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Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Colours of Intelligence: Bluestockings

The term bluestocking is used as an old-fashioned pejorative description for an intellectual woman. What is especially odd about the term, though, is that the first bluestocking was a man. He was a learned botanist, translator, publisher and minor poet of the eighteenth-century named Benjamin Stillingfleet. He wrote an early opera and also published the first English editions of works by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus.
The story starts in the early 1750s, when a group of independently minded women decided to break away from the stultifying sessions of card playing and idle chatter which was all that tradition allowed them. They began to hold literary evenings, in direct imitation of the established salons of Paris, to which well-known men of letters would be invited as guests to encourage discussion.
One of the leading lights of this group was Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, a powerful and rich figure in London society (she was the cousin of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who brought smallpox inoculation back from Turkey). Literary and theatrical luminaries like Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Lord Lyttleton attended what she and her friends referred to as conversations, but which Horace Walpole, a frequent guest, called petticoteries. Another regular visitor was Joshua (later Sir Joshua) Reynolds, who, to complete the circle of associations, painted a portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in 1786.
Mr Stillingfleet was asked to attend by Mrs Vesey, one of the group. He felt he had to decline, as he was too poor to afford the formal dress then required for evening events, which included black silk stockings. According to Fanny Burney, who told the story later, Mrs Vesey told him to come as he was, in his informal day clothes. Which he did, wearing his blue worsted stockings, and started a trend.
Admiral Edward Boscawen, who was known to his friends as “Old Dreadnought” or “Wry-necked Dick”, was the husband of one of the more enthusiastic attendees. He was very rude about what he saw as his wife’s literary pretensions and is said to have derisively described the sessions as being meetings of the Blue-Stocking Society. So those who attended were sometimes called Blue Stockingers, later abbreviated to blue stockings. (Another name was the French form Bas Bleu, which Hanna More, another member, used in her poem, The Bas Bleu, or Conversation, which gives a lot of information about the group.)

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