The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 3. Mrs. Montagu

Though Mrs. Vesey was indirectly responsible for the title of the bluestocking coteries, it was Mrs. Montagu, who, by her dominant character, by her husband’s wealth and by the almost unique position she made for herself in London society, was speedily recognised as what Johnson in a moment of wrath satirically called her, “the Queen of the Blues.” Elizabeth Robinson was born at York in 1720, one of a family of twelve children. Much of her childhood was spent in Cambridgeshire, with her maternal grandmother, the wife of Conyers Middleton, librarian of Cambridge university. At Cambridge, the pretty precocious child was looked on as something of an infant prodigy. Middleton not only allowed her to come to his academic parties, but he would afterwards, with educational intent, require from her an account of the learned conversations at which she had been present. At the time of her marriage, he somewhat pompously reminded her: “This University had the honour of Mr. Montagu’s education, and claims some share in yours.” Her father, an accomplished amateur artist, delighted in cultivating the gift of swift repartee that she had evidently inherited from himself. Her mother, from whom, perhaps, she inherited her taste for literature, was related to Sterne. At home, she disputed and argued good-naturedly with her brothers, till their emulation produced in their sister “a diligence of application unusual at the time”—a diligence that resulted in a knowledge of French, Italian and some Latin, though, influenced by fashion, she was sometimes ashamed to own to the latter accomplishment.

While staying with her grandmother in Cambridge, she was taken to call at Wimpole, the seat of the second earl of Oxford. Here, she made acquaintance with the earl’s only daughter, Prior’s “Noble lovely little Peggy,” who, in 1734, married the second duke of Portland. Though Elizabeth Robinson was only thirteen at the time of this marriage, the young duchess of eighteen found a good deal of pleasure in the child’s witty letters, and, as she grew older, frequently invited her to Bulstrode. This friendship introduced her to a cultivated circle, among whom were Lord Lyttelton, Mrs. Delany—then Mrs. Pendarves—and many more, who, besides helping to form her literary tastes, became her lifelong friends and good bluestockings. She was early “brought out” by her father, who, proud of his vivacious daughter, took her into society at Bath and Tunbridge when she was only thirteen. At the age when girls of to-day are enjoying their first balls, Elizabeth, satiated with years of recurring gaieties, wrote concerning Bath: “‘How d’ye do,’ is all one hears in the morning, and ‘What’s trumps?’ in the afternoon.” Scarcely a year later, she writes to her mother, “there is nothing so much wanted in this country as the art of making the same people chase new topics without change of persons.” And, through its slightly involved expression, one may detect, even at that early age, a foreshadowing of her bluestocking parties.

This “art” she made a point of cultivating after her marriage in 1742, with the wealthy Edward Montagu, grandson of the first earl of Sandwich. She was twenty-two, and her husband twenty-nine years older; but, as her cold practical nature had already decided that “gold is the chief ingredient in worldly happiness,” the discrepancy in their ages was not considered a drawback to the solid advantages of wealth and position. When, in 1744, their only child died in infancy, she sought happiness in social and intellectual pleasures with even greater avidity than before.

Mrs. Montagu had not long been married before she discovered that her husband’s town house in Dover street was too small for her magnificent projects of entertaining. Mr. Montagu, therefore, built a fine house in Hill street, into which they were able to move in 1748. Here, in her famous Chinese room, she began to give a series of receptions, and, in 1753, she writes to Mrs. Boscawen that her “Chinese Room was filled by a succession of people from eleven in the morning till eleven at night.” There is not any precise information as to when she began to give her bluestocking parties, but it was probably after she became acquainted with Mrs. Vesey. Though Hannah More gives Mrs. Vesey pre-eminence in her poem Bas Bleu, it is generally conceded that Mrs. Montagu was the undoubted “queen” of these assemblies. Lady Louisa Stuart, granddaughter of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and daughter of the third earl of Bute, gives a detailed and not too flattering account of Mrs. Montagu’s “attempt at an English salon”:

  • “The only blue stocking meetings which I myself ever attended,” she wrote, “were those at Mrs. Walsingham’s and Mrs. Montagu’s. To frequent the latter, however, was to drink at the fountain-head … Mrs. Montagu eclipsed them all.”
  • She then gives a somewhat sarcastic portrait of the hostess, and, while allowing that she had quick parts, great vivacity, no small share of wit, and competent learning, she credits her, also, with a superabundance of vanity, and concludes with the insinuation that her “excellent cook is probably the only one of the powers that could carry on the war single-handed.”
  • “Thus endowed,” she writes, “Mrs. Montagu was acquainted with almost all persons of note or distinction. She paid successful court to all authors, critics, artists, orators, lawyers, and clergy of high reputation … she attracted all tourists and travellers; she made entertainment for all remarkable sought out all remarkable foreigners, especially if men of letters.”
  • Lady Louisa was not a bluestocking—she had, indeed, “a horror of appearing in print lest she should lose caste”—and her evidence, though seasoned with a dash of malicious humour, is probably less biassed than that of the bluestockings whose pens were too often tipped with the honey of mutual admiration. She flings the fine scorn of a grande dame on the bluestocking habit of opening the gates of society to those who had not been born within the sacred ring-fence; she ridicules, with the prejudice of her class and period, the “college geniuses with nothing but a book in their pockets.” She stigmatises Mrs. Montagu’s company as a “heterogeneous medley,” which, with all her sparkling wit and manifold attractions, she was never able to fuse into a harmonious mass. “As they went in, so they went out, single, isolated”; a result, partly owing, no doubt, to Mrs. Montagu’s habit of arranging her guests in one large, disconcerting half-circle. Madame d’Arblay also mentions this peculiar formation, at the head of which sat the lady of the house, and, on her right, the guest of highest rank, or the person of the moment whom she most delighted to honour. Lady Louisa, not restrained by bluestocking loyalty, frankly holds the custom up to ridicule. “Everything at that house, as if under a spell, was sure to form itself into a circle or semicircle.” And she tells, further, of “a vast half-moon” of twentyfive ladies of whom she was one, seated round the fire, and of the vain efforts of the men, when they solemnly filed in from dinner, to break through it.

