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The Blue Stockings Society and Benjamin Stillingfleet

In the Regency era, a young lady who gained the reputation of being a bluestocking would likely find herself “holding up the walls” as a wallflower at a ton event, since it was not the thing for a woman to be more educated than a man. Women were to be beautiful, fashionable, eloquent yet demure, and proficient in the social graces. A typical lady’s education would include reading, writing, geography, history, embroidery, drawing, French (or at least some French phrases), music, dancing, and, of course, riding, should her family have the means for a stable.

While there were, of course, learned ladies in society, it was thought prudent to keep one’s scholarly achievements private in order to avoid the bluestocking label, particularly for a young lady on the marriage market, which most genteel young ladies were. One hint that she might have blue tendencies could ruin her reputation and her opportunities for an advantageous marriage. And for most young ladies, marriage was the decision of a lifetime. Since divorce was nearly impossible and the husband held all the cards in the relationship, a mésalliance could very well mean a lifetime of misery and regrets.

In spite of this, there did exist a smattering of ladies—even some young, unmarried ladies—who defied prudence and flaunted their academic superiority to all and sundry. Some were married already, probably to indulgent husbands or those who were scholarly themselves. Those who were unmarried typically disdained the traditional role of women and did not aspire to giving some man control over them, although presumably these, too, were blessed with indulgent families with enough wealth to support a daughter for the rest of her life. There were some, like Hannah More, who, although she eschewed the frivolity of the ton, advocated the traditional role of marriage as the ideal for women, even though she herself never married.

Elizabeth Montagu

In the mid-eighteenth century, Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Vesey, among others, founded a women’s literary discussion group, that later came to include gentlemen as well. The society promoted education for all (including women and the poor). Several prominent members of the society, which came to be known as The Blue Stockings Society, were (at one time or another):

  • Elizabeth Montagu: social reformer, patron of the arts, salonist, literary critic, and writer who helped organize and lead the Blue Stockings Society
  • Elizabeth Vesey: a wealthy patron of the society
  • Samuel Johnson: poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer
  • Anna Williams: poet and companion of Samuel Johnson
  • David Garrick: English author and playwright, friend of Samuel Johnson
  • Anna Laetitia Barbauld: a prominent English poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, and children’s author
  • James Beattie: Scottish poet, moralist, and philosopher
  • Frances Boscawen: literary hostess and correspondent
  • Edmund Burke: Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher
  • Frances Burney: novelist, diarist, and playwright
  • Elizabeth Carter: poet, classicist, writer, and translator
  • Margaret Cavendish-Harley: Duchess of Portland, and scholar/collector of natural history
  • Hester Chapone: author of conduct books for women
  • Mary Delaney: artist and letter-writer
  • Sarah Fielding: sister of Henry Fielding, novelist herself, who wrote the first children’s novel
  • Ada Lovelace: daughter of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella Millbank (who was a scholar herself), a noted mathematician and considered to be the first computer programmer
  • Catharine Macalay: historian
  • Hannah More: religious writer and philanthropost (see earlier post on this blog)
  • Sarah Scott: novelist, translator, social reformer, and sister of Elizabeth Montagu
  • Sir Joshua Reynolds: prominent portrait painter
  • Horace Walpole: art historian, man of letters, antiquarian, and Whig politician

Benjamin Stillingfleet

The name of the group supposedly came from an invited guest, Benjamin Stillingfleet, a noted botanist and scholar, who wore blue worsted stockings to the meetings because he could not afford the requisite black silk ones. Since the group prided itself on valuing conversation over fashion, the term bluestocking was more of a jest than a slight in the early days of the society. It was later that it became a term of shame and derision when applied to a young lady.

Stillingfleet was the son of a physician who attended Cambridge and worked as a tutor to his young relative, William Windham. He later accompanied Windham on a Grand Tour of the Continent, where they lingered several years, doing, among other things, scientific studies of the glaciers, for which his protégé was later honored as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

A bluestocking heroine, you say?

It can be done, of course. I’ve read dozens—if not hundreds—of historicals with bluestocking heroines. But she needs a special sort of hero, doesn’t she?—one who has enough confidence in his own abilities to appreciate and desire to nurture hers. Or at least, that’s what he needs to become by the end of the story. And I think it’s also important for him to be able to draw her out of her preoccupation with academics and into the real world on occasion as well.

