Nicola here, wishing you a very Happy March! March is Women’s History Month, which pays tribute to the generations of women who have contributed to events in history and contemporary society. Andrea/Cara, Anne and I will taking part in the month long celebration over on the Read A Romance site where each day you can read an inspiring piece about women, romance and history. Find out more here!
As part of the celebration I thought I would blog today about my favourite type of historical romance heroines – the bluestockings. I love a bluestocking character. She’s the sort of woman who isn’t afraid to be intelligent in a world that generally prizes beauty over brains, she is clever enough to intrigue the hero and she would probably choose his library over his pecs any day. I've also spotted the bluestocking cropping up in contemporary romance as that geeky girl who gets the best grades - and the hot guy!
When I was talking about the bluestockings with a couple of author friends, one of them asked whether bluestockings actually wore blue stockings. It seems obvious to me that they would, or at least that that would be the uniform of the famous Blue Stocking Society founded by Elizabeth Montagu in the 1750s. As it turned out, I was wrong. The members of the Bluestocking Society actually wore the formal black silk stockings that were fashionable at the time. It was a gentleman called Benjamin Stillingfleet, a member of the society, who apparently turned up to meetings in blue woollen worsted stockings and from this derived the name; the society, like the stockings, were informal. The group put more emphasis on conversation than fashion.
The Blue Stocking Society was established as a literary discussion group. Politics were banned and debate about the arts encouraged.
A fair proportion of the membership was men, including Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. Popular opinion at the time suggested that women did not need to go to university or engage in study and debate; if they wanted to learn they would benefit most from conversation with their male relatives. Elizabeth Montagu, a strong supporter of education for women, commented on this view: “In a woman's education little but outward accomplishments is regarded ... sure the men are very imprudent to endeavour to make fools of those to whom they so much trust their honour and fortune, but it is in the nature of mankind to hazard their peace to secure power, and they know fools make the best slaves.”
Late in the 18th century the word bluestocking did become synonymous with an educated intellectual woman but it also developed negative implications with women being stereotyped as frumpy because they cared more about learning than they did about their appearance. At the extreme it was used disagreeably to describe a woman of decided opinions (for which read inappropriate and unfeminine.) Rowlandson’s cartoons made fun of the bluestockings as did an 1811 comic opera by Moore and Horn, which featured a character called Lady Bab Blue who was a parody of a bluestocking. This hostility reflected the views of both men and women who objected to female education.
I first came across the bluestocking character in a Regency romance when I read “The Beau and the Bluestocking” by Alice Chetwynd Ley. It’s still one of my favourite traditional Regencies. I love that the heroine, Alethea, has been brought up in a family that values education for all their children and that when she goes into society she doesn’t try to hide her interest in learning. Most of all I love that the hero James, after years as a bored if fashionable gentleman, rediscovers his interest in philosophy and culture, and thoroughly enjoys his conversations with Alethea. She’s different and she fascinates him. Not just that; she also helps him realise that he can be interested in both the style of his neck cloth and the writings of Sophocles.
Another of my favourites is Hester in Sylvia Andrew’s An Unreasonable Match. Hester is a code breaker. For a long time the hero thinks it is Hester’s brother who is the mathematician in the house and he is totally blindsided when he realises his mistake. I love it.
I have even written my own series of Bluestocking Brides, and I find the bluestocking heroine cropping up quite a bit in my writing. Perhaps I have a soft spot for her because I’ve been considered something of a bluestocking myself, and not always as a compliment! The members of the Bluestocking Society, amongst them Frances Burney, Ada Lovelace and Hester Thrale, were considered feminists in their own time. So let’s celebrate their contribution to women in history and raise a cup of tea (their preferred beverage) to the bluestockings!
Do you enjoy bluestocking characters or have a favourite bluestocking book, either historical or contemporary? I’m offering a copy of Mistress by Midnight, with its bluestocking heroine, to one commenter who recommends a bluestocking between now and midnight Thursday!