a chat with Nicole Pohl

Good morning! And an especially warm welcome to all of you who have signed up for the Bluestocking Club! We are really excited about this project, and to have you all on board. We are currently beavering away here getting everything set up for the club’s formal launch on Friday, but I wanted to start by saying something about Monday’s zoom symposium (exploring the question of how the Bluestockings got their name with Nicole Pohl, Susan North, Isabella Whitworth and Lis Gernerd). First, we are happy to confirm that a recording of the symposium will be made available for all club members (so if you are unable to attend, you can access this afterwards). Second, because in-person places at the symposium are limited (by the nature of the platform) we will be sending out registration invitations in batches on a first-come-first-served basis (based on when you signed up for the club). Registration emails will be sent out (by email) on Friday: when you receive your email, please only register if you fully intend to attend the event which takes place at 4pm BST. If work or other commitments leave you in any doubt about your attendance, please leave your spot free for a fellow club member, and remember that you’ll be able to access the recording afterwards. Thanks so much.

Today I wanted to introduce you to Professor Nicole Pohl. Nicole’s co-editing our forthcoming Bluestockings book with me, and this whole project began when she asked me if I’d be interested in designing a pair of (actual) blue stockings, to celebrate Elizabeth Montagu and her work. I first met Nicole almost twenty years ago at a conference about Bluestocking women at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, at which we both happened to be wearing exactly the same outfit (and I do mean exactly the same) – so we were clearly destined to get on! Here’s Nicole to tell you more about her work.

Nicole Pohl

Hi Nicole! First of all, I want to say a massive thank you for having the idea for this project and kindly inviting me to design a pair of Elizabeth Montagu bluestockings. I am so happy to be involved! Can you introduce yourself and tell our readers a bit about your background and your research?

My pleasure, Kate and it is an honour to work with you again after such a long time. I am Professor of English at Oxford Brookes University and the Editor in Chief of the Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online (EMCO), a charity that was set up to digitize and edit all extant letters by the Bluestocking woman Elizabeth Montagu.

Elizabeth Montagu

Can you tell our readers a little about Elizabeth Montagu, her eighteenth-century circle, and the significance of her voluminous correspondence?

Elizabeth Montagu was a prominent eighteenth-century salon hostess, pioneering Shakespearean critic and wealthy businesswoman who lived between 1718-1800. Montagu wrote extensive and lively letters throughout her long life to leaders of British Enlightenment coteries, such as statesman Edmund Burke, poet Gilbert West, actor David Garrick and man of letters Horace Walpole, as well as the Bluestocking inner circle – which included women such as Elizabeth Carter, Sarah Scott, Hannah More, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Frances Burney, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Elizabeth Vesey and Frances Boscawen. Her letters are “a major source for any study of the eighteenth century” (Schnorrenberg ODNB). They deal extensively with literature in Italian, Latin and French as well as English (when visiting the French Academy, Montagu was invited to answer Voltaire’s letter attacking Shakespeare’s barbarism).

1769 edition of Montagu’s famous Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare

As well as rivalling Dr Johnson in Shakespearean criticism and collaborating with Lord Lyttelton in satirical writing, Montagu advised other intellectuals on their manuscripts and acted as patron in bringing all sorts of literary publications to fruition by organizing subscription editions. Montagu’s letters also reveal her keen interest in politics and business matters (she managed important coalmines in the north east and country estates) as well as offering new insights into Georgian art and architecture (when building and improving her residences, Montagu engaged the services of architects Robert Adam, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and James Wyatt, landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and decorative artists Angelica Kauffman and Biagio Rebecca).

Angelica Kauffman, self portrait of the artist hesitating between the arts of music and painting (1794). National Trust, Nostell Priory.

And how did you first become interested in Elizabeth Montagu?

When I wrote my PhD on eighteenth-century women’s utopian writing, I focused on a novel called Millenium Hall, written by Sarah Scott, the sister of Elizabeth Montagu. Millenium Hall is especially interesting for the way it encourages women to find their own way in life without relying on marriage or the financial support of family members. I started reading the original manuscript letters by Sarah Scott and her sister housed in the amazing Huntington Library in San Marino, California. I later edited all of Scott’s letters in print form. It took me 13 years and I suppose should have been a lesson. But alas, I met up with some other keen scholars some years ago in Glasgow. . . . Led by Caroline Franklin at Swansea University, and Elizabeth Eger, the biographer of Elizabeth Montagu, we cooked up a plan to edit all of Elizabeth Montagu’s letters available to us – in all there are about 8000 letters but we just keep finding more! Unlike her sister, Montagu knew everyone who was important in eighteenth-century polite society so her correspondence alongside her other activities – from being a patron, philanthropist, entrepreneur and salon hostess to writing literary criticism – makes her one of the most significant women of the eighteenth century.

Frontispiece and title page of Sarah Scott’s groundbreaking utopian novel, Millenium Hall.

You are the general editor of the EMCO project — creating an innovative, new digital edition of Montagu’s letters. Can you tell us about the project and how it came about? Have there been any challenges along the way?

