Was Elizabeth Bennet a Bluestocking? by Colin Rowland

Was Elizabeth Bennet a Bluestocking? by Colin Rowland

In reviewing Pride & Prejudice, one thing stands out to me. Why wasn’t Elizabeth Bennet referred to, or thought of, as a bluestocking? She was, after all, an educated woman, although her education was a result of her own thirst for knowledge, and not because of any schooling, which would have been, in accordance with the prevailing belief,  rudimentary at best.

Women were expected to bear children and maintain an orderly house. They were not well educated, as the general opinion was that, other than knowing how to cook and to sew, there was no need for a young woman to learn much of anything else, unless they belonged to the upper echelons of society, and even then they were not taught anything useful. By the time Pride & Prejudice was published attitudes were starting to change, but it was not until much later in the nineteenth century that women were admitted to any of the centers of higher learning in England, and that was still looked upon as unbecoming by a large part of the population.

Elizabeth, however, as well as Jane and Mary, were better educated than most of the young women in Hertfordshire. In Elizabeth’s case we know that she loved to read the books in her father’s library, and I assume the same held true for her sisters, although to a much lesser extent.

Mr. Darcy is attracted to her, not because of her beauty, which he initially derides, but because of her impertinence and ability to carry on an intelligent discussion. He finds these qualities somewhat beguiling and, before he knows what is happening, he has fallen in love with her.

Which brings me to my point. Why, with her level of knowledge, which she was not afraid to display, was Elizabeth not derided as a bluestocking? While the term was not pejorative at first, referring to members of the Blue Stockings Society, by Jane Austen’s time the label was derogatory. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the society membership contained intellectuals of both sexes. The name came about, as far as I can ascertain, because of  the attire worn by a Mr. Benjamin Stillingfleet to a meeting  he had been invited to attend. He showed up wearing a pair of blue stockings, and was criticized for not wearing the expected formal black ones. In his defense, Elizabeth Vesey, who might have been the person to invite him, said “don’t mind dress! Come in your blue stockings!”

To be called a bluestocking came to be considered an insult, and implied that a woman was too smart for her own good. In 1811, a play called M.P., which was a comic opera by Thomas Moore and Charles Edward Horn, was subtitled The Blue Stocking. It contained a character Lady Bab Blue, who was a parody of bluestockings. William Hazlitt. an English essayist, drama and literary critic, among other things too numerous to mention, held them in contempt, saying: “The bluestocking is the most odious character in society…she sinks wherever she is placed, like the yolk of an egg, to the bottom, and carries the filth with her.”

Jane Austen’s writing often parodied her times, or at least pointed out many of its absurdities. We see this in the very name Pride & Prejudice, which, if not a parody of those two words, at least shows how absurd the two protagonists were in their attitudes and beliefs.

This brings me back to my original question: Why wasn’t she considered a bluestocking? My own supposition is because that would have taken the plot in an entirely different direction, away from the point Ms. Austen was trying to make.

What do you think? Am I on the right track, or out to lunch?

I apologize for the brevity of this blog. In my defense, I was ill much of last week and unable to write as much as a single chapter of the book I had intended to begin editing by now. I was thinking of posting an excerpt of my WIP but thought that might be cruel and unusual punishment, so I refrained.

To end this month’s post, I am including two pictures of my daughter’s dog, Emma, the one I referred to last month. I wanted to post them with my original blog but could not locate them, so I had my daughter send them to me again. By way of explanation, in the first, she is seated on a kitchen stool, participating in one of my frequent WhatsApp video chats with my daughters. Emma likes to be involved so, in frustration, my daughter put her laptop on the island and told Emma if she could get up there, she could watch. Of course, the dog took her at her word.

The other one is Emma again, this time watching a program I think  might be called The Voice. Why she would choose to watch anything on TV is beyond me. I haven’t looked at the boob tube in almost ten years, and don’t miss it a bit, but to each his (or hers) own, I guess.

I promise not to bore you with pictures or stories of my family’s dogs any more. You believe me, right?

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Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
May 7, 2021 8:08 PM

Interesting post, Colin! I love the photos of Emma! Thank you for sharing.

Colin Rowland
Colin Rowland
May 8, 2021 12:55 PM
Reply to  Caryl Kane

Thank you. Emma is one of the most unique dogs I have ever met, even for a Border Collie

Gianna Thomas
May 7, 2021 12:42 AM

I think under the right circumstances Elizabeth could be considered a bluestocking by some. However, Jane Austen never seemed to put her in those circumstances. As to Mr. Hazlitt, he needed his mouth washed out with soap. Stupid bigot, and I believe I’m using the term correctly.

