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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

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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

Regency Rites: Almack’s Assembly Rooms

What was Almack’s?

Almack’s was founded in 1765 by a Mr. McCall. The building was located on King Street just off St. James Street* and included a large ballroom, as well as supper rooms and card rooms.

Almack’s was ruled by a select committee of society matrons known as the Lady Patronesses. These ladies ruled the club with an iron hand; only the crème de la crème (about 25%) of London society were authorized to cross the threshold of this exclusive circle. Each application for membership was carefully scrutinized by the high-handed patronesses, who were not above using their power for retribution against their rivals or other personal reasons.

The food served was not of the best quality. Alcohol was not served—only tea and lemonade.The floor of the ballroom was said to be dreadful, and the rigid rules set by the patronesses could not be broken by anyone. It is said that the Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Peninsular War, was refused admission because he did not sport the proper dress—knee breeches, white neckcloth, and a long-tailed coat. The doors were locked precisely at eleven o’clock and no one was allowed in after that for any reason. There was a long list of”do’s” and “don’ts” (mostly don’ts) for the young debutantes, and any infraction could result in expulsion from the club and social censure. When the waltz was finally given the seal of approval—it was condemned for years as being scandalous due to the close proximity of the dancers’ bodies—the young ladies had to be individually approved to dance it by one of the patronesses.

Almack's Assembly Rooms

Almack’s Assembly Rooms

Almack’s balls were decidedly not anywhere near the grandest balls of the London Season, so why did the matchmaking mothers of the haut ton scramble to get their hands on those square cardboard vouchers that would gain them admittance?

One word—marriage. Almack’s was the exclusive “marriage mart” of the ton. While potential spouses for your sons and daughters could be found elsewhere, the “best” ones could ideally be found at Almack’s, where the average, everyday riffraff need not apply. Who wouldn’t want their daughter to find a wealthy, well-connected—perhaps titled—spouse to enrich the family fortunes? Matchmaking mothers everywhere yearned to have their marriageable offspring included among the exclusive company of Almack’s.

Who were the Patronesses?

The Lady Patronesses—six or seven at any one time—were:

Lady Castlereagh

Lady Castlereagh

Lady Castlereagh (Emily Anne) was a wealthy earl’s daughter who married the Viscount Castlereagh (later the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry), who held many political posts (Secretary of States for War, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and leader of the House of Commons) during the period. Lady Castlereagh was the one who insisted that the door to Almack’s be closed promptly at eleven. She and Mrs. Drummond Burrell were both known for their disdainful arrogance.

Lady Jersey

Lady Jersey

Lady Jersey, “Queen Sarah,” “Silence,” or “Sally” to her close friends was the wealthy daughter of the 10th Earl of Westmoreland who married the 5th Earl of Jersey. Lady Jersey’s mother-in-law, Lady Frances Jersey, was at one time the mistress of the Prince of Wales (it was she who recommended he choose Princess Caroline for his wife), and her parents eloped to Gretna Green (quite the scandal). Lady Jersey’s younger sister married the brother of the scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb, but when the latter ridiculed her in her vengeful novel Glenarvon, Lady Jersey barred her from Almack’s forever.

Lady Sefton

Lady Sefton

Lady Sefton (Maria) assisted many a green girl to negotiate the hazards of the marriage mart. Her husband was an enthusiastic sporting man, and a member of the Four-in-Hand Club (an elite club for only the best drivers).

Lady Cowper

Lady Cowper

Lady Cowper (Emily) was the daughter of the great political hostess, Lady Melbourne, and due to her mother’s numerous affairs, her paternity was never verified. She disapproved of her sister-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb, but was otherwise known as one of the kindest of the patronesses.

Princess Esterhazy

Princess Esterhazy

Princess Esterhazy (Thérèse) was the grand niece of Queen Charlotte and never let anyone forget it. Her husband Prince Paul Esterhazy served as the Austrian ambassador to England 1815-1842. She and the Countess Lieven demonstrated the utmost in continental sophistication.

Countess Lieven

Countess Lieven

Countess Lieven (Dorothea) was the first foreigner to serve as a patroness of Almack’s. Her husband the Count was the Russian ambassador to England from 1812 to 1834. Besides being a leader of London society, she was a significant political force in Great Britain, France and Russia.

Mrs. Drummond Burrell

Mrs. Drummond Burrell

Mrs. Drummond Burrell (Clementina) was a great heiress and daughter of an earl who later became a baroness when her husband succeeded to his father’s title. Although one of the younger patronesses, she was considered the most arrogant and haughty of them all.

Appearance was everything.

It’s interesting to note that while London society, as demonstrated by the Lady Patronesses, demanded a high degree of moral perfection, it was really the façade that counted. As long as you behaved with discretion—i.e., didn’t get caught—you could have adulterous affairs with impunity. While it was expected that wives would remain faithful to their husbands until the birth of an heir or two, after that, it was quite common for both husband and wife to indulge in affairs. It was widely known that Lady Melbourne had affairs with politically powerful men who fathered many of her children, but her the importance of her position precluded any open censure.

Most of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s had notorious affairs. Emily Cowper, taking the advice of her mother, the above-mentioned Lady Melbourne, to be true to her lover rather than her husband, had a long affair with Lord Palmerston, who later became Prime Minister, and after her husband died, they married and lived happily ever after.