We were first given an AHRC project grant to start off the digital edition with the correspondence between James Beattie and Elizabeth Montagu. Then a private donor approached us and with her help, we set up EMCO as a charity and were able to digitize all extant letters scattered across the US and Britain. We are very fortunate to have had this financial support as such grants are very competitive. So, the challenges were initially cash-based, but now involve the time and resources to edit a vast amount of eighteenth-century letters. With the help of fantastic colleagues at Swansea University and Oxford Brookes, we’ve managed to develop the EMCO website.

The EMCO website will enable readers to explore Montagu’s letters by date, correspondent, location keyword search, and other criteria.

Like many eighteenth-century women, Montagu’s writing is now dispersed, in manuscript, in research libraries around the world. Why do you feel it is it important that her work is made accessible to a much wider public?

The letters are mainly in North American and UK research libraries and, as you, Kate, know from your own experience, very fragile manuscripts which, with a lot of handling, are becoming even more fragile. We will offer high- quality digital images next to the diplomatic transcriptions with annotations so anyone interested in Montagu and her circle can learn about them without having to travel to different places in the world. Less than a quarter of these documents have been previously published and then in partial archaic print selections, later edited and reproduced by distant relatives of Montagu. Such selections were often heavily censored, so we are trying to offer the readers the manuscript letters just as they were written and sent.

Letter from Elizabeth Montagu to her sister, Sarah Scott, January 24th, 1769 – which will be available for everyone to read at EMCO

Can you tell us about some of the interesting and innovative features of EMCO?

The project is open access which means that no one has to pay or travel to read the materials. We are digitizing all extant letters to and from Elizabeth Montagu but will, at this point, only edit the letters from Elizabeth Montagu to her correspondents. The transcriptions will be diplomatic, picking up on all oddities of Montagu’s writing and expressions. The edition will be searchable by name, location and keywords so any one interested in eighteenth-century letters can use them. We have scholars interested in socio-linguistics, salons, politics, medicine, and they can all search the collection according to their needs and interests. We are publishing the correspondence in stages by correspondent to make the work more streamlined and manageable. So, the first correspondents are the philosopher James Beattie, then we will publish the family letters, Montagu’s correspondence with the Duchess of Portland and then continue to her letters to her sister, Sarah Scott.

Ozias Humphrey, the artist’s mother, knitting (1776) British Museum.

I’ve been interested for a long time in the material worlds that eighteenth-century women inhabited – in the texture of their everyday lives. In fact, it was reading eighteenth century women’s letters in a research library many years ago that piqued my own interests in embroidery and knitting . . . . so you might say that eighteenth-century correspondence is to blame for what I now do in my working life! I wonder if you could talk a little about the material worlds of Montagu and the women of her circle. How did they relate to the textiles they wore and used every day? Did they enjoy embroidery or other kinds of “fine” handiwork? Did they modify and mend their garments? Were they involved in the design and decoration of the textiles in their homes? And (we are all wondering) did they knit?

Isn’t that great, Kate, and I am glad that you pursued this interest. The Bluestockings, that is the circle around Elizabeth Montagu, were genteel women, so they enjoyed “fine” crafts in their leisure time – such as embroidery, shell and feather work for decoration, netting and tatting. Even Queen Charlotte dabbled in spinning and tatting as leisure activities. By contrast, the craft skills taught to eighteenth-century girls and women of other classes were definitely work, not leisure: spinning, knitting, plain sewing, mending and sampler-making (often also a way of teaching literacy, numeracy and geography).

Sampler from 1742. Rijksmuseum.

It is interesting to compare the different skillsets of Elizabeth Montagu and her sister, Sarah Scott. Both sisters, though born into the same family, developed different relationships to textiles and very different attitudes towards their consumption and recycling. Elizabeth Montagu designed and commissioned unique decorative pieces for interior display (such as the famous feather work in her London home), whereas her sister, Sarah Scott, forced by diminished social and economic circumstances, became well versed in practical dress making, mending and alteration, and ‘upcycled’ home decoration (for example, she used pine cones, gilded them and placed them around the fire place – creating spaces very different from Montagu’s spectacular interiors).

William Bond after Henry Singleton, Mrs Loraine Smith (1794). British Museum.

Did they knit? Well, the classicist, Elizabeth Carter knitted and indeed was known for hiding behind her knitting and work basket in company as she was very shy.  A contemporary reported that she appeared in polite society with  ‘a plain undress cap and perfectly flat head , a small workbag hanging at her arm , out of which she drew some knitting as soon as she was seated’. But she herself wrote to her friend Catherine Talbot on October 21, 1751 that she was not terribly successful at knitting and took about 1 hour to finish ‘a round.’ As yet, I have not come across a reference to Elizabeth Montagu or her sister knitting but I suspect that they knew how. Montagu was probably much more interested in displaying her wealth in textile arts and fashion than knitting.

