Montagu, Elizabeth (1720–1800)
Montagu, Elizabeth (1720–1800)
British socialite and author who reigned as London's foremost intellectual hostess for half a century. Born Elizabeth Robinson in York on October 2, 1720; died in London on August 25, 1800; eldest daughter of Matthew Robinson (a Yorkshire landowner) and Elizabeth Drake Robinson (a Cambridge heiress); sister of Sarah Scott (1723–1795, then a well-known novelist); cousin by marriage of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762); education supervised by her grandfather Dr. Conyers Middleton, a Cambridge scholar; married Edward Montagu (a scholar), in 1742 (died 1775); children: one son, John (1743–1744).
anonymous author of Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769); anonymous author of three dialogues in Lyttelton's Dialogues of the Dead (1760).
Elizabeth Montagu, dubbed "Queen of the Blues" by Samuel Johnson, lived up to this title in her day, as a reigning hostess of London's intellectual society. Destined to span roughly two generations, the Bluestocking Circle, of which Montagu was an early member, became one of London's most celebrated societies for the leisured gentry. The circle began during the 1750s and 1760s as a conversation among friends, both women and men, who were interested in literature and other intellectual pursuits. Rather than wear the white silk stockings then worn by London's fashion-conscious gentry, one member of the circle, Benjamin Stillingfleet, started to attend their evening meetings dressed in blue worsted stockings, usually worn only by peasants. From Stillingfleet's provocative choice, the society's name was born.
One of 12 children, the precocious Montagu grew up largely in Cambridgeshire where she was supervised by her grandparents. Her grandfather, Conyers Middleton, was librarian of Cambridge University, and according to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature he "not only allowed her to come to his academic parties, but he would afterwards, with educational intent, require from her an account of the learned conversations at which she had been present." Her father Matthew Robinson encouraged her to be a worthy opponent to his own swift repartee, a practice he is said to have discontinued when she bested him in these verbal matches. Cambridge History also notes that she engaged in good-natured arguing with her brothers "till their emulation produced in their sister 'a diligence of application unusual at the time.'" This diligence earned Montagu a knowledge of French and Italian as well as some Latin, although she was reportedly not always eager to admit to the latter in deference to fashion. She was of fond of dancing and in her youth was known as "Fidget," once remarking, "Why shall a table that stands still require so many legs when I can fidget on two?" Montagu's literary interests may have been passed on to her by her mother Elizabeth Drake Robinson , who was related to the novelist Laurence Sterne.
While staying with her grandmother, Montagu met Margaret Bentinck , the duchess of Portland (daughter of the 2nd earl of Oxford who married the 2nd duke of Portland). Thanks to the friendship that developed between Montagu and Bentinck, Elizabeth was introduced to a cultivated circle of individuals, many of whom would be lifelong friends as well as worthy bluestockings.
Montagu was only 13 when her father brought her out into society at Bath and Tunbridge. In 1742, age 22, she married the wealthy Edward Montagu, a scholar and coal-owner 29 years her elder who was the grandson of the first earl of Sandwich. Their only child was born in 1743 and died within a year. Bereaved, Montagu engaged in social and intellectual pursuits with even greater determination. Not long into the marriage, when Edward's house in Dover Street proved too small for her entertaining, he built her a home on Hill Street which she hoped to make a central location for intellect and fashion. They moved in during 1748, and Montagu began giving receptions in her famous Chinese Room. She wrote to Fanny Boscawen in 1753 that the "Chinese Room was filled by a succession of people from eleven in the morning till eleven at night." Intellect took precedence for Montagu, who remarked that, regardless of their place in society, "I never invite idiots to my house." Guests would come to include Margaret Cavendish Harley , countess of Oxford, Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Talbot, Elizabeth Vesey, Mary Delany , Fanny Boscawen, Anna Seward, Hester Chapone , Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Lord Lyttelton, David Garrick, Fanny Burney , and Hannah More , as well as Johnson, Horace Walpole and, once, King George III. For 50 years, despite all competitors, Montagu would remain the preeminent hostess of intellectual gatherings in London.
According to Cambridge History, no precise information exists as to when Montagu began her bluestocking parties, but likely it was after she made Elizabeth Vesey's acquaintance. A "bluestocking philosophy," concerned with literature rather than politics, emerged as a means of what members called "rational entertainment" for women, and the Circle evolved into London's most famous women's-only society. Montagu, Catherine Talbot, Hester Chapone, and Elizabeth Carter were among the first generation of bluestockings. In addition to their meetings, members communicated through letters, discussing their personal and professional activities and ideas at length. Louis Kronenberger writes of the bluestockings: "Now, under the leadership of Mrs Montagu, these defiant bluestockings managed to acquire distinction and draw round them many eminent men of the day. They were a mixed group, some of them great ladies like the duchess of Portland, others hardworking middle-class women who lived virtually in Grub Street; but all were 'modern' and all had pronounced ideas." (Eventually, as political turmoil of the late 1760s destabilized European society, more conservative men and women would openly scorn the accomplishments of intellectual women, and "bluestocking" would become a term of ridicule.)
