London was a colorful place in the 1790s, full of vices that the Victorians took great pains to either criticize or euphemize in their histories of England: alcoholism, casual sex, venereal disease, child abandonment, vagrancy, unwed motherhood, and the list continues. To contemporaries, these were all areas of concern but one vice in particular took priority: gambling. Victorian historian John Ashton wrote that “the canker of gambling was surely eating into the very heart of the nation.” Why was gambling suddenly such a concern? Surely Britons had been gambling for centuries, playing cards, rolling dice, and placing wagers on aspects of every-day life since at least the times of the Picts (Iron Age). Your answer?… women were doing it. This week’s episode is about the exclusive Faro Ladies and a rival society that appeared, to all, to be their exact opposites, the Bluestockings. We, however, are not so sure…

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Transcript for Secret Societies of Sapphos: Faro Ladies, Bluestockings, and Gendered Insults of Women’s Societies in 18th- and 19th-Century Britain

Written by Marissa C. Rhodes, PhD

Recorded and Produced by Marissa C. Rhodes, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Marissa: Victorian historian John Ashton wrote of the 1730s, “the canker of gambling was surely eating into the very heart of the nation.” Why was gambling such a visible concern at this particular time and place? Surely Britons had been gambling for centuries, playing cards, rolling dice, and placing wagers on hunting hauls, cock fights, and dog races since at least the times of the Norman Conquest (11th century). In short, it had been men who played the cards, rolled the dice, and placed the wagers. In Georgian London, aristocratic women were doing it and their gambling was visible to a critical public. 

Averill: Women gamblers were not the only aristocratic women criticized for flouting traditional gender roles. The Bluestockings, an exclusive circle of learned, wealthy women founded by Elizabeth Montagu, were attacked viciously in public forums. So much so that famed literati eventually did all they could to avoid the moniker. In his 1890s reimagining of a dinner of dead literati, French historian Augustin Filon includes a scene where the group tries to distance themselves from the Bluestockings, “Don’t allude to Bluestockings in my presence!” cried the author of Evelina (that’s Frances Burney), making a shield of her fan…” then Edmund Burke asserts that bluestockings are all pedantic.. he is so over them, he continues: “and —do you give her a place among the bluestockings?”/ She’s too great a woman for that!” Like gamblers, learned women of the eighteenth century were not remembered fondly by Victorian historians. Bluestocking quickly became a pejorative term. 

Marissa: In this episode, the last of our secret clubs and societies series, we are bending the rules a bit to include some not-so-secret clubs, though both were quite exclusive. Most women’s societies were add-ons or auxiliaries to men’s clubs. (Like women masons or the KKK Women’s Auxiliary). I wanted to focus on a couple of societies made for and by women. The Faro Ladies and the Bluestockings fit the bill. Their legacies are, however, shaped by their critics and the moralizing Victorian antiquarians who told their stories. At its core, this episode is a story of collective womanhood within patriarchal societies. 

I’m Marissa. 

And I’m Averill. 

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig. 

Averill: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters! We are over halfway to our goal of $300/month. When we hit that, we’ll be getting new recording equipment, woohoo! So thank you, to you generous souls who are already giving, and particularly our Auger and Excavator level patrons: a very special thanks to Colin, Peggy, Chris, Danielle, Maggie, and Lauren! Your generosity will go down in history. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can be – just go to to learn more.

Marissa: In 1743, Elizabeth Montagu wrote in a letter to the Duchess of Portland:

“In a woman’s education little but outward accomplishments is regarded … sure the men are very imprudent to endeavor to make fools of those to whom they so much trust their honour and fortune, but it is in the nature of mankind to hazard their peace to secure power, and they know fools make the best slaves.”

Translation—men prefer to have fools for wives who dishonor them and gamble away their fortunes than wives who are educated and cultured because the latter are greater threats to their husbands’ power. In these lines, Montagu sets up the duality that shaped aristocratic women’s lives for several decades to come. She presents two options: an aristocratic woman was either a vapid, immoral spendthrift/gambler OR a bookish, self-possessed intellectual. Both options were threatening to men but Montagu asserts that men would prefer the vapid gambler to an “overly-educated” woman. 

