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Chapter 7 - Bluestocking Epistolary Education: Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Louise Joy
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Jessica Lim
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

I have another Obligation to [Charles Rollin] far superior to all the Others: for to him I owe the Happiness of the greatest part of my Life, since He in a manner began our acquaintance. Had it not been for Rollin, we should perhaps never have known enough of each other to enjoy the pleasures of Friendship, but might have been just so much acquainted as to Curtsy cross a Room. [H]ave each Others name down in a long List of Visits instead of at the Bottom of a Hundred Letters.

Let Education’s moral mint

The noblest images imprint;

[…]

But ‘tis thy commerce, Conversation,

Must give it use by circulation;

That noblest commerce of mankind,

Whose precious merchandize is MIND!

These two extracts frame what might be considered ‘the Bluestocking moment’ which emerged in the 1760s until the conservative response to the French Revolution in the 1790s. The first is a 1741 letter from Jemima Yorke, Marchioness Grey (1723–97) to the essayist and poet Catherine Talbot (1721–70), describing the sociable pleasure and intellectual fulfilment she receives in their mutual reading of Charles Rollin’s Histoire Romaine (1739–50). The second is from Hannah More’s Bas Bleu: or, Conversation, her 1786 manifesto for Bluestocking conversation, blending the languages of commerce, patriotism and intellectual and moral growth. This chapter focuses on the ways in which shared reading was essential in providing the early Bluestocking writers with access to novel ideas, an avenue for sociocultural critique and a vehicle for self-fashioning as an unprecedented generation of public female intellectuals.

The concept of Bluestocking self-education through mutually developmental epistolary friendships has long formed a central concern of Bluestocking scholarship. Sylvia Harcstark Myers famously associated the movement with ‘chosen friendship’ between elite women outside of the family unit. She saw these friendships as a proto-feminist ‘supportive structure’ in which intellectual activity establishes a shared sense of feminine community. Socratic dialogue, Stoic rational community and Aristotelian ‘virtue friendship’.5 Heller defines virtue friendship, originally articulated in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and carried into the eighteenth century via humanist education, as a model of simultaneous self-fashioning and community formation which is affective, rational and grounded in virtue. Heller takes Aristotle’s statement that ‘a friend is another self’ and combines it with Jürgen

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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