I also wondered if you might say a little about what letters (as well as other manuscript forms like diaries and commonplace books) might add to our understanding, as contemporary readers, of the everyday worlds and lives of the women who wrote them? Do you think that manuscripts can allow us to experience the worlds that women of the past inhabited in a particular way? And how do projects like EMCO help to bring those worlds to life?

EMCO prides itself that it makes the letters available open access so anyone can explore them digitally – you can’t hold the paper in your hands, but this is the next best thing. Manuscript letters and diaries are all historical documents that offer an immediate way into eighteenth-century women’s lives. Whilst they are not necessarily unmediated or uncensored (letters were often read aloud so the writers sometimes held back with the display of emotions, or writing about more intimate matters), they still relay deep feelings, the writers’ sense of humour, their preoccupation with contemporary topics (politics, literature, international affairs) and a much broader range of interests. Letters and diaries also document friendships and relationships and reveal women’s different ideas of selfhood and identity. And last but not least, letters and diaries help us to revise and reassess our contemporary assumptions about women in earlier historical periods, for example, that they were inevitably disempowered, or depoliticised, were not part of the public sphere, and so on. In letters and diaries we find the rich material variety of women’s lives revealed.

Marcus Dinkel, Woman reading a letter (c.1787). British Museum

You are, yourself a knitter and weaver, a keen mender, and a creative modifier of textiles of all kinds. Could you tell us a little about the crafts that you particularly enjoy . . . and perhaps share a favourite project?

I dabble in many different crafts. I love wool and fabrics, and I am always making something. It helps me to concentrate but also to calm me. I also love making things as gifts for friends and family. For example, I made all my god children baby quilts, none of them are perfect but these gifts come from the heart.

a favourite weaving project

I resent fast fashion and prefer to either upcycle, alter, and mend existing clothing rather than buying new and therefore adding to the mountain of discarded clothing. I once set myself the challenge to make a garment entirely from scratch so I spun the wool, knitted the waistcoat and had a friend make me bespoke buttons! It took me 1 year and helped me to appreciate how long good handiwork and craft takes.

I have been knitting since I was a young teenager, taught by my grandmother. I sat through my A-level years knitting sweaters as I can concentrate better on lectures when knitting.

Nicole’s bag woven from bags

I started weaving some years ago but am still very much a beginner. I experimented with knitting and weaving other materials than wool to see if we can upcycle plastic bags (above). I was on the short list for Paul Martin’s Hand-Made Revolution (2012) with a woven handbag created from plastic bags.

In their letters to each other, Sarah Scott and Elizabeth Montagu talk a lot about appliqué work so one day I will tackle that one but so far I have failed miserably at learning another fashionable skill of the century; tatting!

Ha, you and me both where tatting is concerned, Nicole! And do you see any kind of relationship between your love of, and affinity for stitch and fabric and your research interests in the material and literary worlds of the eighteenth-century?

Definitely, the material culture of the eighteenth century is hugely interesting – the access to different materials and resources, the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, the make-do-and mend approach by women who were not wealthy tell us so much about the socio-economics of the time, and the same goes for today. Through material culture we can also learn about issues of taste, and the gendered symbolic value of crafts: bluestocking was a term that was often used perjoratively, and intellectual women were regarded as unfeminine – being told (by the poet Byron and many others) to get back to their sewing, and handiwork, in ways that completely misrepresent both learning and craft. Because we all know that craft and fibre arts can be liberating, creative and subversive too. Just think about the many different forms of craftivism in our own times. In order to bring historical knowledge of eighteenth-century popular culture to the public, I worked with Prof Abigail Williams from the University of Oxford, and the early music duo, Alva (Vivien Ellis and Giles Lewin)  to stage typical eighteenth-century evenings at home (with music and reading). I devised a ‘huswif’ pack for participants and we sewed these huswifs together whilst listening to readings of miscellanies and listening to music.  This was great fun as we tried to emulate the sewing conditions of the time – by candle light!

Paul Sandby, a lady seated by a window, sewing (1780). Royal Collection

Finally, we are all looking forward to hearing more about Elizabeth Montagu and the bluestocking circle, about eighteenth century knitting, yarn and textiles – while whipping up a pair of socks!. Can you tell us what you’ve got planned for the symposium on May 24th?

The symposium will be hosted by Oxford Brookes, and will be held on Zoom at 4pm BST, and features three expert speakers on knitting, wool dying, and stockings in the eighteenth century. These brief talks will then prepare us for calling upon all participants to get to work on your Elizabeth Montagu blue stockings pattern. We will share and talk through the pattern, and start knitting! There will be an opportunity for knitters to share completed projects on our website, and I understand, Kate, that there is also a bluestocking knitalong in your Ravelry group?

That’s right! Everyone at KDD is looking forward to Friday and launching the first pattern to celebrate Elizabeth Montagu! Thanks, so much, Nicole, for sharing your work with us – we look forward to seeing you at the symposium on Monday!

If you’d like to join the Bluestocking Club, there’s still time, but bear in mind that sign-ups close tomorrow, Thursday May 20th.