However, in order to become a bluestocking in the first place, a heroine would need to have been brought up in a manner that would make this possible. A rare, scholarly family, perhaps, or a negligent one that doesn’t realize how much time she spends with her brother’s tutor and is properly horrified when they discover it. Because any girl tagged as a bluestocking would become the object of much derision and gossip by the high-sticklers of society, and these high-stickers never forgot such things, even when they were proven untrue. A marriage-minded miss and her mother would be horrified at the very thought.

Donning my teacher hat

As a former teacher, I cannot help comparing this to the seeming popularity of idiocy in modern culture, at least among the youth (I was a middle school teacher). It’s always been a concern of mine that adolescents—particularly girls—play down their intelligence in pursuit of popularity. Frankly, I’ve never understood it, not even when I was that age. Why anyone should eschew their God-given intelligence in order to cater to someone else’s insecurities is beyond me. One would think that we would have evolved beyond this by now, especially with the job market being so competitive, but I’ve seen too many students of both genders fail to take advantage of their academic abilities and end up with lives on the fringes of success. And frankly, all the standardized tests in the world are not making a whit of difference in the status quo.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think? Do you think movies like Dumb and Dumber only serve to lower the value of serious scholarship among our young people?

Blog Barrage for Treasuring Theresa

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CBLS Promotions is sponsoring a Blog Barrage for Treasuring Theresa today and tomorrow. Check out the stops and enter the Rafflecopter contest for my newest treasure box (including UK souvenirs) (see below).

Lovely wooden box, 2013 Ellora's Cave playing cards (for adults only), sheep soap, James I and II necklace, Union Jack sequined coin purse, plaid bagpipes Christmas ornament, Treasuring Theresa key chain, plaid pen, crown pencil, fizzing bath crystals

Mark Your Calendar

fall2010

Coffeetime Romance Chat 

August 24  • 8:00-10:00 p.m. EDT

Eight Authors • Eight Giveaways

Theme: Historical Romance

Participating Authors

Aileen Fish
Shelly Munro
Lexi Post
Susana Ellis
Amy Hearst
Sasha Cottman
Sabrina York
Julie Johnstone

Episode #11: In Which Lady P Talks About Hannah More and the Rights of Women

Lady Pendleton, Damian Ashby’s eccentric aunt (see the epilogue to Treasuring Theresa on Susana’s web site), is visiting Susana from the early 19th century. She’s intrigued by life in 21st century Toledo, Ohio, and, of course, Susana is thrilled to have the opportunity to pick her brain about life in Regency England. It certainly gives her a great deal to write about in Susana’s Parlour!

Susana: [to the Reader]:

The other day, Lady P and I got to talking about the position of women in the Regency period and how it evolved from the late 18th century when women such as Georgiana Cavendish held political salons and marched in support of political candidates to a time when women were to be saintly and devout and “protected” from the seamier side of life, leaving the important decisions to their sturdier husbands.

Miss_Hannah_More-304x400Lady P: ‘Twas Hannah More and the Evangelicals that popularized it. Women were to be seen and not heard, at the same time obedient to their husbands and revered by them. [Snorting in an unladylike manner] Pendleton and I laughed about it on many an occasion. I’ve never been the obedient sort, and Lord P would not have wed me if I were. Nor did I wish to be worshiped either. The very idea!

Susana: No doubt it was a reaction against the excesses of the previous generation. The Devonshire ménage-à-trois, for example. The Prince Regent and his illicit marriage, as well as all of his mistresses and excessive spending. The scandalous behavior of Lady Caroline Lamb.

Lady P [Frowning]: There were excesses, of course, which did lead to the pendulum swinging in the other direction. But such extreme changes more often than not led to equally harmful excesses on the other side.

Susana: Indeed. I can certainly see that is true in the 21st century. But do explain what you mean, Lady P. What were the harmful excesses caused by the Evangelical movement?

Lady P: A popular interpretation of the wife-as-saintly approach was that the husband was allowed and even expected to be a sinner.

