“A Circle of Conversation”: Sociability and Intellect in Eighteenth-Century England

Michèle Cohen
Richmond American International University, London

Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings (National Portrait Gallery, 2008) is the book of the exhibition of the same name curated by literary historian Elizabeth Eger and curator Lucy Peltz at the National Portrait Gallery in London, during the spring of 2008. The exhibition was unusual in that the women in the portraits are not generally known today as famous or notorious women, nor were they women whom the painters attempted to picture as beauties. Rather, their portraits were meant to convey something of these women’s intellectual presence and stature in eighteenth-century culture.

Aiming to address a highly diverse public, Brilliant Women makes available and accessible what had long been exciting to a relatively small group of scholars, and is at once tantalizing to those who want to know more, and satisfying for those who don’t. Structured as four separate essays, the book is itself a rich portrait not just of the bluestockings but of the society in which they reigned. It begins, as any history of the bluestockings must, with Eger’s discussion of Elizabeth Montagu, the “Queen of the Blues” because she “helped forge a public identity for the female intellectual through her own scholarship as well as her encouragement and financial support of other women writers” (16). But Eger does more than this. She places Montagu seamlessly at the heart of eighteenth-century life. Using biographical elements, Eger shows the breadth of Montagu’s reach and achievement in the context of the multiple and diverse legal, political, and social constraints all women, even intellectual and talented celebrities such as the bluestockings, were facing at the time.

The women Eger and Peltz have brought together in the cultural space of the book were a diverse group whose class position ranged from duchess to milkmaid, and whose politics varied from “radical” to “conservative.” While aiming to create a “circle of conversation” which cultivated consensus, it is clear that the bluestockings did not shy from the “collision” of opinions that was held at the time essential to sharpen the intellect.

To fully appreciate the significance of the bluestocking circle of conversation, it is necessary to understand the importance of conversation in the eighteenth century. In 1709, Richard Steele in The Tatler No. 21defined a gentleman as a “man of conversation,” and in The Spectator No. 433 (1712), Joseph Addison argued that it was the mutual conversation of the sexes that “improved” and refined both. In a society where sociability was a dominant and defining practice, mixed rational and intellectual conversation was the index of civilization. But conversation had other important functions: Hester Chapone promoted conversation as a route to virtue, in part because it was instructive as well as entertaining, and believed that conversation influences “our habits of thinking and acting, and the whole form and colour of our minds, . . . that which may chiefly determine our character and condition to all eternity.”[1] For Samuel Johnson, an habitué of Montagu’s salon, conversation was in addition an indispensable tool for exposing one’s thoughts to the opinions and critiques of others and ensuring that one was not “fondling an error long since exploded.”[2] What is most telling of its centrality in eighteenth-century culture is that conversation was one of the contested sites in the manifold cultural war between England and France in the eighteenth century, as Hannah More, no Francophile herself, reveals in her poem Bas Bleu (1787).[3] Although Nathaniel Wraxall, a contemporary commentator, was in no doubt that the “Assemblies of Paris . . . altogether eclipsed ours,”[4] in the poem, More denigrates French salon conversation for being mainly about competing and displaying of wit and lauds what Eger and Peltz describe as the bluestocking circle’s “supportive friendship between men and women, in which female intelligence was valued and encouraged” (29). Idealized though More’s picture might appear, the bluestockings did meet in the London homes of Elizabeth Vesey, Frances Boscawen, and Montagu, where a wide variety of men as well as women were welcome—from William Pulteney, Earl of Bath, Johnson, and Edmund Burke to Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, and of course the scholar and botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet.

But it is the women who take pride of place in the first chapter, and with good reason. Essayist Chapone, writer Elizabeth Carter, poet and educationist Anna Letitia Barbauld, diarist Hester Thrale, historian Catharine Macaulay, painter Angelica Kauffman, novelist Frances Burney, writer, educator, and moralist More, and of course, Mary Wollstonecraft—these women often had diverse views on politics or the role of women, and all faced the ambivalence of the time to women’s “publicity,” yet they all succeeded in entering the literary and artistic public sphere. The list of their publications is dazzling, ranging from translations of the classics such as Carter’s All the Works of Epictetus (1807), to Macaulay’s History of England (1763–83), not forgetting Burney’s novels of manners and conduct, Wollstonecraft’s radical Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), or Kauffman’s history paintings, a genre usually reserved to male artists. A bibliography of bluestockings’ publications in the long eighteenth century—which would have usefully complemented the book—would undoubtedly have extended over several pages.

