Meredith Miller

Falmouth University


Barbara Eaton, Yes Papa!: Mrs Chapone and the Bluestocking Circle

Certainly, not enough work is done on the bluestocking circle.  They were both an intellectual circle which played an important role in the public sphere discourse of eighteenth century Britain, and a group of individual women whose biographies and literary productions deserve attention.  This biography of Hester Chapone (née Hester Mulso) is genuinely valuable in illuminating the life of one woman connected to this group.  It is carefully and extensively researched and shines throughout with a genuine love and respect for its subject.

Two significant arguments are central to Yes Papa!  First, occupying the early chapters, is a demonstration of the influence Chapone and other bluestockings had on Samuel Richardon’s later work and his creation of gendered characters, both male and female.  Barbara Eaton documents clearly that Richardson depended on this circle of feminine readers, whom he associated with the wider audience for his novels.  Throughout Yes Papa!, there are generous quotations from primary sources, including the published correspondence between Richardson and Chapone together with other letters which shed light on it.  In that sense, the early chapters of Yes Papa! provide an interesting overview for students of Richardson, as well as of Chapone and the bluestockings.

The second critical thread here, as the title suggests, regards the manner in which female intellectuals of the eighteenth century carefully negotiated ideas of sentiment, reason and submission to duty in a manner which allowed them some degree of intellectual freedom.  Eaton presents Chapone’s later works as attempts to recover her reputation from the rebellious and opinionated picture of her drawn from her correspondence with Richardson after the publication of Clarissa.  The exchange between Chapone and Richardson, containing her criticism of Clarissa’s character, made Hester Chapone (then Hester Mulso) a minor celebrity.  A young and precocious autodidact, Hester took Richardson up on his over-determination of filial duty and his lack of understanding of the unique predicament of young women of a certain class.  Eaton’s picture positions Chapone’s famous conduct book as an attempt, in later life, to recover her reputation as a reasoned and dutiful female.

Peppered throughout this biography are chapter-length portraits of key bluestocking figures, as well as other historically significant people central to Chapone’s life, as for example, Gilbert White.  We have here biographical sketches of Elizabeth Carter, Mary Delany, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, Susannah Highmore, Hester Thrale (Mrs Piozzi), and others.  Particularly in the early chapters, which document Hester Mulso’s life as a young unmarried woman, a picture emerges of an informal system of mentoring.  Quotations from a wide range of correspondence show this group of friends carefully identifying intellectually promising young women and seeking to support their learning, direct their reading, extend invitations and engage them in edifying conversation.  The majority of these women, of course, had little or no formal schooling.  Some, such as Elizabeth Carter, had supportive fathers who encouraged classical learning as well as independent living.  As a social and intellectual group, these women enjoyed the respect of both Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson, and this was of material benefit in terms of opportunities for publication and literary attention.  Overall, Eaton creates a picture in which we can see women of a particular class strategising, using available intellectual and social discourses to their advantage and surrounding themselves with those who would encourage their thirst for knowledge and enquiry.

The final chapter, on the later satirical backlash at the turn of the nineteenth century which repositioned the bluestockings in the popular imagination as ‘unsexed females’ and ‘grandmothers in the wrong’ resonates in a startling way with current popular depictions of feminism’s second wave.  The examination of this critical moment is crucial to our understanding of nineteenth century fiction, in terms of both Jane Austen’s dominance of the literary canon and the late Romanticist protest.   From the outset in Chapter 1, Eaton notes the negotiation of a balanced relationship between rationality and sensibility, in prescriptions for the education of young women.  She positions Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773) as part of this negotiation and as an attempt to recuperate young Hester Mulso’s rebellious reputation into that of the reasoned and dutiful Mrs Chapone.  The Unsex’d Females (1798) demonstrates her success, in that Chapone is compared favourably to the likes of Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft.  The Anti-Chapone (1810) however, is a pointed parody of Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, addressed to a fictitious niece by a fictitious aunt and satirising the manners and feminine concerns of the mid-eighteenth century.  Eaton considers the possible authors for this pamphlet, and settles on Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  As Eaton points out Chapone’s work was still in print and widely circulated in 1810, and we might see this parody as a testament to its influence as much as anything else.  In this sense, perhaps, Chapone’s careful negotiation of the feminine persona throughout her life was a success.  As Eaton points out in Chapter 21 of Yes Papa!, even Mary Wollstonecraft writes that she always respects Chapone, even though she cannot always agree with her.

We might view Jane Austen’s carefully circumscribed domestic sphere, and her rejection of Romanticism, as another such conservative negotiation, made in the context of the backlash against Chapone and the bluestockings.   In this sense, Austen’s canonical over-determination represents an historical erasure of the intellectual history of one class of women in the eighteenth century.  Yes Papa! is an engaging text that goes a long way towards addressing this historical absence.

There are times when I would have liked to see more critical direction here, and a more controlled handling of primary source material, at the level of both chapter and paragraph.  I would also have liked to see, given the wealth of work already done on Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, more attention paid to Chapone’s other works, such as the early fiction The Story of Fidelia.  In all, though, this book will be useful to scholars of the period and more generally for Feminist Studies.  Works such as Elizabeth Eger’s excellent Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism (2010), leave Chapone on the margins.  Yes Papa! can provide an excellent compliment to such texts, and will make a good addition to reading lists in Eighteenth Century Studies, as well as Women’s Studies.


Dr Meredith Miller is Senior Lecturer in English at Falmouth University. Her research interests lie in cultural materialism, theories of gender and sexuality and the history of the novel. Her most recent academic monograph is Feminine Subjects in Masculine Fiction: Modernity, Will and Desire, 1870-1910 (Palgrave, 2013). She is also a published writer of fiction.