Thursday, October 1, 2009

An illuminated countenance

I've long been fascinated by the 18th-century Englishwomen known as Bluestockings. Given an expansive definition, "Bluestocking" covers articulate, educated, intelligent women of several generations, some of whom number among the first professional women writers in England, and who collectively exercised considerable influence on the development of the canon of English literature. (They were largely responsible, for instance, for reviving Shakespeare's fading reputation and elevating him to his current iconic status.) They were very big on "conversation" and thus conducted huge correspondences and organized salons and published dialogues. In short, they were women who achieved a real (if not exactly full) presence in the public sphere. My fascination with them is probably due to their having become first denied and ridiculed as attitudes toward women shifted and then more or less forgotten-- until recently, when a spate of scholarship began excavating their work and influence as well as their interesting though sometimes difficult relationships with one another.

I can recommend a wonderfully readable book by Norma Clarke, Dr. Johnson's Women, as a fine introduction to the subject. Clarke is particularly adept at conveying the shifts in Bluestocking political attitudes and thought and their role as professionals in the public sphere over the course of the century. I have long, of course, been a fan of Fanny Burney's novels. And so it was a little bit painful to read Clarke recount how Burney, who is counted as a member of the last generation of Bluestockings, satirized and ridiculed the earlier generations of Bluestockings, despite having benefited significantly from their pioneering work. As those of us who have been alive for more than half a century can never forget, political and cultural environments can grow more and more conservative, as was the case with England's 18th century. And of course the irony was that Burney could ridicule the older Bluestockings largely because women's access to the public sphere, which she herself was easily able to enter because the Bluestockings had made women's presence less than unusual, was by that time inexorably narrowing.

But of course my mixed feelings about Burney are typical of my feelings about most of the Bluestockings. I may like and admire some things they've written or done or attitudes they've espoused, and cringed at others. But earlier this week, when I came across something Bluestocking Hannah More had written in an essay titled "On Conversation," I found myself thinking that More is one Bluestocking about whom I've never found much to like. And so I was surprised, but not surprised. Here's the passage in question:

How easily and effectually may a well-bred woman promote the most useful and elegant conversation, almost without speaking a word! for the modes of speech are scarcely more variable than the modes of silence... A woman, in a company where she has the least influence, may promote any subject by a profound and invariable attention, which she shews she is pleased with it, and by an illuminated countenance, which proves she understands it.

An "illuminated countenance": I think we all know what that is. Remember the picture of Nancy Reagan beaming adoringly at husband Ronald Reagan? [And of course, a little imp is whispering in my ear this moment, remember that time when Nancy Reagan prompted Ronnie half under her breath with an appropriate answer to give reporters as they were standing on the lawn of the White House?]

In certain circumstances silence, of course, can be eloquent. But an obsequious woman employing the "variable" "modes of silence" because she is "in a company where she has the least influence," is hardly likely to contribute to anything like my idea of conversation.

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