Elizabeth Montagu Essay - Critical Essays

Montagu, Elizabeth


Elizabeth Montagu 1720-1800

English essayist, satirist, literary critic, and epistler.

Though Elizabeth Montagu published two works in her lifetime—three essays included in the Dialogues of the Dead (1760) and her own An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear, Compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets. With Some Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of Mons. de Voltaire (1769), she was better known as the leader of the Bluestocking social and literary circle and later for her voluminous correspondence. Montagu was one of the most famous female literary hosts of her time period, and was the benefactor of numerous writers. Through her intellectual pursuits she contributed to the acceptance of women outside their traditional social roles. Montagu's letters, published several times after her death, eventually became regarded as the best of her own writing. They revealed Montagu as a strongly opinionated person as well as much about the social and cultural atmosphere of the eighteenth century.

Biographical Information

Montagu was born Elizabeth Robinson on October 2, 1720, in York, England. She was the daughter of Matthew Robinson, a landowner, and his wife Elizabeth Drake, a wealthy heiress. Montagu was the first daughter and fourth child born to the couple, who had twelve children total. Her younger sister Sarah (later known as Sarah Scott) became a famous novelist in her own right. Montagu grew up in Coventry, Cambridgeshire, and was raised in part by her maternal grandmother. Her step-grandfather, Dr. Conyers Middleton, taught at Cambridge and played a role in the proper education Montagu was given. She learned English, French, and classical literature and was exposed to literary circles and discussions from an early age. Montagu's father also supported this pursuit by having his children debate from an early age. Intellectually mature, Montagu made her debut in society when she was only 13 years old. She was married at the age of 22 to Edward Montagu, who was 51 years old. The marriage was a practical one: he was a rich grandson of the Earl of Sandwich, owned land and mines, and, at one point, was a member of Parliament as a member of the Whig party. The couple had only one child, a son who died when he was fifteen months old. After his death, the focus of Montagu's life became literary and social circles. Beginning in the early 1750s, Montagu began hosting a salon in her home in Mayfair, London. She included intelligent people from many backgrounds—not just the well-born or famous. From these salons developed the literary circle known as the Bluestockings, so-called because the women dressed more informally than usual. Montagu and other women served as leaders, though both sexes were included in the discussion. Some of the more famous participants included Horace Walpole, Fanny Burney, Hannah More, Elizabeth Carter, and Edmund Burke. Montagu was the leader of the group by virtue of her intellect and regular hosting duties. By the 1760s, Montagu was publishing her own works. She contributed three dialogues to the satirical Dialogues of the Dead, which was written primarily by Lord Lyttelton, who was also associated with the Bluestockings. At the end of that decade, she published a piece of literary criticism, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear, which defended Shakespeare against a previously published attack by Voltaire. These works were published anonymously, but Montagu's identity as author was common knowledge. Montagu's husband died in 1775 and, in an unconventional bequest, she inherited his entire estate—which usually would have gone to a male heir. Even before his death, which was preceded by a long illness, Montagu had helped him oversee the mines and other businesses. She continued to serve as the business agent until her death. To ensure the estate would have an heir, she adopted a nephew, Matthew Robinson Montagu. Despite her increased estate responsibilities, Montagu continued her literary pursuits. She made a celebrated trip to Paris in 1776, where her fame as the author of the An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear was cemented. In 1782, Montagu built a home in Portman Square, London, labeled Montagu House, which became another center for the Bluestocking circle. By this time she was known as “The Queen of the Bluestockings” and “Queen of the Blues,” so dubbed by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Montagu also increased her activities as a patron, giving money and other kinds of support (such as recommendations and arranging for employment) to authors and others, including her tenants and employees, both former and current. Montagu died on August 25, 1800, in London. Throughout her lifetime she had been a prodigious letter writer. Her heir, Robinson Montagu, published a number of her epistles within several years of her death.

