Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2009
Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Pelz Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 160 pp.; 84 color ills.; 64 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300141030)
Exhibition schedule: National Portrait Gallery, London, March 13–June 15, 2008

The brilliant women of this book’s title were the remarkable writers and artists in eighteenth-century England known as bluestockings, a name first applied to both sexes for the blue worsted stockings worn by a gentleman who attended the literary salon hosted by Elizabeth Montagu, one of the original bluestockings. By the 1770s, however, the term was associated specifically with intellectual women. Co-authors Elizabeth Eger, lecturer in eighteenth-century and Romantic literature at King’s College London, and Lucy Peltz, eighteenth-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, produced this attractive volume to accompany the exhibition of the same name. The book traces the history of bluestockings in relation to the social, economic, and political history of Britain and far-reaching cultural developments during the Enlightenment, including the dramatic impact of the American and French Revolutions. While the term bluestocking has often been applied since the eighteenth century to denigrate learned women as frumpy, bookish, and unfeminine, the authors demonstrate that the original bluestockings were not only recognized for their contributions to literature, history, politics, and art, but lauded for demonstrating the superiority of British culture. Writers Montagu, Hannah More, Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Macaulay, and Mary Wollstonecraft, artists Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Moser, and Frances Reynolds, as well as the bluestockings’ French counterparts Madame de Staël and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun are among the many talented women highlighted in this engaging study. Eger and Peltz examine these women’s friendships and rivalries, struggles and successes, and the rise and fall of reputations, in addition to their extensive creative production in the form of poetry, philosophy, educational and political tracts, novels, plays, translations, literary criticism, and paintings. The authors include a select bibliography with recommendations for further reading and notes for each chapter.

In the book’s four chapters, two by each author, Eger and Peltz examine the rise of the bluestockings in the mid-eighteenth century and the critical fortunes of intellectual and artistic women through the nineteenth century, including their successors, notably Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and some of their literary and artistic heirs in the twentieth century. The authors’ analyses of these women’s portrayals in various pictorial media along with biographical sketches and selected quotations from letters, poems, satires, and treatises create a vivid and multi-dimensional picture of intelligent, spirited women who braved public ridicule to express their ideas, advance their careers, and play active roles that profoundly influenced British society and culture. The authors demonstrate how the supportive intellectual climate in which the early bluestockings thrived later turned critical and even hostile, especially in response to publications like Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and historian Macaulay’s liberal, republican views and marriage to a poor man half her age.

Chapter 1, by Eger, “The Bluestocking Circle: Friendship, Patronage, and Learning,” introduces the three original members of the Bluestocking Circle (Montagu, Frances Boscowan, and Elizabeth Vesey), the influence they exerted through friendships and patronage, and the Enlightenment ideal of social discourse as it played out in the mixed company of the literary salons. Chapter 2, by Peltz, “Living Muses: Constructing and Celebrating the Professional Woman in Literature and the Arts,” focuses on representations of educated and creative women and the “language of feminine iconography,” especially in the form of classical allusions (17). This chapter investigates the public spectacle of actresses like Sarah Siddons and the portrayal and self-portrayal of writers and artists. The third chapter, “‘A Revolution in Female Manners’: Women, Politics and Representation in the Late Eighteenth Century,” concentrates on two of the most controversial and influential figures, Macaulay and Wollstonecraft, who were vilified as transgressive and immoral monsters—“unsex’d females” (113)—for their revolutionary politics and sexual exploits. Peltz contrasts the two radicals’ conduct, views, reception, and representations with the devout abolitionist and poet Hannah More, who shared Wollstonecraft’s belief that women should be educated yet accepted women’s subordination as desirable and divinely ordained (117). Eger’s chapter 4, “The Bluestocking Legacy,” examines the reception of literary and intellectual women in nineteenth-century Britain when their cultural achievements were more or less ignored and bluestocking became a scornful term of derision. She reflects on some twentieth-century bluestockings such as Virginia Woolf and illustrates Paula Rego’s striking portrait (1995) of a thoughtful Germaine Greer. Eger laments that “it is still the case that the ‘higher’ genres of literary and intellectual writing are dominated by male authors” (144), and offers reflections on the “post-feminist” climate in which women have not achieved complete equality with men. She concludes with the rather disheartening statement: “Perhaps it was easier to be a bluestocking in the eighteenth century than it is in our own age” (149).