Averill: Montagu was the nucleus of an exclusive ring of wealthy and educated women who gathered regularly to discuss literature, philosophy, and politics. Montagu, Frances Burney, Hester Thrale, Hannah More, Eva Garrick, Elizabeth Vesey, Hester Chapone, and Elizabeth Carter formed the informal Bluestocking society in the early 1750s. They collected no dues and performed no initiation ceremonies but, using the vagaries of polite society, they controlled access to their inner circle. A society specifically for women, the Bluestockings excluded men from regular membership but endowed a few choice men (Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole) with honorary Bluestocking status. 

Marissa: Most Bluestockings enjoyed successful literary careers and during their lifetime they earned affectionate nicknames from their admirers. Elizabeth Vesey was called “The Sylph” and Hester Thrale “the dispenser of Ambrosia” by their intimates. Montagu, called “Montagu Minerva” or “Queen of the Blues” was a respected literary critic. Frances Burney, called “Pretty Fanny” by author Samuel Johnson, wrote the hit novel Evelina. Hester Chapone authored the 1770s’ most popular conduct book which was singled out by Mary Wollstonecraft as the most valuable advice book of her time. Elizabeth Carter was a renowned translator of French-language scientific texts and was dubbed “Sappho” by Lord Lyttleton. Hannah More, called “Saint Hannah” by Horace Walpole (for reasons we will get to later), was a celebrated playwright whose play Percy was performed at Covent Garden starring actress Sarah Siddons. 

The loss of the faro bank; or – the rook’s pigeon’d (1797) by caricaturist James Gillray. (Wikimedia Commons)

Averill: Members of the Bluestocking Society were fed up with Georgian Britain’s limiting expectations of wealthy women. They valued intensive educations and literary accomplishments over the vocational and conduct training typically experienced by young women. Some Bluestockings espoused radical politics or issued public, feminist retorts to literary notables. They also tended to have fewer children than other women in their station. Of the OG Bluestockings, Burney and Montagu had only one child each, More and Carter remained unmarried, while Chapone, Vesey, and Garrick were married but had no children. The only exception was Hester Thrale Piozzi who married twice and gave birth to twelve children. This was (and perhaps still is) transgressive in a time when privileged women valued wifehood, motherhood, and domestic bliss over all else. 

Marissa: The Bluestockings received their fair share of disapproval but so did their vapid, gambling foils. To some contemporaries and to many later historians, the Bluestockings were a decent alternative to vile, aristocratic women gamers. Poet Alexander Pope wrote the following lines in the 1730s after a highly-publicized falling-out with Ambassador Edward and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Elizabeth Montagu’s cousins). 

“Why [Phryne] and SAPPHO raise that monstrous sum? 

Alas! they fear a man will cost a plum.”

The poem was a thinly-veiled criticism of Lady Mary (Sappho) and her friend Molly Skerret (Phryne). The lines suggested that the two women gambled in order to win enough money to buy a man. All of his possible meanings were scandalous; he either meant that Lady Mary was going to ruin her marriage through infidelity which would cost her dearly, that Skerret (who was unmarried) could not attract a husband without paying for one, or that either or both might resort to bribery to smooth over any scandal. 

Sixty years after Alexander Pope’s sick burn of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, his poems were anthologized and re-released. His words resonated with social commentators and bitter vice reformers. On Monday, June 27, 1796, the Morning Chronicle published a short piece meant to puff (promote/publicize) a new edition of The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope. Pope had been dead for fifty years but the anonymous author of the puff piece found support for his own social commentary in Pope’s work:

“The object of the Faro Ladies in maintaining their favorite amusement and lucrative fame in defiance of the threats of justice and the hisses of public scorn, seems to be exposed in the following lines of Pope.” [then he reproduced Pope’s lines about Sappho and Phryne using gambling winnings to catch a man. “Why [Phryne] and SAPPHO raise that monstrous sum? /Alas! they fear a man will cost a plum.”]

