The Blue Stockings Society, an eighteenth century club for clever ladies and their gentlemen friends, was ‘the first public female club ever known’, according to man of letters Horace Walpole. Two high society ladies started it up together – gregarious coal heiress Elizabeth Montagu, the richest woman in England, and her charming and vivacious friend Elizabeth Vesey. Montagu was nicknamed Fidget as a child for her boundless energy, while her co-hostess Vesey won the pet name Sylph for her girlish figure and flirtatiousness.
The close friends set up a salon where guests would come for a mixture of repartee and intelligent discussion over a cup of tea; a refreshing change from the endless card games and brainless flirtation that was the norm for high society gatherings of the day. They bucked the trend of limiting women to gossip and embroidery while the men hobnobbed about poetry and politics on the other side of the room, and entered the fray with some literary conversation of their own. There were some formidable female brains at those first gatherings, more than equal to matching the men bon mot for bon mot, including linguist and classicist Elizabeth Carter and novelist Fanny Burney – and the men in question were no birdbrains either, with philosopher Edmund Burke and author Dr Samuel Johnson among their number. Courtier and diarist Mary Hamilton described the bluestocking meetings in 1783:
“…one meets with a charming variety of society … the Learned, the witty, the old & young, the grave, gay, wise & unwise, the fine bred Man & the pert coxcomb; The elegant female, the chaste Matron, the severe prude, & the pert Miss, but be it remembered that you can run no risque in Mrs. Vesey’s parties of meeting with those who have no claim to respect.”
The bluestockings won their affectionate handle because they rather daringly ‘enjoyed society in undress’ at their parties. Undress to an eighteenth century socialite did not mean what it would suggest in the modern mind, disappointingly: it simply meant informality. Instead of the silk stockings traditional for evening, guests were welcomed in workaday blue woollen legwear, a move which also broke down class barriers, and made soirees more egalitarian. Still, it seems appropriate that London’s new incarnation of the society is a gathering for burlesque and cabaret performers not unfamiliar with a state of deshabille themselves – but equally interested in soirees that engage the brain as well as the other social organs.
Fidget and Sylph must have been on to a good thing, because their bluestocking salons started to spawn copycat social gatherings across London and then the country. Poet and playwright Hannah More published her poem Bas Bleu; or, Conversation in 1786, in homage to the soirees, describing the debate as ‘electric’, an epithet that seems as ahead of its time as the meetings themselves. Her use of bas bleu in the title, the French translation of bluestocking, was a nod to the scholarship of the circle, which was not only about glittering social gatherings, but also a support network for women scholars and artists – effectively an informal university.
Female friendship and mutual support was the lynchpin of the Blue Stockings Society. Four bluestockings commemorated their deep bond with a beautiful little gold and enamel friendship box, painted with their images. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Portland, commissioned the box in 1740, and it depicts her, Elizabeth Montagu, botanical artist Mary Delaney, and amateur artist Mary Howard, Lady Andover, who was left the box in the Duchess’s will. The sorority also extended the hand of friendship to struggling women of learning outside their own circle: bluestocking Hannah More became the patron of working class woman writer Ann Yearsley, aka ‘the milkmaid poet’. More’s charity rescued Bristol-based Yearsley from destitution, and enabled her to publish her first volume of verse, Poems on Several Occasions, in 1785. Less positively for the bluestocking cause, Yearsley and More then fell out publicly over access to the profits, and Yearsley moved on to a male patron, Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol. Perhaps bonds of
trust between women were more difficult to maintain across England’s still rigid class barrier.
Luckily, the patrician bluestockings had a gift for PR – they packaged what was effectively female social rebellion as an elegant cultural innovation, striking a delicate balance between fashion and erudition, and the first bluestockings were lauded as national ideals of feminine sophistication and virtue. The paintings of them in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition in 2008, Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings, show them as female celebrities of their time. Richard Samuel’s 1778 portrait of eminent members in the guise of the nine muses of classical antiquity cemented the group as figureheads of nationalistic pride after victory in the Seven Years War.
An up-and-coming young artist, Samuel painted the original Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo on spec, in the hope it would capture the public imagination, and so successful was his ploy that it became a popular print, re-titled The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain, and depicting the women sacrificing to the goddess Britannia in lieu of Apollo. The print even featured in a pocket diary in 1778, to inspire women to write down their own musings. “Queen of the blues” Elizabeth Montagu quipped, “It is charming to think how our praises will ride about the world in everybody’s pocket. I do not see how we could become more universally celebrated.” Ironically, since Samuel had no access to his portrait’s celebrity subjects in person, he had to take their likenesses at second hand from engravings, and the story goes that none of the women in the painting could recognise themselves. Already the bluestockings were such big names on the Georgian scene that the idea of them was more important than accuracy. Samuel was, if you like, the photoshop-wielding paparazzo of his time.
Mythology soon sprang up around the bluestockings, including the affectionate tale of how the clan first got their name. The story goes that male guest Benjamin Stillingfleet, a botanist, translator and writer, arrived at a gathering without remembering to change out of his blue worsted workwear into formal white silk stockings, but was welcomed with open arms anyway. So, despite the fact that bluestocking came to mean an intellectual women, the first credited blue stocking wearer was a man. It’s a charming joke to name a women’s group after menswear, symbolising both the informality of the gatherings, and the innovation of women venturing into traditional male territory of scholarship. The lumpen blue woolly legwear of the time is a far cry from the glamorous image that the word “stocking” conjures up in the modern mind, but still had a frisson attached for the Georgians, sparked by the idea of women wearing what they weren’t supposed to; metaphysical drag, if you like.
