Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Montagu, Elizabeth

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

MONTAGU, Mrs. ELIZABETH (1720–1800), authoress and leader of society, born at York 2 Oct. 1720, was elder daughter of Matthew Robinson (1694–1778) of West Layton, Yorkshire, by Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Drake, recorder of Cambridge. Both the father and mother were rich and well connected. In 1777 Richard Robinson, her father's cousin (of an elder branch of the family), was created Baron Rokeby of Armagh in the Irish peerage, with remainder to her father and her brothers. Her eldest brother, Matthew (1713–1800), accordingly succeeded to the title in 1794. Meanwhile her mother had inherited, on the death of her only brother, Morris Drake Morris [q. v.], the large property of her maternal grand-father, Thomas Morris of Mount Morris in the parish of Horton, near Hythe, Kent. Elizabeth's only sister, Sarah (d. 1795), was wife of George Lewis Scott [q. v,], and Zachary Grey [q. v.] claimed relationship with her.

Elizabeth's earliest youth was spent with her family at Coveney, Cambridgeshire, an estate belonging to her mother. She was a frequent visitor in Cambridge at the house of Dr.Conyers Middleton [q. v.], who was second husband of her grandmother (Mrs. Drake). Under Dr. Middleton's influence, she developed a precocious interest in literature, and before she was eight had copied out the whole of Addison's 'Spectator.' From her twelfth year she corresponded with a girl five years her senior, Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley, daughter of the last Earl of Oxford Prior's 'lovely little Peggy' who married in 1734 William Bentinck, second duke of Portland. The correspondence continued for nearly half a century till the duchess's death in 1785. High-spirited, restless, and fond of dancing, Elizabeth acquired in youth the sobriquet of 'Fidget,' but was always 'a most entertaining creature,' 'handsome, fat, and merry' (Delany, Autob. ii. 95, 134). When in London in 1738 she delighted in visits to Marylebone Gardens or Vauxhall, and George, first lord Lyttelton [q. v.], whom she met at court, then showed her attentions, which led to a long friendship. On 5 Aug. 1742 she married Edward Montagu, second son by a second wife of Charles Montagu, fifth son of the first Earl of Sandwich. His wife's senior by many years, Montagu was a serious-minded man of wealth, with coal mines at Denton, Northumberland, and estates in Yorkshire and Berkshire. He interested himself in agriculture and mathematics, and from 1734 till his retirement in 1768 sat in parliament as member for Huntingdon in the whig interest. In 1748 he acquired new wealth on succeeding to the property of his elder brother James at Newbold Verdon, Leicestershire (Nichols, Lit. Anecdotes, iv. 645 sq. ix. 593-4). The early months of their married life were spent at Montagu's country houses at Allerthorpe, Yorkshire, or at Sandleford, Berkshire. Mrs. Montagu's vivacity charmed her husband's relatives, and his cousin, Edward Wortley Montagu [q. v.], declared she was 'the most accomplished lady he ever saw' and an 'honour to her sex, country, and family.' Early in 1744 she gave birth to a son, her only child, who died in September following. This bereavement was followed by the death of her mother in 1746 and of her second brother, Thomas, barrister-at-law, in 1747. In search of distraction, she paid long visits to Bath (always a favourite resort of hers) and to Tunbridge Wells. She drank the waters assiduously, made the acquaintance of the poet Young at Bath, discussed religion with Gilbert West [q. v.], and humorously described in a voluminous correspondence the many books she read, and the valetudinarian eccentricities of her neighbours.

Conscious of great social gifts, she soon found that permanent residence in London could alone supply adequate scope for their development. From 1750 onwards she sought to make her husband's house in Hill Street, Mayfair, 'the central point of union' for all the intellect and fashion of the metropolis, but she invariably gave intellect the precedence of rank. 'I never invite idiots to my house,' she wrote to Garrick in 1770 (Mr. Alfred Morrison's manuscripts, Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. pt. ii. p. 480 a). In the early days of her London career she mainly confined her efforts as a hostess to literary breakfast parties, of which Madame Bocage, a French visitor to London in 1750, gave a very nattering description {Letters, 1770, i. 7). But Mrs. Montagu soon added to this modest form of hospitality more elaborate evening assemblies, which were known as 'conversation parties;' and their resemblance to similar meetings in the Rue St. Honoré in Paris gave her a right to the title, according to Wraxall, of 'the Madame du Deffand of the English capital.' Card-playing was not permitted, and the guests were only encouraged to discuss literary topics. But occasionally Garrick or a distinguished French actor was invited to recite.

