Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven


Last half of the 18th century
The Bluestockings, a pejorative name for an informal woman’s literary “club” that flourished in the second half of eighteenth century London, was named after Benjamin Stillingfleet’s blue worsted stockings: he was too poor to afford the customary black silk stocking suitable for evening wear. Run by educated, intellectual, conservative women who tried to raise the moral, intellectual, and cultural standards of their time, this group of friends took turns hosting evening’s entertainment where the literary figures of London took the spotlight. Women were often the majority of the guests, and the subject of the evening was often a learned women from the past or the present. Eventually similar ladies’ groups who patterned themselves after the Bluestockings sprung up all over London then all over England.
These upper-middle class women scorned female “accomplishments,” card playing, and frivolous behavior, preferring instead a life of moral and intellectual rigor and philanthropic activities. These women did not pen great tracts railing about the failings of men. They did claim the right to act in the semi-public sphere and they urged women to become involved in philanthropic activities which benefited other women. Following their own advice, they created a number of philanthropic institutions whose aim was to help women, often poor widowed women with children, become economically self-sufficient.
Although writing had become a fairly respectable profession for women, and, following the lead of Bathsua Makin a century earlier, women were beginning to teach in schools in greater numbers, the status and living conditions of educated women were beginning to improve. For the common woman, the story was much different. Common lands were being enclosed, driving peasants off the land and into the cities, depriving women of their independent economic status which they derived from their kitchen gardens and dairy work. These women lost status and position with the coming of the industrial revolution.1 So there were many women who needed the help of philanthropic societies.
Preferring the single life to an unhappily marriage life, these women, young and old, professional, educated, intellectual, and upper-middle-class women, married and as well as single, provided a mixture of role models for succeeding generations. Their numbers included several pairs of “close female friends” who either did or may have had “romantic friendships.” Frances Burney, the first English woman to write a best-seller, was a member of the group and part of her success can be attributed the favorable publicity she received from the group. They took care of one another: Elizabeth Carter (1716-1806), received 100 pound per year annuity from Elizabeth Montagu after her husband, Edward Carter, died.2 Some of the leading female intellects and writers of the age were numbered among the Bluestockings. Their members included:

Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1720-1800), “Queen of the Blues”, cousin to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) who brought the small-pox vaccine to England from Turkey
Elizabeth Vesey (1715?-1791)
Frances Glanville Boscawen (1719-1805)
Mary Granville Delaney (1700-1788)
Hester Mulso Chapone (1727-1801)
Fanny Burney (1752-1840)
Lady Eleanor Butler (1373-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), (also known as the Ladies of Llangollen )
Elizabeth Carter (1716-1806) and Catherine Talbot (1721-1770),
Sarah Robinson Scott, sister of Elizabeth Montagu, (1723-1795) and Lady Barbara Montagu,
Sarah Fielding (1710-1768) and Jane Collier (1710-1754/5),
Anna Seward (1747-1809) and Honora Sneyd,
Hanna More (1745-1833) and Eva Maria Violettti Garrick,
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and Fanny Blood
Male members included the literary giants of the age: Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Horace Walpole, and Samuel Richardson.

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