Susana: Which gave him the freedom to take mistresses and carouse as often as he liked, while his “sainted wife” stayed home and raised the children.

caroline_lambLady P: Well, yes, but it was rather more than that. As unrealistic and unfair as it was to the women, I believe it was equally unfair to the men. Lord Byron, for example. Why would such a dissolute young man choose to marry a staid bluestocking like Annabella Milbanke?

Susana: Because she was an heiress and he was close to bankruptcy?

Lady P: Then why would she agree to marry him? She had turned him down flat in the past, having recognized that he was a loose screw.

Susana: Because opposites attract? Because she thought she could reform him?

Lady P: Exactly! She was quite forthcoming about it, actually, and Lord Byron seemed to agree that she would be a good influence on him, at least at first. But as the wedding drew near, he began to have doubts, complaining to his bosom bows that he feared the medicine would be far more disagreeable than the disease itself.

Susana: It can be tiresome to be preached at all the time. In a true partnership, both partners accept each other, flaws and all.

Lady P: Precisely. In this case, Annabella overestimated her own influence and underestimated the extent of her husband’s vices. She did not know of his immoral relationship with his half-sister Augusta until after the marriage, for example, and like most women who incessantly nag their husbands, she came to be regarded by her husband as a nuisance.

Susana: But as you say, Byron was a bit of a loose screw. Would it have worked between them, do you think, if he’d been on some sort of medication?

Lady P [with a loud harrumph]: Your society seems to be of the opinion that all can be cured with a tiny pill, Susana, but I’m not so sure. We had quacks touting medicines in our day too. Why, the stories I could tell you about laudanum…!

Susana: But getting back to the issue of women’s rights, what did you think of people like Hannah More, Lady P? Was she a good influence or a bad one? She did influence people to care for the poor, did she not?

Lady P: Hannah More and those around her were neither good nor bad, Susana. The mistake, in my opinion, is to paint everything in life broadly as either white or black. Hannah More did a great deal to awaken society to the plight of the poor and stir up support on their behalf, that is true. But I believe that she did a disservice to both women and men in promoting the role of women as subservient to men.

Susana: But women were still legally the chattel of men, were they not? And they were not given the right to vote for another hundred years.

Lady P [somewhat impatiently]: Legally, yes, that is true. But my dear Susana, you must not assume that every marriage was built on such an unequal basis. Discerning women always knew how to manage their husbands, so long as they took care to marry a husband who could be managed, that is. I daresay even the redoubtable Hannah herself could not have managed such a bedlamite as Lord Byron.

Susana: But you said yourself that you never told Lord Pendleton about your Whig activities with the Duchess of Devonshire.

Lady P: Indeed not. It was for his own protection. His family would have been scandalized.

Susana [shaking her head]: Sometimes your logic escapes me, Lady P.

Lady P: I’m not saying that my own marriage was ideal, or that most marriages were not unequal in my day, Susana. There was just as much hypocrisy in society then as there is in your century. Why Hannah herself apologized in her books for having the temerity to write them at all, being a mere woman as she was. My point is that one must consider one’s options and make the wisest choices possible in whatever circumstances one finds oneself. I may have decided to become a Whig, but I wasn’t foolish enough to believe they should have unilateral power. No indeed. Some of their official policies were ridiculous in the extreme, and I was glad there were rational voices on the other side to temper their excesses.

Susana: In that respect, I certainly agree with you, Lady P. I find I cannot blindly accept any philosophy or ideology without considering each facet of it on its own merits. But I find it extremely frustrating that there are so many who do, as though they haven’t a brain to think for themselves.

Lady P [dryly]: So I’ve noticed that about you. But Susana, it does appear that you are missing the point. People are who they are, and there’s not a lot you can do to change them. My counsel in such cases has always been to do what you can and let the rest be, else you work yourself into a state fit for Bedlam.

Susana: [shaking her head]. You remind me so much of Dr. Ellis, author of How To Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything.

Lady P: What a singular title for a book! The logic seems sound, however. Why, many was the time when Lord P left me alone to go to his club that I could have spent the night fuming, but I decided instead to use that time to follow my own interests.

Susana: Such as attend the Whig salons at Devonshire house?

