Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 9. Her friendship with Horace Walpole

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

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 9. Her friendship with Horace Walpole

Perhaps the most curious friendship in the bas-bleu coteries, was that between Hannah More and Horace Walpole. She was not long in discovering that “Horace liked nonsense talk better than Greeks or Romans,” but, apparently, she could do her own share of such conversation. When she spent evenings among the bluestockings, she frequently mentions that she and Horace Walpole, with another friend or two, “make up a pleasant little coterie of their own.” Friendly correspondence passed between them, when they were away from London; and, when Hannah More went to live at her cottage, Cowslip green—cousin in name, declared Walpole, to Strawberry hill—he collected all his own works, printed at the Strawberry hill press, to give her “for remembrance.” As a mark of great distinction, he printed her Bishop Bonner’s Ghost at the famous press, for distribution among their common friends—in other words, the bluestockings. He gave her a beautifully bound Bible, which she wished he would read; but, in spite of the amazing differences of character between the cynic and the reformer, they remained good friends till his death. He was on intimate terms with Mrs. Carter, too, and both the famous bluestocking ladies were amazed when his Letters were published. The Horace Walpole there revealed was an entirely different person from the bluestocking they had known. When he talked with them, there were not any traces of “that truly French, light and frivolous way of thinking which is so evident in his printed letters.” Indeed, it was something of a shock to them to find that he had actually selected his letters for publication.

Hannah More was the chief chronicler as well as the poet laureate of the blues. It is from the hasty impressionist sketches in her letters that we gather the significance of the movement. Of a bluestocking evening at William Pepys’s, she says:

  • There was all the pride of London, every wit and every wit-ess … but the spirit of the evening was kept up on the strength of a little lemonade till past eleven, without cards, scandal or politics.
  • A terse description that might serve as a type of most of the bluestocking meetings. This cult of “conversation—the pursuit of ideas,” as it has been defined—acted as a subtle leaven to the hard brilliant materialism of the eighteenth century. The social refinement introduced by the bluestocking interest in literature can be better appreciated by a glimpse at the glaring foil made by ordinary society.
  • “On Monday,” writes Hannah More, “I was at a very great assembly at the Bishop of St. Asaph’s. Conceive to yourself one hundred and fifty or two hundred people met together … painted as red as bacchanals; poisoning the air with perfumes; treading on each other’s gowns; not one in ten able to get a chair … ten or a dozen card tables crammed with dowagers of quality, grave ecclesiastics and yellow admirals.”
  • It was another advantage of the bas-bleu societies, that “common or genteel swearing” was not countenanced: and, as tea, coffee, orgeat and lemonade were the only beverages offered, intoxication—then a general vice of society—seldom brought its embarrassments into their midst.

    From the somewhat elusive references to the bluestocking parties, we gather that—unlike the Parisian salons—there was not a fixed day or date for any of the meetings. A dinner might be given by Mrs. Montagu, after which there would be “a strong reinforcement of the Blues”; or, Mrs. Vesey would hold an assembly of rank, fashion and literati: “so blue it was Mazarin blue,” as Horace Walpole once described “a Vesey.” Or, Mrs. Boscawen might “receive,” though parties at her house were usually more exclusive, and thirty or forty was there considered quite a large meeting. These were the principal bluestocking hostesses, to whom came “the elite of London both for talent and fashion.” Since the first conversation had been given by Mrs. Vesey, these societies had multiplied, and, from the seventies to the end of the century, bluestocking meetings were held in many other London houses. Sir Joshua Reynolds, “the idol of every company,” and his sister had most interesting evenings at their house in Leicester fields and, later, at Richmond. Here, even Johnson was “as brilliant as himself, and as good-humoured as anyone else,” and there was “scarce an expletive man or woman” among the company. Mrs. Thrale, of the “little silver tongue,” welcomed rank and talent to her home at Streatham, and much good talk was heard in the famous library. Miss Mary Monckton, afterwards the witty countess of Cork and Ossory, had, said Boswell, the finest bit of blue at her parties. Dressed in fine thin muslin in the coldest weather, she would nonchalantly receive her distinguished guests with “a nod and a smile and a short ‘How do do’”; and then, without moving from her seat in the middle of the room, would continue her conversation, lounging on one chair while she leaned on the back of another. At this house, the guest of honour was Johnson, of whom dean Marlay once remarked, “the ladies might well be proud when they could turn a wolf-dog into a lap-dog!”