Brilliant Women is not a catalogue; however, all the works in the exhibition are splendidly illustrated, many in high-quality color or as full-page reproductions. Portraits of the bluestockings, their associates, and followers, along with engravings, drawings, caricatures, and Wedgwood plaques provide an abundance of visual material not usually available in studies of literary figures. Intended primarily for general readers and exhibition visitors, Brilliant Women does not break major new ground but offers an excellent overview of the bluestocking phenomenon. However, the authors’ focus on visual representations of learned women in portraits, book illustrations, and other pictorial forms and their analyses of how and why bluestockings were depicted by both admirers and critics makes this study useful for scholars of eighteenth-century art, literature, and history. This consideration of visual imagery contributes to a larger understanding of the vital role women played in the eighteenth-century republic of letters through their images as well as their works in ways that textual accounts alone cannot achieve. Whether disparaged and mocked in caricature, elevated as allegorical personifications, or portrayed as graceful ladies in fashionable dress, these images call attention to the complex identities of intellectually ambitious women.

The painting that best captures the bluestocking moment in British history, as well as the ambivalence with which they were viewed, is Richard Samuel’s Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo (The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain) exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779 (National Portrait Gallery, London). Nine women dressed in pseudo-classical garments sit or stand in groups beneath a statue of Apollo. They represent specific people, including painter Kauffmann, poet Anna Letitia Barbauld, singer Elizabeth Sheridan, and historian Macaulay, though their features are so generalized that it is difficult to tell one from another even with their various attributes. Although these women were eminent writers and artists, Peltz points out that the painting was based on Samuel’s engraving made the previous year to illustrate the Ladies New and Polite Pocket Memorandum Book for 1778 where it was printed beside a fashion plate showing two women with their hair piled high on their heads in the latest styles (62–63). This group of “female worthies” (64) served as exemplars for contemporary women readers, yet they are represented as muses, the handmaidens to the arts, allegorical personifications in antique costumes rather than portraits of real creative individuals. In contrast to this image of women honored for their achievements, Thomas Rowlandson’s hand-colored etching Breaking Up of the Bluestocking Club (1815) ridicules female intellects. In a riotous, frenzied battle, women pull each other’s hair, gouge eyes, and punch and tumble with petticoats flying and crockery crashing to the floor. As Eger notes, this breaking up confirms a “stereotypical view of what happens when female gossips are left alone. But it also suggests a more general dissolution of the bluestockings in the public imagination—or, rather, an aggressive reaction against the very strength and visibility they had achieved by the end of the eighteenth century” (128).

The book also includes numerous portraits of individual women in various modes. For example, the classical scholar and translator of Epictetus, Elizabeth Carter, was portrayed by Joseph Highmore (ca. 1738) in an elegant, shimmering silk dress with lace trim, leaning meditatively on a plinth. She holds a book, marking her place with her index finger, and engages the viewer’s gaze. In many ways this portrait is a typical depiction of a fashionable, cultivated lady in a garden setting, though Peltz suggests it was designed to advance her professional identity by including the female figure behind her accepting a laurel wreath from a male figure who swoops in from above. This detail provides at least a subtle reference to her literary ambition, though further analysis might conclude the background imagery undermines her intellectual independence. Another portrait of Carter from the same period by John Fayram represents her as Minerva with plumed helmet, breastplate, and book of Plato—a fitting guise for a classical scholar, yet women without the same intellectual accomplishments were often similarly portrayed as antique goddesses. A portrait of a mature Carter ca. 1765 commissioned by her friend Montagu from painter Katherine Read shows her simply attired in a vaguely classical veil, holding pen and book, her head turned aside in a pensive attitude. Peltz suggests the averted gaze implies modesty, “absorption,” and stoic self-denial (74). This interpretation captures some of the meaning, though her averted gaze may also signify deep thought as seen in portraits of male scholars and artists. Of Carter’s three portraits, only this later work by female artist Read truly seems to capture Carter’s powerful intellect and professional identity. These portraits are only a few examples of the provocative images of fascinating women examined in this book.

In sum, Brilliant Women is a beautifully produced, intelligent, and well-written introduction to the bluestockings and their place in history, and it provides much material for further studies of these admirable women and women’s roles in the eighteenth century.

Wendy Wassyng Roworth
Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, University of Rhode Island