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Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, Brilliant Women, 18th Century Bluestockings.

Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, Brilliant women, 18th Century Bluestockings (London: National Portrait Gallery 2008)

BRILLIANT WOMEN: 18th Century Bluestockings was an exhibition that originated in the work of Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz at the Huntington Library in Pasadena in 2001 where they both held Library Research Fellowships. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue studied the influence of the Bluestocking Circle, with particular focus on the group around Elizabeth Montague in the 1770s; traced the development of the work, social organization and public reception of the Circle through the 1780s; outlined the political reaction and its effect on the Circle in the 1790s; and finally examined the legacy of the Bluestockings in the early nineteenth century, with some comments on the twentieth.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue brought the art, literature, poetry, philosophy, classics, language, drama, correspondence, history, and political writings of the Bluestockings together through the visual mediums of oil, pen and ink, watercolour, pastel, pencil, hand-tinted etchings, engraving, mezzotints, sculpture, pottery, and the penny press. The artistic genres exhibited included a broad range in each medium, from the academic tradition to the new eighteenth century printing technologies, Most works exhibited were drawn from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the British Library, and the British Museum.

The exhibition participants at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2008 attempted to portray visually in miniature 35 years of academic scholarship on the Bluestocking Circle. The exhibition combined tightly arranged wall displays of paintings, prints, and drawings with glass cabinet displays of books, letters, and manuscripts. The smaller floor plan of the exhibit created the impression of an intimate circle of friendships among the members of the Bluestockings while perhaps not reflecting the rather grander scale of their achievements. The larger paintings in the exhibition such as Angelica Kauffmann's The Artist Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting, (1791-94) and Richard Samuel's Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, (1778) would have benefited from a larger exhibition space.

The exhibition served well to illustrate how members of the Bluestocking Circle wielded their pens and brushes to reflect their professional interests, both in the subject matter and content of their art and literature, and in the materials and form that would assist them to practically make a living wage from their work. The scale of the objects in the exhibition was physically grand in the case of the academic paintings of Angelica Kauffmann, and the technical distribution large in the case of the small penny press publications of Hannah More. This reflected the desire of the women in the Bluestocking Circle to leave the limited roles for women of upper-, middle-, and working-class life in the eighteenth century, to enter into paid employment in the arts and letters. For upper- and middle-class women the ambition to establish careers was seen by some opponents, as a move down the social ladder into paid employment. For working-class women, on the other hand, making careers in arts was a necessary improvement to hard manual labour. In reality, for all, it was an attempt to find employment and financial independence through the work they loved. The work of the Bluestocking Circle displayed on the walls and in the cabinets of the National Portrait Gallery spoke measurably of a group of women taking their place in the world as translators, poets, writers, artists, singers, critics, playwrights, and historians.

Brought together in this way, the work of the Bluestocking Circle demonstrates how such a formation of women could assist in raising a larger group of women into new forms of economic independence without concern for the social origin of the participants. Not only did the Circle cut across social backgrounds, it also cut across political boundaries with the shared interest of moving women into careers in the arts and letters. The fact that their efforts were bolstered by the political moment of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and criticized in the political reaction to the Enlightenment didn't erase their legacy for the next generation of women who struggled to achieve the same goals under different circumstances.

Brilliant Women, the exhibition catalogue, produced by the National Portrait Gallery stands on its own as a solid, small volume on the scholarship of the Bluestocking Circle punctuated with reproductions of some of the artwork and writing of the Circle. The catalogue contains four chapters, two by Eger and two by Peltz. The first chapter discusses the manner in which the Bluestocking assembly came together as a grouping with particular attention to the support of the literary critic and industrialist Elizabeth Montagu in the 1750s. Biographical references focus on the moment in London society when Elizabeth Montagu hosted events to provide a setting for intellectual discussion among a broad range of career-minded women.

Chapter one emphasizes Montagu's role as patron in securing work in subscriber publications for women writers such as Ann Yearsley and Hannh More. Her role in granting annuities to Elizabeth Carter, Hester Chapone, and Sarah Fielding in the 1770s is also discussed. The chapter also explores the reception of the assemblies in the literary community, where they were admired for their diversity of opinions, reasoning, and argument, and inclusion of women for their skills and abilities rather than their social rank.

Chapter one also discusses the transformation of the eighteenth century publishing trade that opened outlets for both middle-and working-class writers through the introduction of the penny press, a cheaper means of technical reproduction that enabled individuals to distribute their writing to a growing literate audience. It allowed writers to receive a comparatively decent income from their writing, which could be supplemented by a presence on the lecture circuit.

Chapter two discusses the high period of the Bluestocking Circle in the 1770s when the individuals in the Circle were well established and made a solid contribution to the arts and letters.. The chapter discusses the growth of the political mood in London and abroad in support of women's economic, social, and cultural advancement. Whether it was the striving from below for the advancement of democracy in society or a striving from within established society for a national rival to women of standing in France and elsewhere, society increasingly allowed an assembly of women to move forward into the centre of the arts and letters community.

Chapter three covers the period between the American Declaration of Independence and the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1776-1815) when the political moment of the Enlightenment was at its height internationally. This chapter introduces three political writers contemporary to the Bluestocking Circle, Catharine Macauley (writer and Whig republican), Mary Wollstonecraft (writer), and Hannah More (playwright and Tory), and illustrates the social climate women encountered during the years of political change. The chapter largely examines the career and public reception of Macauley accompanied by the celebratory neoclassical portraiture, engraving, and sculpture of her.