One key question that arises when considering the quantity and erudition of their writing concerns bluestockings’ education. Eger notes that women at the time received very little formal education and that the few boarding schools that did exist “focused on the ‘accomplishments’” (34). More importantly, attitudes to educated women were ambiguous and contradictory. On the one hand, learning was associated with virtue; on the other, any public display of learning was “dangerous for women and could jeopardize their social situation” (33). How then did these women acquire the knowledge and develop the intellectual acuity that enabled them to engage so successfully in literary, artistic, and intellectual production? Were the bluestockings as poorly educated as implied by their lack of formal education? Eger quotes a letter Carter wrote to Montagu, where she describes a social gathering which had the gentlemen on one side of the room discussing “the old English poets” and the ladies on the other, left “to twirl our shuttles.” Carter’s lapidary comment is critical: old English poets was not a “subject . . . so much beyond female capacity” (33). Women were surely not as intellectually limited as men would believe—nor, perhaps, were men as intellectually able as commonly assumed.

Indeed, many women at the time were well educated not because they attended school, but because they were taught, as well as self-taught, at home. That this was a well-developed practice is evident from the rigorous curriculum Chapone designed for her niece, detailed by Eger (36); nor was Chapone alone in designing such a program of reading and study.[5] The problem, as Chapone and her contemporaries were well aware, was that “women’s experience of learning was inevitably double-edged” (36). This is what the bluestocking circles, as “intellectual networks” (47), were combating. That they achieved a measure of success is evident not only in their encouraging “by example and through patronage, [of] women who might not have considered publishing their work to enter the public literary sphere,”[6] but in the enduring association of the term bluestocking with an “intellectual or literary woman,” though the OED also qualifies this association as “often derogatory.”

The intriguing semantic trajectory of the term started as a reference to the blue worsted stockings worn by Stillingfleet, a visitor to Montagu’s early salon; it soon extended to the women and men who met to “debate contemporary ideas and promote the life the mind (16); it became gender-specific in the 1770s; by the early nineteenth century, it was “synonymous with women writers and intellectuals in general” (29). By then it had also acquired the negative connotation which made it possible for William Hazlitt to exclaim, “The bluestocking is the most odious character in society. . . . She sinks wherever she is placed, like the yolk of an egg, to the bottom, and carries the filth . . . with her” (130). Yet, in the eighteenth century, the bluestockings had been celebrated as national treasures. Mapping and explaining this extraordinary transformation is one of the achievements of the book.

The bluestockings’ success in their time is set in Richard Samuel’s painting, The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain (1778). This painting, and publications emphasizing British women’s “collective intellectual and artistic ability” such as George Ballard’s Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (1752), were meant to be a “mark of Britain’s civilized status and thereby construct a tradition of female achievement” (64). Peltz’s two chapters on a variety of portraits, often echoing the themes discussed by Eger, complement the representation of the bluestockings and allow the reader an understanding that words could not, by themselves, evoke. For instance, discussing Joseph Highmore’s portrait of Carter (71), Peltz directs our gaze to Carter’s pose with one hand raised evoking “conventions for depicting ‘Meditation’ in Renaissance emblem books,” and argues that the portrait is not just a “visual analogue” of Carter as literary celebrity but also embodies Carter’s own daring “challenge to Pope’s literary supremacy” (69). More, painted by Frances Reynolds, sister of Sir Joshua, is shown quill in hand, “exceptionally for a woman . . . in the act of writing” (79). Reflecting on the classical garb worn by the “modern” women in Samuel’s painting, Peltz points out that this “augmented the fantasy of continuity between classical civilisation and the present” (61). Her comment also suggests that some women could, with “timeless dignity” aspire beyond the limitations and transience of fashion, and were not always its slave.

Peltz’s chapters remind us that bluestockings did not include only writers, but artists as well. Mary Moser, the leading flower painter of the late eighteenth century, was also a founding member of the Royal Academy and elected full Royal Academician, an honor not repeated until the election of Dame Laura Knight in 1936 (79, 83). Kauffman, Moser’s only female colleague at the Royal Academy, earned an international reputation as a history painter. Her self-portrait, The Artist Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (1791 or 1794) draws on the iconography of Hercules’s choice between the roads to vice and to virtue, and positions Kauffman as a “female version of a male hero and moral exemplar,” thus elevating and moralizing the life choice she actually made in becoming a painter (82).

Brilliant Women was meant to replace and improve upon the conventional exhibition catalogue. It succeeds not just because the text is so closely interwoven with the pictures, but because one of its impressive features is its visual richness, the inclusion of a wide variety of portraits—each with dates, a commendable attention to readers—as well as designs and objets: a ceiling, a carpet, and the great Drawing Room for Montagu’s Hill Street residence; the frontispiece of a Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of every age and Country (1804) and of the Female Spectator (1745); an engraving of Samuel’s Nine Living Muses for a Ladies Pocket Memorandum Book for 1778, and, the most revealing, a “friendship box,” Commissioned by the Duchess of Portland and consisting of four exquisite miniature portraits of the duchess herself, Montagu, Mary Delany, and Lady Andover, luxuriously encased in gold and enamel, this box is “highly suggestive of the close connection between these four women, bound together by their interests in natural history, literature and the arts” (38). Peltz also links the portraiture of bluestockings to commerce and the art market, focusing especially on Josiah Wedgwood’s ceramic plaques of Montagu and Barbauld, highlighting how important the dissemination of images was to the status of these “Illustrious Moderns.”