Averill: The Faro Ladies were an exclusive circle of inveterate women gamblers whom the British press loved to hate. Though there is no evidence that they acknowledged the epithet, the Faro Ladies were a tight group of friends who ran gambling dens out of their own homes, socialized often, and spent their recreational time playing cards. The three most infamous Faro Ladies were Lady Sarah Archer, Albinia Hobart (Lady Buckinghamshire), and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell. Joined by two lesser known friends, Mrs. Sturt and Mrs. Concannon, the Faro Ladies became an institution of sorts in the 1790s. 

The loss of the faro bank; or – the rook’s pigeon’d (1797) by caricaturist James Gillray. Wikimedia Commons)

In 1793 an author of a letter to the editor of The Times targeted gambling in his bid for excise taxes, “The Faro Ladies are, in the sporting phrase, almost done up. Jewels, trinkets, watches, laces, &c., are often at the pawnbrokers, and scarcely anything is left to raise money upon except their pads (these were hair pieces that were in vogue at the time). If justice is to be hoodwinked, and gambling and sharking permitted, why not make it an article of revenue, as in foreign countries, and lay a heavy tax on it.”

Men playing faro in New Jersey.

Marissa: Gambling dens and gaming houses dotted both the cityscape of London and the Palladian-style spa town of Bath. Gaming houses were so popular and successful that Georgian gamers developed new forms of old games and new games altogether. There was, for example, Bassett, Hazard, Evens and Odds, Whist, Quadrille, and Roly Poly. Official gaming houses were exclusively masculine settings. The most popular gambling clubs in London were called Brook’s and White’s. 

These clubs were located in the upmarket Westminster neighborhood of St. James. They were frequented by MPs, peers, and other notables. Their gaming was conspicuous. Behind big picture windows, influential men and those riding their coattails could be seen by passersby, risking their fortunes on cards and dice. Their winnings, losses, and subsequent dramas were advertised and editorialized in the daily papers. Ashton writes, “It was at White’s Club that play was carried on to an extent, which made ravages in large fortunes, the traces of which have not disappeared at the present day. It was at White’s that General Scott won £200,000. It was at Brook’s that Charles James Fox, Selwyn, Lord Carlisle, Lord Robert Spencer and other great Whigs won and lost hundreds of thousands.”

Averill: In contrast to the masculine settings of official clubs, however, pop-up gaming tables in private homes and in the back rooms of recreational venues were largely hosted by aristocratic women. During the 1790s, the Faro Ladies rose to prominence due to their hosting of late-night gaming tables: (Remember- Mrs. Albinia Hobart (later Lady Buckinghamshire), Lady Sarah Archer, Mrs. Sturt, Mrs. Concannon, and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell). It was the press who dubbed them the “Faro Ladies.” Faro was their game and the Faro table was their domain. Faro, (also called Pharaoh, Farobank or Banking), was to the eighteenth-century what Texas Hold ‘Em is to America today. Its rules were easy to learn and, it was thought, that it had better odds of winning than other games of chance. Faro was popular in the nineteenth century in the United States but was, by the end of the century, overtaken by poker. 

William Pitt the younger and Hobart. Here she is the victim of a 1792 engraving by James Gillray “A sphere, projecting against a plane”. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though the Faro Ladies did themselves gamble as well as operate faro banks out of their home, it is unclear whether they saw themselves as a discrete group, much less an organized criminal enterprise. For the British public it hardly mattered. In 1796, Lord Kenyon denounced the Faro Ladies while dealing with a gambling debt case. He criticized aristocratic women gamblers saying, “They think they are too great for the law; I wish they could be punished. If any prosecution of this nature are fairly brought before me, and the parties are justly convicted, whatever be their rank or station in the country– though they be the first ladies in the land– they shall certainly exhibit themselves on the pillory.”

Marissa: Following Lord Kenyon’s pronouncement, the London papers ran cartoons (most notably Gillray’s Exaltation of Faro’s Daughters) showing the Faro Ladies in the pillory, debauched and bare-breasted, receiving taunts from rowdy onlookers.  The next year, the Faro Ladies organized a high-stakes faro game at the table of one Mr. Martindale. The ladies were fined £50 each. The London Telegraph gleefully pronounced, “All the Faro Ladies are in the utmost agitation respecting the impending indictments. They used to laugh at the pillory, but now perhaps they may cry in it.” 

