Fanny Boscawen: The unpublished bluestocking

Kathleen Keown, University of Oxford Kathleen Keown University of Oxford
A letter from Fanny Boscawen to Hannah More

Whilst Fanny Boscawen was a founding member of the Bluestocking Society, unlike many of her more celebrated peers, she had no literary achievements or publishing credits to help spread her legend. Kathleen Keown, researcher at the University of Oxford, discusses why Fanny has remained in the shadows and what her prolific letter writing tells us about her status within the bluestocking movement.

It can be difficult to appreciate the vital role that letters played in 18th century literary culture. Letters were a way of communicating, offering writers a means of constructing networks of friends and supporters. It was not uncommon for close friends to write to each other every day, providing updates on the latest news and gossip. As Fanny Boscawen observed to her friend and fellow bluestocking Mary Delany: ‘Can one think of a dear friend every day, and never speak to her, pen and ink always offering their assistance?’

" Can one think of a dear friend every day, and never speak to her, pen and ink always offering their assistance?"
- Fanny Boscawen

As well as maintaining relationships, letters were important forums for literary and intellectual debate. They played a central role in the bluestocking project of fostering intellectual conversation – a conversation might begin in a salon, and continue in a letter.

Public prose

Letters were not necessarily confined to writer and recipient. Familiar letters, those addressed to friends and family and written in an intimate style, were often read aloud in social settings and passed around for others to read. If a passage was considered particularly interesting or well-written, readers might ask to make a copy so that they could share it.

A letter from Fanny Boscawen to Hannah More
A letter from Fanny Boscawen to Hannah More
A letter from Fanny Boscawen to Hannah More

In this way, a woman’s private letters could be circulated up and down the country and garner a significant reputation for the writer. Some attempted to control the circulation of their letters and gave strict instructions to prevent them being copied, others were more permissive.

A life in letters

The conversational style of Fanny’s letters was highly praised by other bluestockings. Her ease, naturalness, and warm feeling echoed the relaxed style cultivated in bluestocking salons. In 1786, Hannah More drew comparison between Fanny’s letters, and those of celebrated French salonnière, Madame de Sévigné. The fact that Fanny did not consciously write for an audience made her letters extremely valuable for More - they maintained a spontaneous, even careless quality.

It would have been a great privilege to become a correspondent of the famous Frances Boscawen. Although her letters were never published in her lifetime, she was widely respected for her writing ability, as well as her activities as a literary hostess and patron. Her letters would have been treasured by their recipients, and shown to many readers. 

To publish or not

The women who participated in the bluestocking network came from a range of social and economic backgrounds. Many were wealthy, but some faced more strained circumstances. The different pressures that each woman faced shaped her interactions with print culture.

Elizabeth Montagu, by John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, published 10 April 1776
Elizabeth Montagu, by and published by John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds mezzotint, published 10 April 1776
Elizabeth Montagu, by John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, published 10 April 1776

When the poet, essayist, and translator Elizabeth Carter printed her writings, it was with a mind to earn money: her position was financially precarious, and she needed to support herself. Many other accomplished bluestockings never printed in their lifetimes, including Lady Jemima Grey, Lady Mary Bute and Elizabeth Vesey. Others, like Hester Mulso Chapone or Catherine Talbot, only published sporadically. And when the fabulously wealthy Elizabeth Montagu chose to publish, it was for pleasure and personal fulfilment.

Fame and fortune

Fanny’s own circumstances influenced her decision not to print her works. She was already a wealthy woman, and did not need to write for profit - in fact, to do so may have appeared gauche to society friends. Her primary role as a salon hostess and patron was to find and offer financial support for others, not for herself.

Similarly, a desire for public fame could have been interpreted as vulgar. Fanny was already well-known and well-respected as a judge of good and bad literature, a supporter of emerging talent and an engaging writer. Her salons were internationally famous; in France, she was known as ‘la Sevigne d’Angleterre’ - a comparison with Madame de Sévigné herself.

Literary freedom

There were many reasons why a woman may have actively chosen to only write in manuscript. This approach could offer a greater freedom of literary expression: women could be experimental and creative, without worrying about reception or propriety. Manuscripts could be shared with supportive friends, who could discuss the ideas presented, and offer constructive feedback. It was possible to grow and improve as a writer, as Fanny did, and to gain a literary reputation without ever publishing a word.

Fanny’s decision not to publish has made her one of the less-remembered bluestockings. However, it’s very likely that she simply never saw the appeal of printing her writing. Manuscript circulation offered everything she wanted: a space to write, artistic control, and an audience of supportive friends who appreciated her work.

We hope that future research will uncover more of Fanny’s manuscripts, and help us better understand her role in this pioneering network of female intellectuals.