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  • “Far Other Times Are These”: The Bluestockings in the Time of Ossian
  • JoEllen M. DeLucia (bio)

As early as 1761 Elizabeth Montagu, Queen of the Blues, began holding eccentric dinner parties, during which guests “had the feast of shells and drank out of a nautilus shell to the immortal memory of Ossian.”1 In honor of Ossian, the recently rediscovered Highland bard, Montagu recreated—down to the unconventional stemware—the ceremonial meals of the Highland warriors described by Ossian’s self-proclaimed translator, the controversial James Macpherson.2 Montagu even counted “the Bard Macpherson” among the “tuneful train” who attended her Highland feasts held throughout the 1760s and 1770s (Montagu to Lyttleton, 17 November 1761). A letter dated 13 February 1772 from Montagu to Elizabeth Vesey, a close friend and fellow Bluestocking, describes another “feast of shells” more than ten years later attended by Macpherson (who seems to have been a regular), Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lord Lyttleton, and the playwrights Richard Cumberland and Alexander Dow.3 Montagu’s feasts are just one example of the Bluestockings’ passion for Ossian, a passion that crops up repeatedly in their voluminous correspondence and, most strikingly, in Catherine Talbot’s imitations of the Ossian poems. These sources also establish the Bluestockings’ indifference to the raging debates over the poems’ authenticity, a subject to which much recent criticism has been devoted.4 In fact, in a letter to Lord Lyttleton, 31 October 1760, Montagu made light of the forgery accusations leveled at Macpherson soon after the initial publication of the Fragments of Ancient Poetry in 1760: “The Bishop of Ossory tells me Mr. Macpherson receives 100 per annum subscription while he stays in the Highlands to translate the poems; if he is writing them, he should have a thousand at least” (II, 211).

The significance of the Ossian poems for Montagu and her fellow Bluestockings did not lie in their historical accuracy or ancient authorship, but rather in their egalitarian vision of gender. In many ways, the Ossian poems provided a template for Bluestocking salons, where both sexes debated issues of literary, social, and political interest. Although the term Bluestocking typically conjures the image of a socially awkward learned lady, whose devotion to study and the betterment of the female condition make her poorly suited for her domestic duties, this understanding of the term did not emerge until the late eighteenth century. Among [End Page 39] first-generation Bluestockings like Montagu, Vesey, Talbot, and Elizabeth Carter, the term signified the men and women who attended the salons of Montagu and Vesey and were committed to cultivating their intellectual powers and sentiments through conversation.5 With the exception of their military exploits, popular heroines from the Ossian poems such as Malvina and Darthula acted remarkably like these first-generation Bluestockings. Ossian’s heroines sang alongside male bards and feasted afterwards with their male companions, all the while softening the manners of the opposite sex and inspiring a compassion and polish absent from other early societies, particularly the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. In fact, the poems were an important part of a larger mid-eighteenth-century movement, set in motion by the Bluestockings and the philosophers, historians, and poets of the Scottish Enlightenment, to track the development of manners and the role of women in civil society. The history, philosophy, and literature that arose out of this context valued manners—or the polish and grace women were supposed to inspire in a nation’s civil society—in contrast to the more traditionally masculine attributes of a nation’s civic culture. Connecting the civility of Ossianic heroes to the Scottish Enlightenment’s interest in developing a feminist history of manners, Adam Potkay has concluded, “the poems reconcile the age’s nostalgia for the ancient polis ideal with a modern taste for civility. In so doing, they also bridge the gap separating the emerging ‘feminism’ of polite society from the male ‘chauvinism’ of both the ancient polis and its modern apologists.”6 The lost Caledonian (that is, Scottish and especially Highlander) history recovered by Macpherson and incorporated into the Scottish Enlightenment’s early conjectural histories offered women a seat at the table and a swig from a...


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