But why were women gamblers targeted so cruelly when men had been gambling for centuries, and were doing so quite openly in 1790s London? The context is key here. The rise of the Faro Ladies coincided with the increased visibility of aristocratic women in politics. Several aristocratic women canvassed for the Foxite Whigs during the 1784 Parliamentary Election. Perhaps the most well-known of these women was Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, but Lady Sarah Archer campaigned for Fox as well. Aristocratic women such as Archer and Devonshire were tasked with luring respectable, working-class tradesmen into the Whig party. 

Averill: The Faro Ladies, like Fox’s female canvassers, dared to be visible, to enjoy recreation traditionally gendered masculine. This did not end at gambling. “Women of fashion” were also criticized for their use of snuff, their abuse of spirits, their reading of novels, use of cosmetics, and partaking in fashion trends. As the Whig party sought to harness the power of the middling sort, the ostentatious dress and outlandish behavior of their aristocratic women mascots began to chafe. This was part of a larger swelling of anti-aristocratic sentiment among the middling sort whose fortunes waxed and waned with the market. Hard-working tradesmen often found themselves in the poor house through no fault of their own, while privileged aristocrats gambled away a year’s wages for an evening’s entertainment. Yet, rather than the masculine gaming clubs of St. James, which were frequented by MPs and British gentry, it was the Faro Ladies who came to symbolize the blight of gambling on Georgian Society. 

Marissa: At this time, British women were easy targets. They could not make or inherit their own money due to English Common Law (check out our episode on Coverture if you haven’t heard it yet). Women controlled few of the country’s assets, enjoyed little recourse in secular courts, and were legally dependent on men (their fathers, their husbands, or their benefactors) until death. They could easily be cast as vile spendthrifts, vain and careless with money that was not their own. This was doubly distressing in the 1790s, a time when financial credit was built on personal interaction and speculation or investment made financial ruin a risk for most.  

Averill: Though there are some similarities, the public’s reception of the Bluestockings was more mixed. As the OG Bluestockings aged, subsequent generations of Bluestockings were brought into the fold. Some of them, such as novelist and supporter of the French Revolution Charlotte Turner Smith, were markedly radical. Others, such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld (who wrote chaste children’s literature and, as her husband’s helpmeet, ran a school for boys) were the pinnacle of feminine respectability. Like the Faro Ladies, however, their celebrity made them particularly vulnerable to criticism. When a Bluestocking was involved in some kind of scandal, the disgrace had a ripple effect.  

Charlotte Smith by George Romney. [Wikimedia]

Marissa: Thrale-Piozzi’s second marriage, for example, drew criticism from her fellow Bluestockings who feared for their own reputations. Thrale’s husband had died after a drawn-out illness. Three years into her widowhood, Thrale fell in love with an Italian singer and music teacher named Gabriel Mario Piozzi. Piozzi was a humble immigrant whose status fell well below that of the wealthy and influential Hester Thrale. The press accused her of disgracefully “raising an obscure and penniless Fiddler into sudden Wealth.” 

Her fellow Bluestockings disowned her as a result. In a letter to Elizabeth Vesey, Elizabeth Montagu wrote:

“Mrs. Thrale’s marriage has taken such horrible possession of my mind I cannot advert on any other subject. I am sorry and feel the worst kind of sorrow, that which is blended with shame… when one laments and weeps over the disgrace of a Friend, bitter are the sensations, and as the cause of ones grief is an object of contempt and scorn one cannot disburthen the heart by communicating its sufferings, but shuts it up with all its poisonous and baleful qualities. I am myself convinced that the poor Woman is mad, and indeed have long suspected her mind was disordered. She was the best Mother, the best Wife, the best friend, the most amiable member of Society. She gave the most prudent attentions to her Husband’s business during his long state of imbecility and after his death, til she had an opportunity of disposing well of the great Brewery. I bring my verdict of lunacy in this affair… I respected Mrs. Thrale, and was proud of the honour she did to the human and female character in fulfilling all the domestick duties and cultivating her mind with whatever might adorn it. I would give much to make evryone [sic] think of her as mad, the best and wisest are liable to lunacy; if she is not considered in that light she must throw a disgrace on her sex.”

