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Pronounced /ˈbluːˌstɒkɪŋ/Help with pronunciation

Some eyebrows have been raised recently through Amanda Foreman’s decision to pose naked for the February issue of Tatler magazine, albeit semi-modestly behind a large pile of her new book. She has just spent five years, as she said in the magazine, “cooped up in libraries” writing the biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and decided “why not have some fun now?”. Georgiana was one of the more flamboyant women of the eighteenth century, and researching her seems to have affected Ms Foreman deeply.

In a strained bit of wordplay, Cayte Williams commented in the Independent on Sunday last weekend: “It comes to something when Britain’s top bluestockings start whipping off their suspender belts”. Leaving aside the shaky fashion notes, bluestocking itself is getting to be rather an old-fashioned pejorative description for an intellectual woman.

What is especially odd about the term, though, is that the first bluestocking was a man. He was a learned botanist, translator, publisher and minor poet of the eighteenth-century named Benjamin Stillingfleet. He wrote an early opera and also published the first English editions of works by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus.

The story starts in the early 1750s, when a group of independently minded women decided to break away from the stultifying sessions of card playing and idle chatter which was all that tradition allowed them. They began to hold literary evenings, in direct imitation of the established salons of Paris, to which well-known men of letters would be invited as guests to encourage discussion.

One of the leading lights of this group was Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, a powerful and rich figure in London society (she was the cousin of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who brought smallpox inoculation back from Turkey). Literary and theatrical luminaries like Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Lord Lyttleton attended what she and her friends referred to as conversations, but which Horace Walpole, a frequent guest, called petticoteries. Another regular visitor was Joshua (later Sir Joshua) Reynolds, who, to complete the circle of associations, painted a portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in 1786.

Mr Stillingfleet was asked to attend by Mrs Vesey, one of the group. He felt he had to decline, as he was too poor to afford the formal dress then required for evening events, which included black silk stockings. According to Fanny Burney, who told the story later, Mrs Vesey told him to come as he was, in his informal day clothes. Which he did, wearing his blue worsted stockings, and started a trend.

Admiral Edward Boscawen, who was known to his friends as “Old Dreadnought” or “Wry-necked Dick”, was the husband of one of the more enthusiastic attendees. He was very rude about what he saw as his wife’s literary pretensions and is said to have derisively described the sessions as being meetings of the Blue-Stocking Society. So those who attended were sometimes called Blue Stockingers, later abbreviated to blue stockings. (Another name was the French form Bas Bleu, which Hanna More, another member, used in her poem, The Bas Bleu, or Conversation, which gives a lot of information about the group.)

A slightly different version of the story and of the influence of Benjamin Stillingfleet is told by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson: “Such was the excellence of his conversation, that his absence was felt as so great a loss, that it used to be said ‘We can do nothing without the blue stockings,’ and thus by degrees the title was established”.

With such a wealth of documentary evidence, you might think that the origin of the word was established, as they might have said at the time, beyond a peradventure (though Dr Johnson was dismissive of that word, no doubt repeating at one of those evenings what he said in his dictionary: “It is sometimes used as a noun, but not gracefully nor properly”). But some works say firmly that the tradition goes back to the 1400s, to the blue stockings worn by the members of a society in Venice called Della Calza (“of the stockings”), which later spread to Paris, from which the society ladies of London were supposed to have taken it up.

I’ve not got to the bottom of this one and it may be a false lead (can a blue stocking be a red herring?), but even if Hanna More, James Boswell, and Fanny Burney were all recounting a kind of early urban myth about the circumstances, there’s no doubt that the English word was coined as a result of those conversational evenings in the mid eighteenth century.

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Page created 23 Jan 1999