Anna Barbauld's Blue Stockings

Edmund Burke etching, Don Dismallo, 1790
Exhibit One: A Red Plaque outside no.113 Church Street

Among Newington Green’s radicals, Anna Barbauld remains in the shadow of the much better known Mary Wollstonecraft.  However Barbauld’s radicalism was no less passionate and her many contributions to changing the world for the better deserve wider acknowledgement.  Noted as a feminist, abolitionist, writer, poet, educator and critic, one further aspect of these contributions was Anna’s membership of the Blue Stocking Society.

The term ‘blue stocking’ was, until fairly recently, part of our lexicon.  It was a mainly pejorative word intended to describe and dismiss a woman for being an academic or intellectual and served as a cover to condemn the generations of women who fought for the right to an education, access to university and most notably the right to study medicine.

The term blue stocking originated with a salon organised by Lady Elizabeth Montague which emerged in the 1750’s.  A salon, named after the formal living room of a house which often served as a venue for such events,  was simply a regular social gathering in which, unusually for the eighteenth century, men and women (usually of the upper classes) found common ground, indeed women were notable as initiators and hostesses of such events. 

Lady Montague’s salon, which met in both London and Bath, distinguished itself from earlier examples however because  men and women met, not to play cards, drink and eat and engage in polite conversation but rather to discuss philosophy, science and what we today might call ‘high-brow’ subjects.

It wasn’t only gender norms that were challenged in the structure of Montague’s salon, class divisions too would be challenged, albeit in a very limited way, and it is here that we arrive at the stockings.

It is ironic that the original blue stocking was a man.  Benjamin Stillingfleet was a botanist and translator.  It was customary at the time for men attending salons to wear expensive black silk stockings.  Stillingfleet was of more modest means than his fellow salon members and could only afford blue worsted (woollen) stockings.  After some disapproval from certain members, Montague and her friend and salon co-founder, Elizabeth Vesey declared that blue stockings were acceptable attire for members, thus enabling Stillingfleet to continue to attend.  The salon thereon became known as the Blue Stocking Society and Lady Montague was dubbed ‘Queen of the Blues’.

With its relatively progressive views on women and class (to say nothing of fashion) it is perhaps not surprising that Anna Barbauld should have found a home within the society.  However despite discussing many weighty subjects, the salon remained strictly non-political and indeed many of her fellow members leant decidedly away from radicalism with the advent of the French Revolution.

Among these was Edmund Burke who, having earlier sided with the radicals in his support for the American Revolution of 1776, responded with hostility to a sermon by Newington Green’s Richard Price in support of the French Revolution with his pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France (1791) thus prompting Mary Wollstonecraft to enter the so called ‘pamphlet war’ with her notable contributions in support of fellow revolutionary Thomas Paine and then for women’s rights.

Another Blue Stocking whose work touched on the radicals of Newington Green was Horace Walpole.  Walpole, an ardent opponent of the French Revolution, famously referred to Mary Wollstonecraft as a ‘hyena in petticoats’ but he also introduced the word ‘gothic’ into the English language with his work The Castle of Otrano (1764) which was subtitled … a Gothic Story.  This is significant because Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein which as well as being considered the first work of science fiction is also viewed as being very much part of the Victorian gothic genre. 

Walpole’s comment likening Wollstonecraft to a hyena appeared in a letter he wrote to a fellow Blue Stocking; Hannah More.  More was a writer and poet.  She was a life-long abolitionist and member of the so-called Clapham Sect of evangelicals who opposed slavery.  In support of this cause, More wrote a seminal poem called Slavery (1788).  

The Clapham Sect most famously included William Wilberforce, to whom Anna addressed her Epistle To William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade. (1791)

Notable among other Clapham Sect members was James Stephen.  Stephen was a Member of Parliament and lawyer and is credited with drafting the Slave Trade Act of 1807.  Stephen’s second wife was Sarah Wilberforce, the sister of William and he is also the great grandfather of Virginia Woolf.  Stephen spent much of his life in Stoke Newington (in what is now Summerhouse Road) and is buried close to Anna Barbauld in St. Mary Old Church graveyard.

Returning to Hannah More; as with Burke, the French Revolution was a bridge too far.  Even though the revolution resulted in the abolition of slavery in France, More was an implacable opponent and so, as a contribution to the aforementioned pamphlet war, she wrote Village Politics (1792).  This was constructed as a dialogue between two working men, a blacksmith and a stonemason, debating the issues thrown up by the revolution and coming down decidedly in opposition to it.  The pamphlet became well known at the time and was lauded by those opposing the revolution; it was even dubbed ‘Burke for beginners’.  

More was less impressed with her own work, stating that Village Politics was ‘as a vulgar as [the] heart can wish; but it is only designed for the most vulgar class of readers’.  Such was the contempt that this Blue Stocking, abolitionism aside, had for the lower classes.

Evangelicalism was popular within the Blue Stocking Society.  Another Evangelical member was Henrietta Bowdler.  Bowdler assisted her brother Thomas in editing The Family Shakespeare (1807).  Indeed Henrietta is believed to have done most of the work though it was published under her brother’s name.  The Family Shakespeare was an expurgated version of the original with all the parts perceived in one way or another to be immoral, changed or deleted.  Thomas went on to edit an expurgated version of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (originally by Edward Gibbons) which was published after his death and his literary efforts have been immortalised in the term bowdlerise as in, to censor by removing parts considered to be offensive.

Political activists, evangelicals, writers and poets were not the only people to populate the Blue Stocking Society.  Other famous members included the actor David Garrick, artist Joshua Reynolds and Dr Johnson, who edited one of the earliest English dictionaries and certainly the most well read in its time.  Among Reynolds’ many portraits was one of Johnson as well as those of other Blue Stockings including Elizabeth Montague and Edmund Burke.

As a Unitarian and a radical, Anna Barbauld may have been in a minority among her fellow Blue Stockings when it came to Evangelicalism and in her views on the French Revolution but, for better or worse, in terms of women and men who have made history she was certainly in good company in Elizabeth Montague’s salon.


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