Nearly three years ago (in October of 2015, to be precise) I posted a blog titled “I Am Illiterate by Regency Standards.” Even though I consider myself reasonably well educated, I have not been educated according to the standards of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Unlike a Regency gentleman, I cannot read or write Latin, Greek, French, or German. I have never read Euclid’s Elements or Tully’s Epistles. I know almost nothing about the writings of Justin, Horace, or Livy.
I Am a Bluestocking
Yet I am certain that if I were sucked into a wormhole and dumped in Chawton where Jane Austen lived, I would be considered a bluestocking. Why? For one thing, I attended university—unlike Regency-era women, who were not allowed to attend universities and public schools like Eton. For another, no one criticizes me for reading novels or trying to educate myself—unlike the strictures placed on women living in the Regency era. I read whatever interests me: blogs, Twitter posts, magazines, the ingredient list on food packages, newspapers, medical journals, and novels of all stripes, along with Regency-era texts like the Surgeon’s Vade Mecum.
Definitions of Bluestocking: Fact
A bluestocking is typically defined as a woman with strong scholarly or literary interests—in other words, an intellectual or literary woman. During the late 17th century, however, the word was used to describe a man who wore blue worsted stockings instead of the more acceptable formal black silk stockings worn by gentlemen; the word eventually came to mean “informal dress.” (Based on the broad definition, I qualify for the bluestocking label, if for no other reason than I’m often dressed informally—jeans, sweaters, and knee socks preferred.)
The Blue Stockings Society: FactBluestocking was a term used to describe a member of the Blue Stockings Society—a literary society founded in the 1750’s by Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and others for the purpose of discussing the arts and literature. Their gatherings were informal and included men such as the actor and playwright David Garrick and the politician Horace Walpole. The main criterion for membership in the Society was having a lively interest in conversation. Samuel Johnson described an evening spent at Mrs. Montagu’s London residence with these words: “… where a splendid company was assembled, consisting of the most eminent literary characters.” When his biographer James Boswell asked whether he was highly gratified by his visit, Johnson replied: “No, Sir, not highly gratified; yet I do not recollect to have passed many evenings with fewer objections.”1
The Society’s members were not all wealthy or aristocratic. The novelist Fanny Burney, a contemporary of Jane Austen, worked as Keeper of the Robes for Queen Charlotte. (I wrote about Burney’s mastectomy in October of 2016.) The poet and essayist, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, once worked as the maid, housekeeper, and accountant at Palgrave Academy in Suffolk. Hester Chapone was the daughter of a gentleman farmer who married a solicitor; her most famous publication was Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady (published in 1773).
How the Society Got Its Name: Fog
How did the Blue Stockings Society get its name? The question is not easily answered, for the stories vary.
STORY 1: In this story the group owes its name to the botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet. According to one account, it was Stillingfleet who was labeled a “bluestocking” for wearing informal blue stockings to the Society’s meetings and, thus, the nickname jumped from him to the Society. Another story attributes the Society’s name to Elizabeth Vesey. When she invited Stillingfleet to one of the Society’s meetings, he protested that he could not accept her invitation because his attire was unfashionable. The story goes that she told him to “Come in your blue stockings,” indicating that he would be welcome regardless of his attire. This anecdote was apparently recounted by Madame D’Arblay (the married name of the novelist Fanny Burney).
STORY 2: In this story the group owes its name to Admiral Edward Boscawen. On hearing that Stillingfleet often wore blue-gray tradesmen hose to the Society’s meetings, the Admiral scorned his wife’s literary pretensions by calling her and her fellow conversationalists “Bluestockings” in a rather derisive tone.
OBSERVATION: Does not Mrs. Boscawen, shown at right, look exactly like the sort of woman who would share her husband’s mocking comment with her fellow Society friends? The little group probably had a good laugh and adopted Admiral Boscawen’s scornful nickname just to tease him. Mrs. Boscawen (neé Frances Evelyn Glanville) was apparently a popular Blue Stockings Society hostess and elegant letter writer.
A Confusing Common Story: More Fog
The Wikipedia entry for Blue Stockings Society states that the origin of the name is not clear. There are previous mentions of the word “bluestocking” in 17th-century Scotland and 15th-century Italy. The English Oxford Living Dictionaries also shows the word origin as late 17th century. To add to the confusion Dictionary.com indicates in its U.S. definition that the word “bluestocking” originated in 1675-1685, while its British definition (shown on the same webpage) shows 1790.
