February 08, 2016

Newsletter: The Bluestocking Bulletin, Feb. 2016

The Bluestocking Bulletin
Feb. 2016


Welcome to my new and improved newsletter, retitled The Bluestocking Bulletin. Each month it will feature, in addition to the usual news, a profile of a lesser known woman writer of the past who deserves to be better known.

In casting about for a title that would reflect the new content, I tested out names with "Authoress" and "Literary Ladies" in them. Both of those terms were popular in the 19th century, when women weren't writers or authors; instead they were put in another gendered category of lesser status. No woman writer today would want to be called a literary lady or authoress. And frankly, some weren't too crazy about it back then. No wonder Charlotte Bronte and Marian Evans (George Eliot) tried to sidestep the problem all together by publishing under male pseudonyms. 

But there is something about the term "Bluestocking" that still carries a certain cachet. Perhaps it is because it didn't always refer to women exclusively. The term comes from the London literary club of men and women hosted by Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Vessey in the 1750s. The guests came in their informal blue worsted wool stockings, instead of formal black silk stockings. The group was particularly involved in furthering the education of women and thus the term "Bluestocking" gradually came to mean a learned woman and was associated with the push for women's rights. Thus, the term was tied up with all of the pejorative associations of women venturing out of their sphere and behaving more like men. There were all kinds of fears that if women started writing, speaking in public, or leaving the home to work, all hell would break loose. Here is an 1844 French cartoon titled "Blue stockings" that gives you the idea.

In honor of the new title, I thought that my first profile should be of the writer Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867), a prolific early American writer who also published a story titled "A Sketch of a Bluestocking" (1832), which i just love. I'll explain why in a moment. 

Sedgwick came from a wealthy family in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.The only daughter, she never married and spent her adulthood living in the households of her four brothers, who encouraged her to devote her life to literature rather than a husband. One of them actually wrote to her, "I look forward to the exertion of your literary talents as a great national blessing." Her novels, including A New-England Tale (1822), Redwood (1824), and Hope Leslie (1827), helped to found an indigenous American literature and construct a narrative of the nation's origins. In addition, she published three other novels and more than one hundred short stories and essays and was known upon her death as a member of the first generation of successful American writers, which also included James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. Her works often feature independent heroines who were anything but angels in the house. 

Sedgwick's most widely known story today is "Cacoethes Scribendi" (Latin for the rage to write), first published in 1830. It depicts the mortification of a young woman upon discovering that her over-zealous mother has had her private writing published. Sedgwick also wrote a virtually unknown companion story, "A Sketch of a Blue Stocking" (1832), which challenges pejorative images of women writers. As a household prepares for the arrival of a famous woman writer, one of the young men says, "Hang it! it is too absurd to be afraid of a woman, just because she happens to be a mannish writer of reviews." He imagines her to be a hideous creature, but of course she turns out to be a lovely woman. The narrator both claims and disclaims her status as a bluestocking, indicating how conflicted literary women such as Sedgwick herself were: 

Mrs. Roswell is literary, and--a blue-stocking. I cannot deny it; if the most ardent devotion to knowledge and talent, even though they chance to be found in books; if a love of science; if an occasional communication to the public of the result of her studies and observations, constitutes a blue-stocking. But if being the most honored and beloved of wives; the most tender and capable of mothers; the most efficient and least bustling of housewives; the truest of friends, and the most attractive of women, can rescue her from this repulsive name, she deserves it no more than the veriest ignoramus in the land.

I was  delighted to discover "A Sketch of a Bluestocking" when I was editing my collection of women's writings on authorship (Wielding the Pen) because, frankly, it was the only positive story I could find. Women writers were very fond of portraying their own kind rather tragically in fiction. Together, Sedgwick's two stories on women writers suggest the complex feelings women had about entering the public sphere of authorship. I reprinted both stories in my anthology Wielding the Pen: Writings on Authorship by American Women of the Nineteenth Century. You can learn more about Sedgwick from the Catharine Maria Segdwick Society website and this detailed biography

Woolson News
Only three weeks to go until publication day for Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and Miss Grief and Other Stories. It's hard to believe the long-awaited day is almost here. I was thrilled that the BBC chose the biography as one of its "Ten Books To Read In February."

One of the main tasks of preparing for a book launch is to get some articles placed in high-profile places. I'm happy to say that my publicist at Norton has made that happen for me. Now I have to write them. I'll be sure to share them when they go live. These will most certainly be the most widely read things I have written. No pressure.

I have also added to the list of events I'll be doing after the books' publication. Hopefully there is something near you.
  • March 3, 2016–New Orleans  Octavia Books. Book Launch.
  • March 17, 2016–Metairie, LA  Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library, 4747 West Napoleon Ave. 7 PM. “Why the History of Women Writers Matters.”
  • March 22, 2016–Washington, D.C.  Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave NW. In conversation with Greer Macallister. 6:30 PM.
  • March 23, 2016–Frederick, MD  C. Burr Artz Library, 110 E. Patrick Street. 7 PM. “Why the History of Women Writers Matters.”
  • March 24, 2016–New York  Rifkind Center, The City College of New York. 12:30 PM. “Does the Recovery of Women Writers Still Matter?”
  • March 24, 2016–New York  Center for Fiction. In conversation with Sheridan Hay. 7 PM.
  • April 1-3, 2016–New Orleans  Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, Panel “Larger Than Life: The Biographer’s Craft.” Time and exact date TBA.
  • June 4, 2016–Richmond, VA Biographers International Conference. Panel moderator, “Trial By Fire: The Lessons of Publishing a First Biography.”
Friends have been asking what they can do to help support the launch. Here are some ideas taken from Book Riot's "99 Ways to Spread the Word About a Book You Love." (Don't worry, I won't ask you to get a tattoo of the cover.)
  • Come to one of the events listed above.
  • Pre-order one or both books (links are at my website: http://anneboydrioux.com/) and share your purchase on social media.
  • Make sure your library has ordered the books.
  • Ask your local bookstore if they have ordered the books.
  • Are you in a book club? Do you help choose the books your group reads? Do you have suggestions for how I can reach out to book clubs? Would your book club like to schedule a visit with me, in person or via Skype? If so, I'd love to hear from you. (Just hit reply to the message.)
  • Like my Facebook author page, sign up for "Notifications" (under "Like" button) so you'll actually see what I post (otherwise you might not), and share my posts with your friends when you like something I've posted. I have posted and will continue to post the Facebook events pages for the events I have planned. Share these with your friends and/or invite people who live in that city.
  • On Goodreads, you can select the books (biography and stories) as "want to read" and also recommend the books to friends (button in top right corner), if you think they would like them. You can also "like" the great reviews the books have been getting. Here is one I particularly like about the collection of stories:

It is a pleasure to become acquainted with this brilliant original author. Each short story is a unique and rare glimpse into an unusual life. 

I was especially touched by the "Rodman The Keeper" story and learned a little of what the South was like after the Civil War. 

This is a book I will cherish and reread in the future!

Thanks again for keeping up with my news and staying in touch. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the new format and any suggestions you have. (If you'd like to share the newsletter with your friends, they can sign up here: https://tinyletter.com/abrioux.)  Until next month . . . 

Happy Reading!

Anne Boyd Rioux