Bluestockings, brilliance and books

I was lucky that my couple of days off work to use up the last dregs of my "2007 holiday" coincided with Karen of Euro Crime’s availability today, so we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see an exhibition: The Bluestocking circle; Celebrating Modern Muses; and A Revolution in Female Manners. In a nutshell, the exhibition

"explores the impact of the original ‘Bluestocking Circle’, a group of celebrated women writers, artists and thinkers who forged new links between gender, learning and virtue in eighteenth-century Britain. These women were not just brilliant, they were exceptional, both for their individual accomplishments and for breaking the boundaries of what women could be expected to undertake or achieve."

Elizabeth Montague arranged the chairs of her salons in a semicircle where attendees were assigned places according to "talent and rank" (a challenge if one was considered to have one but not the other!), whereas Elizabeth Vesey, a more prescient harbinger of modern blogging, scattered cushions in the room so that there was "no zig-zag path of common impediment" to discourse.

The exhibition is informative about the lives of intelligent and independently minded women of these times (eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) and their social salons and other groups. In their heyday, they wrote books, were artists and were painted as heroines and role models, often as characters from classical Greek mythology. Later, however, they were pilloried in cartoons as female freedom of speech fell out of fashion with the advent of the French revolution, and women with more comfortable, domestic values became a safer ideal than Mary Wollstonecraft and her ilk. The term "bluestocking" changed in the public mind from a compliment to an insult — even to this day it is a term of denigration, sadly – though not in my book. And while on the subject of books, you can buy a book of the exhibition — it is beautifully presented and looks very good, but it costs a hefty £18.99.