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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 12. Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu as a literary hostess

Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu was one of a bright company of brilliant women; and, in spite of rivals, she reigned supreme for fifty years as the chosen hostess of the intellectual society of London. Mrs. Vesey, for a time, was a prominent rival, because, as wife of Agmondesham Vesey, a member of “The Club,” she came forward as the special hostess of that select company. The fame of Mrs. Montagu has much waned, and, probably, her letters, published by her nephew Matthew Montagu in 1809–13, are little read now. This collection does not reach a date later than 1761; of the remainder of the correspondence from that date to the end of Mrs. Montagu’s life, consisting, for the most part, of letters to Mrs. Robinson and a few other friends, Doran made a selection, which he printed with remarks of his own in biographical form, in 1873, under the title A Lady of the last Century (Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu) illustrated in her unpublished Letters. Although this lady was surrounded by the intellect of her time (she informed Garrick that she never invited idiots to her house), she did not succeed in emulating Fanny Burney in the portraiture of her friends. Windham praised her letters highly, but more for their style than for the particular interest of the subjects discussed. “The flow of her style,” he writes, “is not less natural, because it is fully charged with shining particles, and sparkles as it flows.” Her correspondent during fifty years was Lady Margaret Harley, daughter of the second earl of Oxford and wife of the second duke of Portland, who was also a lifelong friend of Mrs. Delany.

Elizabeth Robinson was the elder daughter of Matthew Robinson, a Yorkshire squire, and her early education was advanced by the instruction of Dr. Conyers Middleton, the second husband of her maternal grandmother, who lived at Cambridge. Her father, also, was fond of encouraging her to make smart repartees to his witty and caustic remarks, until he was beaten in these encounters and had to discontinue them. She became rather a formidable young lady and from her volatile disposition she acquired the sobriquet “Fidget.” She married, in 1742, Edward Montagu, a grandson of the first earl of Sandwich, a quiet man who was contented that his wife should rule in her own drawing-room. Doran describes him as “a mathematician of great eminence and a coal-owner of great wealth.” The match appears to have been a happy one, although the tastes of the two parties were very different.

Mrs. Montagu was fond of society, and the pleasures of the town had a great attraction for her; but she was also a great reader and somewhat of a student, so she was often glad to exchange the gaieties of London for the quiet pleasures of the country. She formed a sort of salon at her house in Hill street and gathered a brilliant company round her. Johnson was glad to be one of her honoured guests; but his feelings towards her seem to have been mixed. He acknowledged that she was “a very extraordinary woman,” adding “she has a constant stream of conversation, and it is always impregnated, it has always meaning.” At other times, he said some disagreeable things of her and to her. Something in her talk seems to have annoyed him—possibly her sharp repartees may not have pleased the dogmatic doctor. Lyttelton, Burke, Wilberforce and Reynolds were also among her favourite guests. Mrs. Montagu’s husband died in 1775 and left all his property to his wife; but, though Horace Walpole at once jumped to the conclusion that she would marry again, she preferred to adopt a nephew, who succeeded to her possessions. She continued to be ahostess and built herself a mansion on the north-west corner of Portman square; but the glory had, to a great extent, departed, and the large parties that could be accommodated in the new house were dull compared with the smaller gatherings in Hill street. In her later letters, she gives much information respecting the management of her large estates, in which she proved herself a good economist. Her Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare with Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of Mons. De Voltaire (1769) has been noticed elsewhere.