“Brilliant Women: Eighteenth-Century Bluestockings” National Portrait Gallery, until 15th June.
On Thursday evening I stood in a packed room at the National Portrait Gallery. Men and women of all ages jostled to get a look at a three-quarter length portrait of an eighteenth-century writer. This was Catharine Macaulay, author of a radical history of England; essays about the politics of the American and French Revolutions; and an important educational treatise which argued, among other things, for women’s intellectual equality.
In the gallery with Macaulay, several other “brilliant women” were displayed. There was Elizabeth Carter, whose translation of Epictetus was received, in mid-eighteenth century Britain, as a national triumph. There was Hannah More, the important moralist and playwright, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, literary essayist, political pamphleteer, and author of the wonderful, mordant poetry her contemporaries recognised as the best of the age. These were women whose writings were the focus of international acclaim. They were eighteenth-century celebrities. And yet their fame had nothing to do with their faces or their bodies. They were women whose significant intellectual achievements were regarded as proof that the age of enlightenment had finally arrived.
Unfortunately we now seem to live in a less enlightened age. For how else are we to read Brian Sewell’s recent complaint in the London Evening Standard that Catharine Macaulay just wasn’t pretty enough? Sewell, who clearly requires that images of women address his senses rather than his intellect, dismisses this important exhibition as “blowing feebly on the dying embers of feminism.” According to Sewell, “almost everything the sane man needs to know about bluestockings is to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.” It’s a shame that he didn’t bother to look at the catalogue accompanying this edifying and carefully curated exhibition, or he might have learnt something that would lead him to question the sanity of his entrenched prejudice. But clearly Sewell has, at one time or another, actually read something other than the dictionary, as he is able to trot out every sexist assumption ever levelled at women of learning. One of the key points of this exhibition is to show how British women intellectuals were, in the eighteenth century, the focus of celebration and esteem as much as they ever were of satire. They may well have provided fodder for misogynistic caricaturists like Sewell, but they were also thought to add value to the stock of national achievement. Sewell displays a predictably sad masculine response to women of learning by, like eighteenth-century satirists, castigating their sex rather than engaging with the troubling matter of their intellects.
Faced with the imposing and assured portrait of Catharine Macaulay by Robert Edge Pine Sewell writes: “It is a long time since my reaction to a picture was a burst of laughter, but it happened here, in front of the amazingly Plain Jane that Catharine Macaulay was in her mid-forties.” In this superbly bold image, Macaulay self-consciously associated herself with the figure of Minerva, who inspires, as Freud reminds us, the fear of emasculation. Perhaps this was the source of Brian’s anxious giggles. But not content with damning the wise and defiant Macaulay as unlovely, Sewell is daft enough to question her intellect. According to him, Macaulay’s production of an eight-volume History of England was a freakish and pointless activity: freakish simply because she was a woman and pointless because the men who came after her told the same story: “if we have forgotten Catharine Macaulay’s history it is because the other Macaulay, Thomas Babington, covered the same ground.”
Sewell is — despite himself — right: we have forgotten Macaulay’s history because she was a woman, and because other historians wrote other histories. But this is not because her monumental achievement in The History of England from the Accession of James the First to that of the Brunswick Line was either freakish or pointless. It is because the men who came after her found the historian and her history challenging, both intellectually and politically. Men like Sewell—conservative men, men of small minds and small-minded adherence to the normative status quo—found Macaulay’s writing deeply worrying. For she dared to say that it was fine to kill a king; to establish a democratic republic in his stead; to extend the franchise to those who worked to buy their bread; for colonies to declare their independence from the empire; and for women to claim equal rights as rational creatures. Sewell knows nothing about Macaulay because of the success of men like him in erasing and forgetting women’s intellectual achievements generally, and their articulate questioning of the establishment in particular.
It is actually hard to overestimate just how famous Macaulay was, or just how influential her arguments were during the eighteenth-century’s revolutionary decades. While her face was, as Lord Lyttleton put it, “on every printsellers counter”, her words were on the lips of every radical in London, Newcastle, or Sheffield then engaged in the popular struggle for parliamentary reform. In 1770, the town of Boston wrote and asked her to intervene on its behalf with the British government. Every self-respecting son of liberty along America’s Eastern seaboard had read her History and regarded Macaulay as the personal spokeswoman of their rights. Two decades later, as the French Revolution shook Europe, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and told her how she entirely “coincided” with Macaulay’s “opinion respecting the rank our sex ought to attain in the world.” Macaulay didn’t live to applaud women’s attaining of that rank, or see the kind of constitution that she had imagined for America. In 1790, a few months before she died, she told the editor of the Monthly Review how well she knew that her “democratic spirit” and her “recommendation of a learned education for women” meant that her publications would be relegated by conservative men to “the lining of trunks, or other ignoble purposes.” For more than two centuries this was unfortunately the case.
But the wonderful exhibition in which Macaulay now features at the National Portrait Gallery has already attracted several thousand visitors. An associated conference, organised by the team of brilliant women who curated the exhibition, was massively over subscribed. All of this suggests an encouraging level of interest in the achievements of the learned women of the past. And yet Brian Sewell’s review, which includes a gleeful rubbing together of grubby hands at the demise of Women’s Studies as a separate discipline in British universities, is depressing evidence that the struggle Catharine Macaulay fought—and suffered for—is far from over.