children. Montagu once baldly confessed that “I weep more at a wedding than a funeral.” Her own marriage turned out to provide untold wealth and connections, but at the price of having to forever placate a man perpetually jealous of her friends.

Elizabeth Carter refused to get married at all, freeing up space for her classical translations that her correspondents could only envy. She didn’t escape drudgery entirely, though: her respectability depended on living with family. She once explained that her slowness in replying to a letter was due to “working my eyes out in making shirts for my brother… ’Tis a most vexatious thing to be perplexed for want of time.”

Thrale took the cake, however, for vexing domesticity. Gibson’s extraordinary chapter on “Motherhood” details with captivating horror Thrale’s seventeen pregnancies in fifteen years, and the burial of no fewer than seven of the children who were born. Although she was a devoted mother, Thrale often felt trapped, especially when her care ended so often with death: “The Thing is,” she once admitted, “I have listened to Babies learning till I am half stupefied — & all my pains have answered so poorly… The instructions I labor’d to give them — what did they end in? The Grave.”

Her husband was also, hands down, the worst of all the men associated with the bluestockings. A poor businessman who needed his wife to rescue his brewery, he cheated on her endlessly, once adding to Hester’s duties an hourly scrub of his balls with a poultice to cure him of venereal disease.

Finally, there was fear — fear of ridicule, fear of scandal, and most of all fear of being ostracised from polite society. Thrale found out all about bluestocking fear when her awful husband finally died in 1781 and she could marry her great love, a lowly, Catholic Italian called Gabriel Piozzi. Her friends were scandalised by the class and religious incompatibilities, as well as by the gross implication that older women felt lust. Montagu dropped her like a stone. Mulso outright declared her insane: “Passions are not natural in a Matron’s bones,” she fumed; “It has given great occasion to the Enemy to blaspheme… the Bas Bleu [bluestocking] Ladies.”

The historian Catharine Macaulay suffered even harsher treatment when she married a younger man. She had been part of the bluestocking crowd for more than a decade, but with her misstep came total disavowal. Hannah More claimed she had always regarded Macaulay as “absurd, vain, and affected.” For Sarah Scott, she was “a dishonour to the sex” who ought to be drowned in the Avon.

Fair play to Woolf, then, that an account of women’s feelings is not without drama or intrigue. But what of the larger world around these particular women? What of their feelings about the constant warfare that raged alongside their lives? What of their views about the revolutions and colonies that were forged by Britain’s wars? What, in other words, of their politics?

Although we know many bluestockings had strong political feelings, these are not tackled in Gibson’s book. The only person to emerge as “political” is Macaulay, the republican historian who apparently believed that her writings should have “a clear ideological slant.” In fact, all the bluestockings wrote ideologically; it’s just that their ideology was chiefly of the status quo — conservative, royalist, classist, xenophobic and anti-reform — and thus appeared invisible.

Gibson misses several opportunities to explore the bluestockings’ politics. Griffith, for instance, once forgave her fiancé for a misdemeanour because of his ideas about John Locke’s political theory. But what are these? Thrale once helped her cad of a husband to stand for a parliamentary seat against a radical, pro-American opponent. Did this mean she also opposed the American rebellion and reform of the franchise? Mulso once wrote that girls should be encouraged to have “an interest in… politics.” Yet how? Why? To which end?

This silence doesn’t detract from Gibson’s achievement. It probably does mean, though, that her book’s subtitle — “the first women’s movement” — strains too hard for credibility. On page 3 she goes further, calling her subjects “the first women’s liberation movement.” From the evidence she gives, the majority of bluestockings were never cohesive enough to form a movement, and certainly never reformist enough to seek the freedom of any women other than themselves — and sometimes, when a bluestocking transgressed, not even all of their number.

Montagu, Thrale and their associates certainly argued for new ways of thinking about women’s intellectual capacity. But without an adequate account of their opinions about what was happening beyond their own spaces it is hard to make a full assessment of their success. Future works on remarkable women might need to include feelings and politics — not only drawing-rooms but also theatres of war. •

Bluestockings: The First Women’s Movement
By Susannah Gibson | John Murray | $55 | 337 pages.