Doctor Syntax with Bluestocking Beauty
This print depicts Dr. Syntax with his hostess, the beautiful bluestocking, Mrs. Omicron. She sits half reclined on a couch in a pose suggesting the famous portraits of Madame Recamier. Syntax reads a poem aloud while sitting on a chair in front of her. He raises his right arm and gesticulates with his hand; in this fit of passion, Syntax presses his left foot against Omicron’s leg. Apparently shocked by this outburst, she raises her left hand to her brow. Her other arm rests against the nearby table, and in her right hand she holds a quill-pen to paper as though she has been interrupted in the act of writing. Omicron wears a fashionable, white, long-sleeved and empire-waisted dress, bound at the waist with a sash, as well as a pale yellow turban. The outline of her torso and legs is clearly visible beneath the clinging fabric, as was fashionable at the time. The dress has slight ruffles at the neckline and cuffs, and Omicron wears a simple necklace. Her legs are clad in pale blue stockings and red shoes. Syntax is wearing his usual parson’s uniform: a plain black suit, stockings, and shoes; and a white cravat and wig. The pair sit in an elegant library with multiple alcoves of floor-to-ceiling shelves, crammed with books and interspersed with classical busts on elaborate, columnar pedestals. More books are strewn across the floor together with maps, a square angel, and a drafting compass. A chamber pot is visible underneath the couch. In the right foreground a large globe rests in a wooden stand. In the left foreground there is a wooden cradle for perusing looseleaf prints. Between this and the couch is the aforementioned table, hung with green baize cloth and topped with more books, an inkstand, a decanter, and a wine glass.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Thordarson T 576
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This print appeared in William Combe's The Third Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of a Wife: a Poem (London, 1821), facing page 106.
This print depicts the protagonist of William Combe and Thomas Rowlandson’s collaborative work, Dr. Syntax, a learned but foolish minister who in this volume is searching for a new wife.
Dr. Syntax is depicted with Mrs. Omicron, a wealthy and beautiful woman who is both a follower of fashion and a bluestocking. "Bluestocking" was a term used, often disparagingly, to refer to women who took an avid interest in literature or academic-style education, particularly in learning Greek and Latin or other subjects considered the prerogative of men. The accomplishments of the bluestocking were thus quite different from those of the accomplished woman, whose skill at music or drawing was not thought to necessitate intellectual rigor. The term was originally used in English to contemptuously refer to someone wearing blue-worsted stockings instead of formal black silk stockings, that is, someone who was in homely rather than elegant dress. It is thought that the term was then used to refer to the intellectual men who frequented the literary salons of Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1720-1800) and others, because these were relatively informal affairs where men could wear their casual blue stockings, but “bluestocking” soon became an adjective to describe the salons as a whole and the women with intellectual pretensions who organized and attended them.
This image is set in the library of a country house. Dedicated libraries were relatively new rooms in private residences of the early-nineteenth century. Their inclusion indicates the growth of print culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the changing organization of country houses. Both books and prints were kept in libraries; the latter were usually framed in simple mats and kept in a cradle for easy browsing. A growing emphasis on informal social interaction encouraged the use of libraries as relatively casual spaces where hosts and guests of different ages and genders could interact. As a site where both men and women could come together to converse in the mutual pursuit of literary, intellectual, and artistic advancement, the library is highly suggestive of the bluestocking salons. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, libraries would become increasingly gendered as masculine spaces and grouped with billiard and smoking rooms in the patriarchal domain of the Victorian country house.
The composition of Mrs. Omicron on the couch recalls portraits of Madame Recamier, particularly the painting by François Gerard (French, 1770-1837), Juliette Recamier, 1805. Oil on canvas, 225 x 148 cm. Paris: Musée Carnavalet.
This print depicts the moment in Combe's text when Doctor Syntax makes a sexual advance towards his hostess, the beautiful bluestocking Mrs. Omicron. The piece employs and satirizes the figure of the "bluestocking," a woman who displayed or affected interest in intellectual subjects and who seemed to spurn marriage as a worthwhile pursuit.
