In Our Time: The Bluestocking and Scriblerus Clubs Back

I admit at the opening of this review that I had not until recently heard of the ‘In Our Time’ series and then, as often these things occur, it was mentioned on two separate occasions within the space of a few days: the first was in an e-mail from the Criticks editors suggesting I write a review, and the second from a seminar on Arthurian Romance. On the whole, it is a most fortunate discovery. Both programmes that will be reviewed in this article – on the Bluestocking Club and the other on the Scriblerus Club – were presented by a panel that were able to rebuke the often domineering host, Melvyn Bragg. Bragg is really the main complaint I have with both episodes: under the guise of moving the programme along he often stopped what was becoming an interesting conversation, his intrusions being most problematic in the episode on the Bluestockings club.

On that note, then, perhaps the best place to start is the Bluestocking Club. First airing on June 5th 2014, the panel consisted of Karen O’Brien (King’s College London), Elizabeth Eger (also King’s College) and Nicole Pohl (Oxford Brookes University). Together they provide a fascinating account of the formation of the club; the role and prevalence of Elizabeth Montagu; the aims of the club, articulated by Pohl as developing a doctrine of rational conversation, which is itself explained; Elizabeth Carter and her role as the ‘Queen’ of the Bluestocking Club and her influence; the club’s relationship to the French salon; the club’s relationship to the Scottish Enlightenment regarding the movement’s ideas of a mixed-gendered sphere; the position of men within the group; the Second Generation Bluestockings (Frances Burney included); the club’s decline, and reasons for it, in the 1790s; and finally the etymology and reception of the term ‘Bluestocking’. In an addendum to the downloadable MP3 version of the podcast, the panellists quickly gloss over the role of friendship in the group and the letters sent between members.

As a previous reviewer from Criticks has noted in frustration, Bragg refers to Frances Burney as ‘Fanny Burney’. Burney serves more as a reference point in this podcast, but consequently the casualness in not using her proper name feels even more frustrating as well as poignant. The Burney review found Bragg’s attempt to question Burney’s position in the canon because of her gender adequately rejected by the academics on the show. So too in this podcast does Bragg suggest, in talking about the male members of the Bluestockings Club, Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, that Montagu ‘roped them in’. Wryly, Elizabeth Eger suggests ‘I think they were attracted to [Montagu]’. Also to note is that early on in the show Bragg clearly sits too close to the microphone, his heavy breathing providing a difficult distraction from the opening monologues of O’Brien and Eger. However I particularly enjoyed Nicole Pohl’s unpacking of the term ‘rational conversation’ by looking both at classical philosophical debates but also contemporary pamphlets written about conversation. Together the women create an image of the Bluestockings club that was both formal and fluid, their detail truly contributing to the academic quality of the podcast: the observation on Elizabeth Vasey’s sub-set seating plans as a hostess was especially enlightening.

In line with the conversational nature of the podcast itself, and the conversational quality of both Bluestocking and Scriblerus clubs, an appropriate way to review both shows is to set the two in dialogue with each other. Moyra Haslett does, after all, argue elsewhere that the central motif of the eighteenth century was the ‘idea of conversation’.[i] Where Bragg seems very serious in the review of the Bluestockings Club, the conversation on the Scriblerus Club remains light and jovial, which is especially apt given the spirit of satire that animated the latter group. Bragg is joined this time by John Mullan (University College London), Judith Hawley (Royal Holloway) and Marcus Walsh (Liverpool University) and opens with the closing lines of Pope’s four-book Dunciad:

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! Is restored;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! Lets the curtain fall;

And universal darkness buries all.

It may seem risky to open an academic debate with the closing lines of a poem that coyly talks about the ‘universal darkness’ of dullness that inhabits the modern world, but like the podcast that would air almost ten years later (this panel met on June 9th 2004) its range and detail is commendable.

The show deals with a once again impressive selection of topics: the Coffee House culture of the eighteenth century; the political and social reasons why Pope and Swift left the Kit-Kat Club; a detailed discussion on the formation of The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, which is painted as a satire on learning; the group’s abhorrence of false knowledge; Swift’s The Battle of the Books, the Ancient versus Modern debate and Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels; Pope’s The Dunciad and the genre of mock-heroic; finishing with the influence of the Scriblerus club.

A frequently strong voice throughout the podcast was that of John Mullan, whose complimentary comments to his fellow panellists often nicely elucidated and provided extra pieces of information welcome to the discussion. Marcus Walsh also nicely delineated the Memoirs, explaining the way it tied in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels and parts of The Dunciad, along with the suggestion it was the result of scattered thinking around the theme of false learning.

As an introduction both to the ‘In Our Time’ series and to the wider culture of the eighteenth-century, the podcasts on the Bluestockings and Scriblerus Clubs neatly describe the contexts and influences of both groups. The strength lies more in the panellists than the host, and between them the six academics paint an image of the eighteenth century not as a period of inhabited by Dullness, but one engaged in highly accomplished satire and rational conversation.

[i] Moyra Haslett, Pope to Burney, 1714-1779: Scriblerians to Bluestockings (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), p. 1.

All In Our Time broadcasts are available to UK listeners on BBC iPlayer.