Lady P: Yes, and attend balls and musicals that Lord P did not enjoy. It wasn’t fashionable to live in one another’s pockets, in any case. We muddled along well enough, I do believe. How I do miss the dear man! [Sigh]

As always, please do comment if you have any questions you’d like to ask Lady P about the late Georgian/Regency era. She does love to chat!

The Lady P Series

Episode #1: Susana’s Adventures With Lady P: The Introduction

Episode #2: Lady P Talks About… Pride and Prejudice?

Episode #3: Lady P and the Duchess Who Lost a Billion Dollars

Episode #4: Lady P and the Face On the $100 Bill

Episode #5: In Which Lady P Discovers Sparkly Fabrics and Ponders Violating the Prime Directive

Episode #6: Lady P Dishes the Dirt on the Duchess of Devonshire

Episode #7: The Political Exploits of Lady P and the Duchess of Devonshire

Episode #8: Lady P and the Prince Regent’s Illicit Marriage

Episode #9: In Which Lady P Depletes the Cooking Sherry During Her Discussion of Caroline of Brunswick

Episode #10: Lord Byron: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

Episode #11: In Which Lady P Talks About Hannah More and the Rights of Women

Episode #12: Lady P’s Revelations Regarding George III and His Peculiar Progeny

Episode #13: Lady P Discusses the Luddite Uprising, the Assassination of Spencer Perceval, and the General Unfairness of Life

Episode #14: In Which Leticia, Lady Beauchamp, Pops In For an Interview On Her Personal Acquaintance With Princess Charlotte of Wales

Episode #15: Lady P On Assignment in 1814 Kent

Lady P Quizzes Jane Livingston, the Hero’s Sister From “A Twelfth Night Tale”

Episode #10: Lord Byron: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

Lady Pendleton, Damian Ashby’s eccentric aunt (see the epilogue to Treasuring Theresa on Susana’s web site), is visiting Susana from the early 19th century. She’s intrigued by life in 21st century Toledo, Ohio, and, of course, Susana is thrilled to have the opportunity to pick her brain about life in Regency England. It certainly gives her a great deal to write about in Susana’s Parlour!

Susana: [to the Reader]:

Lady P and I just finished watching the 2007 BBC movie about Lord Byron, and I thought you might find some of her reminiscences of the original characters as intriguing as I did. [Turning to Lady P] You knew the real Lord Byron, did you not, Lady P? What was your impression of him?

byronLady P:

Oh yes, I was acquainted with the man, as was anyone who was anyone in the ton during the spring of 1812 when he came onto the scene. I could never understand why women were making cakes of themselves over him. He wasn’t all that well-favored, you know, not nearly as attractive as that actor who played him in the film. Although he did have a certain magnetism, I suppose, when he looked at a woman with “the stare,” that is, with hooded eyes. I’m not at all sure what he was conveying with that most peculiar stare, but whatever it was had the effect of making formerly sensible women abandon all pretense of prudence in order to attract his attention.

Susana:

Undoubtedly Lady Caroline Lamb was one of them.

Lady P:

She was the worst of them, but then, she was always somewhat of a loose screw, Susana. Even when she was small—she was eight years old when her mother, Georgiana’s sister, moved the family into Devonshire House to escape her father’s abuse—Georgiana used to tell me about her flights of fancy and frequent mood swings, and when she married George Lamb and moved into Melbourne House, we all hoped that her husband and Lady Melbourne, his mother, a prominent Whig hostess you know, would prove to be steadying influences on her.

Susana:

It didn’t work out that way, though, did it?

Lady P [shaking her head]:

Not at all. You know, Susana, it is never a good idea for a newlywed to move in with her husband’s family. Or the other way round, I’m sure. In this case, Caroline clashed constantly with Lady Melbourne, and it only got worse when Caroline and Byron were so foolish as to allow their affair to become public. Harriet—Lady Bessborough, Caroline’s mother, you know—tried to rein her in, especially after Lord Byron tried to break things off with her, but Caroline was so far gone from reality that she listened to no one. She foisted herself on his friends and begged them to help her win him back. She threatened to harm herself. She neither ate nor slept and was quite wraith-like when her mother and husband finally persuaded her to go to Ireland with them. But even that wasn’t the end of it. Poor Caroline raved over him until the day she died, alternately loving and hating him.

carolinelamb

Susana:

I suppose today she’d be diagnosed bipolar and given medication to help her cope with her illness.