The fog becomes murkier on reading Doran’s biography of Elizabeth Montagu, published in 1873. According to Doran, James Boswell wrote in 1781 that the evening assemblies became known as “Blue Stocking Clubs.” He also mentions Stillingfleet, saying that his absence from the assembly led people to say “we can do nothing without the blue stockings.” And, so, in this version, the name of the group was slowly established. Boswell’s comments seem to support Story 1 above, except for one problem: Boswell was mistaken, for in 1781 Stillingfleet had been dead for ten years and apparently had left off wearing blue stockings some 14 years before he died!2
One fact is known: Elizabeth Montagu first mentioned the word “blue-stockings” in a letter to Dr. Monsey dated March, 1757, in which she wrote that Stillingfleet “has left off his old friends and his blue stockings, and is at operas and other gay assemblies every night.”3 This general reference to Stillingfleet gives no indication of how or whether her use of the term led to the Society members calling themselves bluestockings. Thus, the historical record remains confused.
Light Fog: Was the Group a Society or a Club?
Just when I thought I had sorted most of the little puzzling discrepancies related to the bluestockings, I realized there was a problem with the group’s name. Wikipedia’s entry is titled Blue Stockings Society. (It also has an entry for Bluestocking.) Boswell mentioned Blue Stocking Clubs,2 but Doran makes this statement: “a blue stocking club never existed.”4 Perhaps we can all agree not to refer to the Bluestockings as a club!
Dense Fog: Did the Bluestockings Themselves Wear Blue Stockings?
I had the impression that female members of the Blue Stockings Society wore blue stockings. Interestingly, other people have thought the same thing. The U.S. definition of “bluestocking” at Dictionary.com, for example, says the name comes from the informal attire, including “blue woolen stockings, worn by some women in the group.” But the English definition shown on the same page (scroll down to the bottom) says “None of the women wore blue stockings.” The Online Etymology Dictionary also states that none of the women in Elizabeth Montagu’s literary society wore blue stockings. A densely foggy situation.
Some Fog about Whether the Bluestockings Talked Politics
I read perhaps ten blogs about the Bluestockings. One of them indicates that members discussed controversial issues like politics and war, but another indicates that members avoided talking about politics.” I was perplexed by this foggy matter, for I figured most people with ideas and opinions about books would also have opinions about political matters. Then, I found these statements in Doran’s book:5
The Blue Stockings and the Literary Clubbists seem to have had this in common: their discourse was miscellaneous, chiefly literary: politics were alone excluded.
Ah! I thought. Here is the answer. Discussing politics was taboo. And then I read this:
The last, however, [referring to politics] were sometimes quietly discussed in one or other of the groups into which the assemblies under the leadership of ladies divided themselves.
Well! Mostly the participants discussed books and ideas, but sometimes they huddled in corners to debate political controversies—not unlike today.
Decline of the Blue Stocking Society: Fact
Called “the first female club” by Horace Walpole, the meaning of the word “bluestocking” began to change, such that by the end of the 18th century it had acquired a decidedly derogatory meaning. Now, as then, a bluestocking might be any well-educated, opinionated woman who freely expresses her ideas. Hmm. That would include nearly every woman I know!
I close this bluestocking blog with one of Thomas Rowlandson‘s satirical prints. Surely the decline of the Blue Stockings Society was a little less fisty than the rumpus shown here, but I love the action!
1Boswell, J. The Life of Samuel Johnson. (Roslyn, NY, Walter J. Black, Inc., 1952), p. 175.
2Doran, Dr. A Lady of the Last Century (Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu): Illustrated in Her Unpublished Letters. (London, Richard Bentley and Son, 1873), pp. 65-66 (PDF pp. 90-91).
3Ibid., p. 270 (PDF p. 295).
4Ibid., p. 271 (PDF p. 296).
5Ibid., p. 273 (PDF p. 298).
COMMENT [July 19, 2018]: The image of Mrs. Elizabeth Montague, wife of Edward Montague, Esq., used in this blog and shown on Wikipedia’s entry appears to be improperly labeled. The Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons entries read: Lady Elizabeth Montagu, Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry (1718-1800). Although the dates of her birth and death are correct, I do not know whether this is an image of Mrs. Montagu or of Charlotte Montagu Douglas Scott (1811-1895), who was, in fact, the Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry. The Elizabeth Montagu mentioned in this blog was married to an esquire and therefore would have been acknowledged as “Mrs.” (I have to laugh. Is nothing straightforward about Mrs. Montagu and her Society?]