- Bluestockings Now!: The Evolution of a Social Role ed. by Deborah Heller
This important and illuminating volume reevaluates the achievements of the Bluestockings and offers new research on their writings, activities, and connections. It attests to the Bluestockings’ increasing historical, literary, and intellectual significance; it adds to the range and number of women who should be included in their ranks; and it elucidates how the networks in which they moved provided pathways that played a significant role in the period’s intellectual, sociocultural, political, and economic developments. Significantly, the book’s chapters confirm that the Bluestockings must be viewed within an expanded context. First, Bluestocking geography should be stretched beyond Britain and Ireland to include, for example, Continental and American women, who formed part of the networks. Second, since patterns of contact and influence have become more clear, the timeframe should be extended beyond the mid- to late eighteenth century to include both earlier and later female intellectuals. Third, Bluestocking engagement in pivotal fields of endeavor such as science, religion, and business must be more broadly scrutinized. Finally, more documents need to be transcribed and interpreted, and lost ones searched for and found. Indeed, the chapters of this volume demonstrate that while Bluestocking scholarship has successfully made the case for altering the historiography of the British Enlightenment and Romantic periods based on women’s contributions, there is still critical research to be completed in a field that continues to expand and change.
The first chapter, Deborah and Steven Heller’s “A Copernican Shift: or, Remapping the Bluestocking Heavens,” argues that Sylvia Myers’s authoritative definitions of bluestockingism, based on a friendship model, have become too restrictive. Instead, bluestockingism must be understood as encompassing a new social role that emerged in the eighteenth century thanks to the following developments: a “modern mode of association” no longer restricted to kinship, religion, [End Page 257] class, or party (25); a growing “field of culture” in which a wider public was able to participate (26); and new media facilitated by improved infrastructure, including “correspondence, interpersonal networks, books, pamphlets, [and] public fame,” that allowed the creation of an “open network, consisting of elaborately overlapping cliques of people” (29). The Hellers then provide social-network models based on the work of Charles Kadushin that, they argue, shift our focus away from Elizabeth Montagu as the central Bluestocking and instead reveal additional nodes that identify others (e.g., Hannah More and Frances Burney) as “brokers and bridgers” as well (43).
The Hellers are certainly right to promote a network model to theorize Bluestocking ties, to emphasize the less formal aspects of much Bluestocking interaction, and to bring in examples, such as those of Hannah More and Margaret Middleton, that emphasize how a motivated individual might draw on the networks in order to achieve desired ends: in the case of More, to promote her career, and for Middleton, to promote abolition. Yet it also seems important to ponder the extent to which the networks preexisted the activities of women like More and Middleton, and how these activities might have brought the networks into being. Consideration of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, for example, would raise the question of whether Bluestocking ties were constantly shaped in an ongoing process that changed over time or whether they were plugged into a set, preestablished circuit in order to promote members’ various causes.
Subsequent chapters consider the expansion of Bluestocking interventions in different fields of endeavor. Beth Fowkes Tobin urges an extended focus on women’s “polite science,” evidenced, for example, in the collections and classifications of the Duchess of Portland, the craftwork of Elizabeth Montagu’s feather screens, and Mary Delany’s shell displays. Such science looks different from what would become and what remains today the “official science” of universities, labs, and biotech firms, but it nonetheless constituted an important means of knowledge production and communication. In chapter three, “Cosmopolitan Bluestockings,” Nicole Pohl addresses the complex simultaneity of internationalism and nationalism among the English participants in Enlightenment salons both in Britain and on the Continent. While the...