Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings
National Portrait Gallery, until 15 June
It’s refreshing to discover from a new and beautifully judged exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that there was a time when women were in charge — successful, assertive, and at ease with their sexuality. Brilliant Women celebrates the Bluestocking women of the early 18th century, who spurned the customary role of gentlewomen as mere decorative adornment and took on the mantle of learning. Women like Elizabeth Carter, who in 1737, aged just 19, travelled up to London from Kent to embark on a career as a journalist, writing poetry in Latin and Greek (journalism was a rather different trade in those days) and assisting Edward Cave with the production of his new monthly digest, the Gentleman’s Magazine.
Carter was an extraordinary woman, choosing independence and scholarly endeavour over marriage. As if to prove that she had made the right decision, she created a translation of All the Works of Epictetus, which are now extant, which has been admired ever since by classicists (mostly male) as the standard study on the Greek Stoic philosopher. Carter had been encouraged by her forward-thinking father, the vicar of Deal, to learn the classical languages, but she taught herself French, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic and Hebrew, forcing herself to get up at first light to study by inventing an elaborate system of pulleys and clocks and alarm-bells.
The curators of the exhibition, Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, have discovered a fascinating portrait of her as Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom. She appears youthful and fresh-faced but her bearing is statuesque and she’s dressed in the armour of intellect, a breastplate and shield.