Averill: Now, it is easy to retroactively read Victorian sensibilities on eighteenth-century peoples (once again, Victorian historians are good at this) but if you listened to my other episodes, you’ll know that Georgian London was a colorful place. It was full of vices that the Victorians took great pains to either criticize or euphemize in their histories of England. For example, from the 1720s to the 1750s, the Gin Craze shook London society. By 1743 Britons were drinking 2.2 gallons of gin per person per year, a vice that was curbed only by rising grain prices in the 1750s. Poverty triggered crimes of opportunity, begging, homelessness, and rising arrests for vagrancy, thievery, and prostitution. 

Eighteenth-century people were having casual sex (yes this has almost always been a thing), but at this particular time and place, casual sex was valorized somewhat by libertinism and romanticism. This, plus many other factors, led to rampant venereal disease, unwed motherhood, child support litigation, and infant abandonment. One recent study of infirmary records for the city of Chester found that 8% of the residents of Chester had venereal disease during the 1770s. For comparison’s sake, in 2016, approximately 1% of the population of England was diagnosed with syphilis that year. This was the highest level since 1949 and it triggered a serious evaluation of public health efforts. 

Marissa: Upward social mobility, “mixed-caste” marriages, and women gamblers were becoming more common, or at least more commonly known thanks to the growth of a media-fueled popular culture. At the same time, competing understandings of womanhood were solidifying into a pre-Victorian model which historian Linda Colley calls “womanpower.” The criticisms of Lady Sarah Archer, the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Buckinghamshire, and the rest of the Faro Ladies were reinforced by an assumption that if women of fashion were distracting themselves with gambling, dancing, reading, and intoxicants, there was no way they had enough time or concentration to do their real jobs properly- mothering. 

Averill: The middle classes were particularly critical of aristocratic vice. Eager to distinguish themselves from the aristocracy, middling people framed themselves as a moral majority or sorts. Reformers began attacking aristocratic vice in the 1780s and 1790s but widespread support was slow-growing. Abolitionist William Wilberforce painstakingly grew the movement, rebranding the Society for the Reformation of Manners, (founded in the 1690s) into London’s Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1802. 

Though Wilberforce was the official godfather of English vice-hunting, it was women reformers who made the movement flourish. The Society for the Suppression of Vice continued to be run by men but moralizing literature by women writers made vice-reform mainstream. A growing contingent of well-educated women, some with radical republican politics, took to criticizing the Fashionable Vices. 

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1797. (Wikimedia Commons)

Marissa: Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: 

“Instead of gaming they might nourish a virtuous ambition, and love might take place of the gallantry which you, with knightly fealty, venerate. Women would probably then act like mothers, and the fine lady, become a rational woman, might think it necessary to superintend her family and suckle her children, in order to fulfill her part of the social compact. But vain is the hope, whilst great masses of property are hedged round by hereditary honors… the respect paid to rank and fortune damps every generous purpose of the soul, and stifles the natural affections on which human contentment ought to be built.”

Wollstonecraft had sex outside of marriage, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, traveled to France, witnessing the Reign of Terror, and wrote about suicide as an act of resistance (she attempted suicide several times before her death in childbirth in 1797.) She lived a transgressive life but even she felt like she was in a position to criticize women gamblers in a way that disrupted their claim to womanhood. 

Averill: “Rehabilitated” ladies of fashion oftentimes matured into moralizing vice-hunters. Mary Robinson, a poet-actress who was an object of both adoration and abhorrence, lived a life ruined by gambling. She married Thomas Robinson out of a sense of duty. Soon, she discovered that he had fabricated an impending inheritance. He lived a lavish lifestyle and gambled extravagantly, spending Mary’s own family money. He was eventually imprisoned in the Fleet Prison for debt. Mary and their infant daughter stayed with him during his sentence. During their prison stay, Mary wrote an anthology of poems and earned the patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire. 