At the same time, Peltz, like Eger, reminds us that the tensions associated with women’s “publicity” cannot be underestimated or ignored, tensions which troubled the lives and careers of political activist Macaulay and of radical thinker Wollstonecraft, at a time of change following the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The section “From Minerva to Monster” (102) encapsulates the reverence Macaulay inspired in her representation in Giovanni Battista Cipriani’s engraving of her as Libertas, and the savage satire she provoked, as Vanitas, in the 1777 print, A Speedy and Effectual Preparation for the Next World by Matthew Darly (100–1). Similarly, while John Opie’s famous painting of Wollstonecraft (1790–91) presents her as a confident female author (109), she is also the archetypal “unsex’d female” in Reverend Richard Polwhele’s 1798 diatribe, The Unsex’d Females (113).

From Polwhele to Thomas Rowlandson’s Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club (1815) is but a small step. The satirical print represents a frenzied scene of crazed and aggressive women, breasts flying, intent on tearing each other’s hair out (126). The elements of genteel and civilized conversation—the tea, the blue and white porcelain tea service, and the “circle” of women—are all there, but topsy turvy or broken. “Can the print’s visceral energy and shocking cruelty be taken to signal the end of an era?” asks Eger (128). This is the question she explores in the “The Bluestocking Legacy,” the last chapter. Though hostility to the female intellect increased from the early nineteenth century, it is in that century that Girton, one of the early women’s colleges of Cambridge University was founded, and that girls obtained, at least in theory, the right to an equal education with boys following the Taunton Commission of 1868.

In 1996, the magazine Country Life commissioned photographer Derry Moore to “revisit Samuel’s Nine Living Muses” (149). The nine beautiful and famous women in the photograph are clothed in evening dresses whose folds are reminiscent of classical garb and, as the accompanying text notes, represent “excellence,” “determination to succeed,” and “independence of spirit.” Yet, Eger remarks wistfully, not one is an intellectual or a writer; “perhaps it was easier to be a bluestocking in the eighteenth century than it is in our own age” (149). Ironically, not all the women Eger and Peltz included as bluestockings were intellectuals or writers either. Indeed, this points to one flaw of Brilliant Women: the lack of a clear definition of what distinguished a “bluestocking.” The compromise that perhaps needed to be made between the exhibition and the book means that in the book, “bluestocking” is an all-inclusive category, blurring the difference between women writers and public intellectuals such as Wollstonecraft, who may well not have considered herself a bluestocking. And what about women writers who preceded Montagu’s circle, Mary Astell and Aphra Behn for instance? Nevertheless, Eger’s remark is timely and appropriate, in view of the vitriol directed at Gail Trimble, who provided the winning answer for her team on the British Television show University Challenge in 2009. The Times notes, “The reaction to the 26-year-old . . . swung wildly between gross sexual insults and gross sexual invitations. The fact that she did not dress like Paris Hilton simply added to her offence. Here was a living embodiment of that favourite female stereotype: the ‘bluestocking’—a clever woman unbothered by looks or fashion sense.”[7]

Eger’s historical text and Peltz’s analysis of the pictures are each complete in themselves, but together they are indivisibly complementary. Eger and Peltz have combined rigorous analysis and wide-ranging but lightly worn erudition into what seems like the harmonious cooperation and conversation one imagines the early bluestockings to have shared. The book is a visually and historically rich contribution to the ever-growing scholarly work on the subject.


[1]   Hester Chapone, Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (London, 1775), 40.

[2]   Samuel Johnson, quoted in Stephen Miller, Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (New Haven and London, 2006), 135.

[3]   See Kathryn Ready, “ ‘Who on French wit has made a glorious war?’: The Bluestockings and French Salon Sociability,” in the forthcoming Proceedings of the Conference, “The Art of Exchange: Models, Forms and Practices of Sociability between Great Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century,” held at Laval University, Quebec City in 2006.

[4]   Sir N. William Wraxall, Historical Memoirs of My Own Time, 2 vols., Part the First, from 1772 to 1780 (London, 1815), 159.

[5]   See Michèle Cohen, “ ‘A Little Learning’?: The Curriculum and the Construction of Gender Difference in the Long Eighteenth Century,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 29 no. 3 (2006): 321–35.

[6]   See Elizabeth Eger, “Bluestockings,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (Oxford, 2004).

[7]   Alexandra Frean and Helen Rumbelow, “ TV ‘Genius’ Gail Trimble Leads the March of the Bluestockings,” The Times [London] (February 28, 2009), http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article5818247.ece.