from The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1810)
Elizabeth Montagu was a bluestocking hostess and the author of An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769).
Elizabeth Robinson was born in York on 2 October 1718 (1), the daughter of Matthew Robinson and his wife Elizabeth Drake. Both families were wealthy and well-connected, and the family estate included land in Yorkshire and Cambridge and later Kent.
|Mount Morris, Monks Horton, Kent,|
main residence of Elizabeth's family from the 1730s
Elizabeth often stayed with her maternal grandmother and her second husband, Dr Conyers Middleton, who was a respected Cambridge academic. Elizabeth developed an appreciation for lively intellectual conversation both with her parents and in the Middleton household.
Her nephew wrote: “Her uncommon sensibility and acuteness of understanding, as well as her extraordinary beauty as a child, rendered her an object of great notice in the University”.(2)
Whilst in Cambridge, Elizabeth became friends with Lady Margaret Harley, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, who married William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland in 1734. Lady Margaret’s mother gave her the nickname Fidget. She visited the Duchess of Portland in London and widened her network of acquaintances to include Mary Pendarves (3), the poet Edward Young and Gilbert West.
On 5 August 1742, Elizabeth married Edward Montagu, a man nearly thirty years her senior. He was a grandson of the 1st Earl of Sandwich and MP for Huntingdon and owned coalmines and estates in Northumberland, Yorkshire and Berkshire.
They had one son, John, whom they called Punch, who was born on 11 May 1743 in London. Elizabeth was devastated when he died suddenly in September 1744 and from this time onwards, she became increasingly religious.
After 1750, Elizabeth and Edward lived in London in Hill Street, Mayfair, but visited Sandleford Priory, their Berkshire estate near Newbury, in the spring and summer. The couple remained on friendly terms, but often spent time apart. Edward often visited his estates in the north alone whilst at various times, Elizabeth visited Bath, Tunbridge Wells, Paris, the Rhineland, the Low Countries and the Scottish highlands.
Elizabeth became one of the three leading literary or bluestocking hostesses, together with Elizabeth Vesey and Frances Boscawen.
She started by inviting people to literary breakfasts and by 1760, she was hosting large evening assemblies where intellectual conversation and not cards was the central attraction. According to Fanny Burney, the chairs were arranged in a semi-circle in order to facilitate discussion.(4)
from Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay (1846)
|Elizabeth Montagu's protegée, Hannah More,|
from Memoirs of the life and correspondence
of Mrs Hannah More by William Roberts (1835)
Hester Thrale described Elizabeth as “the first woman for literary knowledge in England, and if in England, I hope I may say in the world”.(5)
But although hailed as a great writer, Elizabeth had very little published. Apart from her contributions to Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead (1760), her only published work was her critical An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769), supporting the English playwright’s work against Voltaire’s criticisms. It was very well received, but it included criticism of Samuel Johnson’s work and damaged her relationship with him.
“The wittiest woman in this Country”
Elizabeth was a brilliant conversationalist. Hannah More described her as having “a large and manly as well as a gay and brilliant mind, much veracity, kindness and great fidelity in friendship”.(6) She also declared that Elizabeth was “without exception the wittiest woman in this Country”(7) whilst Samuel Johnson is said to have nicknamed her “Queen of the Blues”.
from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)
Fanny Burney described her as “middle-sized, very thin, and looks infirm; she has a sensible and penetrating countenance, and the air and manner of a woman accustomed to being distinguished, and of great parts”. (8)
Her nephew said: “She was of the middle stature, and stooped a little, which gave an air of modesty to her countenance.”(2)
A domineering woman
Elizabeth was a forceful character and this often came out in her letters, as did her strong opinions. She believed in the independence of women and that marriage was a matter of wealth and connections. She was interested in politics and was fiercely loyal to the crown.
Her sister, Sarah, lived as her companion for some years before getting married. It has been suggested that it was a wish to be free of her sister’s overbearing behaviour that pushed Sarah into her brief, unhappy marriage.
Elizabeth was apt to fall out with people who did not agree with her. In 1772, Dorothea Gregory, a doctor’s daughter from Edinburgh, became Elizabeth’s ward. Elizabeth treated her like a daughter and intended her for her nephew, but when Dorothea fell in love with and agreed to marry a penniless suitor, Elizabeth was furious and cast her off.
On 12 May 1775, Edward Montagu died, leaving Elizabeth almost his entire estate – an income of around £7000 per annum. She successfully managed her business affairs and was generous with her money.
She granted annuities to indigent writers and patronised promising new talent, such as Hannah More’s Bristol milkmaid turned poet, Ann Yearsley. Sadly, this attempt at benevolence ended badly; their desire to manage the poet’s income led to a scandalous break with her patrons.
|Portman Square, from Ackermann's Repository of Arts (Aug 1813)|
Elizabeth gave an annual entertainment in Portman Square for London climbing boys.
Elizabeth Montagu died on 25 August 1800. She left her entire estate to her nephew, Matthew Robinson Montagu, later Baron Rokeby.
(1) Some sources give her date of birth as 2 October 1720.
(2) From The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, published by Matthew Montagu (1810).
(3) Mary Pendarves (neé Granville) became Mary Delany on her second marriage in 1743.
(4) From Burney memoirs as quoted in Hannah More, The First Victorian by Anne Stott (2003).
(5) From Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, volume 1, 23 Aug 1778.
(6) From a letter by Hannah More 2 Sept 1800 quoted in Hannah More, The First Victorian by Anne Stott (2003).
(7) From a letter by Hannah More 1 Sept 1800 quoted in Hannah More, The First Victorian by Anne Stott (2003).
(8) From Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, volume 1.
Sources used include:
Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (Henry Colburn, 1846, London)
Eger, Elizabeth, Bluestocking circle (c1755-c1795), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, online edn Jan 2012, accessed 7 June 2012)
Montagu, Elizabeth, ed Climenson, Emily, Elizabeth Montagu, The Queen of the Bluestockings, her correspondence from 1720-1761 (1906)
Montagu, Elizabeth, The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, pub Matthew Montagu (1810)
Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon, Montagu, Elizabeth (1718-1800) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn May 2009, accessed 7 June 2012)
Stott, Anne, Hannah More, The First Victorian (2003)