Wollstonecraft versus the Bluestockings

Wollstonecraft versus the Bluestockings

What are the differences between the “feminism” expressed by Wollstonecraft and that of the Bluestockings–if indeed you believe that the Blues express or practice any kind of “feminism.” For example, can the modestly progressive views expressed in the Matrimonial Creed be compared to the doctrines expressed in the Vindication?

It seems to me that both women express feminism but they focus on two different things.Mulso’s essay argues for friendship between husband and wife and encourages women to seek a husband that she can consider a friend. Wollstonecraft’s essay goes straight to the heart of the matter and addresses the reason why men and women in marriages are not equal. In other words, her argument implies that it is not enough to say that men and women should be equal. Instead, she addresses the various stereotypes that women possess in society and argues that society perceives women this way (stupid or blindly obedient) because they are not given proper access to education. Wollstonecraft’s essay almost entirely focuses on education, its function in reforming society, and reforming the image of a woman as something less than a man. For example, women were often attacked for not being virtuous. Wollstonecraft points out men have access to extensive character education that teaches them how to reason and what it means to be a gentleman. She then argues that the reason why women appear as if they are lacking in virtue is that they do not have access to the same kind of character education that teaches men about virtue, makes them virtuous.


Women and Enlightenment

Wildcard question: why did women suddenly find a myriad of intellectual opportunities in the Enlightenment?

Why did women suddenly find an array of intellectual opportunities (salon conversation, literary criticism, travel, scientific lectures) in the Enlightenment? Why, in other words, did the Enlightenment provide a new domain, different from anything available in the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries in England? (Think about Shakespeare’s world, for example). What has changed?

It seems to me that the primary reasons why women suddenly found an array of intellectual opportunities in the Enlightenment are education and relatively cheap books and other publication materials. Salon conversations, literary criticism, scientific lectures, and even travel are impossible intellectual opportunities to engage in without literacy. Enlightenment opened up opportunities for education for people outside of wealthy men and these opportunities slowly but surely became available to women. Since intellectual opportunities are very different from warfare or other physical tasks, women who were taught to read and write quickly embraced these activities. Furthermore, women continued to lack opportunities in other aspects of society (such as merchant work, business ownership, etc.). As a result, somewhat well off and educated women embraced intellectual activities such as writing (novels) and treatises as a substitute for a working life.

Heller’s Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere

In Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere, Dr. Heller describes the development of the bluestocking salons in England. They were inspired by salons first established in France, but the English nevertheless aimed to develop their own intellectual movement. Well off women hosted these salons in their homes, and women both hosted and engaged in intellectual debates in the salons. These salons helped shape the intellectual climate of that society by allowing men and women to engage in arguments in one place, as equals.

Elizabeth Montagu felt that women and men should be treated as equals. As a result, she was often criticized as being masculine, or not feminine enough. Unfortunately, even today, this is a common accusation made against women who are not afraid to speak their mind. Women are expected to be demure, quiet and unimposing and these expectations make it very difficult for a woman to argue loudly and convincingly.


Take a good look at Bluestocking Hester Mulso’s little treatise, “Matrimonial Creed,” written in the 1750s (same decade as Voltaire’s Candide) but published later after her death. This piece shocked her older male contemporaries, one of whom swore that, based on what he saw in it, she would never marry (he was quite wrong). Can you imagine why he and others found her reasoning dangerous–or are we today simply too far away from the sort of expectations regarding marriage that prevailed until the Enlightenment? (Indeed, it’s probably truer to say “that prevailed up through the Enlightenment and in some respects into the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth”).

Here are a couple of more focused questions:

(1) Why is “friendship” a key term for Mulso in this treatise? Why does she need that concept?

(2) Why, according to her, is it necessary for a woman to choose a husband whose superiority she genuinely believes in? Do we still have any sense of the significance of this today? Why or why not?

Finally, what are the ‘first duties” she alludes to in article 1?

Friendship is a key term for Mulso because friendship implies equality. People with different positions in society (say, the owner of the house and a servant, even today) cannot really be friends due to the power disparity. This was (and probably still is) the case for many marriages. Today, many men continue to marry women who they can dominate or influence (there are degrees of this disparity). Thus, friendship between a wife and husband is of outmost importance because, in friendship, both parties are of equal standing. Though the treatise at first appears as old fashioned (arguing for women to choose men who their superiors), it is not really that outdated. Instead, the emphasis on friendship shows that it is actually quite progressive for the time.

“Fair sex” during the Enlightenment

So, what about the place and participation of the “fair sex” during the Enlightenment? What observations by Outram do you find interesting? What observations in my own writing on the Bluestockings interest you? What do you think of the obvious differences between Outram’s arguments and mine?

