Rarely has a word conjured such varied reactions as the one that has come to be used to describe an educated, intellectual woman.
Who knew the mere color and quality of leg coverings could change the course of history?
Back in the 15th century, the members of the Compagnie della Calza, the theatrical associations that arranged festivals and feasts in Venice, could be identified by their beautifully embroidered leg coverings. The practice was later adopted in the 1500s in Paris by women who had literary aspirations. Bas bleu (stocking blue) was the French term used to describe these educated women. By the 17th century, the Covenanters in Scotland had begun wearing dark blue worsted stockings, in contrast to the bleached or dyed-black silk stockings worn by the affluent (think blue jeans versus formal wear).
Although “bluestocking” originally referred to educated people in general, by the 18th century, it often meant the group of women led by the “Queen of the Blues”, Elizabeth Montagu. Founded in the 1750s for women who were bored with embroidery and wanted to be included in men’s conversations, the Blue Stockings Society included such learned women as Elizabeth Vesey, Hester Chapone, Elizabeth Carter, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Hannah Moore and Frances Burney as well as several prominent men including Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson. They invited men to gather informally with them to talk about books, literature, art and architecture, as well as places and events that interested them. The informality including dressing in their practical country clothing, which included their warm and wooly blue worsted stockings.
In 1769, Horace Walpole described the Blue Stocking Society as “the first public female club ever known” and added that most of the ladies were “of the greatest beauty, and most of the young men of fashion were of the club.”
Lady Evangeline Tennison, the heroine of THE STORY OF A BARON, could have been a member of this interesting group. Her brother, Harry Tennison, Earl of Everly, is a renown explorer and scientist and can boast one of the best private libraries in London. But during his extended trips to do research, Evangeline is left behind to fend for herself. Bored with stitching exquisite embroideries of botanical subjects, Evangeline prefers to read, devouring the books in her brother’s library as well as purchasing new books at London’s largest bookseller, the Temple of the Muses. Although she pays calls on her friends and occasionally hosts callers in the parlor of her brother’s Mayfair home, she has gained a reputation as a bluestocking among members of the ton (the peerage).
Oh, the horrors!
You see, by 1816, the term bluestocking had taken on a rather negative connotation among members of the peerage. And how it could it not when the well-known art critic and painter, William Hazlitt, was quoted as saying, “The bluestocking is the most odious character in society…she sinks wherever she is placed, like the yolk of an egg, to the bottom, and carries the filth with her.” In the eyes of Society, bluestockings had become stereotyped as frumpy, unfeminine, pedantic, humorless, and self-important.
Is it any wonder Lady Evangeline, still unmarried at the age of three-and-twenty, decides a bit of scandal might be in order? Anything to lose the label of bluestocking! So when she buys the only copy of The Story of a Baron at the Temple of the Muses just moments before Jeffrey Althorpe, Baron Sommers, arrives to buy the very same book, she invites him to read the book with her in Finsbury Square.
They spend the morning together on a park bench, shoulder-to-shoulder and thigh-to-thigh, reading the first chapter. For the second chapter, they’ll meet in Grosvenor Square and do the same. And should the weather turn inclement? They’ll meet in the library at her brother’s house. She’s hoping the neighbors will notice the bachelor paying a call when they all know the earl is away. Certainly the gossip about Evangeline receiving a male caller will wipe out any hint of her being a bluestocking!
But will a different reputation result? Sometimes you have to read between the lines in The Story of a Baron.
Note: Since 1900, the name “Blue Stocking” or “Bluestocking” has been used as the title for all-women college yearbooks, feminist magazines, and bookstores.