This print is part of a narrative that presents the bluestocking as an artistic type, linking her with the connoisseur and the fashionable woman. Mrs. Omicron is a “fair Lady” who combines “the beauties of the form and mind.” As a wealthy window, she has been much pursued by various suitors, but insists that she will only wed herself
To one with ancient learning fraught,Omicron herself possesses the “seeds of genius and of taste.” This is evidenced not only by her learning but also by her house, so that her supper “was in tasteful order set / In an adjoining cabinet, / Whose classic paintings like the rest, / The genius of the place confest” (99). She takes Syntax on a tour of her landscape gardens and collects classical statuary, but Omicron also creates herself as art through the medium of fashion:With all that modern science taught,And in whose talents might be trac’dThe seeds of genius and of taste.For one endued with such a mind (br/She’d leave exterior grace behind:A scholar and a virtuous sage,Whate’er his shape, whate’er his age,Would her discerning heart engage.(Combe 93)
She now appear’d in all the prideOmicron is pleased by Syntax’s obvious appreciation of her appearance, and in this sense she is just as vain as another feminine artistic type, the accomplished woman. Indeed, the bluestocking was often disparaged as displaying affectation rather than sincere intellectual interest (Myers 294).Of figure and of ton beside:Her form was fine, for plastic natureHad work’d with pleasure on her stature.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .And though Old Time, that scurvy fellow,Had brought her to be more than mellow;Yet taste and art contriv’d to shade,The inroads which his hand had made.The Doctor view’d her too and fro,And eye’d her form from top to toe;Transfix’d he stood by wild surprize, [sic]Told by his tongue and by his eyes,And stammer’d, for he scare could speakA line in Latin, then in Greek.(Combe 104-105)
Whereas the accomplished woman pursued drawing and music in order to attract a husband, the bluestocking pursued literature and scholarship for her own gratification, so that despite Omicron’s engagement with fashion and social life she seems fundamentally uninterested in marriage. The bluestocking’s egotistical pursuit of education is conveyed via Omicron’s self-absorption, which Syntax critiques in a letter he writes to his hostess protesting her cavalier treatment of him:
—And now, as I am taking leave,The repeated references to Omicron’s advancing age enable Syntax to ridicule the figure of the bluestocking, suggesting that such women posed an intellectual and psychological threat to the patriarchy. The print and its surrounding narrative, however, ultimately present an ambiguous picture of the bluestocking. On the one hand, Syntax’s criticism of Omicron presents her as a failed artistic type, as someone who cannot successfully fashion herself as an enduring work of art. Yet Syntax’s criticism could also be taken as further evidence of his own foolishness; it is he, after all, who constitutes the book’s primary object of ridicule. Omicron may be refusing Syntax’s advances because her bluestocking identity is a sham and she does not sincerely want a man of intellect, or because she does desire an intellectual husband and the foolish Dr. Syntax falls far short of her requirements. Furthermore, although Omicron’s rejection of Syntax is represented in both the print and the accompanying text as self-conscious and exaggerated, her moral outrage is still in keeping with the bluestocking type. The British bluestocking appropriated the literary interests, luxury, and refined taste of Parisian hostesses, but imbued that salon tradition with a sense of distinct moral purpose (Eger, “Luxury, Industry, and Charity” 192).Deign, my kind counsel to receive.You laugh at others, and what then?They may return the laugh again.How ready’s your sarcastic word,With She’s a fright, and He’s absurd!But while at other’s faults you frown,Think you, alas, that you have none?‘Tis time, if I have eyes to see,To quit your frisky mockery,In five years you’ll be Forty-three!(Combe 106)
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Combe, William, 1742-1823. The third tour of Doctor Syntax: in search of a wife: a poem . . . London: R. Ackermann’s repository of arts [London, Printed by J. Diggins]. Special Collections (Memorial Library) Thordarson T 576
1 November 1820