“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.

Robert Edge Pine, Catharine Macaulay (c.1775). National Portrait Gallery.

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.

The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain. Page after Richard Samuel (1777)

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.

Macaulay as Libertas (Liberty). Giovani Battista Cipriani (1765)

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.

Print after Katharine Read’s portrait of Catharine Macaulay (1769)

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.

16 thoughts on “Brian Sewell and the Bluestockings

  1. Great post! I really enjoyed reading this and would love to be able to visit the exhibition at the NPG. Also, thank you for expressing so eloquently my own (previously amorphous) feelings on the Idiocy of Sewell


  2. I think the opening line of his review summarises why his viewpoint lacks any gravity, the fact that he positions himself against women immediately. I’ve heard much enthusing and excitement over this exhibition, predominantly from women and can’t wait to see it next week. Women’s Studies dead? Bunkum, it’s been taken into the mainstream. My friends at universities up and down the country are doing modules and degrees in women’s and feminist studies: a friend in York is embarking on a Women’s Studies PhD after completing an MA in, yes, Women’s studies. At Warwick, as well as having a postgraduate department for Women & Gender most Arts & Social Sciences departments have modules on gender & sexuality. My department, English has three modules that have the term “Feminism” in the title and far more on women’s writing: these are often the most subscribed modules on offer. And Germaine Greer forgotten? Hardly. I saw her speak to several hundred women last week and she was as strong and awe-inspiring as ever.
    Feminism’s embers aren’t dying, Mr Sewell, they’re well ablaze.


  3. Another thought-provoking and excellently argued essay. I was saddened by the deep ignorance of major feminist thought exhibited in Sewell’s patronising and cavalier review and I found many of his points to be argued with confidence rather than with intellectual accuracy.

    His inability to distinguish between what he personally finds aesthetically beautiful and what is culturally and collectively significant or important is quite stunning and shows me that feminist thought still has a lot of work to do in terms of entering major arenas of art criticism.

    Thanks for this post and well done on the conference! I wish I could have been there but I think Lara is going to show me the catalogue.


  4. Hi – I’ve been lurking around your excellent blog for some months now. This post inspired me to respond at last – thank you for writing such a measured and intelligent response. It is difficult not to sink into depression over the fact that the wretched Sewell can get such Neanderthal views into print; nevertheless I will focus on the brilliant women you write about, and on your brilliant response which, frankly, makes Sewell look an absolute idiot. Jo


  5. I love this post – really thought-provoking, I was musing on it all evening. It is depressing that articles which have these outdated views are still being printed (and that people pay to read such trash). I also am irriated by the coverage of women’s studies suffering a demise. There has been some interesting coverage on the f-word about it:
    Anyway, thank you again for such an interesting post – I think I’m going to take myself back to the exhibition one day this week to really look at it when its less busy. Hope you enjoyed the conference and trip to London.


  6. I’m glad you’ve taken on the irritant that is Brian Sewell – after his prejudice and elitism as regards the North – It was overdue


  7. I always look forward to your essays; they are without fail intelligent, well-thought out and engaging. Moreover they search deep within the subjects you tackle to offer insights that might otherwise have been overlooked. Sewell’s dismissive article (and small-mindedness in general) is in desperate need of a public dressing down. If you haven’t written to him or The Evening Standard directly with a version of this post, I really hope you do.


  8. oh brian, shut up and show us your tits.

    i was pretty appalled to read the other day this frivolous and brutal review of germaine greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife.


    i feel bad when i think of the backpedalling on feminism that has occurred.

    meanwhile, thanks so much for the selvedge clip, i was expecting a ratty computer printout instead of the elegant rotogravure pp you sent. it’s mind boggling, is what it is, and i’m so glad to have had you articulating the strangeness of dolls. i’m taking up making doll clothes next, which is very weird.


  9. A characteristically well reasoned, righteously angry post. I think you’re very right to point to bums on seats as a better measure of public opinion than the blowhard opinions of a daffy old aesthete, which means that perhaps things are not so bleak as Sewell’s diatribe suggests. If I was to really play the optimist, I’d even say that the demise of Women’s Studies as a separate discipline might be a good thing: the more that feminism is absorbed into the language of academia rather than seen as a study to itself, the more people it touches, and the nearer it is to winning out. Perhaps.

    Anyway, Sewell’s other idiocy is that the laconic handsomeness of Macauley in that portrait is every bit as artful as the tit-baring representations of prettified restoration courtesans. It’s a striking, rousing image of intellect. And, while I’m buckling under the strain of PhD work, I’m very glad to have something so inspiriting brought to my attention.


  10. I rarely comment on blogs, but today is the exception and I have to congratulate you on such an eloquently brilliant post. Thank you. Sue.


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