Colin Rowland
Colin Rowland
May 8, 2021 12:56 PM
Reply to  Gianna Thomas

She comes close, in my opinion, when she is tending to Jane at Netherfield. I can just see her biting her tongue at some of Caroline’s inane comments. It is to her credit that she remains silent.

May 5, 2021 10:29 AM

I never thought about this before. It does make me wonder if this was something Jane Austen considered adding to the story.

Colin Rowland
Colin Rowland
May 8, 2021 12:59 PM
Reply to  DarcyBennett

I think Jane wrote her like that on purpose. She is so borderline bluestocking that I’m sure many of her readers attached that sobriquet, at least in their minds.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
May 4, 2021 9:15 PM

I don’t think she is a,bluestocking. As Colin said she is strong and speaks her mind! But can be turned around by the right man!

Linda A.
Linda A.
May 4, 2021 2:40 PM

I think Mary would be more of a “bluestocking” than Elizabeth, at least from my perspective. Elizabeth is well-rounded since she is active (walking, dancing), social, and cares about her appearance. I always figured a bluestocking was someone who was a wall-flower, a bookworm, and probably socially inept. (hmmm… I could be describing myself…) Guess I’ll own the label. 😉

Colin Rowland
Colin Rowland
May 5, 2021 2:14 PM
Reply to  Linda A.

I tend to agree with you. While a bluestocking usually referred to a well educated woman who “beat people over the head” with her superior knowledge, Elizabeth never did that.
A bluestocking, though, was never a wallflower. If she were, how would anyone know she was a well-edumacated person?
My take on her is that she thirsted for her knowledge, but she was never crass or condescending about it. Mary, on the other hand, was prone to lecturing her sisters over the slightest misstep and was never shy about pontificating on the faults and foibles of everyone.

Linda A.
Linda A.
May 6, 2021 3:09 PM
Reply to  Colin Rowland

I think you are correct in your estimation. Thanks for the clarification!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
May 4, 2021 12:27 PM

It looks like that dog is mooning over Blake Shelton. You should send the picture to him. LOL!

To label Elizabeth as a bluestocking would have conflicted with the theme of the story. The title, Pride and Prejudice, had enough labels in it to deal with let alone adding bluestocking to the mix. She was smart without being obnoxious about it. Mary, on the other hand, wanted knowledge and accomplishments and was obnoxious about it. But that is another topic. Thanks for sharing and hope you are feeling better. Blessings on all your hard work.

Colin Rowland
Colin Rowland
May 4, 2021 1:50 PM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

I think that is probably why Elizabeth was written that way. If the story had been set in London, Mary would most definitely been a bluestocking because of her condescending attitude rather than her education. She focused on the Bible and Fordyce sermons. to her, anything else was meaningless.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, would might have been thought a bluestocking, but she obviously had the good sense not to display her knowledge overtly.

Riana Everly
May 4, 2021 11:52 AM

I think Elizabeth herself denies any claim to being a bluestocking in chapter 8, when Caroline Bingley taunts her in front of Mr. Darcy about being a great reader. This is her insinuation that Elizabeth might fall into the camp of bluestockings that society seems to distain.

(“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”)

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am NOT a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”

By claiming pleasures in other areas, she denies Caroline’s not-so-veiled accusation, as well as any notions on the part of readers that Jane Austen is setting her favourite heroine up to be overly intellectual. Intelligent, yes. Bluestocking? No.

Colin Rowland
Colin Rowland
May 4, 2021 1:46 PM
Reply to  Riana Everly

I tend to agree with you. I would, however point out that the term “bluestocking” in the early 19th century had come to mean any woman who was educated beyond what was considered appropriate for a woman. That leaned toward cooking, cleaning, and sewing, unless you were a member of the first circle.
To me, Elizabeth walks a fine line between the two camps. She has educated herself and is not afraid to speak her mind, and to defend herself or others. She does take pains to insist that she has many interests, but to me it looks as though she is purposely trying to avoid being tarred with the bluestocking brush.

Regina Jeffers
May 4, 2021 7:34 AM

I would think to a large extent the term “bluestocking” was more of a Town word for young women who enjoyed reading and, to a certain extent, debating what she read. Elizabeth still loved the things all her sisters did – buying ribbons, the militia, dancing, etc. She had not gone the way of sitting around all day and challenging everything every man said, which is how bluestocking were often portrayed. It seems as if Austen is telling the world a woman could do more than plan meals and host teas.

Elizabeth is smarter than the average woman about some topics, but she proves quite ignorant about others. Austen hopes to balance her out, so to speak, by creating an alliance with Mr. Darcy in the end.

Colin Rowland
Colin Rowland
May 4, 2021 9:50 AM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

I agree with you. Elizabeth is a strong woman, and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. Like you said, though, she is not someone who is so set in her ways that she cannot be changed. Her about-face regarding Mr. Darcy proves that.

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