As long as it was behind closed doors—and you were wealthy and important enough—you could get away with a considerably lower standard of behavior. Of course, marriages tended to be more about property, wealth and family connections than any sort of love or affection, so perhaps such scenarios were a natural result of cold-blooded unions.

The King Street location of Almack’s is an office building now; when I was there two weeks ago, it was covered with scaffolding. Christie’s Auction House is across the street.

The Regency Rites series

Regency Rites: The Well-Dressed Regency Lady 

Regency Rites: Presentation at Court

Regency Rites: Almack’s Assembly Rooms 

Regency Rites: The London Season

Regency Rites: The London Season

The Haut Ton

The haut ton referred to the members of some three hundred families who owned large estates that supplied their primary income. Sometimes they were called “the upper ten thousand.” Not all were titled, but they were usually at least well-connected and wealthy enough to stand the enormous expenses of socializing with the crème de la crème of English society, which included:

  • owning or renting a suitable residence in a fashionable area of London (in addition to a great country home on their estate), along with the requisite servants, stables, etc.
  • extensive wardrobes in the first stare of fashion for all members of the family who participated in the Season
  • food, drink, decorations, musicians, etc. required to provide entertainment for other members of the ton in grand style
  • costs of renting theatre boxes, purchasing entrance tickets to public entertainments, such as the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Astley’s Amphitheatre, etc.
  • allowance or pin money for wives, sons or daughters.

What was the London Season?

Lady Theresa

Lady Theresa

The London Season evolved from the legislative sessions of Parliament, which would run roughly from January/February to June. Generally, a peer would bring his family to London sometime after the holidays, which provided a perfect opportunity for their families to socialize and seek suitable spouses for their children. The Season didn’t heat up until spring, though, and by the end of June, most of the first families escaped the odiferous heat of London for the fresh air of their country estates or perhaps a seaside resort.

Many families would return to London in September for the “Little Season,” which was much less prestigious, but few were left in Town by the end of November.

Essentially, anyone who was anyone would participate in the London Season, even if they had to run up enormous debts to do it.

In Treasuring Theresa, an earl’s daughter such as Lady Theresa would be expected to have a London Season and make a suitable marriage. Unfortunately, however, her first Season was unsuccessful, and later, there was no money for it, so when childhood sweetheart Reese Bromfield broke her heart by betrothing himself to another, Lady Theresa’s options for marriage were limited. Incidentally, Reese Bromfield, as the son of a squire, was not highly-connected, but as the son of a wealthy member of the gentry, he would have been welcomed to participate in the ton, although not, perhaps, in the highest circles.

What did people do in the London Season?

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

London offered—and still does to this day—an endless number of delights for visitors, regardless of status. In the early 19th century, one could walk or ride through the park (Hyde Park or Green Park were quite popular), visit the British Museum or any number of museums or galleries, attend a circus performance at Astley’s Amphitheatre, visit the Pleasure Gardens of Vauxhall with its nightly fireworks, and attend the theatre or opera. The best shopping in the world could be had on Bond Street, and for the gentlemen there was racing, boxing, gaming, and all sorts of attractions that couldn’t be found on a remote country estate.

For the haut ton, there were balls and parties, soirées, routs, musical evenings, Venetian breakfasts, al fresco teas, extravagant dinners…all sorts of opportunities to hobnob with wealthy aristocrats and politicians and make connections that could potentially lead to even higher status and prestige.

Hyde Park

Hyde Park

It was all great fun—but very expensive, especially for those who succumbed to the gambling fever. Entire fortunes were won and lost in this period—and not just by the gentlemen either. Before she died in 1806, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, had lost what amounts today to a billion dollars. (See Lady P’s insights on that here.)

What did people do the rest of the year?

Whatever they wished! Many spent the summer on their country estates, which generally sported expansive mansions with huge ballrooms that could be used for house parties, during which they would entertain their friends from other parts of England for a week or more. Sometimes gentlemen took a personal interest in their estates, but often the management was left to a steward or estate manager so that the owner was free to participate in local society, or travel to the seaside, or take the waters at a spa resort, such as Bath. Hunting and fishing were popular sports for the gentlemen.

Damian Ashby, Lord Clinton

Damian Ashby, Lord Clinton

In Treasuring Theresa, Damian Ashby was a society dandy who despised the country, except for the income it provided him. Lady Theresa despised the superficiality of the ton and preferred life on her country estate, where she counted among her friends villagers and commoners, as well as the local gentry. How will these two seemingly complete opposites manage to bear each other’s company for an extended period of time as her dying father wishes?

About Treasuring Theresa (a sweet Regency short story)

At the betrothal ball of the man she had expected to marry herself, Lady Theresa latches on to Damian Ashby, hoping to divert attention from her own humiliating situation. Of course, she’s not seriously interested because he’s a useless London fribble, in her opinion. He is not favorably impressed with her either.

Still, she’s the daughter of an earl, and he’s the heir to her father’s title and estate, so they are destined to spend more time in each other’s company…sooner rather than later. And who knew that the two of them would develop an unlikely attraction to one another?

But can a London swell and a country lady ever make their diverse lives and interests work together?

Note: Excerpts and additional reads—including an epilogue to this story—are available here.

Available

Ellora’s CaveAmazonBarnes & NobleAllRomance eBooksKobo

The Regency Rites series

Regency Rites: The Well-Dressed Regency Lady 

Regency Rites: Presentation at Court

Regency Rites: Almack’s Assembly Rooms 

Regency Rites: The London Season