Between the ages of six and thirteen Elizabeth made long stays with Dr and Mrs Middleton in Cambridge. It was there presumably that she received her introduction to classical and English literature and history. Both she and her sister learned Latin, French, and Italian. Elizabeth and Sarah were very close as girls, so much so that they were sometimes referred to as the peas, although Elizabeth's was always the dominant personality. Elizabeth was also close to her older brothers, especially Morris (1715/16–1777) and Robert (1717–1756), the nearest to her in age. There was a gap of six years between Sarah and the three youngest sons; the girls were not much involved with them. Elizabeth and her brother Matthew corresponded in French while he was at Cambridge. Both in the Middleton household and with her parents she gained an appreciation for lively intellectual conversation and encouragement to participate in it.
Elizabeth's acquaintance with Lady Margaret Harley, the only surviving child of Edward Harley, second earl of Oxford, dated from the Cambridge years. Lady Margaret, lively and well-educated, was three years older than Elizabeth. The two girls began a friendship that brought Elizabeth into contact with a more exciting and glamorous world. She visited the Oxford household at Wimpole Hall where her vivacity won the nickname Fidget from the countess. When they were apart the girls corresponded regularly. After Lady Margaret married William Bentinck, second duke of Portland, in 1734, Elizabeth visited them in London and at the duchess's favourite country seat, Bulstrode. Through the duchess she met Mary Pendarves, later Mrs Delany, her sister Ann Dewes and friend Ann Donnellan, the poet Edward Young, and Gilbert West and his wife. The combination of aristocratic ambience and intellectual conversation by men and women participating equally was a model Elizabeth would recreate in her assemblies. Relations between Elizabeth and the duchess cooled in the late 1740s for reasons not now clear; their correspondence ceased in 1753. After 1760 they resumed their friendship; they corresponded and visited occasionally but never again on the intimate basis they had once enjoyed.
The family fortunes improved in the 1730s when Mrs Robinson inherited the Morris estate from her brother. Mount Morris at Monks Horton, Kent, became their chief residence. Elizabeth was not pleased with being isolated in the country; the amusements of Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells were pale in comparison to those being enjoyed by the duchess of Portland in London. By the late 1730s the family usually made a spring visit to London where she could visit the Portlands and her other friends, go to court, and attend the theatre and other entertainments. They also made at least one visit to Bath. These experiences helped clarify Elizabeth's notions of what she wanted and expected to achieve.
He should have a great deal of sense and prudence to direct and instruct me, much wit to divert me, beauty to please me, good humour to indulge me in the right, and reprove me gently when I am in the wrong: money enough to afford me more than I can want, and as much as I can wish; and constancy to like me as long as other people do. (Johnson, 40–41)She wished to live in London and move in the great world, to be known and acknowledged for her accomplishments and social position. The twenty-year-old who began to form such ambitions had never known passion and could not imagine throwing away her life for love. For the remaining fifty years of her life, these views did not change. Marriages were made for prudent and rational reasons, for financial independence and social position; her own certainly illustrated this view.
On 5 August 1742 Elizabeth Robinson married Edward Montagu (1692–1775). They had probably met in London during the previous year. Montagu was a fifty-year-old bachelor, a grandson of Edward Montagu, first earl of Sandwich, the owner of coalmines and estates in Northumberland, Yorkshire, and Berkshire, with scholarly interests, particularly in mathematics. He was a member of parliament for Huntingdon, a family seat, from 1734 to 1768. Their son, John, called Punch, was born on 11 May 1743 in London. Elizabeth had a long recovery from childbirth but was much pleased with her apparently sturdy child. Her letters about him are among the most intimate and personal that she wrote. The family spent time at their Berkshire estate, Sandleford Priory, near Newbury, as well as at Allerton, Yorkshire, where the young boy died unexpectedly in September 1744. Elizabeth was devastated. During the next few years she also experienced the deaths of her mother, who had suffered from cancer for several years, and of her brother Thomas. She made long stays at Sandleford and visits to Bath and Tunbridge Wells. She and her husband were frequently apart; they remained friendly but there were no more children.
After 1750 the Montagus established a routine that lasted until his death. They lived in their London house in Hill Street, Mayfair, with visits to Sandleford in the spring and summer. He went nearly every year to Yorkshire and Northumberland, where he had a house near his colliery at Denton, outside Newcastle; she accompanied him on some of these visits. From time to time she took the waters at Bath or Tunbridge Wells, places which Edward Montagu did not enjoy. In London her reputation as a hostess grew during these years as she brought together such acquaintances as Gilbert West, George, first Baron Lyttelton, Elizabeth Vesey, and Frances Boscawen.
