I was skimming through Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley today and find a chapter titled “The First Blue-Stocking” and thought I should share some of the history of this term, though there remains some debate as to the origins of the group as well as the term itself.
“The Blue Stocking Circle” or “Blue Stocking Ladies” was an informal group of learned, intelligent and socially-fashionable women formed in the second half of 18th-century London. Talk of politics and the playing of cards was prohibited, literature and the arts were the main topics of conversation, and the learned men of the time were invited to participate in the discussions. The gatherings were initiated by Elizabeth Montegu (1720-1800), Elizabeth Vesey (1715?-1791), and along with Frances Boscawen (1719-1805), were considered the leaders and hostesses of what became a group of considerable size. Notable members included Fanny Burney, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Sarah Fielding, Hester Chapone, Ada Lovelace, Margaret Cavendish-Harley, Mary Delaney, Elizabeth Carter, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Anna Williams, Hester Thrale, and Hannah More. Some of the more famous men in attendance were Samuel Johnson (who, largely ignored by the “fashionable” world, was “lionized” at any Blue Stocking evening, as Boswell notes in 1781), David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Horace Walpole, William Pulteney, James Beattie, Samuel Richardson, and George Lyttelton. Indeed, Hannah Moore wrote her poem Bas Bleu in 1786, describing the charm of the Blue Stocking Society and characterizing her friends.
[ Dr. Syntax with a Blue Stocking Beauty, by T. Rowlandson ]
The origin of the term “Blue Stocking” is still disputed, but critical authorities generally embrace the story of Benjamin Stillingfleet, who, unable to afford “proper and fashionable” dress (i.e black stockings), was invited By Mrs. Vesey to “not mind [your] dress…and come in your blue stockings”…and thus came the name.
See the following for more information:
-Drabble, Margaret. THE OXFORD COMPANION TO ENGLISH LITERATURE. 5th ed. Oxford, 1985, p. 111.
Miegon, Anna. Biographical Sketches of Principal Bluestocking Women. THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY QUARTERLY, Vol. 65, No. 1/2 (2002), pp.25-37. Also published as RECONSIDERING THE BLUESTOCKINGS.
– “The Bluestockings” at Bartleby.com, where there are several articles and a bibliography.
– Wikipedia: “The Blue Stockings Society (England) with additional links.
– and for a contemporary touch: the Bas Bleu Catalogue, for a nice selection of books!