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“They’re side notes in history”: In conversation with Bluestocking Oxford

Perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘bluestocking’ before. Though it came to be used as a misogynistic pejorative, its origins lie in 18th-century Britain, when groups of women would attend literary societies, which provided a space for literary, artistic and intellectual discussion.

I spoke to Olivia Wrafter, Editor in Chief, and Olivia Hurton, Deputy Editor, who are reviving this historical tradition, through Bluestocking Oxford: an online journal that investigates the intellectual and artistic achievements of women throughout history. Founded in 2009, the journal was relaunched in Michaelmas of 2023.

Both the Olivias are students of English literature, whose research interests align with that of Bluestocking. “I look at the brilliant 18th-century female playwrights… I’m a playwright myself.” Hurton tells me. “I read this novel called The Excursion by Francis Brooke (1777). That captivated me – I found this whole community of brilliant female writers who were able to make quite a lot of money from that art. The things that they were writing about which were fiercely feminist, and the stage gave them a voice, because they were excluded from parliament and government.”

Wrafter’s research also centres around women, particularly in the context of the novel. “Like Olivia, I found this large group of women that were writing in South Africa in the English language. [They] massively contributed to the novel form and genre and how the novel changed during that period, but it’s never been studied before.”

Wrafter’s research will take a different angle on the traditional literary ‘canon’. “I think female novelists don’t get allowed to be credited with having a dialogue with canonical male authors.. at the time”, Wrafter adds. “They obviously were… there were a lot of great Victorian women writers who [had] success during their time.”

But even for those whose work entered the canon, their works and merit were judged differently from their male counterparts. “Image is so bound up with women’s intellectual achievements in a way it’s just not for men.” Hurton says, giving the example of George Eliot, the Victorian novelist. Wrafter describes the narratives about her looks, questioning its relevance to her work. “Obviously, for a male writer that would just never be commented on. And it’s the same today – that has not changed.”

It would be an opportunity wasted if I didn’t ask them each for a feminist literary recommendation. Wrafter’s pick was Olive Schreiner’s ‘The Story of an African Farm’, considered the first ‘New Woman’ novel. The protagonist struggles to enact her proto-feminist political views to her life. “I think that’s just something I find interesting–  if you do one thing that’s not in line with your feminist political views or whatever, does that undermine everything that you stand for? [The protagonist is] an amazing character, it’s an amazing story and an amazing piece of work.”

Hurton recommends Lady Caroline Lamb. “She is an amazing figure. She essentially wrote the really first famous ‘Kiss and Tell’. She had a three month whirlwind affair with Lord Byron… he went off with her cousin and she felt completely betrayed. But she didn’t keep her mouth shut: she wrote this gothic novel – Glenarvon. She was completely disgraced. But she made a lot of money, spoke her mind and didn’t let him get away with it.”

Taking inspiration from Caroline Lamb, Hurton summarises Bluestocking’s goal to empower women to “be heard”. In many ways Bluestocking challenges historical and contemporary narratives around women, and discussions of their achievements, by covering a wide range of voices. 

“The magazine is essentially a platform for women who we think need to be better known, and who we just find really interesting.” Hurton says. “We publish quite different views. One week, I wrote on Barbara Kruger, who’s very left wing, almost Orwellian in her perspective. And then we had Margaret Thatcher the next week. It’s kind of interesting to see that dialogue happening between the articles.” Aside from more well known profiles, Bluestocking also covers the lesser known. “Sometimes they’re completely random,” Wrafter adds. “They’re side notes in history. Recently someone pitched the first female pirate! It’s amazing to find these things out by running this journal.”

One example of such a profile, which both cited as a recent favourite, was a piece on Clarice Lispector by Lauren Davies. Aside from learning about the Brazilian novelist for the first time, both expressed admiration for the way in which the article was written – experimenting with form in a way that, as Wrafter says, “when writing academic articles… you lose.” In this sense, the journal also provides a creative outlet against the more rigid bounds of academic standards – think of the classic ‘Oxford essay’. “It’s been so liberating.” says Hurton. “I can research other things. There’s no constraints on what we really allow articles for.”

One thing that struck me in my conversation with the pair, was the recurring theme of community, particularly of a female network – reaching all the way back to the namesake of the journal. On one level, the magazine uncovers networks of women from the past. As Hurton says, from reading the articles, often unknown links between the seemingly isolated women are understood. On another level, the magazine itself fosters its own community, combining those interested in literature across the university.. “I didn’t meet many post grads when I was an undergrad,” Wrafter notes. “I think I would have appreciated [it]…  Even when I was an undergrad, the idea of doing a PhD was just so far and impossible. It wasn’t something I could do.”

“When women come together and actually, you know, have the community and sit – they talk and socialise, but also academically nurture each other. It’s so beneficial for everyone involved.”

Bluestocking’s focus is unique, not just within Oxford, but on a wider scale. “ I happily devour a Vogue on the occasion.” Hurton says. “But it’s quite patronising about what women actually want. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to look at a woman in a pretty dress, and hear about the latest Charlotte Tilbury makeup. But we also want something that’s going to satisfy our intellectual needs, too. I feel like Bluestocking is incredibly radical. And I wish there was a national magazine like that, because that’s what women actually do want to see and hear. It would inspire a lot of girls, especially younger girls, to think about themselves in a different way. [To see] the different sides of them, which are important, which are not just simply the aesthetic side.”

“[Bluestocking] has been a baton that people have passed on to each other.” She adds. “We both felt like there was so much potential for [the magazine]. I think it’s amazing that it’s been going on for so long, which just shows that there is a need for this… You know, even if we’ll leave, lots of our team will be leaving, but they still want to grow it while they’re a part of it, and ensure the legacy continues.”

Bluestocking currently operates online, with hopes to see a printed edition in the future. This term they will be hosting a literary salon with Feminist Society on the 23rd of May in Week 5,  and are open for submissions from Week 1 onwards. 

With thanks to Olivia Wrafter and Olivia Hurton for this interview. 

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