What is interesting about the Outram chapter is how the chapter shows that while the Enlightenment sought to create equality between different men, it also sought to create distinctions between men and women (distinctions that argued that women are something less than men). Men classified women according to their role in the home. They then used that classification to argue that women are inferior intellectually (without realizing that intellect often comes with education). Women did, however, play an important role in the Enlightenment (especially, rich widows) as salon organizers. As widows, they were older (past marriage eligibility) and endowed with all of the inherited money to do with as they wished. The salon was a place to explore and discuss ideas, and there women engaged in discussion along with the men. In Dr. Heller’s paper, we learned that the Blues was something of a negative word used by many writers of the time (i.e. Samuel Johnson). It is likely that this resistance to women as intellectuals resulted from jealousy. Women who ran salons were rich and relatively powerful, a position that many men (especially, male writers) were not used to.

Beroul’s Tristan

The Love Potion

The Love Potion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  The Wild as a Safe Place in Beroul’s Tristan

Nature plays an important role in Beroul’s Tristan. Eventually, Tristan escapes, rescues Yseut from the lepers, and they go in hiding in the Forest of Morrois. There, Tristan hunts for their food, and they live together happily in the wild. Perhaps, this notion of the wild as a safe place is a throwback to old pagan traditions. The castle is not safe for them (either of them) and the town is no longer safe for either of them either. The only place that remains safe for the lovers to love each other in peace is the wilds of the forest. It takes three years for the love potion to wear off. Thus, Tristan and Yseut live together in the wild for three years. Eventually, they return to civilization with the help of a hermit named Ogrin, who brokers a peace between Tristan and King Mark. The wild forest as a safe house also implies that the hermit, though he lives without certain luxuries like human contact, is actually at peace and in comfort in the wild.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

7)  Yseut’s Return to King Mark

In Beroul’s Tristan, it takes three years for the love potion to wear off. Tristan repents for betraying his uncle and Yseut wants to again become a queen. They rely on a hermit named Ogrin to broker peace between Tristan and King Mark and return for surrendering Yseut, and King Mark promises mercy. Before Yseut goes back to her husband, she asks Tristan to stick around to make sure that King Mark is treating her well. After Yseut returns to her husband, she continues to secretly see Tristan. She is again watched by the barons and discovered. So Yseut promises that “no man ever came between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back across the ford and my husband, King Mark” (Beroul 142). The story seems to be full of trickery on Yseut and Tristan’s parts (but mostly on Yseut’s part). I wonder if this trickery is as a result of the notion that women are more trickster-like than men (i.e. more cunning).

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

8)    Tristan’s Return to Cornwall

After she is back in court, Yseut urges Tristan to leave Cornwall. They promise to love each other and he takes off “to seek venture in foreign lands” (Beroul 149). He meets another Yseut, Yseut of the White Hands, but continues to yearn for his Yseut, Yseut the Fair, back in Cornwall. Eventually, he decides that he will never see Yseut the Fair and marries Yseut of the White Hands. But he regrets the marriage and leaves her without consummating it. He goes back to see his Yseut, who reproaches him for his marriage, but eventually forgives him and renews their love. Tristan cannot stay in Cornwall for long and continues to long for his beloved. This back and forth between the lovers makes it obvious that while though the potion had worn off, it still has a significant residual effect. Tristan and Yseut are bound to each other and will continue to be through the end.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

9)   Tristan as a Trickster

Yseut is not the only trickster in the story. Tristan participates in plenty of disguises himself. At the end of the story, he returns to Cornwall, disguised as a fool and reminds Yseut of the many things that they did together. Her maid tries to convince her that the fool was indeed Tristan, but Yseut refuses to believe that, insisting that her Tristan would never say such awful things about her in public. Tristan realizes that Yseut no longer loves him and says that “once I had a lover, indeed, but it seems to me now that I have lost her” (Beroul 161). Tristan’s beloved dog, whom Yseut is caring for, immediately recognizes Tristan’s voice and goes to him. Finally, Yseut sees the ring and the dog’s reaction and realizes that she’s speaking to Tristan. These kinds of tricks are found throughout the story (they usually played them on the barons and King Mark) but here is the instance where Tristan plays a trick on Yseut.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

10)    Tristan’s Tragic End

At the end of story, Tristan leaves Yseut one last time, returning to Brittany and his wife, Yseut of the White Hands. Helping a friend carry out a love affair with the wife of a neighboring night, Tristan and his friend are attacked. His friend is killed and Tristan is wounded.  Yseut of the White Hands nurses him, but is unable to cure him: “His greatest pain was beyond the skill of those physicians; it came from a poisoned wound, and he knew that only Yseut the Fair could cure it” (Beroul 164). This is another reference to destiny and the power of Yseut the Fair’s love. She is the only person who can cure him. Tristan sends a messenger to ask Yseut to come to him. If she agrees to come, the messenger is supposed to “bear white sails on his return; if not, black sails” (Beroul 164). But Tristan’s wife overhears his instructions, and, out of jealousy, lies to him. She says that the messenger is coming back with black sails. Grief stricken, Tristan dies. Tristan, the master of trickery, the person who perpetuated numerous tricks on King Mark to evade capture and continue his love affair is now tricked by his own wife.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

