Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 4. Her share in Lord Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead

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

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 4. Her share in Lord Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead

Having so active an interest in authors and their works, it was not surprising that she should one day appear as author herself. In 1760, when Lord Lyttelton published his Dialogues of the Dead, the last three were advertised as “composed by a different hand,” the hand of Mrs. Montagu: though, in deference to the prejudice of her day, she preferred to shield herself behind a veil of anonymity, which she was not sorry that most of her friends were able to penetrate. The Dialogues met with much criticism, favourable and otherwise. Johnson called them a “nugatory performance,” and Walpole, by nature unable to resist an opportunity for epigram, wrote of them as the dead dialogues, a prophecy that time has almost fulfilled. Those by Mrs. Montagu were between Cadmus and Hercules; Mercury and a modern fine lady; Plutarch, Charon and a modern bookseller. The first is full of solid good sense—too solid, indeed, for satire—but every phrase is trite and obvious, without a glimmer of the wit that Mrs. Montagu scattered freely in her talk and letters. Mrs. Carter gave it fatal, discerning praise when she assured its author that it “has all the elegance of polite literature.” The dialogue between Plutarch and the bookseller is severe on the popular taste of the day, and suggests that popular taste, like human nature, never changes. “I unadvisedly bought an edition of your Lives,” the bookseller says to Plutarch; “a pack of old Greeks and Romans … and the work which repaired the loss I sustained … was the Lives of the Highwaymen.” The second dialogue, between Mercury and Mrs. Modish, is in Mrs. Montagu’s happiest vein of light sarcasm. It is by far the wittiest of the whole collection, and met with unqualified success. It is a lively satire on the fashionable woman of the period, who, when Mercury summons her to “pass the Styx,” is “engaged, absolutely engaged … to the Play on Mondays, balls on Tuesdays, the Opera on Saturdays, and to card assemblies the rest of the week.” She suggests, however, that he should wait till the end of the season, when she might like to “go to the Elysian fields for a change.” “Have you a Vauxhall and Ranelagh?” she asks. “I think I should not dislike drinking the Lethe waters when you have a full season.” Compliments flowed in from the bluestocking circle who were inclined to preen themselves on their “queen’s” literary success; and Mrs. Montagu, exhilarated with the heady wine of public applause, wrote to Mrs. Carter, “I do not know but at last I may become an author in form.… The Dialogues, I mean the three worst, have had a more favourable reception than I expected.”