20 April: Blue Stockings and Red Hats (Part 1)

Be plain in dress, and sober in your diet, 
In short, my deary, kiss me! and be quiet. 

'A Summary of Lord Lyttleton's Advice to a Lady' by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)

Round the corner from where I live is a row of houses called Regent Terrace. In 1820 Dr Samuel Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale later Hester Piozzi, (1741-1821) lodged there. She was old by then – although still sprightly; only a few weeks before her arrival she had hosted a party in Bath for 700 friends to help her celebrate her eightieth birthday. As a young woman Hester Thrale had been a member of the famous 'Blue Stockings Society', a gathering of educated and intelligent women who met together to discuss literature and art. The Blue Stocking ladies were were made public fun of in a very nasty way and the misogyny of the times is breathtaking. Here's the cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson's take on them.

The education of women in the late eighteenth century was worse than sparse, it was positively frowned upon. You were lucky if your father permitted you to read and write, and exceptionally lucky if like Jane Austen (b 1775) you were the daughter of a clergyman and encouraged to learn.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a female writer from a slightly earlier generation remarked that she had to 'steal' her education by sneaking into her father's library. In Sheridan’s play ‘The Rivals’ written in 1775, Sheridan makes fun of semi-educated women like poor Mrs Malaprop who gets all her words muddled. I felt a lot more sympathy for her when I realised that for women at that time the choice was to be an autodidact or remain illiterate. This is what Sir Antony Absolute, another character in The Rivals has to say....

"It is not to be wonder'd at, Ma'am -- all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. -- Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I'd as soon have them taught the black-art as their alphabet!"

This is Hester Thrale with her daughter painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in about 1777.

Fifty years before Mrs Piozzi came to stay here, Penzance was a wild west town. West Cornwall was often referred to as ‘West Barbary’ to indicate how primitive it was thought to be. But it wasn't all poverty - the exporting of tin and fish was at its height and there was a small but significant gentry, even if one commentator reported that they had neither a carpet nor a silver fork between them.

It's all the more surprising to know then that Penzance had its very own Blue Stocking Society. In 1770, twenty-two ladies met together to take tea and to form the ‘Penzance Ladies’ Book Club’.  They subscribed six shillings each and made a set of rules, the first of which was ‘No gentleman shall be admitted to membership’. How extraordinary is that? Their subscriptions were used to buy books which were then circulated amongst the members.

For the next one hundred and forty two years, successive generations of keen Penzance ladies continued to read their way through all the books that they could buy, initially sent from London and later through local booksellers. We know exactly what they read because they kept a complete record in one calf-bound minute book which lasted them for the whole of that time. We still have it in the town, it is one of the great treasures of the Morrab Library.

The initial membership of the PLBC as it became known, consisted of the wives and daughters of mine owners, customs officers, bankers and lawyers and they were no slouches either when it came to getting their hands on the latest bestseller. They read Voltaire and Madame de Sévigné, Swift, Austen, Trollope and George Eliot. They read lots of travel books, some lighter ephemeral works, letters, social commentary and every year the latest edition of the ‘Bath Guide’.

In 1912 there were two huge innovations in Penzance, the electric light arrived and The Savoy Cinema opened.  The PLBC decided to call it a day. I wonder if in the face of silent films they thought the days of reading were over? We still have The Savoy - four screens and a film club and we also have the revived Penzance Ladies Book Club. I’m off to a meeting on Friday.

Now where did I put my blue stockings….?

I wonder what the PLBC ladies ate when they took tea on that afternoon in 1770? Maybe they ate jumbles - little 'S' shaped cakey biscuits that date back to the middle ages.

Jumbles (Makes 12)

2½oz butter
2½oz caster sugar
1 medium egg beaten
5oz self raising flour sifted
1oz ground almonds
Rind of a small lemon (or ½ tsp almond extract, or 1 tsp orange or rose water)
Oven 180c

Beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy and add the rest of the ingredients, bring together to a loose mixture then form into a dough with your hands. Divide into three balls and divide those into four. With your hands, on a floured surface, roll each section into a cylinder about 4 inches long and form into an S shape.

Put onto a baking tray and bake for 10-12 minutes until light brown. Remove and put onto a wire cooling rack (use a spatula). When cool, dust with icing sugar.

I loved these - store cupboard ingredients, quick to make, and incredibly scrumptious.

Remember when you love, from that same hour
Your peace you put into your lover’s power;
From that same hour from him you laws receive
And as he shall ordain, you joy or grieve….

From ‘Pastoral Dialogue’ By Ann Killigrew (1660-1685)

In case you are wondering about the significance of the date - you'll have to wait until the next post on the 25th April.


Rob Wood said...

Wonderful account. Naturally as a male, I chafe at the exclusion of men. I've never willingly belonged to a male institution. But I'm definitely not a woman. So :(

Choclette said...

Liz, you are a mine of information. This is so interesting AND why shouldn't Penzance have it's own Blue Stockings indeed! I'm really amazed the club lasted so long and also pleased it is being revived.