    Lady Louisa’s facts are probably as correct as they are amusing; but, as facts invariably take the colour of the medium through which they are presented, be it sympathy or antipathy, it is only just to dilute her sarcasms with some of the admiration and high regard expressed by the bluestocking coteries. If not an ideal hostess, Mrs. Montagu had many of the qualities that go to the ruling of a salon. Lord Lyttelton, one of her intimate court of Platonic admirers, was amazed, he once told her, that those “dangerous things … beauty, wit, wisdom, learning and virtue (to say nothing about wealth)” had not, long before, driven her from society. Her wit, from childhood to age, was indisputable. By the alchemy of her dexterous mind she could transmute her wide reading, her swift impressions, her varied experience into what she aptly called “the sal volatile of lively discourse.” Living, as she did, in the limelight of a critical society, it was inevitable that her character should be freely discussed. But, though her complacent vanity might, occasionally, be censured, her affectations deplored, her flattery derided, yet we are told that even those who were most diverted with her foibles would express a high opinion of her abilities. “In her conversation she had more wit than any other person, male or female, whom I have known,” wrote Beattie. Dr. Johnson, whom, said Mrs. Thrale, “she flattered till he was ready to faint,” paid her back in the same seductive coin. When she showed him some plates that had belonged to queen Elizabeth, he assured her that “their present possessor was in no tittle inferior to the first.” At another time, he said of her,

  • Sir, that lady exerts more mind in conversation than any person I ever met with. Sir, she displays such powers of ratiocination, such radiations of intellectual excellence as are amazing.
  • And Lord Bath once told Sir Joshua Reynolds that “he did not believe that there ever was a more perfect human being created, or ever would be created, than Mrs. Montagu.” Even Lord Macartney, much given to “elegant pleasantries,” who “piqued himself upon carrying compliments beyond the moon,” having flattered Mrs. Montagu to the furthest limit of credulity, would confess to his intimates: “After all, she is the cleverest woman I know. Meet her where you will, she says the best thing in the company.” Horace Walpole might occasionally wing his sly shafts of malicious wit in her direction, but there are few greater tributes to the interest of her assemblies and of the bluestocking coteries generally than his, and Soame Jenyns’s and Owen Cambridge’s—the old wits as a younger generation irreverently called them—frequent attendance.

    Even her enemies allowed that she had a sincere love of literature. She “makes each rising wit her care,” said a contemporary poem, and her kindly discriminating help to struggling authors, and authors who were past struggling, earned for her the high-sounding title, the “female Maecenas of Hill Street,” bestowed on her by Hannah More. When Anna Williams, the blind poetess, was left with a precarious income, Mrs. Montagu gave her an annual allowance of £10, a kindness greatly appreciated by Johnson, who, in his “wild benevolence,” had given Mrs. Williams, in company with other derelicts of humanity, a home under the shelter of his roof. After Edward Montagu’s death, when she became sole mistress of his wealth, she gave an annuity of £100 to Mrs. Carter; and, when there was a question of a government pension for Beattie, she assured him with the utmost delicacy that, should the project fail, she herself would supply the necessary funds. These are only a few instances out of many; her correspondence is full of allusions to the needy and distressed. Nor were her gifts all in the sordid coin of commerce. Not only did she give generously to her literary friends the encouragement and sympathy that, in dark moments, are of more value than gold, but she would promote their interests in every way possible, after the manner of the ladies of the Parisian salons. It was Mrs. Montagu’s widereaching influence that materially helped to spread the fame of Beattie’s Essay on Truth, as a counterblast to Hume’s “infidel writings.” Later, it was she who suggested its reissue by subscription; and, though she was indefatigable in her efforts to enlist subscribers, she was much disappointed because it only produced about four hundred guineas profit for the author. She gave him introductions to Lord Kinnoul and his brother, the archbishop of York, who both made plans for his advancement. In 1772, she writes: “I was in hopes to have something done among the Great that might forward my hope for you”; and, when The Minstrel appeared, not only did she send copies to Lord Lyttelton, Lord Chatham and others of her personal friends, but she told Beattie, “I wrote immediately to a person who serves many gentlemen and ladies with new books, to recommend it to all people of taste .… I have recommended it to many of our bishops and others.”