Mrs. Elizabeth Montague, daughter of — Robinson, Esq. of Horton, in the county of Kent, and wife of Edward Montagu, Esq. of Denton-hall, in Northumberland, and Sandleford Priory, in Berkshire. Inheriting from nature a genius for literature, she had the good fortune to meet with an able director of her early studies, in the celebrated Dr. Middleton, who was married to her grandmother, with whom she lived. Under his tuition, she acquired that learning, and formed that taste, which was so conspicuous throughout the whole of her subsequent life. Mrs. Montagu 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 Shakespeare; in which she amply vindicated our great national dramatist from the gross, illiberal, and ignorant abuse, thrown out against him by Voltaire. The elegance of her manners, the brilliancy of her wit, and the sprightliness of her conversation, attracted to her house those who were most distinguished by their learning, their taste, and reputation as literary characters. This society of eminent friends, who met frequently at Mrs. Montagu's, for the sole purpose of conversation, differed in no respect from other parties, but that the company did not play at cards. It consisted originally of Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Vesey, Mrs. Boscawen, and Mrs. Carter, Lord Lyttelton, the Earl of Bath, (better known as Mr. Pulteney) Horace Walpole, the classical owner of Strawberry Hill, afterwards Earl of Orford, and Mr. Stillingfleet. The society came at last to contain a numerous assemblage of those most eminent for literature in London, or who visited it. Of these distinguished friends, Mrs. Vesey, though less known than Mrs. Montagu, was also another centre of pleasing and rationale society. Without attempting to shine herself, she had the happy secret of bringing forward talents of every kind, and of diffusing over the society, the gentleness of her own character. She was the daughter of an Irish bishop, and wife of Agmoudesham Vesey, Esq. a gentleman of Ireland, who, in his earlier years, had been the friend of Swift. Mrs. Boscawen was the widow of the gallant admiral of that name, a woman of great talents, and, though unknown to the literary world, acceptable to every society, by the strength of her understanding, the poignancy of her humour, and the brilliancy of her wit. She died in the spring of 1805, at the advanced age of eighty-six. Mrs. Carter, the learned translator of Epictetus, and the author of a volume of poems of very considerable merit, is now the only original surviving member, at the age of nearly ninety. But the gentleman to whom this constellation owed that whimsical appellation, the "Bas bleu," was Mr. Stillingfleet, a man of great piety and worth, the author of some works in natural history, and of some poetical pieces in Dodsley's collection. Mr. Stillingfleet being somewhat of an humourist in his habits and manners, and a little negligent in his dress, literally wore grey stockings, from which circumstance, Admiral Boscawen used, by way of pleasantry, to call them the "Blue-Stocking Society;" as if to indicate, that when these brilliant friends met, it was not for the purpose of forming a dressed assembly. A foreigner of distinction hearing the expression, translated it literally, "Bas bleu," by which these meetings came to be afterwards distinguished.
Mrs. Hannah More, who was herself a distinguished member of the society, has written an admirable poem, with the title of the Bas Bleu, in allusion to this mistake of the foreigner, in which she has characterised most of the eminent personages of which it was composed. The concluding part of her prefatory memorandum to the poem, is so very apposite to my present purpose, that I cannot resist the temptation of inserting it here.
"May the author be permitted to bear her grateful testimony, which will not be suspected of flattery, now that most of the persons named in the poem are gone down to the grave, to the many pleasant and instructive hours she had the honour to pass in this company, in which learning was as little disfigured by pedantry; good taste as little tinctured by affectation; and general conversation as little disgraced by calumny, levity, and the other censurable errors with which it is too commonly tainted, as has perhaps been known in any society." — Works of Mrs. H. More, vol. i p. 12.
Mrs. Montagu being left, by the will of her husband, in possession of his noble fortune, lived in a style of the most splendid hospitality, till her death which happened at an advanced age, 25th August 1800.
I had the happiness of being acquainted with Mrs. Montagu in the year 1766, when she passed some time on a visit to the late Dr. Gregory at Edinburgh, at whose house I saw her almost every day. Ever after, when I occasionally passed some time in London, she was pleased, in a particular manner, to honour me with the most polite and gratifying attention.