Chapter four, a shorter chapter also serving as the conclusion, focuses on the Bluestocking legacy from the end of the Napoleonic War to the beginning of the 21st century. This chapter is intended to demonstrate how at the opening of the nineteenth century the Bluestocking Circle, now in a position of prominence after a long period of social organization, ended as one formation but found continuity through a different generation of women bolstered by a renewed climate for suffrage in the 1830s and 1840s. This new generation of women working as writers, artists, playwrights, and politicians addressed their own moment in a variety of genres built on the efforts of the Bluestocking Circle. Their moment was different and in some ways more difficult being in a period of economic decline in the aftermath of centuries of war, but the work of Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Moody, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Hall, Letitia Landon, Mary Mitford, Harriet Martineau, George Eliot and others illustrates their strong presence and success.

The final chapter briefly examines the contrasting critics Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt and discusses how the nineteenth century novel superseded the penny press for many women writers in the period. The novel, as a literary form, provided a better income for women writers, could be written under a wider range of social circumstances in regional as well as urban settings, and had a vast appeal with a growing female readership. The catalogue concludes with a short survey of the successors of the Bluestockings in the twentieth century from Virginia Woolf to Germaine Greer.

One strength of the Brilliant Women project was its bringing together of a wide variety of artistic and literary genres and media to create the feel of a wealth of women's professional contribution to the late eighteenth century. The catalogue tries to give a voice to the breadth of the research that has been underway across disciplines on the Bluestocking Circle over the past 35 years. There are substantial notes at the end of each chapter and a three page select bibliography and further reading listing at the end of the catalogue.

The chapters vary greatly in style and presentation of research. Careful editing would have reduced this unevenness. There is a tendency to introduce ideas in the catalogue essays without developing them. The chapters are weighed down with catalogues of names and small facts and the argument is often lost. Many topics are initiated or insinuated and then not developed. The chapter headings are sometimes disjointed from the chapter content and some sub-headings appear as afterthoughts. The personal attacks on Bluestocking women that focused on assumptions about the women's personal lives seem redundant at this stage in scholarship on the Circle.

Contemporary criticism of the Bluestocking Circle reflected the success of the Circle and their impact on society; much of the satirical portrayal of Circle members was a direct compliment to these individuals as meticulous attention was paid to their appearance, far more than their male counterparts. Their visages were often less distorted and more care taken to their individual details than," say, Samuel Johnson or RobesPierre. Even Thomas Rowlandson's Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club (1815) was scarcely harsher than satirists' treatments of parliamentarians at the time. The term "bluestocking" has a fine lineage in English history and would not have entered everyday use in the language positively or negatively after Cromwell's parliament in 1653 had not a small group of women in eighteenth century London decided it was acceptable for a few men of casual attire such as Benjamin Stillingfleet and Samuel Johnson to entertain them wearing their blue-worsted stockings.

The development of the term "bluestocking" is no doubt part of the movement that recognizes that "well-heeled" attire and social class were not the principal content of the Enlightenment and that the women of the Bluestocking Circle managed to span the social classes. The criticism of the Bluestocking Circle was also without regard to the social class or party politics of the individual members as evidenced in Rowlandson's satire. Change the gender of the satire and it is little different than a brawl by men in parliament and to be given little more significance, than that. Undoubtedly the intention of such attacks was to discourage any further efforts at collective organizing of women.

The Brilliant Women: 18th-Bluestockings exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery contributed to an important discussion about the role of interdisciplinary work in art history in the past forty years. While the cross-fertilization of knowledge among the disciplines of art, literature, and history (amongst other fields) has enhanced scholars' work, it has also made scholars aware of the importance of retaining a solid knowledge base in their own discipline. Without such a base, interdisciplinary work can lack development and direction and the resulting scholarship can seem highly generalist or without significance. Scholars working in different disciplines need a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their own discipline and knowledge and a clear understanding of the intersecting boundaries between the various disciplines in order to work together.

While the new technology that has gone hand in hand with interdisciplinary work has had the potential to be a useful tool to scholars in their research and publication, its 25 year implementation period has sometimes used an increasingly large portion of institutional budgets and valuable scholarly time. Like any new technology, its value will ultimately be assessed by its contribution to the quality of the final scholarship by having freed up time for scholarly thought, enhanced access to research material, or improved the physical appearance and quality of the published volume. If it has not done this, it will not have been a useful exercise.

In the meantime, most scholars try to retain and develop the knowledge base and skills associated with their particular disciplines and continue to meet other professionals in conferences, seminars, meetings, and less formal settings. The individuals who met in the Bluestocking Circle provided an early example of this prior to the modern academy.

The Brilliant Women exhibition and its accompanying catalogue create the sense of the ingenuity of a group of women who were emerging in London at the time of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and who left a legacy to women professionals in the arts and letters for the following 150 years. The National Portrait Gallery, Elizabeth Eger, Lucy Peltz, and Clare Barlow are to be commended for organizing an interesting and enjoyable exhibition of the Bluestocking Circle. In time, perhaps, the work of the Bluestocking Circle and their successors will find an even larger and more permanent expression in British galleries and museums, and become part of an international renaissance of the contribution of women to the intellectual life and cultural wellbeing of people.


York University
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Author:Ramsay, Ellen L.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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