Friday, March 7, 2008

Ode to a Bluestocking

'Back in the day' - which is to say, back in the late 17th to early part of the 18th century CE and beyond (even today, in some circles, unfortunately), being a "bluestocking" was an epitaph put on a woman who was book-smart and learned. It was akin to the dreaded Curse of Death! Totally Unfashionable. A woman who demonstrated her intelligence to - anyone - was ananthema! It rendered her unmarriageable! GASP! Not just a pretty face 'The bluestocking is the most odious character in society,' wrote Hazlitt. Yet circles of intellectual women used friendship, patronage and a talent for PR to overcome ridicule and subvert the restrictions placed on them. Amanda Vickery looks at how their achievements were celebrated in art Saturday March 8, 2008 The Guardian Who'd be a bluestocking? How many women would relish a title so redolent of the schoolmistress and the librarian? It takes a confident smarty-pants to wrap herself in such a swotty, sexless mantle. But blue stockings were once a badge of honour. A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery wants to rescue bluestocking culture from the condescension of posterity, restoring the glamour and cultural prestige that a group of well-favoured "brilliant women" once enjoyed. Brilliant Women is the brainchild of two modern bluestockings, the literary scholar Elizabeth Eger and the curator Lucy Peltz. Eger is unashamed of the title, rejecting its bookish and dowdy connotations, and instead seeing the bluestocking brand as having "a countercultural edge" invoking "a tradition of feminist pioneers". Peltz, meanwhile, feels that her freedom "as an intellectual woman working in the cultural sector" is itself in part a legacy of the bluestocking achievement. The bluestocking circle who assembled in the London homes of literary hostesses such as Elizabeth Montagu, Frances Boscawen and Elizabeth Vesey in the 1750s form the nucleus of the exhibition. However, the famous blue stockings belonged, in fact, to a man, the botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet, and the conversation parties were not confined to women. Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson and the actor David Garrick all put in appearances. At first, all the party-goers were nicknamed blues, but from the 1770s, the "bluestocking" tag was applied to the women members in particular. By the time of Montagu's death in 1800, any female intellectual might be labelled a bluestocking, whether or not she could claim a link to the original circle. By the 1800s, bluestocking had found its way into five European languages: French, German, Dutch, Danish and Swedish. The word had developed a life of its own. The exhibition celebrates the early bluestockings at least as much for their creation of an intellectual community - almost an informal university - as for their individual literary and artistic achievements. In fact, the supreme architect of bluestocking society, Montagu, "Queen of the Blues", is more remarkable for her staggering wealth, palatial houses, orchestration of parties and active patronage of struggling authors than for her literary criticism. To grasp the significance of bluestocking culture, however, we have to consider what Montagu and her set were reacting against. Nice Georgian girls were not clever, scholarly or witty, just equipped with enough light information to entertain a husband on a dull evening - displaying only "a general tincture of knowledge as to make them agreeable to a man of sense", as the poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld sneered. Anything more impressive exposed women to ridicule, even ostracism, and was a grotesque handicap on the marriage market. Dr John Gregory warned his daughters to keep any learning "a profound secret, especially from men". Georgian women laboured under crippling disadvantages. The universities, the medical schools, the military, the church and the bar were all closed to them. All the institutions of the state were monopolised by men. Women could not be MPs or JPs, judges or jurors. On marriage, a woman gave up her separate legal rights, and her individuality was obliterated in common law. All property passed to her husband, and she could make no will. A man could divorce a wife for adultery and sue his wife's lover for trespass on his property, but adultery alone was not sufficient grounds for a wife, who had to bring supporting evidence of life-threatening cruelty or bestiality as well. Male superiority and female inferiority was written into the DNA of institutional and cultural life. The bluestockings realised that they had not been dealt the best hand. Intelligent women complained of a ludicrous conversational apartheid. "As if the two sexes had been in a state of war, the gentlemen ranged themselves on one side of the room, where they talked their own talk, and left us poor ladies to our shuttles," Elizabeth Carter sniffed. The men were holding forth about old English poets, a subject that "did not seem so much beyond a female capacity, but that we might have been indulged with a share of it". Carter was a dazzling linguist, mistress of Portuguese and Arabic among several other tongues, and creator of the standard translation of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, so she would hardly have been out her depth with a little poetry. From the heart of high society, the bluestocking hostesses set about outflanking ancient strictures, making female learning look elegant and managing to paint the attacks on their intelligence as gothic and absurd. Montagu's colossal wealth was key to her social success - she was probably the richest woman in England, a clever industrialist and heir to her husband's mighty coal fortune - as was her gregariousness. Nicknamed Fidget in her youth for her restless energy, Montagu considered herself "a Critick, a Coal owner, a Land Steward, a sociable creature". She turned her glittering coal wealth into cultural capital. Staging lavish entertainments in London in the season was par for the aristocratic course, but Montagu departed from convention in fostering serious conversation. The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle like a modern seminar or reading group, merging the scholarly and the sociable, men as well as women. And voilĂ , here was Britain's answer to the Parisian salon. The guests gathered to discuss their reading, sustained only by tea and glasses of almond cordial, with Montagu directing a communal conversation from the centre. Even the carpet at Hill Street, designed by Robert Adam, had circular motifs calculated to reinforce the arrangement of the guests. Vesey's salons were more informal and convivial. "Her fears were so great of the horror of a circle, from the ceremony and awe which it produced," said the novelist Fanny Burney, "that she pushed all the small sofas, as well as the chairs, pell-mell about the apartments, so as not to leave even a zigzag of communication free from impediment." Then again, Boscawen's assemblies were believed especially harmonious, a reflection of the sweetness of her sensibility. The leading minds of the day were lured into a feminine realm and civilising environment. The salons were also a launch pad for public success, particularly in publishing. They offered a "bluestocking college", where the bluestocking philosophers could display their vivacious learning, but also make contacts and find patrons. A canny businesswoman, Montagu negotiated with booksellers and publishers on behalf of the writers she favoured, and even set up annuities to fellow authors Carter, Hester Chapone and her sister Sarah Fielding. The exhibition argues that the bluestockings used their friendships and patronage to resist or subvert the limits placed on women by convention. They opened up a space for women to succeed in the cultural marketplace. "Who would not be a bluestocking at this rate?" wrote Burney in her diary in 1780. Rest of article.

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