The Benjamin Stillingfleet anecdote is probably apocryphal, however, because bluestocking had already been a nickname for intellectuals for about three hundred years by then. The Venetians started it in the 1400s with an elite salon dubbed “della calza” (“of the stocking”) for their elaborate embroidered legwear, and the Parisian “bas bleu” emerged in the 1500s as a bevy of literary women. So the Georgian gang were quoting a heritage of learned gatherings with their name, just as the paintings of the sorority dressed up as Greek or Roman figures used classical references to reinforce their modern standing. All in all, it was a kick-ass publicity campaign, sweeping in the idea of stylish female learning at a time when women had no rights to fortune or property, and were effectively a servant class to men – no, a slave class, because servants were paid. And the campaign seemed to work – at least at first.
Then, as the American War of Independence and the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century made the idea of egalitarian learning more dangerous than sexy, the bluestockings started to come in for some stick. Novelty was one thing, but nobody wanted these women getting above themselves and forgetting their place. Montagu was satirised by Lord Byron as the ridiculous Lady Bluebottle in his Literary Eclogue of 1821, and he had a dig at woman poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans too, suggesting she should ‘knit bluestockings instead of wearing them,’ possibly motivated by the fact that Hemans was at the time a more popular and better-selling poet than he was. Thomas Rowlandson’s 1815 cartoon “Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club” depicts a bunch of screaming harridans attacking each other over the tea-table, grabbing each other’s hair and ripping each other’s clothes, while the tea cups (traditional tipple of the bluestocking gatherings) go flying around them. Meanwhile French satirical cartoonist Honoré Daumier was having a go across the channel with his series of etchings of grotesque women scholars, Les Bas Bleus, aimed squarely at liberated femmes like novelist George Sand.
But it wasn’t only men who put the boot in. Fanny Burney, a bluestocking member herself, wrote her first play The Witlings about pretentious patrons of the arts Mrs Voluble, Mrs Sapient and the regal Lady Smatter. The satire came close to being staged by Sheridan at Drury Lane, until her father persuaded her to pull it before it got her into trouble with Montagu. As the tide turned against the dangerously unfeminine bluestockings, depictions became more sinister, such as the character of mannish feminist Harriet Freke, said to be based on radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft, in Maria Edgeworth’s 1811 novel Belinda, who meets her come-uppance in a man-trap.
What started as an innovative party night, conceived to pique the interest of a social circle too clever to be satisfied by a deck of cards and a turn around the dancefloor, had opened Pandora’s box. National treasures became dangerous rebels. Within a decade, the bluestocking gatherings had spawned radical political thinkers who spoke out ahead of their time for the equality, liberty and social justice we accept as the norm today. Women who consequently got themselves ostracised and denigrated – historian Catharine Macaulay and literary libertarian Mary Wollstonecraft were the two most scandalous – and fuelled the backlash that transformed the label bluestocking from an affectionate nickname into an insult.
It was sex that did for the bluestockings in the end. Catharine Macaulay’s radical eight-volume History of England, arguing for democratic republic to replace monarchy, became a manifesto for American independence campaigners and French revolutionaries – she was a proto Karl Marx in blue stockings, and the establishment had to bring her down. But it wasn’t her radical views for which she was pilloried, it was her scandalous private life. First the widowed Macauley shacked up with the Reverend Thomas Wilson, 30 years her senior, probably for access to his library rather than his bed. But he adored her, and put up a statue of her dressed as Clio, the Muse of History, in his Bath church, until a public outcry forced him to remove it. Then Macauley ran away with a sailor. She was 47 and he was 21. It was the death knell for her reputation.
Macauley’s scandalous sexual antics weren’t innocent – they were as political a statement as her writing. She considered it an outrage that ‘virtue’ in a woman meant only one thing: chastity. It was okay, apparently, for a woman to be a thief, a liar, a cheat, a coward, or a criminal as long as she stayed a virgin. To Macauley, this absurd double standard was the true scandal. Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, agreed with her, and lived out her own life even further outside the bounds of female propriety. Her widower William Godwin’s heartbroken paean to her radical life, detailing her passionate female friendships, her love affairs, her illegitimate child and her suicide attempts, trashed her name so soundly that, far from embracing her as a role model, nineteenth century suffragettes swept her firmly under the carpet, for fear she would damage their cause. In an era when even table legs had to be covered up with curtains, lest their curvaceousness summon up louche thoughts, women fighting for equality had to hide their bluestockings under very long skirts.
Such prudish horror seems absurd to us now, in a time when watching a sassy woman strip down to pasties and a thong is the height of chic dinner entertainment. Surely bluestockings don’t have to hide their true colours in this day and age? But now that openly sexual women are everywhere, there’s a different tension to play with – between being sexy and being feminist. For some these days it’s “feminist” that’s the dirty word. For others, the real outrage is that women in sophisticatedLondon think it’s okay to take their clothes off on stage while their sisters in Iran are being stoned to death for adultery. The burlesque bluestockings of today have their own wobbly tightrope to tread between intelligent entertainment and social politics.
Burlesque clown Audacity Chutzpah and I started our 21st century incarnation of the Blue Stocking Society in April 2010 as a showcase for women performers whose work has something to say beyond classic cheesecake prettiness. Our Night of the Blue Stockings, for thinking women and the men who love them, happens monthly at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, and our membership is growing. Who knows what might come out of the Pandora’s box Ms Chutzpah and I have opened together? What started as an alternative night out for the brainboxes of the burlesque and cabaret world has already started to dip its toe into politics.