Marissa: She went on to become a much-loved poetess and actress but she suffered slight damage to her reputation when it became known that she carried on several extramarital affairs. One of her lovers was the Prince of Wales (future George IV) himself. Nonetheless, she became London’s favorite poet and was nicknamed the “English Sappho.” (A label that was both complimentary and insulting in equal measure as we’ll explain in a minute). In 1800, Robinson published a scathing censure of vicious habits among aristocratic couples: 

“Men now devote their hours to clubs, to gaming-tables, to tennis-courts, and to cricket-grounds. Wives are left to roam, or permitted to hold their mid-night orgies, with the most dissipated of their own as well as of the other sex. Play involves them in debts of honour, which the sacrifice of honour too frequently discharges: and, it is an absolute fact, that even the family jewels and the family plate have been disposed of to supply the FARO BANK of one of those infamous scenes of profligate de-basement; while the husband has been the passive spectator, and the daughters employed at places of public entertainment, as decoys to ensnare the young, the wealthy and the unwary!” 

Sappho (1877) by Charles Mengin (1853–1933). One tradition claims that Sappho committed suicide by jumping off the Leucadian cliff. (Wikimedia Commons)

Averill: By the 1790s, many of the Bluestockings had been discredited by old age or personal scandal. Few were able to combine literary genius and feminine politesse. Hannah More was the only exception among the OG Bluestockings. A philanthropist, evangelist, and writer, More took up vice reform in the 1780s. Her most influential moral publications, however, were released as serial pamphlets between 1795 and 1817. (Remember she was nicknamed “Saint Hannah”). More was an amphibious woman, able to move easily between literary and reformist circles. Her reputation and virtue remained unimpeachable for her entire life. (She sounds like a dreadful bore TBH). Ordinary women followed More’s example which, to them, proved that women could be rational, educated women but also good Christian wives and mothers at the same time. 

Marissa: Influential men were skeptical. Upon meeting fabled Byronic poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon (LEL—also called the English Sappho), Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote, “Miss LEL… girlish enough in manner (affectedly so indeed) but no girl at heart… no exception to the bad opinion I entertain of such literary hermaphrodites—this sort of talent unsexes a woman.” In the words of literary scholar Lucasta Miller, Moore believed that a Sappho “forfeited her feminine claim on men’s respect and chivalrous protection.” The British public had reached a consensus that literary brilliance was simply incompatible with feminine virtue. 

Averill: Despite their antithetical approaches to aristocratic womanhood, both the Bluestockings and the Faro Ladies were derisively labeled “Sapphos.” Sappho was a Greek poet from the 7th Century BCE, born on the island of Lesbos. In Georgian Britain, calling someone a “Sappho” was an insult. The epithet denoted not only literary prowess, but also immorality, deviant sexuality, and shameful gender-bending behavior. Alexander Pope later denied that Sappho stood in for Lady Mary writing “I was far from designing a person of her condition by a name so derogatory to her, as that of Sappho; a name prostituted to every infamous Creature that ever wrote Verse or Novels.” (Side Note: Literary scholars call bullshit because in his second edition, Pope briefly renamed Sappho’s character “Flavia” which was Lady Mary’s pen name.) 

Marissa: Sappho, and her home island of Lesbos would come to represent same-sex desiring women. This happened precisely because the English-speaking world no longer believed that educated, literary women could attain true womanhood (which was of course defined as man’s counterpart). In the collective imagination of readers of English literature, the figure of the Bluestocking (the literary hermaphrodite) split into two descendant stereotypes: the lesbian and the scold. 

On March 27, 1797, the London Debating Society took up the following question:

“Which is the greater plague to her Husband, and disgrace of her sex, the untamed Scold of St. Giles, or the fashionable Female gamester of St. James?” We are already familiar with the female gamesters of St. James (aka the Faro Ladies and friends) but who are the untamed Scolds of St. Giles? This (now obscure) allusion is to a Restoration era ballad by Martin Parker called “A Banquet for Soveraign Husbands.” The ballad describes an incident in the parish of St. Giles where the men conspire to roast and eat a ram but, knowing their wives would object to the pursuit, “scarce a man durst draw his knife/For fear he should displease his wife.” 