Lady P [frowning]:

Bipolar?

Susana:

Mood swings. You know, when someone is rapturously happy and believes everything is right with the world and doesn’t care if everyone knows it, and then later falls into a serious depression. I’m no psychiatrist, of course, but it does sound to me like she suffered from such an affliction.

Lady P:

Well, she did suffer from some sort of affliction, that much is obvious. And I shouldn’t wonder if Lord Byron didn’t suffer from something similar. He too, was something of a loose screw. Although I can’t really say what he was like as a child. I did hear that his father was something of a tyrant, like Caroline’s.

Susana:

What an interesting thought! But did he exhibit an equal passion for her, at least while their affair was still going full-swing?

Lady P [with a decidedly unladylike snort]:

Oh yes, indeed. Of course, when he first came onto the social scene, he was a Nobody and she the reigning Beauty. No doubt he was flattered when she took an interest in him. They were both poets, you know, possessed of mercurial artistic temperaments. At first, her mad, childlike bravado attracted him, but when Lady Melbourne got her clutches into him and convinced him that Caroline’s antics could make him persona non grata in society, he began to cool toward her.

Susana:

Lady Melbourne? Caroline’s mother-in-law? Why would Lord Byron pay attention to anything she said about Caroline?

Lady P:

My dear Susana, Lady Melbourne was one of the premier Whig hostesses, exceedingly attractive for her age, and it was whispered about that Lord Byron was infatuated with her. Yes, even though she was more than thirty years his senior. It does happen, you know. She had many affairs with prominent men, including the Prince Regent, and her son George bears an uncanny resemblance to him too.

Susana:

So why was she so critical of Caroline, then, if she indulged in adulterous affairs herself?

Lady P [somewhat impatiently]:

The difference between them, my dear Susana, is that Lady Melbourne’s lovers were carefully chosen to increase her influence in political circles. She was also careful to manage them with the utmost discretion. Caroline, well, she had no such scruples. She was the victim of her impulses. And to a lesser extent, Lord Byron was to his as well.

Susana:

I feel so sorry for her. But Lord Byron did not pine away for her, did he?

Lady P:

Not at all. He cut a wide swathe among the ladies of London. [Lowering her voice] It is said that he had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta, and that her daughter Elizabeth is his.

Susana:

Goodness! For a society so bent on propriety, there was certainly a great deal of scandalous goings-on!

Lady P [sighing]:

Oh yes indeed! It was keeping up appearances that was the important thing. So hypocritical. Why, I always thought it was beyond outrageous when Lady Swindon cast her maid into the streets for being with child when she herself was having an affair with the Duke of Kent. I do hope I was able to instill better principles into my own daughters while they were growing up.

Susana:

Lord Byron eventually married, did he not? I heard that his daughter Ada was the world’s first computer programmer.

Lady P:

Computer programmer? Well, I can’t speak to that, since I have no notion of what that is, except for that machine you use for your writing. But yes, he did marry Annabella Milbank, who was Lady Melbourne’s favorite niece and an heiress besides. And now that I think on it, I do recall that she was thought to be something of a bluestocking, so it is likely that she would have an intelligent daughter. Why, Annabella was better educated than most of the men of the ton; you’d have thought she’d have better sense than to marry a sad rattle like George Byron.

Susana:

Those mesmerizing, hooded stares of his, no doubt.

Lady P:

She probably thought she could reform him. She was quite a devout young lady, I believe. [Shaking her head] Such a shame. Why, I made sure my girls knew better than to attempt such a thing with their husbands. There are ways a woman can influence her husband’s opinions—I can certainly attest to that—but it is far better to choose a mate who doesn’t require a great deal of changing. Do remember that, Susana.

Susana [rolling her eyes]:

Of course, Lady P. [To the reader] That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed Lady P’s reminiscences about the celebrated poet that Lady Caroline called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

As always, please do comment if you have any questions you’d like to ask Lady P about the late Georgian/Regency era. She does love to chat!