Other ladies Mrs. Montagu's friend the Duchess of Portland, Mrs. Ord, Mrs. Vesey, wife of Agmondesham Vesey, Mrs. Boscawen, wife of the admiral, and Mrs. Greville, wife of Fulke Greville endeavoured to rival Mrs. Montagu's entertainments; but for nearly fifty years she maintained a practically undisputed supremacy as hostess in the intellectual society of London, and to her assemblies was, apparently for the first time, applied the now accepted epithet of 'blue-stocking.' Two explanations of the term have been suggested. According to the ordinary account, which was adopted by Sir William Forbes in his 'Life of Seattle,' in 1806 (i. 210), full dress was not insisted on at Mrs. Montagu's assemblies, and Benjamin Stillingfleet [q. v.], who regularly attended them, as well as the rival assemblies presided over by Mrs. Vesey or Mrs. Boscawen, habitually infringed social conventions by appearing in blue worsted instead of black silk stockings ; consequently, Admiral Boscawen, a sooner at his wife's social ambitions, is stated to have applied the epithet 'blue-stocking' to all ladies' conversaziones. On the other hand, Lady Crewe, daughter of Mrs. Greville, who was one of Mrs. Montagu's rival hostesses, stated that the ladies themselves at Mrs. Montagu's parties wore 'blue stockings as a distinction,' in imitation of a fashionable French visitor, Madame de Polignac (Hayward, Life of Mrs. Piozzi, 1861).

Despite ridicule, Mrs. Montagu helped to refine contemporary London society. Hannah More, in her poem 'Bas Bleu,' written in 1781, divides among Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Vesey, and Mrs. Boscawen the credit of having, by the invention of 'blue-stocking' assemblies, rescued fashionable life from the tyranny of whist and quadrille. Among Mrs. Montagu's regular visitors bet ween 1750 and 1780 were Lord Lyttelton, Horace Walpole, Dr. Johnson, Burke, Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. She undoubtedly had a rare faculty of exciting enthusiasm among her distinguished friends. William Pulteney, earl of Bath, who, like another frequent guest, Dr. Messenger Monsey [q. v.], was currently reported to have fallen madly in love with her, declared that he did not believe a more perfect human being was ever created; and when Reynolds repeated the remark to Burke, the latter, who often invited her to Beaconsfield, replied, 'And I do not think that he said a word too much.' Dr. Johnson thoroughly enjoyed a conversation with her. 'She diffuses more knowledge,' he told Mrs. Thrale, 'than any woman I know, or, indeed, almost any man,' 'Conversing with her,' he said on another occasion, 'you may find variety in one' (cf. Boswell, iv. 275). She patronised Beattie when he came to London in 1771, and sent a copy of his 'Minstrel' to Lord Chatham as soon as it was issued. Beattie dedicated to her the first collected edition of his poems (cf. Delany, Autob. v. 165), named a son Montagu after her (FORBES, Beattie, iii. 163), and was for twenty years a 'very punctual correspondent.' Another of her proteges, Richard Price, the philosopher, she introduced to Lord Shelburne. She delighted in the society of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter [q. v.], whose acquaintance she made in 1758, and of Mrs. Hester Chapone [q. v.], and she came to know Mrs. Thrale, who openly endeavoured to outshine her in conversation whenever they chanced to meet (D'Arblay ; Hayward, Mrs. Piozzi, i. 22). In later life the two ladies quarrelled, but Mrs. Piozzi (as Mrs. Thrale became in 1782) admitted after Mrs. Montagu's death that she had a great deal of ready wit' (manuscript note in her copy of Forbes's Life of Seattle, in. 163, in Brit. Mus.) Mrs. Montagu's younger associates included Hannah More and Fanny Burney. Miss Burney, whom she first met at Mrs. Thrale's, found her 'brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgment, and critical in talk ' (D'Arblay, Memoirs, ii. 8), but deemed her a person' to respect rather than to love' (ib. p. 9). Miss More, who first dined with her in Hill Street early in 1775 (along with Mrs. Carter, Dr. Johnson, Solander, Paul Henry Maty, Mrs. Boscawen, Sir Joshua and Miss Reynolds), was dazzled by the magnificence of the entertainment and the youthful sprightliness of the hostess (cf. Leslie and Taylor, Reynolds, ii. 108-9).

