‘very refreshing, very consolatory, very delightful’: spending a year with Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Carter.
Amber Vella (PhD researcher at the University of Leicester)
Over the past twelve months, the correspondence of Elizabeth Montagu and her ‘dear Friend’ Elizabeth Carter have been the focus of my internship with EMCO. The letters, held at Huntington Library, and now published here, were penned by Montagu between 1779 and 1782. These letters provide an intimate and engaging insight into Montagu and Carter’s friendship in the early years of Montagu’s widowhood, covering a variety of topics and events including society and international news, health updates, and literary commentary, some of which will be introduced in this blog post.
Spanning four decades, the temporal length of the complete Carter correspondence (1758-1799), combined with the frequency at which Carter and Montagu wrote to each other, is a veritable gift to a historian. Indeed, the number of letters penned by Montagu to Carter extant in the inventory surpasses even those to her husband, Edward Montagu, and sister, Sarah Scott. Montagu Pennington, Carter’s nephew and Montagu’s godson, even commented that in one of Montagu’s last letters to Carter she referred to her failing eyesight, and said that the last use she would make of her eyes would be to write to her.This impressive volume is augmented by the breadth of material that Montagu and Carter discussed. From domestic details to political commentary, philosophical musings and literary recommendations, Montagu’s letters to Carter are peppered with erudite observations on all aspects of life.
Within the same letter, even sometimes on the same sheet of paper, Montagu could refer to quotidian experiences of health or the weather (EMCO 3396), political unrest such as the Gordon Riots (EMCO 3551) or the American Civil War (EMCO 3537), the management of her collieries (EMCO 3542) or share witty remarks about mutual acquaintances (EMCO 3408). Writing to Carter in June 1779, having devoted the first two pages of her letter to, in Montagu’s own words, her ‘own nonsense’, she commented that: ‘I will not fill any more of my paper with my own nonsense, I will reserve ye rest of ye sheet for news, foreign or domestick’.
Indeed, Carter and Montagu’s epistolary conversation ranges from the domestic to the worldly, and moves geographically between Sandleford, London, Bath, and beyond. Montagu’s immediate environment features repeatedly in her letters to Carter, not only because of her frequent movement between the ‘rural sights and rural sounds’ of Sandleford and the ‘hurley burley’ of London. Physical location frequently determined the content of the letters themselves: business matters were relayed from London; society news from Bath; while Sandleford enabled Montagu the space to muse on her idyllic environment.
In July 1779, Montagu expressed her wish for Carter, who lived in Deal on the Kentish coast, to reside with her in Sandleford, owing to fears of an increasing risk of invasion during the American Revolutionary War.
I wish you wd come to Sandleford at all times upon my own account, now I can urge it with a better grace; as you wd be much safer here from dangers & alarms. You shall live your own way, have yr leisure uninterrupted, & persue your studies tho we cannot reach their heights or penetrate their recesses, we will not persecute you as is sometimes done on such occasions. You know there is not any thing wd make me so happy as yr Society, so I leave ye Subject, being always afraid to be too urgent for what my heart desires.
Montagu’s concern for Carter’s safety, tempered by her reassurances of Carter’s access to solitude if she were to accept the invitation, illustrates the depth of understanding and mutual respect they held for one another. This is further exemplified in the final letter Montagu sent to Carter, two decades after the above lines were sent. Yet the content is remarkably similar to Montagu’s prior requests: concern for Carter’s health, followed by an appeal to ‘take care of your health’ and ‘to come to Sandleford as soon as will be convenient’. Montagu viewed Sandleford as a haven, and whether it offered escape from ‘dangers and alarms’ or the opportunity to recuperate, it seems that it was always to be enhanced by Carter’s presence.
Yet theirs is not the only relationship extant in this set of letters. I have been introduced to a host of eighteenth-century literary and aristocratic milieu while transcribing Montagu’s letters to Carter. Whilst this has undeniably slowed down part of the XML tagging process, which requires each newly identified individual to be added to the central database alongside as much biographical detail as can be found, it has been absorbing to learn how many people Montagu encountered, and will provide interesting data for social network analysis as the project continues to evolve. Given my own doctoral research on histories of midwifery and maternity in late Georgian Britain, I was particularly delighted and surprised to discover that Montagu was a subscriber to the London-based charity for delivering poor married women at their own houses (EMCO 3405, EMCO 3407). This is further testimony to the sheer breadth and scope of material available within the edition, and I am certain that many future scholars will uncover similarly exciting and unexpected pieces of information for their own research when exploring Montagu’s correspondence.
Over the past year, I’ve honed my proofreading skills, learnt new software, and substantially expanded my subject knowledge. The most enjoyable aspect of the internship, though, has been the insight into Montagu and Carter’s tender friendship. Despite Montagu’s lament that ‘the destinies seem to act very peevishly & perversely in respect to our Correspondence’, over 800 letters sent to Carter are available to view in the edition, 130 of which are fully transcribed. Each of them demonstrates Montagu and Carter’s commitment to their friendship, shared intellectual curiosity, and compassion for one another.
6] This is the final letter from Montagu to Carter available in our inventory. The last letter from Carter to Montagu in Montagu Pennington’s edition of Carter’s letters to Montagu is dated 9th December 1799.
Please note that all dates and location information are provisional, initially taken from the library and archive catalogues. As our section editors continue to work through the material we will update our database and the changes will be reflected across the edition.
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