Fanny Boscawen and the Bluestocking Society

The Bluestockings depicted as the Characters of the Muses

Hatchlands Park was built for Fanny Boscawen and her husband Admiral Edward Boscawen in 1756. Along with Elizabeth Montagu, and Elizabeth Vesey, Fanny was a founder member of the Bluestocking Society. The bluestockings were a remarkable group of women artists, writers and thinkers in the second half of the 18th century, who challenged society’s attitude to women’s rights to education.

The suppression of women

The bluestockings’ fight to be heard is placed within a time where men monopolised the professions, and controlled a society where women were viewed as inferior. Legally, wives became the property of their husband, along with their inherited possessions and wealth. Despite facing a loss of freedom, marriage was often the only respectable choice for women.

To avoid the financial burden of an unmarried daughter, some fathers paid for a basic education, in order for her to be made more appealing for marriage. It was generally unacceptable for women to display knowledge in public and so women’s education was aimed at enhancing their feminine ‘talents’ and not for individual gain. 

Knowledge and empowerment

The core members of the bluestockings came from mostly wealthy backgrounds. They had either been unusually well educated or had had access to private libraries. As a descendent of the diarist John Evelyn, Fanny would have grown up visiting the family home, Wotton House, which included a 45 foot library. As described by Elizabeth Montagu in a letter: ‘Mr Evelyn was a studious philosophic man, and he seems to have dedicated the place to contemplation and has not courted those objects that might dissipate the mind.'

" As if the two sexes had been in a state of war, the gentlemen ranged themselves on one side of the room, where they talked their own talk and left us poor ladies to twirl our shuttles."
- Elizabeth Carter, poet, linguist and bluestocking

These were curious and intelligent women, frustrated with being excluded from intellectual converstaions. Elizabeth Carter commented in a letter to Montagu: ‘As if the two sexes had been in a state of war, the gentlemen ranged themselves on one side of the room, where they talked their own talk and left us poor ladies to twirl our shuttles - (this) subject did not seem so much beyond a female capacity, but that we might have been indulged with a share of it.'

Using social networking in their homes, the founder members invited bluestockings such as Anna Barbauld, Hester Chapone and Hannah More to their own salons, or debates, to promote creative thought. Here, they were able to share knowledge, current thinking and literature without prejudice or fear of ridicule. 

Guests were invited for their lively minds, regardless of class or sex, with conversation between men and women encouraged for women’s ‘civilising’ influence. The term ‘bluestockings’ is said to have been coined when the author Benjamin Stillingfleet turned up in working class, blue woollen stockings instead of white silk. 

Hannah More, by Henry William Pickersgill, 1822
Hannah More, by Henry William Pickersgill, 1822

‘...one meets with a charming variety of society … the learned, the witty, the old and young, the grave, gay, wise and unwise, the fine bred man and the pert coxcomb; the elegant female, the chaste matron, the severe prude, and the pert Miss’ as courtesan and bluestocking Mary Hamilton wrote in her diary of 1783.

The Enlightenment 

The bluestockings and advancement of the female mind became widely fashionable as part of a developing British society. Times were changing alongside Britain’s unstoppable rise in sea power and the new, rational, scientific thought during the period known as ‘The Enlightenment’. The monarchy was held in check by parliament and a new, free press was stimulating debate in social spaces such as coffee houses and pleasure gardens. The bluestockings were contributing to a wave of cultural change. 

Fanny and Elizabeth Montagu helped to fund other bluestockings’ publications by gathering subscriptions from their wealthy friends - an early form of crowd funding. Women writers were now increasingly publishing their work under their own names, acknowledged as intellectual equals.

" It is pretty certain, that England hath produced more women famous for literary accomplishments, than any other nation in Europe."
- George Ballard, author

'It is pretty certain, that England hath produced more women famous for literary accomplishments, than any other nation in Europe.' George Ballard boasted in his publication 'Subjects of Memoirs of British Ladies', 1752.

Importantly, this also meant that a public role in life was now on offer and the opportunity for financial independence and freedom for women was secured. 

By the 1770s the term ‘bluestocking’ was synonymous with intellectual women. Their achievements enabled further generations of women to continue the fight for education which paved the way for the suffrage movement and ultimately the vote.