Beroul’s Tristan

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)     Symmetry in Beroul’s Tristan

One of the earliest versions of the Tristan myth is Beroul’s 12th century story of The Romance of Tristan. This is the story of Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and his passionate love affair with the King’s wife Yseut. The couple falls madly in love after mistakenly drinking a potion and their illicit romance remains secret for many years. As the potion wears off, the lovers are found out and their story ends in tragedy. The story is characterized by its brutality and passion and Tristan and Yseut are portrayed as two people who are struggling against destiny (as symbolized by the potion). Tristan enters the world in tragedy. His father is dead and his mother, Blanchefleur, dies giving birth to him. Similarly, he also exits the world in tragedy. His life is marked by death at both ends and this shows a kind of symmetry in the story telling process.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

2)     Tristan’s First Heroic Act

Tristan is raised by a tutor, Governal, and in his early teens he leaves with Governal and comes to King Mark’s court in Cornwall. King Mark is Blanchefleur’s brother (his mother’s brother), but Tristan conceals this family connection in order to serve the King as an equal to other bachelor knights. In early demonstration of strength, Tristan kills Morholt, who comes and demands payment of a tribute owed to Ireland by the Cornish. The payment requires that a number of young men and girls are taken to Ireland as slaves. After being knighted by King Mark, he reveals his true identity, fights and Morholt. This is Tristan’s first chivalrous and heroic act.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

3)     Tragedy as Driving Force in Beroul’s Tristan

Tristan’s life begins with tragedy and tragedy also allows him to meet his love, Yseut. In the end, their lives will end with tragedy as well. Tragedy seems to be driving force in the story as a whole. The wounds that Tristan gets from Morholt lead him to Yseut. His wounds refuse to heal, and he insists on putting his trust in God and setting out alone in a boat without oars. After spending many days and nights at sea, he arrives in Ireland where the King’s daughter Yseut nurses him to health. In another feat of strength, Tristan again finds himself on the Irish coast where he is wounded by a dragon, and is again nursed back to health by Yseut. Cleaning his sword, she notices that the notch on the blade matches the splinter taken from Morholt’s skull and she realizes that Tristan was the one who had killed her uncle. There are two tragic life endangering events that lead Tristan to Yseut. These events show that destiny links these characters together, and this destiny is in play even before the potion even enters the story.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

4)     Potion as Destiny in Beroul’s Tristan

Beroul’s Tristan has a very representative notion of destiny. The concept of destiny is encapsulated in the potion. As they travel to Cornwall, Tristan and Yseut mistakenly drink the potion that is meant for her and King Mark. They become infatuated with one another and consummate their love. The potion commits them to their fate; it binds them to each other for “a lifetime of suffering and hardship,” eventually causing “their destruction and their death” (Beroul 44 – 45). But Tristan is bound to his duty for the King, and he delivers Yseut as promised. Here, Tristan is showing his commitment to chivalrous behavior. He is bound to the King with duty just as he is bound to Yseut with love (infused by the potion). This tension between duty and love is examined throughout the rest of the story.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

5)     Dwarf as a Villain in Beroul’s Tristan

Dwarfs were often used as villains in medieval literature, and Beroul’s Tristan is no exception. The barons in King Mark’s court are not oblivious to Tristan and Yseut’s relationship the way King Mark is and enlist Frocin the Dwarf to set a trap for them. The dwarf swears that he show King Mark that they are having an affair, and tells him to climb a tree and eavesdrop on them in the orchard. Tristan and Yseut arrive separately, but they both notice the King’s shadow. Angry with the barons and the dwarf, King Mark decides to never suspect Tristan and Yseut again, and allows them to use his bedchamber as much as they want. The dwarf again plays an instrumental part in uncovering their affair. Frocin sneaks into King Mark and Yseut’s chamber where Tristan is sleeping and spreads flour between the two beds so that footsteps between the two beds would be visible. Tristan, who was wounded in the leg by a large boar the night before, notices the flour and leaps onto the King’s bed while the King is out of the room. The wound opens up and bleeds onto the sheets. When he hears the King, Tristan leaps back to his bed and drops some blood in the flour. King Mark is satisfied with evidence of their betrayal and condemns them to death. If the barons are considered the villains of the story, the dwarf can then be seen as the head villain of the story (in that he facilitates the discovery of their affair).

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.