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Cover of Bluestocking Feminism

Bluestocking Feminism Writings of the Bluestocking Circle, 1738-1785

  • Published: 1 Jun 1999
  • DOI: 10.4324/9781851965144
  • Set ISBN: 9781851965144

Eighteenth-century Bluestocking women were, on the whole, an upper-class and politically and socially conservative group. For this reason, their writings have been largely neglected in feminist and literary history. In recent decades, however, feminist scholarship and criticism has retrieved the Bluestocking women from their marginal position in eighteenth-century literature. This work collects the principal writings of these women, together with a selection of their letters. Each volume is annotated and all texts are edited and reset. The collection will be of interest to students of eighteenth century history, literature, culture and gender studies.

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General Introduction

Our knowledge of the life and works of Elizabeth Carter – poet, translator, essayist, Greek scholar, letter writer and prominent Bluestocking –owes a great deal to the labours of her nephew, the Reverend Montagu Pennington. He bore an enduring reminder of his aunt's friendships in being named for his godmother, Elizabeth Montagu, and, by preparing Carter's works for publication he performed a generous act of homage to his aunt and her circle, to whom he felt indebted for his education and advantages. However, like those other worthy nephews, Matthew Montagu and James-Edward Austen-Leigh, in memorialising his aunt, he also embalmed her reputation and insulated her to some extent from further scrutiny. He published a massive body of work (Carter being the most prolific of the first generation of Bluestockings), much of it from manuscript: two quarto volumes of correspondence between Carter and Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Vesey; three octavo volumes of letters from Carter to Montagu; and a two-volume memoir, the second volume comprising her published poetry, selections from unpublished poetry, miscellaneous essays, religious writings, and exerpts from letters. In addition he republished her translation of the Works of Epictetus, adding notes which she made on her own copy, and reissued her edition of Catherine Talbot's Works, with his own introduction. Yet he omitted several of her works, including her translations of Algarotti and Crousaz, her Remarks on the Athanasian Creed, and some of her early poems as well as some surviving only in manuscript – none of which she herself had chosen to be remembered by. Furthermore, his editorial hand is very much in evidence throughout – cutting, pasting, 'improving', and concealing even as he reveals his aunt to his audience. The manuscripts from which he worked are now lost to view, and it is possible that Carter would have wished it that way, as she disapproved of 'the injudicious publication of confidential letters'. What survives in print presents a complex portrait, but some of its features are heavily marked by Pennington's hand.

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Catherine Talbot (1721–70): Introduction, Chronology, Athenian Letters, Essay: By “Sunday”, Reflections on the Seven Days of the Week, Essays, Dialogues, Pastorals, A Fairy Tale, Imitations of Ossian, Allegories, Selected Poems, Selected Letters: Letter to Jemima Campbell, Hester Mulso Chapone (1727–1801): Introduction, Chronology, Letters on Filial Obedience, A Matrimonial Creed, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, A Letter to a New-Married Lady1, Selected Poems

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Sarah (Robinson) Scott's social formation as a Bluestocking feminist resembled that of her sister Elizabeth, with significant differences. Born into the landed gentry, her education and prospects in life would be significantly poorer than those of her brothers. Because there were several brothers, all of whom had to be provided with property (for the oldest) or professions (for the youngest), there would be fewer resources still for her and her one, older, sister, Elizabeth, later of course to be Elizabeth Montagu, 'queen of the Bluestockings'. As a second daughter, Sarah would have poorer prospects, although both she and Elizabeth seem to have been allotted the same amount by way of dowry. That sum would be considered the most significant factor in determining her opportunities for marriage, followed by the status and connections of her family (what they could offer her husband through the patronage system) and her personal appearance, qualities, and education. Her parents seem to have had a difficult marriage, partly or largely for reasons rooted in historic gender differences within their social class. Her father, Matthew Robinson (1698–1778), was a landed gentleman, with property in Yorkshire, who seems to have had few interests beyond enjoying his gentleman's life and who seems to have acquired elements of the libertine and freethinking masculine culture of the Restoration and early eighteenth century. His wife, Elizabeth Drake (c. 1693–1746), was daughter of a town councilor of Cambridge and an heiress who brought her husband an estate in Kent. More important to her daughters would have been that she apparently received a good education in the tradition of the Renaissance and seventeenth-century 'learned lady'. Another important intellectual influence on the Robinson children through family connections may have come from Conyers Middleton of Cambridge University, second husband of their maternal grandmother, and whom they seem to have visited at Cambridge. Middleton was not only an eminent classical scholar but one of the leading 'commonwealthmen' or 'classical republicans' of the early eighteenth century. There may have been similar connections: at some point later on, Elizabeth and Sarah knew Catharine Sawbridge, later Macaulay, from the notoriously republican family of Sawbridge.

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As far as we know, Sarah Scott closed her publication career in 1772 with The Test of Filial Duty, in a Series of Letters between Miss Emilia Leonard and Miss Charlotte Arlington: A Novel, in two volumes. Since the publication of A Journey through Every Stage of Life eighteen years earlier, much had happened in Scott’s personal and literary life, and similarly much had happened in development of the genre of the novel. By the 1770s, the ‘Richardsonian revolution’ in the novel, especially the epistolary form, had been taken in a number of directions, by writers in Britain and Europe. Not only did many women writers turn to the form, exploiting historic and conventional cultural associations of women and the private sphere with the form of familiar letters, but prominent male proponents of Enlightenment culture, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Tobias Smollett, used this genre in the 1760s and 1770s as a suitable vehicle for disseminating these movements. In The Test of Filial Duty Scott herself takes up the epistolary form for the first time and adapts it, too, to the interests of Bluestocking feminism. In A Journey through Every Stage of Life, and her subsequent novels Millenium Hall and Sir George Ellison, she used something like the parable in order to present Bluestocking feminism. In The Test of Filial Duty she does so largely by incorporating major elements of romance, including the popular narrative of the fairy tale, and the courtship novel, into a work that otherwise purposely exhibits the characteristics of the novel as it was then increasingly understood, in distinction from the romance – as a representation of ‘real’ life.

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