In 1760 Mrs. Montagu gave practical proof of her literary capacity by anonymously contributing three dialogues (Nos. xxvi. xxvii. and xxviii.) to her friend Lyttelton's 1 Dialogues of the Dead.' In No. xxviii., in which Plutarch, Charon, and a modern book-seller were the speakers, she complimented Richardson on his 'Clarissa' (p. 318). She visited Paris after the peace of 1763, 'when she displayed to the astonished literati of that metropolis the extent of her pecuniary as well as of her mental resources' (Wraxall), and with her husband in the same year accompanied the Earl and Countess of Bath and Mrs. Carter on a tour through Germany and Holland (cf. European Magazine, 1800, pt. ii. p. 244). In 1766 she visited Scotland, staying some weeks at Blair Drummond, the seat of Henry Home, lord Kames [q. v.], and meeting Dr. John Gregory (1724-1773) [q. v.] and other celebrities at Edinburgh (Home, Memoirs, ii. 44, iii. 279). Offended by Voltaire's contemptuous references to Shakespeare, she undertook on her return to London to refute him, and in 1769 published anonymously 'An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets, with some Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of Mons. de Voltaire,' London, 1769, 8vo. A second edition appeared in 1770, and a third edition in 1772, while it was translated into both French (Paris, 1777) and Italian (Florence. 1828). The chapters deal with 'Dramatic Poetry,' 'Historical Drama,' 'Henry IV, pts. 1 and 2,' 'Preternatural Beings,' 'Macbeth,' Corneille's 'Cinna,' and the 'Death of Julius Caesar.' Sensible and sympathetic, the book fulfilled its purpose. This Johnson admitted according to Seward, but Boswell credits the doctor with the assertion that there was not one sentence of true criticism in the essay, an opinion echoed by Boswell and Mrs. Thrale (cf. Boswell, ii. 88, iv. 16, v. 245). It had unequivocal admirers in Reynolds, Lyttelton, and Lord Grenville, whose praises made the authoress 'very happy' (Grenville Correspondence, iv. 4, 425). On 27 May 1788 Cowper, a later acquaintance, wrote of the work to Lady Hesketh : '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. . . . The learning, the good sense, the sound judgment, and the wit displayed in it [i.e. the 'Essay'] fully justify not only my compliment, but all compliments that either have been already paid to her talent or shall be paid hereafter' ({{sc|Hayley}, Life of Cowper, 1824, ii. 340).

On 12 May 1775 Mrs. Montagu's husband died after a tedious illness. He left her 7,000l. a year, all his fortune except 3,000l. (Delany, v. 126 ; Walpole, vi. 217). She was fully equal to her increased responsibilities. The large estates, with the collieries at Denton, which were now her property, she frequently visited, and generously entertained her tenants and colliers. According to Boswell and Jenyns, she was generous 'from vanity,' but Johnson argued that, whatever her motive, no one did so much good from benevolence as she, even if her methods were in a few cases mistaken (Hayward, i. 154). At the same time her increasing years did not diminish her love of pleasure. In the autumn of 1775 she hired a house for a few months at Montauban (Forbes, Seattle, i. 114), In the summer of 1776 she went to Paris and heard 'an invective against Shakespeare' by Voltaire read at the French Academy. On settling again in England, she devoted herself to house-building. At Sandleford she erected in 1781 a noble mansion after plans by Wyatt. In the same year shebegan to build Montagu House, at the north-west corner of Portman Square, by Upper Berkeley Street, now No. 22 Portman Square. Designed by James ('Athenian') Stuart, it was sumptuously decorated, and, although 'grand,' was not 'tawdry' (Walpole, viii. 156). The walls of one room 'the room of cupidons' were painted with roses and jessamine intertwined with 'little cupids' (Delany, iv. 508). Another room, 'the feather room,' was ornamented by hangings made by herself from the plumage of almost every kind of bird ; of this feature of the building the poet Cowper wrote in enthusiastic verse. Some paintings by Angelica Kauffmann still remain on the walls. On Easter day 1782, when the 'palace' was completed, Mrs. Montagu invited her friends to a house-warming, and for more than ten years, with even greater zeal than of old, she organised breakfast and dinner parties and evening receptions all inconveniently crowded. She still adhered to some of her 'blue-stocking' proclivities, but in 1781 a depreciatory remark on the 'Dialogues of the Dead' in Johnson's 'Life of Lyttelton' caused a breach between Mrs. Montagu and the doctor (Boswell, iv. 64). 'Mrs. Montagu and her Msenades intend,' wrote Walpole, 'to tear him limb from limb.' But Mrs. Montagu still asked him to dinner, although she took little notice of him, and he regretfully confessed that she had dropped him. Among her friends of a newer generation, William Wilberforce [q. v.] spent a whole day with lier in 1789, and admired 'her many and great amiable qualities' (Wilberforce, Life of Wilberforce, 1839, i. 236). Early in June 1791 she entertained the king and queen (Walpole, ix. 325), and on 13 June she accommodated as many as seven hundred guests at breakfast in 'the feather room' (cf. D'Arblay, Memoirs, v. 302). But mindful of her poorer neighbours, she invited the youthful chimney-sweepers of London to eat roast beef and plum pudding on the lawn before her house every May-day morning. She is 'the kind-hearted lady' commemorated in William Lisle Bowles's poem on the 'Little Sweep' (cf. James Montgomery, Chimney Sweep Album ; Bowles, Poems, ed. Gilfillan, ii. 263).

