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The women that books built

How the bluestockings used wit and learning to subvert a deeply misogynist culture.

By Hannah Rose Woods

“I never knew in my life,” wrote the statesman Lord Chesterfield to his son in 1748, a woman capable of “solid, reasoning good sense… or who reasoned or acted consequentially for four-and-twenty hours together.” For another 18th-century commentator, comparing a woman’s intellect to a man’s would be like “Mould in a Garden” being “valued with the Fruits it Produces”. Pity the learned lady who tried to prove otherwise, wrote an anonymous pamphleteer, “so blinded with poring over Books” as to neglect her appearance, “and the much she reads is to very little Purpose, since it can make nothing better of her than a bookish Slattern”.

Susannah Gibson’s Bluestockings is a group biography of the 18th-century women who broke the (garden) mould in spectacular fashion. In bestselling books and at literary salons, from the 1750s a coterie of pioneers set out to show that women could be as rational as men, just as capable of wit and learning – and, in doing so, formed “the first women’s liberation movement”. For many of their contemporaries, both men and women, this seemingly modest proposal was astonishing.

At the heart of Gibson’s deftly interwoven stories are two women who formed twin centres of bluestocking society. The “Queen of the Blues”, Elizabeth Montagu (“brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement, critical in talk”, according to a contemporary), hosted the pre-eminent salon in London, for a circle that included the authors Hannah More and Frances Burney, writer-statesman Horace Walpole, the actor and playwright David Garrick, and the portraitist Joshua Reynolds. South of the river, Hester Thrale – unjustly remembered as principally a helpmeet of Samuel Johnson – hosted similar gatherings from her home in the quiet rural idyll of Streatham.

The bluestockings were subjects of intense fascination. Their letters were widely circulated and their private lives were endlessly discussed in the press. At their salons, Britain’s leading artists and intellects streamed in and out from 11 in the morning to 11 at night, where conversation was elevated to a high art and, as Montagu wrote, “witts let off epigrams like minute guns”. Conventional social standing mattered far less than erudition; the cardinal rules were to take learning seriously, and to have fun with it.

It sounds both dazzling and exhausting. This was a world in which women, like heroines in a Samuel Richardson novel, really did sit down to compose lengthy correspondences on their wedding days. A “short” letter could run to eight pages; a long one to 52. And all the while, male egos needed soothing and coaxing along the tightrope of women being in power, women who “command[ed] while seeming to submit, and win their way by yielding to the tyde”.

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What drove these women to swim against the currents of gendered expectations – even if victory still meant yielding to the unrelenting tide of patriarchy? In spite of such conspicuously public lives, their motivations are still tantalisingly unclear. “Extraordinary talents may make a woman admired,” wrote the extraordinarily talented Montagu, “but they will never make her happy.” Frances Burney was terrified of how she might be judged if it was discovered that she had been encouraged by Thrale and Johnson to learn Latin. She confessed to her sister that, “I have more fear of the malignity which will follow its being known, than delight in what advantages it may afford.” Nevertheless, persist these women did.

It is, in every sense of the word, incredible that Thrale found time to read or write. Pregnant 15 times in 16 years, and violently ill with morning sickness, her twenties and thirties consisted of “holding my Head over a Bason 6 Months in the Year”. Only four of her children survived into adulthood. She stepped in to rescue her husband Henry’s brewing business when his disastrous venture with a charlatan scientist to transform rotten hops into “chemical beer” resulted in astronomical debts. She campaigned for his election to parliament. Any given day might have seen her tending to her dying child; tending to her dying mother; tending to her husband’s grotesquely swollen testicles after he had contracted another bout of venereal disease from one of his mistresses; and enduring the gloom and constant demands for attention of Dr Johnson, who had moved into their house in the expectation that she would tend to his eye infection. “Oh, what a life that is!” she recorded in her diary, “And how truly do I abhor it!”

Even the “good” men are appalling. Johnson encouraged Thrale to write, but a typical piece of praise for one of her poems might be: “very pretty… a good one… for a Lady”. In another mood, he was given to such pronouncements as, “I am very fond of the company of ladies; I like their beauty, I like their delicacy… and I like their silence.”

In an age in which married women had few legal rights of their own, a supportive husband was the exception that proved the rule. By the standards of 18th-century husbands, Henry Thrale was redeemable – gifting his wife six blank notebooks embossed with the title “Thraliana” as a thank you for the care of his testicles. “I weep more at a wedding than a funeral,” wrote Montagu, at the prospect of a young woman willingly agreeing to a lifetime of chattel servitude. Bluestocking writer Hester Mulso Chapone’s thesis that a woman had the right to refuse her parents’ choice of a potential husband was daringly controversial.

Wrenchingly, in a crowded field, the bluestockings’ harshest critics were each other. After the death of Henry, Hester Thrale was ostracised by her fellow women writers for her unsuitable choice of a second husband. The historian Catharine Macaulay was publicly condemned, in turn, for her choice of husband. “All this has happened from [Macaulay] adopting Masculine opinions, & Masculine manners,” wrote Montagu. “I hate a Womans mind in Mans cloaths.” Class, too, was a limiting factor on women’s autonomy. Under the patronage of Hannah More, the one labouring-class writer in their circle, Ann Yearsley, was subjected to a bizarre system of financial control in which she was denied her right to her full earnings from her work, lest she spend them unwisely.

As Gibson writes, the balancing act necessary for intellectual women to gain social acceptance meant that they had little choice but to put on a public show of unimpeachable respectability. But they were also, frequently, just not nice to each other. “Her conversation would be more pleasing if She thought less of herself,” wrote Thrale of her first meeting with (in reality, painfully shy) Burney.

Gibson’s own balancing act, skilfully managed, is to highlight the extraordinary place these women carved out for themselves against the odds in 18th-century society, without glossing over aspects less congenial to 21st-century readers. It is often tempting to uncritically champion pioneering women in history with a sort of proto-girlboss feminism. Bluestockings is much more sophisticated stuff than this, and all the richer for it.

While these women writers never sought to dismantle patriarchy as a system, even their incremental gains towards female equality would be challenged by later generations. At the turn of the 19th century, men began to push back against what they saw as a move towards women’s emancipation that had gone too far. “Bluestocking” passed from being a neutral description to a term of derision. Romantic writers such as Byron and Coleridge mocked these “Ceruleans of the Second Sex”. “I have an utter aversion to blue-stockings,” wrote the essayist William Hazlitt, claiming not to “care a fig for any woman who knows even what an author means”. By the dawn of the Victorian era, their reputation had been largely trashed.

From the later 19th century, feminists began to reclaim the bluestockings’ legacy. The campaigns for women’s right to attend university and to be awarded degrees claimed allegiance with their bluestocking forebears. In 1928, Virginia Woolf addressed the young women of Girton and Newnham colleges at Cambridge University, tracing a line of descent from the first bluestockings through to Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. Every female author, she felt, owed homage to those 18th-century women who had woken in the early hours to learn Latin or Greek, or taken the risk of publishing their thoughts – knowing full well that their book would be dismissed as insignificant simply “because it deals with the feelings of women”. The lectures were printed the following year as A Room of One’s Own.

As Gibson writes, the legacy of the bluestockings was to lay the foundations for a whole new world-view. It was the basis of all that followed: for women’s right to an education, to earn an income, to vote, to bodily autonomy. It is a call that echoes down the centuries, and attempts to silence it continue.

Bluestockings: The First Women’s Movement
Susannah Gibson
John Murray, 352pp, £25

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[See also: Byron’s war on tranquillity]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation