- Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730–1830 ed. by Elizabeth Eger
The twenty-first century has witnessed a surge of interest in eighteenthcentury women’s intellectual life. Propelled by such books as Harriet Guest’s Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750–1810 and Anne Mellor’s Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780–1830, both published in 2000, this new turn in research has shredded the twentieth-century commonplace that feminine modesty kept women out of the public sphere. Instead, in sometimes small but nevertheless often recognized and always significant ways, women shaped British arts, cultural identity, and public policy. Among those early influential volumes figured Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700–1830 (2001), a collection Elizabeth Eger edited with Charlotte Grant, Clíona O’Gallchoir, and Penny Warburton. In Bluestockings Displayed, Eger collects twelve essays on a similar topic, and those familiar with her prior work will not be disappointed.
Eger’s previous collection included her own essay on the 1778 painting by Richard Samuel entitled The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain, which emblematizes the nation’s women intellectuals and artists as the triumph of advanced civilization. The current collection extends this inquiry by exploring the dynamics of visual representations, public image, and reputation in a culture with shifting, often even hostile, views regarding female agency in literature and the arts. Inspired by the 2008 National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings” that Eger co-curated with Lucy Peltz, the collection comprises the fruits of a conference associated with the exhibit. Together, its essays explore how visual culture shaped Enlightenment views on the relationship between virtue, patriotism, and female learning. [End Page 129]
As one would expect of a book as engaged with the visual arts as with the literary, Bluestockings Displayed is illustrated with many of the prints and portraits that its contributors address. Unfortunately, all illustrations are in black and white, making detail difficult to discriminate in some prints, and leaving important background completely obscured in others. The exhibition catalog, Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings (2008), also by Eger, might usefully supplement, but that is a separate publication by a different press. Having invested in rich illustration, Cambridge might have taken the additional step of providing at least some of these images in color, especially in cases where the argument depends on details lost in the black-and-white renderings.
Eger organizes the volume into three sections, beginning with five essays under “Portraits.” Spanning the years between Alexander Pope’s Epistle to a Lady (1743) and the early Victorian era, this section charts women’s efforts to represent themselves as respectable, even admirable, in the face of such visual and verbal derogation as Pope’s Epistle and the licentious satire of cartoonists like Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, Isaac Cruikshank, and others. Anne Mellor’s essay explores visual representations from the early years of the nineteenth century that combine eroticized femininity with moral propriety to contain public unease and depict female intellectual authority as compatible with Victorian respectability. Elizabeth Clery’s piece extends this argument with an overview of women authors who used paintings and prints, especially book frontispieces, to promote an image of virtuous femininity in an increasingly anonymous literary marketplace. Clare Barlow’s essay continues the exploration, analyzing Bluestocking portraits in the guise of mythological and historical figures as advocating female learning. In the only essay devoted to a woman visual artist, Anne Yarrington discusses the relationship between sculptor Anne Seymour Damer’s politics and her artistic fame. This section that opened with sentimentally erotic portraits of young women authors winds up with Devoney Looser’s essay confronting the ageism that often depicted elderly women as physically repulsive and forced older female intellectuals into self-representations of exceptional propriety and reserve.
Part two on “Performance” opens with Joseph Roach arguing that soprano Elizabeth Linley, consigned to private concerts by her husband Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s ban on public performance, “recaptur[ed] her lost voice” in verse and “in the...