The Bluestocking Legacy: A Conversation at Hatchlands Park

Georgian costumes created by The Arts Society at Hatchlands Park, Surrey

Fanny Boscawen’s London home in Audley Street was a popular spot for the bluestockings’ salons, described as ‘the rendezvous of the wit and culture of the day’. In 2018, here in her home at Hatchlands, we reinvented the salon for the 21st century. Our modern-day bluestockings gathered for an evening of lively debate with successful women in the fields of history, art, literature and science, chaired by Nino Strachey, Head of Research and Specialist Advice for the National Trust.

The original bluestocking hostesses were known for lively and stimulating salons, dominated by literary discussion, where popular pursuits such as alcohol and gambling were replaced with tea and fine conversation. The salon in this context originated in 16th century Italy and became widely popular in 17th century France before spreading to the rest of fashionable Europe throughout the 18th century. 

Our modern-day bluestockings joined together for a panel discussion in the Music Room at Hatchlands as part of our year-long celebration of the life and achievements of Fanny Boscawen, talking about the original bluestockings, their legacy, and their relevance to women today. 

The Bluestockings depicted as the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, by Richard Samuel, 1778
The Bluestockings depicted as the Characters of the Muses
The Bluestockings depicted as the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, by Richard Samuel, 1778

Dr Elizabeth Eger is a reader in the Department of English at King's College London. She is a specialist in women's writing of the eighteenth century and the lives of bluestocking women. She co-curated the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Brilliant women’ exhibition, which featured Fanny Boscawen, Elizabeth Montagu and many of their bluestocking friends, and wrote the accompanying book with Lucy Peltz. She also wrote ‘Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism’.

‘Virginia Woolf writes this is in 1929 – ‘towards the end of the 18th century a change came about which if I were rewriting history I should describe as more fully and of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses’. 

So why have the Bluestockings been forgotten? One of things that is most interesting to me is that after all my research into that period one of the most salutary conclusions is that feminism is not a story of simple progress towards a greater good. There have been peaks and troughs along the way. There have been various moments in history when women ascended and have taken a particular opportunity to organize themselves and demand greater rights. The great achievement of the Bluestockings was that they created a space for women’s intellect.’

Donna Coonan is the Editorial Director for Modern Classics at Virago. Virago was founded in 1973 as ‘the first mass-market publisher for 52 per cent of the population - women. An exciting new imprint for both sexes in a changing world.‘ Virago’s mission statement reflects the views of the original bluestockings, ‘Sometimes we publish to entertain, sometimes we publish to give readers the sheer pleasure of beautiful writing, sometimes we publish to change the world.’

‘Today there aren’t as many female authors to rediscover perhaps. It’s quite surprising but what I think really needs to be readdressed is the reputation of some women writers. For example, one of the bestselling writers on our list is Daphne du Maurier. For years and years she had been dismissed as a historical writer of women’s romances with covers featuring water colours of women peering out to sea. Her reputation needed to be restored and she was studied and reappraised. This is the writer that gave us ‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’. She is not a romance writer. We’ve republished all her books since 2003 so she’s studied again, and she’s taken her rightful place as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.’

The modern-day bluestocking salon in the Music Room at Hatchlands Park
The  modern-day bluestocking salon in the Music Room at Hatchlands Park, Surrey
The modern-day bluestocking salon in the Music Room at Hatchlands Park

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a celebrated astrophysicist and campaigner for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. She has served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics, alongside campaigning to improve the status of women in physics and astronomy.

‘Twenty to thirty years ago there was a small group of senior women scientists, of which I was one, meeting to see what could be done about the position of women in science. There were very, very few, they were having a rough time, they weren’t getting credit for what they had done. It was very much a male-dominated field and the women’s contribution wasn’t being recognized even though it was often splendid. This small group of senior women met, after work of course, and we started to think what we could do. One of us who was quite a good psychologist said, ‘You know, University vice chancellors are competitive guys’ – and they were all guys at that stage – ‘If we offer a prize for a women-friendly university, they’ll compete’. At that time the only prize we could afford was a glass rose bowl. But sure enough, they competed. For several years we awarded glass rose bowls to the university that we felt was the most women friendly. Then we got some more money and it gradually became the Athena Swan scheme. It’s now happening in a lot of universities. There’s a whole award scheme.’

Cairo Clarke is an independent art curator. Clarke’s work explores and challenges the way institutions and galleries approach curating contemporary artworks and their spaces. She is currently assistant curator for Art on the Underground and curator at DKUK in Peckham. Previous work includes: The Reinvention of Love at Century Club, Soho; Curating Radical Futures and Women in Art symposiums, Tate Modern; Art Nights Associate Programme and a residency with Guest Projects, Touch Sensitive.

‘I think it’s interesting to think about the bluestockings, but I think they come from a very particular type of society. It’s important to think not only that this female group was forged but also to think about class, race and ethnicity. Within the arts there is still such a small percentage of women artists being shown and, when they are, they’re labelled as ‘these are women artists’, like that box is ticked. I wonder about how many of these women are women of colour, how many of these women identified as queer. I think it’s very empowering within the art world that there is this large lack of diversity - many groups, collectives and networks are being forged because of that. I think it’s not just about whether women are represented but where these women are from, whether they identify as women, what kinds of economic backgrounds they come from and what kind of support there is.’

Nino Strachey’s research focuses on the expression of personality through place, interpreting the biography of buildings and collections. She’s worked for English Heritage and the National Trust, curating the homes of scientists (Darwin), politicians (Churchill) and writers (Shaw). Head of Research and Specialist Advice for the National Trust, she’s recently written ‘Rooms of their Own’ for the National Trust’s Prejudice & Pride programme. This explores the homes of three writers linked to the Bloomsbury Group: Eddy Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

‘I think what is interesting in terms of both the Bloomsbury Group and the Bluestockings is that they were creating cross-gender gatherings of mixed groups of men and women to discuss matters of importance on an equal basis. So that’s an interesting legacy. 

Perhaps the Bloomsbury Group took things a little bit further in that they believed that everybody had the right to live and love as they chose. So therefore, they were exploring further into issues of gender and sexuality. Virginia Woolf again leads the way as her character Orlando changes sex and gender over time, a theme that takes us right up to the present day. I think about what these, either mixed-sex or same-sex, groups mean to a growing generation of young people who are identifying as non-binary and gender-fluid and where that leads us in discussions tonight.’