From Wollstonecraft to Lovelace: A Bluestocking Legacy

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, exhibited 1840

The efforts of Fanny Boscawen and the bluestockings to progress the cause of women in the arts, opened the door to allow more women to publish work freely under their own names. These different generations of pioneers continued to inspire their successors creating a far-reaching legacy.

Their near-contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer, philosopher and supporter of women’s rights. Her work and views fell from favour for many years but interest was rekindled with the rise of feminism in the 20th century. 

Mary Wollstonecraft 

Mary was born in 1759. While Fanny was enjoying family life at Hatchlands, Mary had an unhappy childhood, and would lie outside her mother’s door to prevent beatings from her father. When her mother died, she left home and opened a school, writing ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’ in 1787 based on her experiences.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, circa 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, circa 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, circa 1797

Active in London society when the Bluestocking salons were at the height of their popularity, Mary was a regular guest of the radical thinker, Joseph Johnson. In 1792, she published her most famous work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. She attacked the prevailing view that women were a domestic adornment, arguing that women should receive a rational education enabling them to contribute to society. The book was well received in radical circles but caused great controversy elsewhere.

After a brief spell in revolutionary France, Mary married William Godwin, the founder of philosophical anarchism. Pregnant with their daughter, she tragically died within days of giving birth. After her death, her husband published ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ as a tribute to her memory. However, they contained revelations of her affairs and illegitimate child which shocked society. 

Mary Shelley

That daughter, Mary Shelley, would go on to become best known as the author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary was brought up to cherish her mother’s memory and achievements. She received little formal education but was tutored by her father and had access to his books and intellectual friends.

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, exhibited 1840
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, exhibited 1840
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, exhibited 1840

While staying at Lake Geneva she wrote her extraordinary gothic horror. For over a century she remained famous only for Frankenstein and her efforts to publish her husband’s work. It was not until the 1970s that scholars began to pay attention to her other novels and her own radical politics. 

The Shelleys’ summer in Geneva was spent with none other than mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Lord Byron. Many scandals surrounded Byron including huge debts and numerous affairs, fathering several illegitimate children. His daughter Ada Lovelace however has an altogether different legacy.

Ada Lovelace

Ada had a very unusual education for the daughter of an aristocratic family in the 19th century. Unsurprisingly her mother was concerned that she may inherit her father’s erratic behaviour. To encourage self-control Ada was required to lie still for long periods. She showed little interest in modern literature and the arts, preferring instead to study mathematics and science, devising imaginary boats and flying machines. 

Eventually marrying the Earl of Lovelace, Ada lived just a few minutes from Hatchlands Park, at Horsley Towers. They socialised with many interesting and reforming characters such as Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens.

Ada Lovelace by William Henry Mote, published 1839
Ada Lovelace by William Henry Mote, published 1839
Ada Lovelace by William Henry Mote, published 1839

Ada is best known to us for her work with Charles Babbage. Babbage invented the difference machine to perform mathematical calculations and Ada saw the machine before it was completed. Babbage went on to create the analytical engine, intended to perform more complex calculations and Ada was asked to translate an article on the machine written in French. 

Ada not only translated it but added her own thoughts and ideas. The resulting article was three times as long as the original, including what are now seen as early computer programs - the modern programming language ADA is named in her honour. She also identified the machine’s potential for other uses such as composing music. 

Sadly Ada’s work attracted little attention in her lifetime but she is now celebrated as a feminist icon and computing pioneer. Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated annually in October; its goal is to ‘raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths.’