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Elizabeth Montagu Biography

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Elizabeth Montagu (1778) By Frances Reynolds 

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Elizabeth Montagu was born in York on 2 October 1718, the fourth of nine children of Matthew Robinson, a Yorkshire gentleman, and his wife Elizabeth Drake. Her eldest brother was expected to inherit an estate and a title, but the other sons needed a profession, and entered the law, the navy or the church. Elizabeth had received a better education than was common for girls of her time, benefiting from the attentions of Dr Conyers Middleton, a Cambridge don who had married her grandmother, but she knew it was her role to find a husband and in 1742, at the age of twenty-four, she married Edward Montagu, who was thirty years her senior. The young Elizabeth was a vivacious and party-loving girl while her husband was something of a recluse, preferring to study mathematics and astronomy in the comfort of his library, but they maintained an affectionate marriage for thirty-three years. They had one child who died at the age of only fifteen months. 

It was during her teenage years and early 20s that Elizabeth Montagu made the social connections which formed the foundation for the Bluestocking Circle, through her participation in the salon surrounding Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785). Bentinck was a prolific collector, natural historian, and custodian of the celebrated Harleian library inherited from her father, Edward Harley, earl of Oxford. At estate at Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire, Bentinck presided over a community of elite intellectual women, including the collagist Mary Delany (1700-1780), the Anglo-Saxonist Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756) and Anne Donnellan (1700-1762), the Irish singer, correspondent, and socialite who became Montagu’s particular companion. This mingling of the Anglo-Irish, landed gentry, and upper middle class elite women, with a shared interest in literature, history, and intellectual self-improvement, set the stage for Montagu’s career as ‘Queen of the Bluestockings’.

Early in his marriage to Elizabeth, Edward inherited estates near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which included high-quality coal seams. Elizabeth persuaded him that they should operate these themselves rather than merely lease the land to a third-party. They began a habit of taking regular journeys to the north-east of England to supervise the coal business, which became a source of considerable wealth. Following their marriage and newfound wealth and prestige, Elizabeth and Edward began a life split between their London home in Hill Street, Mayfair, and their Berkshire estate of Sandleford, with building renovations by the renowned neoclassical architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), and landscaping by Capability Brown (1716-1783). Whilst consolidating their wealth and social standing through the 1750s and 60s, Montagu also began to build the networks of patronage and social connections that would become known as the Bluestocking Circle (see Bluestockings). The year 1760 saw Montagu’s first foray into print, in collaboration with one of her closest aristocratic connections, George Lyttelton, 1st Baron Lyttelton (1709-1773). Lord Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead was a collection of dialogues between representatives of the modern and classical worlds, contrasting ancient and modern philosophies in a conventional neoclassical format. Montagu’s contribution, which remained anonymous in the first edition, was three dialogues at the end of the book, written in a far more satirical and playful tone, critiquing fashionable society with witty and incisive viciousness.

Of course Montagu’s most famous publication, however, was The Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear (1769). Composed and considered for more than a decade prior to its publication, the Essay on Shakespeare was a defence of Shakespeare against the accusations that he was unlettered and failed to obey classical dramatic form, as laid against him by Voltaire. While this piece was initially published anonymously, Montagu’s authorship quickly became common knowledge, and the Essay’s publication during David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee lent it a profound, national, significance. Montagu became known as the champion of rustic English speech against the effete formalism of French neoclassicism. She also, in her argument that Shakespeare’s skill at conveying emotion through dramatic characterisation was central to his greatness, laid the groundwork for future generations of Shakespeare critics. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Joanna Baillie, with their preoccupations with drama and the expression of emotion, all follow the legacy of Montagu’s Shakespeare. 