Elizabeth Montagu has been called the ‘queen of the blue stockings’, although Elizabeth Vesey is probably as deserving of the title. Together the two women created the assemblies; Vesey seems to have been the personality who made them successful. But as Montagu had a large house and the money to pay the expenses, and was never loath to take the credit, she was at the time and later perceived as the leading figure among that group of friends often called the bluestockings. In fact she was probably less dominating in that group than in any other. With such women as Vesey, Carter, and Boscawen and such men as Lyttelton, Bath, and West, she generally functioned as an equal; these were people who sometimes allowed her to lead but were not dependent on her. The origins of the term bluestocking are obscure; by the 1760s Montagu, Vesey, and others referred to their group of friends as the bluestocking philosophers. Vesey seems to have started the usage; bluestocking was probably meant to describe the informality of the assemblies and the emphasis placed on wit and conversation rather than on dress and etiquette. The wearing of blue stockings at the gatherings may first have been associated with the botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet. The original bluestocking circle included members of both sexes, although the women were at its centre.
In 1763 Montagu visited Paris for several weeks; she impressed the Paris literati and deeply appreciated their admiration. In the same year—accompanied by her husband, Elizabeth Carter, and Lord and Lady Bath—she toured the Rhineland and the Low Countries. They enjoyed new experiences and new sights but remained convinced that England and English ways were best. Montagu made an extended visit to Scotland in 1766, visiting Henry Home, Lord Kames, at Blair Drummond, touring the highlands, and meeting all the Edinburgh celebrities. Dr John Gregory, professor of medicine at Edinburgh University, whose late wife was a Montagu connection, was her host and guide for the northern trip.
There is little evidence of devotion to or appreciation of music or art in Montagu's correspondence. The theatre was her preferred public entertainment, but above all literature of all varieties found in her a great consumer and promoter. Like most of her contemporaries she delighted in the novels of Samuel Richardson, John and Sarah Fielding, and Frances Burney. She enjoyed the works of Laurence Sterne and was pleased to find him a distant connection of her family. Older literature found in her a champion; she was an early subscriber to Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry and wrote enthusiastically about Spenser's works. Both ancient and modern history were favourite subjects for her reading. She also read widely in Latin, French, and Italian.
It was apparently Lyttelton who encouraged Montagu herself to write for publication. He added three selections by her to his Dialogues of the Dead (1760), a series of critiques of modern society. In dialogue 26 Montagu portrayed Hercules and Cadmus discussing the meaning and value of virtue. In dialogue 27 Mrs Modish is so occupied with countless worldly diversions that she cannot go with Mercury to the Elysian Fields; in 28 a modern bookseller tells Plutarch how much money he has lost on a new edition of the Roman author's Lives because modern readers of both sexes want only to be entertained. These were common mid-eighteenth-century criticisms of society and its standards. Less conventional was her other publication, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear (1769), written at the urging of Elizabeth Carter. This work was the result of several years of study of both drama and criticism. Full of nationalistic pride, the Essay defended Shakespeare against the attacks of foreign critics such as Voltaire, comparing him with classical Greek and more modern French dramatists, none of whom had all of his virtues. Another particular target was Samuel Johnson, whose Preface to Shakespeare had appeared in 1765. Montagu argued that ‘he should have said more or have said nothing’ (Clarke, 141); in concentrating on the historical context in which the plays were written and their subsequent treatment by editors and critics, he had failed to engage with the texts of Shakespeare's plays and to use them to argue for Shakespeare's superiority as a dramatist. The Essay sought to remedy what Montagu argued was Johnson's neglect of Shakespeare's ‘dramatic genius’ (ibid.). It was praised by a number of reviewers and translated into French and Italian, but on a personal level permanently injured her friendship with Johnson. Like the Dialogues, the Essay was first published anonymously. Some reports attributed it to Joseph Warton and other men, but within a few months of publication Montagu was recognized as the author, and her name appeared on the title-page by the fourth edition in 1777.
Although it was apparently never a primary subject of discussion at her assemblies, Elizabeth Montagu was always interested in politics. Edward Montagu was listed by John Stuart, third earl of Bute, in December 1761 as a tory, but his attendance in parliament was irregular. She took an active part in the management of her husband's interest in Newcastle upon Tyne. During the campaign of 1760 she visited Northumberland ladies and entertained the wives of the members of Newcastle corporation at tea, as well as attending local society occasions. After her husband's death she continued to keep close watch on political developments in Newcastle, and deployed her influence in favour of her chosen candidate in parliamentary elections. She exchanged correspondence and visits with Hester, wife of William Pitt the elder, and her politics before the 1770s were probably close to his, although by 1777 she seems to have become a supporter of Lord North's administration and backed Sir John Trevelyan, a government supporter, in Newcastle. She was always loyal to the crown and opposed threats to the status quo, from Jacobites to supporters of John Wilkes and the American revolutionaries.
