The blues gone grey: Portraits of bluestocking women in old age

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Many bluestocking women were long-lived, a little-discussed fact that we may intuitively recognise, if only because many images have survived depicting these ‘learned ladies’ in late life. Although ‘portraits of women in advanced age are not common’ in the eighteenth century, as Marcia Pointon tells us, the bluestockings break the mould in this as in so many ways. Portraits of older bluestockings have been reprinted as book illustrations, ensuring their mass circulation. As a result, it will surprise few that Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806) and Hannah More (1745–1833) lived to 88; Frances Burney (1752–1840) and Mary Delany (1700–88) to 87; Frances Boscawen (1719–1805) to 85; and Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800) and Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825) to 81. Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741–1821) was 80 at her death. The list of bluestockings who lived into their seventies is substantial. How do we make sense of the longevity of these accomplished, intellectual women? How did living to old age influence their public images? In what ways did portraiture play a role in late-life reputations? There remains much to learn about the bluestockings, despite recent groundbreaking scholarship. As Gary Kelly has written, ‘The Bluestocking women and writers had to construct, within and between. conflicting and changing movements and ideologies, a new ideology and discourse for women – that is, for women of their class.’ This was tempered by how they ‘inevitably had to venture and experiment, without going so far in any direction as to defeminize themselves, thereby vitiating their effectiveness’, as Kelly puts it, and as we continue to document. Still, we have not considered how cultural stereotypes of old age played a role. ‘The legacy of the bluestockings was curiously mixed,’ as Sylvia Harcstark Myers concludes. Representations of the bluestockings in old age were also curiously mixed. In this essay, I consider aged bluestockings’ difficult ventures (and successful experiments) in shaping their public images, advocating sustained attention to representations of literary women in late life. Firstly, I discuss the context in which these women experienced old age. Next, I compare the reception histories of two aged bluestocking authors: Hester Lynch Piozzi and Hannah More. I turn briefly to the example of Elizabeth Carter – who did not pursue publication in late life – to investigate posthumous publication. I conclude that written and visual representations of aged bluestockings often worked in concert, suggesting the need for further research on intellectual women, old age, reception studies and visual culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBluestockings Displayed
Subtitle of host publicationPortraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730-1830
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9780511667428
ISBN (Print)9780521768801
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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