ELIZABETH MONTAGUE, a learned and ingenious English lady, was the daughter of Matthew Robinson, esq. of West Layton, in Yorkshire, of Coveney, Cambridgeshire and of Mount Morris in Kent, by Elizabeth daughter and heiress of Robert Drake, esq. She was born at York, Oct. 2, 1720, but lived, for some of her early years, with her parents at Cambridge, where she derived great assistance in her education from Dr. Conyers Middleton, whom her grandmother had taken as a second husband. Her uncommon sensibility and acuteness of understanding, as well as her extraordinary beauty as a child, rendered her an object of great notice and admiration in the university and Dr. Middleton was in the habit of requiring from her an account of the learned conversations at which, in his society, she was frequently present: not admitting of the excuse of her tender age as a disqualification, but insisting, that although at the present time she could but imperfectly understand their meaning, she would in future derive great benefit from the habit of attention inculcated by this practice. Her father, a man of considerable intellectual powers, and taste, was proud of the distinguished notice bestowed on his daughter, and contributed to increase in her the vivacity of wit with which she naturally abounded. In her early education, however, Mrs. Montague did not receive those strong impressions of the truth of divine revelation which she acquired at a later period, from her intimacy with Gilbert West and lord Lyttelton. It was reserved for the influence of the steady principles of Christianity, to correct the exuberant spirit of her genius, and to give the last touches of improvement to her character.
She had early a love for society, and it was her lot to be introduced to the best. In 1742, she was married to Edward Montague, esq. of Denton-hall in Northumberland and Sandleford priory in Berkshire, grandson of the first earl of Sandwich, and member of several successive parliaments for the borough of Huntingdon. By his connections and her own she obtained an extensive range of acquaintance, but selected as her especial friends and favourites persons distinguished for taste and talents. By Mr. Montague, who died without issue in 1775, she was left in great opulence, and maintained her establishment in the learned and fashionable world for many years with great eclat, living in a style of most splendid hospitality. She died in her eightieth year, at her house in Portman-square, Aug. 25, 1800.
She had early distinguished herself as an author; first by Three Dialogues of the Dead, published along with lord Lyttelton's: afterwards by her classical and elegant Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakspeare, in which she amply vindicated our great poet from the gross, illiberal, and ignorant abuse, thrown out against him by Voltaire. This is indeed a wonderful performance, as all, who will examine it impartially, must admit. It is a ridiculous supposition that she was assisted by her husband, whose talent lay in mathematical pursuits, which indeed absorbed the whole of his attention. Many years after she had received the approbation of all persons of critical taste on this performance, it fell into the hands of Cowper the poet, who, on reading it, says to his correspondent, "I no longer wonder that Mrs. Montague stands at the head of all that is called learned, and that every critic veils his bonnet to her superior judgment:" — "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 talents, or shall be paid hereafter."
Few persons had seen more of life than Mrs. Montague, and of that part of mankind, who were eminent either for their genius or their rank; and for many years her splendid house in Portman-square, was open to the literary world. She had lived at the table of the second lord Oxford, the resort of Pope, and his contemporaries she was the intimate friend of Pulteney and Lyttelton; and she survived to entertain Johnson and Goldsmith, and Burke and Reynolds, till their respective deaths. Dr. Beattie was frequently her inmate, and for many years her correspondent; and Mrs. Carter was, from their youth, her intimate friend, correspondent, and visitor. For the most learned of these she was a suitable correspondent and companion, as is evident from her letters, and was acknowledged by all who heard her conversation. It was, however, her defect that she had too great a regard to the manners and habits of the world, and damped her transcendent talents by a sacrifice to the cold dictates of worldly wisdom. Her understanding was as sound as her fancy was lively; her taste was correct and severe; and she penetrated the human character with an almost unerring sagacity; but her love of popularity, and her ambition of politeness, controuled her expressions, and concealed her real sentiments from superficial observers. Since her death four volumes of her epistolary correspondence have been published by her nephew and executor, Matthew Montague, esq.; and when the series shall be completed, a just idea may be formed of Mrs. Montague's genius and character, and the result, we may venture to predict, will be highly favourable.