As "Queen of the Blues," Montagu held a distinguished place in London society and earned an intimate court of Platonic admirers. Cambridge History reports:
Lord Lyttelton … was amazed, he once told her, that those "dangerous things … beauty, wit, wisdom, learning and virtue (to say nothing of wealth)" had not, long before, driven her from society…. Living as she did, in the limelight of a critical society, it was inevitable that her character should be freely discussed. But, though her complacent vanity might, occasionally, be censured, her affectations deplored, her flattery derided, yet we are told that even those who were most diverted with her foibles would express a high opinion of her abilities.
Montagu's gatherings were more formal than those held by Vesey and the semi-circle in which her guests were arranged became nearly legendary. Kronenberger quotes the description of the arrangement from Fanny Burney's Diary:
[T]he semi-circle that faced the fire retained during the whole evening its unbroken form, with a precision that made it seem described by a Brobdingnagian compass. The lady of the castle commonly placed herself at the upper end of the room, near the commencement of the curve, so as to be courteously visible to all her guests; having the person of highest rank or consequence properly on one side, and the person the most eminent for talents, sagaciously on the other…. No one ventured to break the ring.
In 1760, Elizabeth Montagu penned the last three dialogues in George Lyttelton's Dialogues of the Dead. Her contribution to the work was made anonymously, with her colloquys advertised as "composed by a different hand." Of the three dialogues (between Cadmus and Hercules; between Mercury and a fashionable modern lady; and between Plutarch, Charon and a modern bookseller), only the second is considered as reflective of her wit and learning. Cambridge History notes: "It is by far the wittiest of the whole collection, and met with unqualified success." The work earned her high praise from the bluestocking circle, and Montagu wrote to Elizabeth Carter: "I do not know but at last I may become an author in form…. The Dialogues, I mean the three worst, have had a more favourable reception than I expected."
Nine years later, she anonymously published An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets, with some Remarks upon the Misrepresentation of Mons. de Voltaire. Offense at Voltaire's contempt for Shakespeare (from whom Voltaire "had borrowed freely," notes Cambridge History) fueled this work which was to be the great literary effort of Montagu's life: "I was incited to this undertaking," she remarks in the introduction, "by great admiration of [Shakespeare's] genius, and still greater indignation at the treatment he has received from a French wit." Reviews were generally favorable, and it was felt that when the work was translated into French five years later it marred Voltaire's standing as an authority on Shakespeare. At the time, Samuel Johnson may have been alone in his perception of weaknesses in the essay. Although it was published anonymously, Montagu became known as the author of the work, and it brought her fame in England as well as adulation from the bluestockings (Hester Lynch Piozzi , then known as Mrs. Thrale, called her "the first woman for literary knowledge in England").
Following her husband's death in 1775, Montagu proved herself to be a formidable business talent in managing the fortune and large estates which were left in her control. Although Walpole immediately assumed that she would marry again, she instead kept the company of a nephew.
In 1776, Montagu traveled to Paris, where she attended an attack on Shakespeare by Voltaire at the French Academy, and found that her Essay was well known. A celebrity there as well, she was welcomed at many Parisian salons. Meanwhile, her bluestocking colleagues worried that she might return from her travels with an inflated sense of herself. Their fears, however, were in misplaced. Cambridge History notes that Montagu returned to England "and was soon her former English self, something of a poseuse perhaps, a good deal of an egotist, but always possessing such brilliant qualities of mind and intellect, such a gift for steady friendship, that she remained firmly fixed as hitherto on her bluestocking throne, on which she had still more than twenty years to reign."
Montagu was noted for the financial assistance she provided to authors in need, a practice which earned her the title "female Maecenas of Hill Street" from Hannah More. Among those who received her patronage were the blind poet Anna Williams and Elizabeth Carter. Montagu also used her influence to assist authors in other ways. Her efforts helped spread the fame of James Beattie's Essay on Truth, and she promoted the career of Hannah More. Known for her generosity, Elizabeth was extremely popular with the colliers in the north and entertained the London chimney-sweeps every May Day.
She commissioned two great buildings in 1781, Sandleford Mansion in Kent and Montagu House in Portman Square, London. Montagu House was built from the designs of James Stuart and became the center for bluestocking meetings, parties, and other entertainments.
Elizabeth Montagu died in London on August 25, 1800. Her nephew Matthew Montagu oversaw publication of her letters, which ran to four volumes, in 1809 and 1813. In one (c. 1739), she had written: "I endeavor to be wise when I cannot be merry, easy when I cannot be glad, content when I cannot be mended and patient when there be no redress."
Kronenberger, Louis. Kings and Desperate Men: Life in Eighteenth-Century England. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1942.
Montagu, Elizabeth. Letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu: With Some of the Letters of Her Correspondents. London, 1809–1813 (reprinted AMS Press, 1934).
Ward and Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Vol. X, sec. XI. Vol. XI, sec. XV. NY: Putnam, 1907–21.
Myers, Sylvia Harcstark. The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship, and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England. Oxford, 1990.