Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 2. Conversation parties; Mrs. Vesey

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 2. Conversation parties; Mrs. Vesey

The first “conversation,” however, had been given in the early fifties, many years before Boswell wrote this. It was held at the house of Mrs. Vesey, wife of Agmondesham Vesey, a member of the Irish parliament, and daughter of Sir Thomas Vesey, bishop of Ossory. She was a witty Irishwoman with a taste for literature, who determined to unite the literary and the fashionable society of her acquaintance—worlds that had hitherto been kept apart.

Much perverse ingenuity was wasted by the writers of the first quarter of the nineteenth century in trying to account for the term “bluestocking.” Abraham Hayward, de Quincey, Mrs. Opie, all sought for an obscure origin in France, in Italy, anywhere, in fact, save where it lay embedded in the writings of the bluestocking circle. The point is still disputed, but critical authorities lean to the Stillingfleet origin, supported by Boswell, and corroborated by Madame d’Arblay. During the annual migration of the great world to Bath, Mrs. Vesey, meeting Benjamin Stillingfleet, invited him to one of her “conversations.” Stillingfleet, the disinherited grandson of the bishop of Worcester, was a botanist and a poet, a philosopher and a failure. He had given up society and was obliged to decline the invitation on the score of not having clothes suitable for an evening assembly. The Irishwoman, a singularly inconsequent person, giving a swift glance at his everyday attire, which included small-clothes and worsted stockings, exclaimed gaily: “Don’t mind dress. Come in your blue stockings.” Stillingfleet obeyed her to the letter; and, when he entered the brilliant assembly where ladies in “night gowns” of brocade and lutestring were scarcely more splendid in plumage than men in garments of satin and paduasoy, the shabby recluse claimed permission to join them by whimsically murmuring: “Don’t mind dress. Come in your blue stockings.”

Stillingfleet was so popular at these conversation parties, that “blew stockings,” as he was called, was in great request.

  • “Such was the excellence of his conversation,” wrote Boswell, “that it came to be said, we can do nothing without the blue stockings, and thus, by degrees, the title was established.”
  • By one of the ironic subtleties of nomenclature, a term originally applied to a man was gradually transferred in deepened tint to the women of these assemblies. It was a name, “fixed in playful stigma,” as one of the circle happily phrased it. For, though bluestockings were estimable women, individually held in high honour, the epithet “blue,” if not a designation of scorn like les femmes savantes, held at least a grain of goodhumoured malice; possibly, because few of them were free from what their “queen,” with frank self-criticism, called, “the female frailty of displaying more learning than is necessary or graceful.”

    But it is only just to say that Mrs. Vesey, “the first queen” of the bluestockings, was free from this particular female frailty. Though she delighted in literary conversation, she had neither literary ambition, nor desire to pose as a learned woman. She was ethereal and imaginative, and, said her friends, even in old age, combined the simplicity of a child with the eager vivacity of eighteen. Her intimates called her the sylph, and, of the bluestocking hostesses, without question, she was the bestbeloved. By nature unconventional, Mrs. Vesey was noted for her amusing horror of the paralysing effect of the conventional circle. Her large reception rooms in Bolton row—and, later, in Clarges street—appropriately upholstered in blue, were crowded with guests, who, by her deft arrangement of chairs and sofas “naturally broke up into little groups” that were “perpetually varying and changing.” There was “no ceremony, no cards, and no supper,” and Mrs. Vesey, we are told, had the almost magic art of putting all her company at their ease without the least appearance of design. And, what was possibly even more conducive to the success of her assemblies, “it was not absolutely necessary to talk sense.”

    Vesey, though not a model husband, was an excellent host, with sufficient interest in literature to help Lord Lyttelton with his Life of Henry II, and to be delighted when he was elected a member of Johnson’s Literary club. Husbands were not much in evidence in the bluestocking circle—by a curious coincidence, they were rarely seen in Parisian salons—but Vesey, undoubtedly, contributed to the success of his wife’s literary parties. To the Veseys belongs the credit of being among the first to welcome authors and people with an interest in literature to social intercourse with the great. Even of Johnson, Croker remarks in a footnote that, “except by a few visits in his latter years at the basbleux assemblies of Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Vesey, and Mrs. Ord, we do not trace him in anything like fashionable society.” In the bluestocking coteries, however, he was regarded as a literary lion of the first rank, “whose roar was deeper in its tone when he meant to be civil.” We get a bluestocking picture of the literary autocrat from Bennet Langton, one of the best talkers among the “blues,” who, knowing Boswell’s amiable hero-worship, sent him an account of an evening at Vesey’s. Here, surrounded by duchesses, lords, knights, and ladies, “four if not five deep,” Johnson held converse with Barnard, provost of Eton, while the company listened with respectful attention. The evenings were probably pleasanter, however, when there was less monopoly, and the various groups conversed among themselves. Hannah More, whose critical judgment was equal to that of any of the bluestockings, not only gave precedence to “Vesey, of verse the judge and friend” in her poem Bas Bleu, but she also wrote “I know of no house where there is such good rational society, and a conversation so general, so easy and so pleasant.”

    For more than thirty years, Mrs. Vesey’s house was a notable centre of the most cultivated society in London. After her husband’s death, however, her mind became clouded, and, for a few years before she died in 1791, she was unable to recognise her friends, who, nevertheless, visited her with a loyal devotion, lest at any time she should regain her faculties, and miss their society. In 1787, Hannah More wrote:

  • Mr. Walpole seldomer presents himself to my mind as the man of wit, than as the tender-hearted and humane friend of my dear infirm, broken-spirited Mrs. Vesey.