Let's start right out with the basics. The Oxford English Dictionary defines bluestocking as “Of, belonging, or relating to a series of assemblies or salons held c. 1750 by a group of London society ladies, notable for the informal dress worn by the male attendees and for the intellectual conversation engaged in by women and men equally.” It goes on to say that “The term blue stocking was originally a non-pejorative nickname, but was later used to connote the excessively feminine literariness or intellectualism seen as characterizing these gatherings.”
I love those bluestockings in historical romance. They're someone with whom the reader can identify and a challenge for the hero. Sure, we're used to smart heroines and we want to read them, but to put an overtly intellectual heroine in a novel set in the 18th or 19th century takes work.
In preparing this blog, I realized that many of my all-time favorite historical romances are about bluestocking heroines and the heroes who embrace their oddness.
Here are my top five:
5. My Darling Caroline by Adele Ashworth
My Darling Caroline is Adele Ashworth's first book and, in places, reads like one. But that does not stop it from being a delightful blue stocking romance. Lady Caroline Grayson is a botanist who is prevented from studying at academic institutions by her gender. This does not stop her from successfully pursuing the study on her own, for she is a brilliant young lady. Her father, however, takes her life into his own hands (as 19th century fathers do) and marries her to a neighboring earl. Her husband does just what the hero of a bluestocking romance should do: he recognizes her brilliance and, being a man, first uses it for his own purposes:
“I'd like you to glance over these numbers to see if I've made any mistakes in my calculations, Caroline.”
She blinked quickly several times. “I beg your pardon?”
He smiled faintly. “I'd appreciate a level head other than my own to check these figures one more, since I need to know the exact status of my accounts before I leave.
Ultimately, he does more than acknowledge Caroline's abilities, he celebrates them and finds a way to abet her desire to be a botanist. He's a keeper.
4. The Devil Earl by Deborah Simmons
Published in 1996, The Devil Earl's heroine is no scientist. She's a writer, supporting herself and her younger sister by writing gothic novels. They live in the country in the shadow of a spooky abbey, and Prudence Lancaster is dying to get in to see it. Moreover, she's dying to meet the Earl of Ravenscar, owner of the gothic pile and legendary “devil earl.” When she does meet him, he's fascinated.
As intriguing as the idea was, Sebastian really wanted to see her hands without covering, naked and ink-stained, as they had been the first time he noticed them. Although he knew it was ridiculous, just the thought excited him, and he had to force himself to look at something else.
Yes, it's a physical attraction in this case, but an attraction to ink-stained hands bodes well for an acceptance of the interesting mind that causes those stains. As you can probably guess, she not only meets him but marries him and they live happily ever after rattling around the abbey and penning scary stories together.
3. Guilty Pleasures by Laura Lee Guhrke
In Guilty Pleasures, The Duke of Tremore quickly accepts the intellect and abilities of Daphne Wade, who has taken her dead father's place, restoring ancient Roman artifacts at the archeological dig he is conducting on his country estate. The problem is that he has not recognized that she's a desirable woman (and may not even think of her as a woman at all). And then she takes off her glasses.
She had beautiful eyes. This was the first time he could recall seeing her without those gold-framed spectacles, and it rather startled him what a difference their absence made to her face….
He had never thought there was anything attractive about her, but looking at her now, Anthony was forced to revise his opinion. At this moment, bathed in candlelight, with loose tendrils of hair around her face and those big, almond-shaped eyes looking up at him, she seemed softer than she ever had before. Not pretty, exactly, but not quite so plain, either.
Yes, this is the 1830s equivalent of the long-suffering secretary taking her glasses off and having her boss say, “Miss Fleming, you're beautiful.” But it works for me here. Probably because of the growing relationship in other areas and the excellent writing. If you haven't read it, do.
2. The Proposition by Judith Ivory
Number two on my list is a Victorian Pygmalion story from the sadly absent Judith Ivory. In this twist, Pygmalion is Lady Edwina Bollash and her Galatea is rat catcher, Mick Tremore. This is such a fun story. Winnie is the daughter of a Marquess who died without a son, leaving Winnie to earn her own way as a linguist, pursuing academic studies, but bringing in cash by training young ladies in the speech and behavior necessary to fit into the haute ton. Hired to turn Mick into a gentleman as part of a bet, she moves the rat catcher into her house and the lessons begin.
Mick is immediately enthralled with Winnie and it has nothing to do with her erudition, although he finds that part of her both irritating and stimulating. What he's really after, however, is a look at her legs. Which he eventually gets.
Part of the fun of this story is Mick, whose speech is an interesting mixture of Cornish and Cockney, learning new pronunciations and new words—words Winnie hasn't taught him.
”Junoesque,“ he said one day.
She looked up and across the table. He was staring at her in that thoughtful way he had, contemplative.
He continued. ”Callipygian.“
She blinked. He couldn't possibly know the word's meaning.
But he did. ”Having well-shaped buttocks.“
”It has pear-shaped connotations. A large bum.“
He smiled. ”I know. Large and well-shaped. I wish I knew a word for a large, well-shaped bum that goes into legs yards long and with more curves than an orchestra of violins."
Mick continues to embarrass Winnie until he doesn't and, in the process, she falls in love with him. This book has a 1990s plot twist at the end that makes everything perfect. But I love it anyway. Judith Ivory is a fantastic writer and I long for another book by her.
1. Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase
Yes. I'm an unrepentant Loretta Chase fan girl, but that does not mean that Mr. Impossible is not one fabulous book with a terrific blue stocking heroine.
Daphne Pembroke, free from the control of her jealous and overbearing late husband, is in Egypt with her brother, working at her passion: understanding hieroglyphics. When a papyrus and her brother are both stolen, she ends up trying to find them with the help of Rupert Carsington, scapegrace younger son of The Earl of Hargate, brother of the heroes of Miss Wonderful and Lord Perfect, and one of my all-time favorite heroes.
Daphne starts out thinking Rupert is a strong idiot, and he abets her belief by acting the part whenever he thinks of it. It takes a while for her to uncover his true character, but he gets her right away.
Rupert falls in love with Daphne because of her brain. Actually, he starts out by falling in lust because of her brain.
When Sheik Salim admired her command of Arabic and marveled at her large brain, Rupert wanted to get her naked. When she talked about her papyrus and its beautiful little pictures and its columns of perfectly drawn signs, he wanted to get her naked. When he thought about those books in a dozen languages in her cupboard, he wanted to get her naked.
This. This is exactly the way a hero should respond to a bluestocking heroine. It's what we all would want.
I'm always up for more bluestockings. What do you recommend?
Rowlandson Bluestocking print from Wikipedia Commons
Myretta is a founder and current manager of The Republic of Pemberley, a pretty big Jane Austen web site. She is also a writer of Historical Romance. You can find her at her website, www.myrettarobens.com and on Twitter @Myretta.