Montagu was now in the most advantageous position possible for a woman in the eighteenth century. She was a wealthy widow; no person could legally exercise any control over her and there were no financial limitations which could stand in her way. She continued to manage her business affairs with considerable success. She visited the Northumberland and Yorkshire properties from time to time, paid close attention to the economic circumstances of the coal industry, and stayed in constant correspondence with her managers. She was a generous employer, so long as her orders were followed, and like other ladies of great estates she took measures to alleviate the poverty of her employees and tenants, through customary measures such as annual feasts and providing basic education. By the time of her death in 1800 her coal was the most popular on the market, and her estate was said to be worth £10,000 a year. She also used her wealth to aid her friends when in need. After her husband's death she established annuities for Elizabeth Carter and Anna Williams. Among her charities was an annual May day entertainment for climbing boys.
Throughout her life Montagu remained close to most of her family. Her father moved to London after his wife's death in 1746, setting up an establishment with his housekeeper as his mistress. His children were all horrified but had no success in changing his conduct. Robinson was reluctant to spend any more money than he had to on his children. When Sarah's marriage to George Lewis Scott broke down, not only would he not give her an adequate settlement, but he also refused to allow Elizabeth and Morris to advance her any money. Elizabeth with the support of her husband had succeeded in getting her younger brothers properly educated. William Robinson (bap. 1727, d. 1803), later a clergyman, and John (1729–1807) were sent to Westminster School and afterwards to Cambridge. Charles (1731–1807) was sent to sea with his older brother Robert, a captain with the East India Company. Several of the Robinson brothers were trained as lawyers, including the legal writer Thomas Robinson (d. 1747). Morris was a solicitor in chancery in Ireland. Charles left the sea after a few years and read law at the inns of court. He became recorder of Canterbury and represented that borough in parliament from 1780 to 1790. John fell victim to mental illness while still at Cambridge; he was in custodial care for the remainder of his life. Robert died at sea.
Montagu maintained friendships with many distinguished men and women over a number of years, but she can never have been an easy person to live with. She expected to rule her household and seldom seemed to make any accommodation for those who were dependent on her. Like many women of her class, she often had a female companion to fetch and carry, to accompany her out, to do her bidding. Such a person was not a servant but was certainly a dependent. Her sister Sarah sometimes acted in this position between their mother's death and her own marriage in 1752. There seems good reason to think that Sarah made this unsatisfactory marriage, which lasted not quite a year, in part to escape from Elizabeth. In 1772 seventeen-year-old Dorothea Gregory, daughter of Dr John Gregory of Edinburgh, was taken by Montagu to live as her ward. Gregory travelled with her benefactor in Britain and to France, was introduced to society, and treated almost as a daughter. Montagu's dream was that Dorothea would ultimately marry Matthew Robinson, who was eight years younger. However, Gregory fell in love with and became engaged to Archibald Alison (1757–1839), an altogether worthy though penniless young man. Montagu, who never believed in marrying for love, stormed and threatened to no avail. After her marriage in 1782 Dorothea was cast off; the two women were only partially reconciled several years later. Montagu was particularly annoyed when several of her friends supported the couple and helped Alison find employment. Elizabeth Montagu always wanted to be in charge and to have her opinions prevail. She befriended the shoemaker poet James Woodhouse and became his patron for twenty years. But disagreements with him over religious and political matters led her to dismiss him from his post as steward at Sandleford in 1788. He at least had the satisfaction of delineating his unflattering version of her character in his autobiographical poem, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus.
During her early years Montagu's immediate family members do not seem to have had any strong religious beliefs, though they were nominally members of the Church of England. There are no references to churchgoing, to religion, or theological reading and discussion in her earlier letters, although she would no doubt have said she was a Christian. Edward Montagu would not have admitted to that, a fact which came to worry his wife. In the years following the death of her son Elizabeth began to take a greater interest in religion; her friendship with Gilbert West was important in her developing this aspect of her studies. West had been a nonbeliever but by the time he and Montagu became acquainted he had become a practising Anglican. They corresponded about religion and exchanged books on religious topics. Montagu was not ostentatious in her religious observances and there are seldom any references to them in her letters. But she was one of the friends who worried about Elizabeth Vesey's having no faith, and surely it was her own faith that was one of the links in her most significant friendships with Carter, Lyttelton, and Bath.
