1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Montagu

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 432-34.



ELIZABETH MONTAGU, daughter of Matthew Robinson, of Horton, Kent, in England, was a lady of great natural abilities, which were much improved under the tuition of Dr. Conyers Middleton. About 1742, she married Edward Montagu, of Allesthorpe, Yorkshire, son of Charles, fifth son of the first earl of Sandwich. By him she had one son, who died in his infancy. She devoted herself to literature, and formed a literary club, called the Blue Stocking Club, from a little incident that occurred there, and is thus explained by Madame D'Arblay:

"These parties were originally instituted at Bath, and owed their name to an apology made by Mr. Stillingfleet, in declining to accept an invitation to a literary meeting at Sirs. Vesey's. from not being, lie said, in the habit of displaying a proper equipment for an evening assembly. 'Pho!' cried she, with her well-known, yet always original simplicity, while she looked inquisitively at him and his accoutrements, 'Don't mind dress! come in your blue stockings!' With which words, humourously repeating them as he entered the apartment of the chosen coterie, Mr. Stillingfleet claimed permission to appear, and these words, ever after, were fixed in playful stigma upon Mrs. Vesey's associations.

"While to Mrs. Vesey, the Bas Bleu Society owed its origin and its epithet, the meetings that took place at Mrs. Montagu's were soon more popularly known by that denomination, for though they could not be more fashionable, they were far more splendid.

"Mrs. Montagu had built a superb new house, which was magnificently fitted up, and appeared to be rather appropriate for princes, nobles, and courtiers, than for poets, philosophers, and bluestocking votaries. And here, in fact, rank and talents were so frequently brought together, that what the satirist uttered scoffingly, the author pronounced proudly, in setting aside the original claimant, to dub Mrs. Montagu Queen of the Blues.

"But, while the same 'bas bleu' appellation was given to these two houses of rendezvous, neither that, nor even the same associates, could render them similar. Their grandeur or their simplicity, their magnitude or their diminutiveness, were by no means the principal cause of this difference; it was far more attributable to the lady presidents than to their abodes; for though they instilled not their characters into their visitors, their characters bore so large a share in their visitors' reception and accommodation, as to influence materially the turn of the discourse, and the humour of the parties at their houses.

"At Mrs. Montagu's, the semicircle that faced the fire retained, during the whole evening, its unbroken form, with a precision that made it seem described by a Brobdignagian 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 the highest rank or consequence, properly, on one side, and the person the most eminent for talents, sagaciously, on the other, or as near to her chair and her converse as her favouring eye, and a complacent bow of the head, could invite him to that distinction.

"Her conversational powers were of a truly superior order; strong, just, clear, and often eloquent. Her process in argument, notwithstanding an earnest solicitude for pre-eminence, was uniformly polite and candid. But her reputation for wit seemed always in her thoughts, marring their natural flow and untutored expression. No sudden start of talent urged forth any precarious opinion; no vivacious new idea varied her logical course of ratiocination. Her smile, though most generally benignant, was rarely gay; and her liveliest sallies had a something of anxiety rather than of hilarity, till their success was ascertained by applause.

"Her form was stately, and her manners were dignified; her face retained strong remains of beauty throughout life; and though its native cast was evidently that of severity, its expression was softened off in discourse by an almost constant desire to please.

"Taken for all in all, Mrs. Montagu was rare in her attainments, splendid in her conduct, open to the calls of charity, forward to provide for those of indigent genius, and unchangeably just and firm in the application of her interest, her principles, and her fortune, to the encouragement of loyalty and the support of virtue."

In 1775, the death of Mr. Montagu left Mrs. Montagu a widow with an immense property; and among the earliest acts of her munificence was the settling 100 per annum on her less affluent friend Mrs. Carter, with whom she was on terms of affectionate intimacy. Herself and her style of living at this period are described by another of her friends, who was only then beginning her subsequent career of brilliancy and utility. Hannah More, at the age of thirty, thus writes of Mrs. Montagu, who was then about fifty-five years of age:

"Mrs. Montagu received me with the most encouraging kindness; she is not only the finest genius, but the finest lady I ever saw; she lives in the highest style of magnificence; her apartments and table are in the most splendid taste: but what baubles are these when speaking of a Montagu! Her form (for she has no 'body') is delicate even to fragility; her countenance the most animated in the world; the sprightly vivacity of fifteen with the judgment and experience of a Nester. But I fear she is hastening to decay very fast; her spirits are so active, that they must soon wear out the little frail receptacle that holds them."

Fortunately, in this, Hannah More did not evince herself a true prophetess, for Mrs. Montagu's life was prolonged for nearly thirty years after the date of this prediction.

In 1781, she built her magnificent house in Portman Square, and also continued her building and planting at her country residence, Sandleford. Here Mrs. Hannah More was a frequent visiter, and has given some spirited sketches of their mode of living, in her correspondence. Subsequently, Hannah More writes as follows:—

"1784, Sandleford.

I write from the delightful abode of our delightful friend. There is an irregular beauty and greatness in the new buildings, and in the cathedral aisles which open to the great gothic window, which is exceedingly agreeable to the imagination. It is solemn without being sad, and gothic without being gloomy. Last night, by a bright moonlight, I enjoyed this singular scenery most feelingly. It shone in all its glory, but I was at a less with what beings to people it; it was too awful for fairies, and net dismal enough for ghosts. There is a great propriety in its belonging to the champion of Shakspeare, for, like him, it is net only beautiful without the rules, but almost in defiance of them.

"The fortnight spent with our friend Mrs. Montagu, I need net say to you, was passed profitably and pleasantly, as one may say of her, what Johnson said of some one else, 'that she never opens her mouth but to say 'something.'"

Mrs. Montagu published an "Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare," which deserved and acquired great celebrity. She was an intimate friend of Lord Lyttleton, and is said to have assisted him in some of his writings. She lost the use of her sight several years before her decease, but retained her mental faculties to the last. She died August 25th, 1802, in her eighty-second year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The body of her infant son, who had been dead nearly sixty years, was, by her own desire, removed out of Yorkshire, and placed in her tomb; a circumstance displaying the maternal tenderness of her heart in a touching manner.

Mrs. Montagu was a woman of great talents, yet notwithstanding her high attainments in literature, benevolence was the most striking feature in her character. She was the rewarder of merit, the friend of her own sex, and the poor always found in her a liberal benefactress. For some years before her death, she had been in the habit of giving a yearly entertainment, on May-day, to the chimney-sweeps of London, who mourned her loss with great grief. Her published works are, "Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakspeare," 1799; "Four Volumes of Letters," 1809 and 1813; "Dialogues of the Dead, in part," 1760.