‘The noblest commerce of mankind’: Conversation and Community in the Bluestocking Circle

  • Elizabeth Eger


Hannah More’s ‘Bas Bleu, or Conversation’ provides a distilled description of the social practice and moral beliefs of the bluestocking circle, a rare monument to the nature of their achievement. Dr Johnson considered the work to be ‘in my Opinion a Very Great performance’, adding that ‘there is no name in poetry, that might not be glad to own it’.2 First published in 1786, by Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill printing press, ‘Bas Bleu’ was probably written in the middle of the 1770s, when More first met Elizabeth Montagu, ‘Queen of the Bluestockings’.3 More’s poem is a celebratory memorial of a particular intellectual community, first formed in the 1750s around the prominent hostesses Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey (to whom More’s poem is addressed) and Frances Boscawen. The bluestockings continued to meet well into the 1780s with a second generation of hostesses and societies appearing in London and the provinces. The phrase ‘bluestocking’ was originally used to abuse Puritans of Cromwell’s ‘Little Parliament’ in 1653. It was revived in 1756 when Benjamin Stillingfleet appeared at one of Elizabeth Montagu’s assemblies wearing blue worsted stockings, normally the garb of working men.4 The term ‘bluestocking’ came to be applied more generally to all Montagu’s visitors, who included the self-made Dr Johnson, clergyman’s daughter Elizabeth Carter, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, Lord Lyttleton, the Earl of Bath and later Frances Burney, Anna Barbauld and Hannah More.


Eighteenth Century Public Sphere Civic Virtue Sexual Prejudice Woman Writer 
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  1. 5.
    Nicole Pohl and Betty Schellenberg, eds, Reconsidering the Bluestockings (San Marino, California: Huntington Library Publications, 2003), Introduction, p. 2.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    See Sylvana Tomaselli, ‘The Enlightenment Debate on Women’, History Workshop Journal 20, Autumn (1985), pp. 101–23; and ‘Reflections on the History of the Science of Woman.’ in Marina Benjamin, ed., A Question of Identity: Women, Science and Literature (New Jersey, 1993). See also the essays in Section 2 of this volume, in particular Mary Catherine Moran, ‘Between the Savage and the Civil: Dr John Gregory’s Natural History of Femininity’. John Gregory and Elizabeth Montagu were friends — he accompanied her on a tour of Scotland in 1766. His daughter, Dorothy Gregory, lived with Montagu after her father’s death in 1773 until her marriage to the Scottish clergyman and writer on taste, Archibald Alison, in 1784.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 7.
    See Mary Catherine Moran, ‘“The Commerce of the Sexes”: Civil Society and Polite Society in Scottish Enlightenment Historiography’, in Frank Trentmann, ed., Paradoxes of Civil Society: New Perspectives on Modern German and British History (New York and Oxford: Berghann, 2000), p. 80.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Harriet Guest, ‘Bluestocking Feminism’, in Nicole Pohl and Betty Schellenberg, eds, Reconsidering the Bluestockings (San Marino, California: Huntington Library Publications, 2003), pp. 59–80. This article refocuses and revisits some of the central arguments of Guest’s groundbreaking study, Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+) (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    See Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Penny Warburton and Cliona O’Gallchoir, eds, Women, Writing and the Public Sphere: ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), Introduction.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    Sarah Maese, The School 3 vols (London, 1766) iii, p. 142.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Elizabeth Carter, Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter to Mrs. Montagu between the years 1755 and 1800, ed. Montagu Pennington, 3 vols (London, 1817) iii, p. 68.Google Scholar
  8. 21.
    Deborah Heller, ‘Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere’, Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 22:2 (1998), pp. 59–82.Google Scholar
  9. 23.
    Emma Major, ‘The Politics of Sociability: Public Dimnesions of the Bluestocking Millenium’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 65 (2002), nos 1 and 2, pp. 175–92.Google Scholar
  10. 26.
    Hester Chapone, The Works of Mrs Chapone, containing Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, 2 vols (Dublin, 1775) Vol II, Essay II, ‘On Conversation’, pp. 16–17.Google Scholar
  11. 27.
    Frances Burney, Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 3 vols (London, 1832) ii: 270–2.Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth Eger 2005

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  • Elizabeth Eger

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