Shortly after her husband's death Montagu signed a ninety-nine-year lease on a plot on the north-west corner of Portman Square. In 1777 she contracted with James ‘Athenian’ Stuart to build her new house. Stuart was not a very satisfactory employee in terms of finishing on schedule. She had hoped to occupy her new mansion in the spring of 1779; it was not until late 1781 that she was able to move in. Montagu House was large and impressively decorated. Angelica Kauffman and Biago Rebecca painted panels for the interior, some of which represented scenes from Shakespeare's plays, an allusion to the owner's book. The building process seemed to go on and on. Montagu wrote in 1790:
things of these kinds are tedious in their process, my House is full of Carvers, Guilders, Carpenters etc, which is certainly no very agreable circumstance … As I pay the workmen as fast as they proceed, one should think they wd be more expeditious. (Blunt, 2.242)The ballroom was completed by Joseph Bonomi from Stuart's original designs in 1791. It featured scagliola columns in antique vert and a decorated ceiling probably by Giovanni Battista Cipriani. A special room also completed in 1791 contained Montagu's feather work. This was a large tapestry designed by James Wyatt and the Wright family, the royal embroiderers; it was made entirely of feathers of all kinds by Montagu and a number of other women who had worked for years on this project. The feathers were collected from friends and correspondents; they were stored and worked in a large room at Sandleford. The feather tapestry seems to have been Montagu's only effort at handicrafts; it was visited and praised by Horace Walpole. Queen Charlotte accompanied by five of her daughters made a visit to Montagu House to see it. The house passed into the possession of Matthew Montagu after his aunt's death. In 1874 the lease reverted to the ground landlord, and the structure became known as Portman House. It was badly damaged by bombing in 1942, and the remnants of the walls were pulled down after 1945.
Sandleford was the favourite country house of both Edward and Elizabeth Montagu. It was not too far from London and was about halfway along the road to Bath. She regarded the enlargement by Adam, however, as only sufficient to house a few friends; a house party of any size would require more space, especially for dining. She had suggested making the house more Gothic in the 1760s in keeping with its origins as a priory and the few remaining medieval elements, but Adam had convinced her and her husband that it would cost too much. Her dream persisted; in 1780 she requested James Wyatt to make a proposal for a rebuilt house in the Gothic style. They agreed on the plan, but the reshaping of the house was not finally completed for some years. Montagu found that Wyatt was as dilatory as Stuart, but she ultimately enjoyed the former chapel converted to a salon with a Gothic window, a new eating chamber, and her own apartment. More satisfactory was the remaking of the grounds. In 1781 Montagu hired Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to make plans for her landscape; Sandleford was the great gardener's last major commission before his death in 1782. Montagu and all her friends agreed that his work enhanced the house and produced in visitors the proper thoughts of the beautiful and sublime.
Like others among her contemporaries Montagu was a great letter writer, in terms of both quantity and quality. She wrote regularly to family members and friends; the letters are lively, full of gossip, comments on her reading, news of others, and of what she was doing. Her letters, like those of Horace Walpole and Mary Delany, are among the most important surviving collections from the eighteenth century. Unlike Delany, she seldom wrote of domestic details, handiwork, art, or music. Montagu's ambition, her awareness of her own success, and her domineering personality are seldom disguised in her letters. Readers often do not like her. To her closest friends she did not hesitate to describe her jaundiced view of marriage and of most men, and about what women can do if given the opportunity. A letter to Elizabeth Carter in 1782 summed up many of these opinions. Commenting on the second marriage of a friend, she wrote:
I always thought her the perfection of the female character, formed to become the domestick situation and disposed to obedience. She could not stir till she received the word of command. … She would have preferred her husband's discourse to the angels. I am afraid you and I dear friend should have entered into some metaphysical disquisitions with the angel. We are not so perfectly the rib of man as woman ought to be. We can think for ourselves, and also act for ourselves. When a wife I was obedient because it was my duty, and being married to a man of sense and integrity, obedience was not painful or irksome, in early youth a director perhaps is necessary if the sphere of action is extensive; but it seems to me that a new master and new lessons after ones opinions and habits were formed must be a little awkward, and with all due respect to the superior sex, I do not see how they can be necessary to a woman unless she were to defend her lands and tenements by sword or gun. (Blunt, 2.119–20)Fortunately a very large part of Montagu's correspondence has survived; the bulk of it is at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and there are smaller collections elsewhere. Some of the letters, or edited parts of them, have been published in various biographies of her, in accounts of the bluestocking circle, and works on eighteenth-century women. Two volumes of the correspondence were published in 1809 and two more in 1813 by her nephew. They were not particularly well received then; Montagu belonged to an earlier age. They were still being denigrated through the nineteenth century; Sidney Lee in the Dictionary of National Biography, for example, characterized them as having ‘too much prolixity to be altogether readable’. More recent scholars, however—especially those interested in women and their lives—have found Montagu's letters, written over nearly seventy years, a major source for any study of the eighteenth century.
Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg
B. Rizzo, Companions without vows: relationships among eighteenth-century British women (1994) · S. Harcstark Myers, The bluestocking circle: women, friendship, and the life of the mind in eighteenth-century England (1990) · Elizabeth Montagu, the queen of the blue-stockings: her correspondence from 1720 to 1761, ed. E. J. Climenson, 2 vols. (1906) · Mrs Montagu, ‘Queen of the Blues’: her letters and friendships from 1762 to 1800, ed. R. Blunt, 2 vols. (1923) · R. B. Johnson, ed., Bluestocking letters (1926) · DNB · B. Rizzo, ed., The history of Sir George Ellison (1996) · L. B. Namier, ‘Montagu, Edward’, HoP, Commons, 1754–90 · R. S. Lea, ‘Montagu, Edward’, HoP, Commons, 1715–54 · E. H. Chalus, ‘Women in English political life, 1754–1790’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1997 · N. Clarke, Dr Johnson's women (2000)
BL, family corresp., Add. MS 40663, RP2393 · Hunt. L., corresp. and papers · Princeton University, New Jersey, corresp. · Yale U., Farmington, Lewis Walpole Library, letters from her | BL, corresp. with Lord Lyttleton, RP2377 [copies] · BL, letters to Messenger Monsey, RP1277 [copies] · BL, Portland Loan · BL, corresp. with Frances Reynolds, RP196 [copies] · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Elizabeth Carter [copies] · Hants. RO, letters to Lady Wallingford · JRL, letters to Hester Lynch Thrale · Longleat House, Warminster, letters to duchess of Portland · NA Scot., letters to Lord and Lady Kames · letters to Lord and Lady Chatham, PRO 30/8/50 · U. Aberdeen L., corresp. with James Beattie · U. Nott. L., letters to duchess of Portland · V&A NAL, corresp. with David Garrick
A. Ramsay, portrait, 1762, priv. coll. [see illus.] · Wedgwood medallion, 1775, Wedgwood Museum, Stoke-on-Trent · J. R. Smith, mezzotint, pubd 1776 (after J. Reynolds), BM, NPG · line engraving, pubd 1776 (after T. Holloway), BM, NPG · R. Samuel, group portrait, oils, exh. 1779 (The nine living muses of Great Britain), NPG · W. Lowry, line engraving, pubd 1787 (after unknown artist), NPG · W. Ridley, stipple, 1800 (after Rivers), BM, NPG; repro. in Lady's Monthly Museum (1800) · T. Cheesman, stipple, pubd 1809 (after J. Reynolds), BM, NPG · R. Cooper, stipple, 1809 (after C. F. Zincke), BM; repro. in Wraxall, Memoirs · C. Townley, stipple (after F. Reynolds), BM, NPG
Wealth at death£10,000 p. a.: DNB
Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg, ‘Montagu , Elizabeth (1718–1800)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19014, accessed 19 Jan 2009]
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In 1769 Mrs. Montagu published anonymously her "Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare." This work once widely famous, may still be read with pleasure. It was written in reply to Voltaire's grossly indecent attack on our national poet. . . . The greatest praise which the essay received was awarded to it by Cowper, many years after it was published. Writing in May 27, 1788, to Lady Hesketh, Cowper said: "I no longer wonder that Mrs. Montagu stands at the head of all that is called learned, and that every critic veils his bonnet to her superior judgment. I am not reading and have reached the middle of her essay on the genius of Shakespeare--a book of which, strange as it may seem, though I absolutely forgot the existence. The learning, the good sense, the sound judgment, and the wit displayed in it, fully justify not only my compliment, but all compliments that either have been already paid to her talent, or shall be paid hereafter. Voltaire, I doubt not, rejoiced that his antagonist wrote in English, and that his countrymen could not possibly be judges of the dispute. Could they have known how much she was in the right, and by how many thousand miles the Bard of Avon is superior to all their dramatists, the French critic would have lost half his fame among them."