To the world at large Mrs. Montagu's devotion to society in extreme old age excited much sarcasm. Her love of finery, which Johnson had excused as a pardonable foible, did not diminish. Samuel Rogers, who came to know her in her latest years, regarded her as 'a composition of art,' and as 'long attached to the trick and show of life' (Clayden, Early Life of Rogers, p. 173). Cumberland, in a paper called 'The Feast of Reason,' in his periodical 'The Observer,' No. 25, ridiculed her under the name of Vanessa (D'Arblay, ii. 208), and in February 1785, when she fell downstairs at a drawing-room, Jerningham penned some amusing verses (Delany, vi. 251). Her friend Hannah More, on the other hand, described her in her last days as an affectionate, zealous, and constant friend, and an instructive and pleasant companion. Beattie wrote of her on receiving a false report of her death in March 1799 as 'a faithful and affectionate friend, especially in seasons of distress and difficulty' (Forbes, iii. 163). With members of her own family she was always on affectionate terms. A nephew, Matthewson of her brother, Morris Robinson, of the six clerks' office, who died in 1777 she brought up and amply provided for. He was her constant companion after her husband's death, taking her own surname of Montagu 3 June 1776 (cf. Wilberforce, Life of Wilberforce, i. 236). In 1798, though she still entertained a few 'blue-stockings,' she was almost blind and very feeble (D'Arblay, vi. 211). She died at Montagu House on 25 Aug, 1800, within six weeks of her eightieth birthday. Her epitaph (she suggested) should record that she had done neither harm nor good, and only asked oblivion.

All her property, which was said to amount to 10,000l. a year, went to her nephew, Matthew Montagu. Born on 23 Nov. 1762, he entered parliament as M.P. for Bossiney in 1786, seconded the address in 1787, was elected for Tregony in 1790, and for St. Germains in 1806 and 1807 (cf. Wraxall, iv. 377 sq.) He succeeded his brother, Morris Robinson, as fourth Lord Rokeby in 1829, and died 1 Sept. 1831. By his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Francis Charlton (d. 1817), he was father of Edward Montagu, fifth lord Rokeby (1787-1847), and of Henry Robinson Montagu, K.C.B. (1798-1883), a general in the army, who was the sixth and last lord Rokeby.

A miniature portrait of Mrs. Montagu, then Miss Robinson, in the character of Anne Boleyn, was painted by Zinke, and was engraved by R. Cooper. The engraving appears in Wraxall's 'Memoirs,' vol. i. A portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds belonged to the last lord Rokeby ; an engraving by Bartolozzi and a mezzotint by J. R. Smith are both valuable. A medallion portrait was engraved by Thomas Holloway for the 'European Magazine' (1800, pt. ii. p. 243).

Mrs. Montagu was a voluminous correspondent, writing with vivacity, but with too much prolixity to be altogether readable. William Windham, the statesman, commended the easy and natural yet sparkling style of her letters (Diary, 1866, p. 498). In 1809 Matthew Montagu, her nephew and executor, published two volumes of them. Two more volumes followed in 1813. The latest letter in this collection is one addressed to Mrs. Carter in September 1761. Her correspondence in later years, chiefly with her sister-in-law, Mary, wife of William Robinson, rector of Burghfield, Berkshire, and of Denton, Kent, was published in 1873 by Dr. Doran from the originals in the possession of Richard Bentley, the publisher. Of other extant letters by her, two to Lord Lyttelton, dated 1769, appear in the 'Grenville Correspondence' (iv. 425, 496) ; one to Mrs. M. Hartley on Euripides, dated 28 Feb. 1787, in R. Warner's ‘Original Letters,’ 1817, p. 232; eleven, dated between 1771 and 1779, to Beattie, in Forbes's ‘Life of Beattie’ (1806); and several in the ‘Memoirs of Henry Home of Kames’ (1814), iii. 279 sq.

Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu must be distinguished from a contemporary Mrs. Montagu ‘of Hanover Square,’ also well known in fashionable society, whose son, Frederick Montagu, is noticed separately.

[A Lady of the Last Century (Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu), illustrated by her unpublished letters, by Dr. Doran, 1873; Mrs. Montagu's Correspondence; Gent. Mag. 1800, pt. ii. p. 904; European Mag. 1800, pt. ii. p. 243; Nichols's Lit. Illustr. iv. 244; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill; Johnson's Letters, ed. Hill; Hayward's Life of Mrs. Piozzi; Mrs Delany's Autobiography; Wraxall's Memoirs; Memoirs of Madame d'Arblay; W. Roberts's Life of Hannah More, 1834; Forbes's Life of Beattie, 1806; Pennington's Mrs. Carter, 1808; Walpole's Letters; Temple Bar, January 1894; Foster's and Burke's Peerages, s.v. ‘Rokeby.’]

S. L.