When Edward Montagu died in 1775, he took the unusual step of leaving his entire estate to his wife, rather than handing it to some distant male relative and leaving her with only a life interest: Elizabeth Montagu thus became one of the richest women in the country. This change of status was followed by a change of address, with Montagu moving to Portman Square in 1777, and a series of new connections and intellectual projects. Montagu befriended the Scottish physician and philosopher Dr John Gregory (1724-1773) during the latter’s visits to London in the 1760s, and his daughter Dorothea (1754-1830) would in fact become Montagu’s live-in companion from 1772. At Gregory’s invitation Montagu made several visits to Edinburgh in the late '60s and '70s. On these tours she came into contact with the circle of philosophers and writers known as the Scottish Enlightenment, where she became deeply invested in the Ossian controversy and befriended Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782). Kames and Montagu held an extensive and engaged correspondence across three decades.

It was during the 1760s and 1770s that Elizabeth Montagu came into her own as a literary patron, beyond her role as a salonnière, working to further the literary careers of the shoemaker poet James Woodhouse (1735-1820), the Scottish philosopher and poet James Beattie (1735-1803) and the classical translator Robert Potter (1721-1804). For all of these writers Montagu acted to gather customers for subscription editions of their works, utilised her informal intellectual networks to build their reputations in London and, ultimately, groomed them for inclusion in the elite circles in which she moved. Some of these relationships were more successful than others. Beattie, following Montagu’s provision of patronage after reading his coming-of-age poem The Minstrel (1771) enjoyed a long and fruitful friendship, which included Montagu’s soliciting of subscriptions for his Essays (1776), and an exchange of over 120 letters. Woodhouse and Potter, however, baulked at Montagu’s condescending tone; the former when Montagu employed him as a land steward at Sandleford, giving him no time or provisions to write, and the latter when Montagu’s efforts to induct him into polite society failed. Both would renounce Montagu in later writing, with Woodhouse characterising his relationship with her as abusive in his posthumously published Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus (1896) and Potter denouncing her critical writing as ‘productive of confusion rather than clearness’ in his Art of Criticism (1789). Montagu’s most famous, and famously fractious, patron-client relationship was, however, that which she and fellow bluestocking Hannah More had with Ann Yearsley (1753–1806), the milk-maid poet, in the 1780s. Montagu’s provision of the same forms of  financial and social support which Montagu had given to her other charges was marred in Yearsley’s case by the fact that More and Montagu chose to withhold the profits from Yearsley’s Poems on Several Occasions (1785) from Yearsley herself. Done apparently out of a conviction that Yearsley’s alcoholic husband would squander his wife’s earnings, this lack of trust and financial mismanagement lead to a paper war between Yearsley and More, in which the entire institution of elite patronage was attacked. 

The late 1780s and 90s saw a gradual decline in Montagu’s hosting and correspondence. Her eyes, which had been the cause of constant ill health and migraines, began to become weaker, and she settled into an easy retirement with Dorothea Gregory, and Montagu’s own extended family, maintaining correspondences with her long-term friends James Beattie, Elizabeth Carter, and Elizabeth Vesey throughout her closing years. Since she had no children, Montagu adopted her nephew Matthew, younger son of her brother Morris, and in 1776 he formally changed his surname to Montagu. Thereafter he lived with his aunt, who took full responsibility for his upbringing and education, hiring tutors and sending him to Harrow School and then to Cambridge University. Montagu intended for her companion Dorothea Gregory to marry Matthew, but she eloped with Archibald Alison in 1784, much to Montagu's disappointment and ire. The following year, Matthew married wealthy heiress Elizabeth Charlton and Montagu took great satisfaction in the birth of their eleven children, whom she regarded as her ‘grandchildren’. She left her estate to him, and following her death on 25 August 1800, he became an extremely wealthy man. 

Ultimately Montagu’s legacy is two-fold. To engage with her history is to confront the paradoxes of Enlightenment elite femininity directly, and recognize the subtle layers of privilege and suppression that made up the world of Montagu and other Bluestockings. Yet she also left behind a legacy of independent professional and intellectual success, running her collieries closely and efficiently, changing the course of Shakespeare criticism, and building a vibrant community of public female intellectuals which would not be matched until the 20th century.