Elizabeth Montagu and the Bluestocking Corpus Online

Posted on Tue., Nov. 28, 2023 by Elizabeth Eger
Etching of women fighting, knocking drinks, tables, and each other to the ground.

Thomas Rowlandson. Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club, 1815, hand-colored etching. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

What happens when women get together in a group for tea and conversation? Thomas Rowlandson’s 1815 engraving Breaking Up of the Bluestocking Club suggests that things might get a little out of control. In Rowlandson’s depiction, England’s seemingly innocent diversion of afternoon tea (available at The Huntington every afternoon except Tuesday) has been transformed into a bluestocking brawl. Breaking Up of the Bluestocking Club is part of a general backlash against the sheer success of women as a group who produced and consumed culture during that period.

One gargantuan figure uses her upturned tea urn to scald another in a moment of startling ferocity. Unruly and excessive female bodies seem to burst from their clothes, untameable and on the move. A knocked-over chamber pot and frightened cat suggest the scurrilous nature of the women’s conversation, which has transformed into an all-out brawl. It is images such as these—in visual and literary culture—that have worked against intelligent women, so often denied a cultural and political voice.

Expand image Black-and-white drawing of a woman in an oval frame.

Mrs Montague, engraved by R. Cooper, from a miniature by Christian Friedrich Zincke, as it appears in The letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu: with some of the letters of her correspondents, 1810–1813. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Who were these women and why were they vilified? The original “bluestocking club” was led by Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800), coined “Queen of the Bluestockings” by her friend and rival, Samuel Johnson, whose male literary club is much more widely known. The term “bluestocking” was derived from an anecdote, told by James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer: When Benjamin Stillingfleet, a botanist friend of Montagu’s, was invited to her house, he wore his blue stockings—an informal garb shunned by most society men in favor of white silk. His relaxed attitude became a badge of honor, associated with Montagu’s parties where relaxed but orderly conversation between men and women included many celebrated individuals, drawn to her famous semicircle of chairs. Initially, her guests formed a small coterie of like-minded intellectuals, but eventually the gatherings became larger and grander occasions. Various authors and actors—such as Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Elizabeth Carter, and Hannah More—sought out Montagu’s company.

Montagu, who managed to achieve a rare balance between fashion and intellect, understood prejudice against learned women, writing in a letter to her friend William Pulteney, Lord Bath: “Distinguish’d talents expose Women to a great deal of envy, & seldom assist them in making their fortunes. It is hard to say whether Women remarkable for their understanding suffer most from the envy of their own sex or the malice of the other, but their life is one continual warfare.” A born leader, Montagu was a talented businesswoman and used the money she made from her coal mines to secure her place as cultural patron par excellence. Her support for women’s writing and education was emphatic, and, by association, “bluestocking” gradually became a term exclusively applied to women. Soon, her house was referred to as a “lyceum” or a “bluestocking college.” Only at this point did the term start to acquire negative connotations, such as to be found in Rowlandson’s cartoon.

Expand image Handwritten letter from the 18th century.

Elizabeth Montagu, first page of Letter to Elizabeth Carter, 1761. Elizabeth Montagu Papers.  | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. 

Henry E. Huntington bought Montagu’s letters in 1925 from the Philadelphia book dealer A. S. W. Rosenbach, who described the archive as “the most extraordinary collection of autograph letters of the greatest literary and social leaders of the 18th century, ever offered for sale.” The breadth of topics covered in the Montagu collection has attracted scholars from many backgrounds and disciplines, including history, literary studies, politics, art history, and linguistics. The collection is particularly valuable because it includes several examples of correspondence in which letters both to and from Montagu have survived, providing readers with a sense of 18th-century dialogue.

Expand image Handwritten letter from the 18th century.

Elizabeth Montagu, last page of Letter to Elizabeth Carter, 1761. Elizabeth Montagu Papers. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. 

However, the sheer number of letters (roughly 8,000) has prevented readers from gaining an overview of their significance. For the first time, we are using digital technology to allow new interpretations of bluestocking activity, thanks to the charity Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online (EMCO), which is digitizing the letters. Joanna Barker, patron and senior editor of EMCO, and Nicole Pohl, professor at Oxford Brookes University and EMCO editor-in-chief, are leading the collaborative team of scholars across the globe in a project to create a digital edition.

The Huntington’s conference “Correspondence and Embodiment: The Bluestocking Corpus Online,” held Dec. 8–9 in Haaga Hall, will investigate new questions deriving from such an opportunity and chart the progress made toward understanding what the bluestocking corpus has to offer—in all its splendid and abundant possibility.

You can view Elizabeth Montagu's papers online at the Huntington Digital Library.

You can register for the conference and read more about it online.

Funding for this conference has been provided by the Homer Crotty Lecture Endowment and the Edward A. Mayers Fellowship Endowment.

Elizabeth Eger, reader emerita at King’s College London, is writing a biography of Elizabeth Montagu.