The Salon of Mme. Geoffrin. (WIkimedia Commons)

Averill: So basically, the Debating Society was laying out a new binary: the debauched female gamester and the untamed Scold. The quality about the Bluestockings most feared by influential men—their artistic authority and rational education—were recast as the purview of lesbians and frigid, old maids. They need not work their belabored man-brains to reconcile literary authority with demure femininity. The Bluestockings’ impressive refinement and moral rectitude were boiled down into the “untamed Scold.” The Scold bossed her husband around, told him when to bathe, what to eat, and to whom he should pay social calls. She also chided him for drinking, for impulsively roasting rams, and for gambling away his pay. Now these literary symbols were not directly enacted in real life. 

Marissa: Moralizing reformers will turn in their graves when I say that there is no evidence that their efforts changed behavior. It did, however, change how behaviors of vice were acknowledged. Regency Britain entered what literary scholars and historians call the era of “demi-connaisance” – half-consciousness. People continued to indulge in all of the same vices but they relegated those vices to their private lives and presented a squeaky clean persona. This demi-connaisance is personified by Regency poetess LEL (mentioned earlier in the episode). She indulged in pre-marital sex with her literary agent and bore three secret children out of wedlock, all while pretending to be a virtuous, teenaged literary prodigy. 

Averill: Though, in some cases, the literary activities of the Bluestockings were transformed into reform efforts aimed at the Faro Ladies and their ilk, both groups were radical in that they challenged the dominant patriarchal framework and triggered crises in gender norms. Both women’s groups sought to dominate realms that were traditionally masculine. The Faro Ladies were associated with increased female visibility in partisan politics and used as the archetypal example of aristocratic vice. They appropriated gaming for themselves and found meaning in life outside the nursery. The Bluestockings’ views on female education and womanly sovereignty were also radical and their publications occasionally ruffled the feathers of important Brits. But still, the Bluestockings insulated themselves from patriarchal backlash by framing themselves as a moral minority. Remember, Hester Thrale-Piozzi lost the esteem of her dear friends upon her second marriage and left the society as a result. The conduct of Bluestocking-adjacent Wollstonecraft and Robinson fell well outside the limits of respectability, but their conspicuous enthusiasm for motherhood and their literary careers insulated them from ruin. Still, their radicalism earned them complicated legacies that many Bluestockings eschewed. In this way, they were quite traditional. 

Marissa: In the end, I think this story shows how women’s recreational and special interest groups help to make, contest, and remake gender norms in patriarchal societies.


John Ashton, The history of gambling in England, (London : Duckworth, 1898)

E. Leigh Bonds, “Gambling on Gaming: Mary Robinson’s Literary Censures of the Fashionable Vice,” CEA Critic, 79, no. 1, (March 2017)

Vincent Carretta, “Pope’s Epistle to Bathhurst and the South Sea Bubble,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 77, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), 212-231.

Phyllis Deutsch, “Moral Trespass in Georgian London: Gaming, Gender, and Electoral Politics in the Age of George III,” The Historical Journal, 39, Issue 3 (September 1996) 637-656.

Marianna D’Ezio, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi: A Taste for Eccentricity (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010)

Elizabeth Eger, Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

George Paston, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her times ( G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1907)

Alexander Pope and William Warburton, The Poetical Works Of Alexander Pope : With His Last Corrections, Additions, And Improvements; From The Text Of Dr. Warburton; With The Life Of The Author. (London: Cooke, 1795). 

Mary Robinson and Adriana Craciun, “Present State of the Manners, Society, Etc. Etc. of the Metropolis of England,” PMLA, 119, No. 1, Special Topic: Literatures at Large (Jan., 2004), 103-119.

Anne Stott, Hannah More: The First Victorian, (Oxford University Press, 2003)


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