Major Works

Montagu's publications consist of three primary works. She contributed three essays to Lyttelton's Dialogues of the Dead, a satire on modern society. Montagu's three pieces include dialogues between Mercury and Mrs. Modish, Hercules and Cadmus, and a modern bookseller and Plutarch. These dialogues display Montagu's wit and intelligence. Montagu's next publication was completely different. An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear defends the famed British author against Voltaire, who did not like the “tyrannical” dominance of the bard in literary culture. Montagu's essay was part of a larger debate between France and Great Britain over literature, and had a nationalistic tone. In the piece, she compares Shakespeare to playwrights both French and Greek with Shakespeare being deemed superior. The piece was translated into French and Italian and was reprinted several times. After Montagu's death, her correspondences was published, first by her nephew, then by others. During her lifetime, a few of the thousands of letters she wrote were copied and published in periodicals. These letters reveal much about her personality, intelligence, wit, and lifestyle. Topics included practical matters related to her sex, society, customs, fashions, food prices, literature, and religion. By the twentieth century, these letters came to be regarded as Montagu's most important contribution to literary culture.

Critical Reception

The critical response to Montagu's works has been varied. The three dialogues she wrote for Dialogues of the Dead were not regarded highly by most, but the “Cadmus and Hercules” essay was singled out for amusement. An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear met with generally positive reviews when originally published. Dr. Samuel Johnson voiced one of the most negative responses to the work, but this might have been part of a bigger personal quarrel between them. There were also authorship issues when the essay was originally published. It was not widely known as her work at first, but when some learned that the author was a woman, they expressed an opinion that it was not her place to write such a work. In retrospect, many critics see the essay as part of a changing view of Shakespeare, though some regard her prose style as rather weak. While Montagu's letters were her most highly regarded work by the late twentieth century in the early nineteenth century, they were not greatly admired. Many modern critics believe that the letters showed her complexity as a person and offered much information about an intellectual woman's life in that time period. Critics have analyzed the letters from many angles, including social history, the nature of her marriage, travel, financial dealings, and her sometimes complicated relationships with the people in her life. While some critics doubt Montagu's intellect or her craft as a letter writer, most consider the letters to be quite valuable because of their cultural insight.

Principal Works

*Dialogues of the Dead [with Lord Lyttelton] (satire) 1760

An Essay on the writings and genius of Shakespear, compared with the Greek and French dramatic poets. With some remarks upon the misrepresentations of Mons. de Voltaire (essay) 1769

The Letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu 4 vols. [edited by Matthew Montagu] (letters) 1809-13

Elizabeth Montagu, the Queen of the Bluestockings: Her Correspondence from 1720-1761. 2 vols. [edited by Emily J. Climenson] (letters) 1906

Mrs. Montagu, “Queen of the Blues,” Her Letters and Friendships from 1762-1800. 2 vols. [edited by Reginald Blunt] (letters) 1923

*Montagu anonymously contributed the final three essays of Lord Lyttelton's Dialogues of the Dead: “A Dialogue between Cadmus and Hercules,” “Mercury and a Modern Fine Lady,” and “Plutarch, Charon, and a Modern Bookseller.”


Grace and Philip Wharton (essay date 1890)

SOURCE: Wharton, Grace and Philip Wharton. “Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu.” In The Queens of Society, Vol. 2, pp. 222-47. London: J. W. Jarvis & Son, 1890.

[In the following essay, the authors provide a summary of Montagu's life, works, and significance.]

Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, in his Diary, speaks of Mrs. Montagu's ‘palace, as it would be termed at Rome or Naples, in Portman Square.’ ‘The palace’ exists: we see it, somewhat secluded from public gaze, yet not secluded as in the time of its first owner, when it was encompassed with fields. In spring the earliest budding trees shade its entrance; in autumn the planes and elms near it are the first...

(The entire section is 9933 words.)

Reginald Blunt (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: Blunt, Reginald. “Introductory.” In Mrs. Montagu “Queen of the Blues”: Her Letters and Friendships from 1762-1800: Volume 1: 1762-1776, pp. 1-11. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.

[In the following essay, Blunt discusses Montagu's private and professional life, focusing on her letters and the critical response to them.]

MR. Cambridge.
And what does Dr. Johnson call her?
FANNY Burney.
“Queen,” to be sure. “Queen of the Blues!”

Madame D'Arblay's Diaries.

The family, child life, girlhood, marriage, and earlier correspondence of Mrs. Montagu have been dealt...

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Reginald Blunt (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: Blunt, Reginald. “Elizabeth Montagu Herself.” In Mrs. Montagu “Queen of the Blues”: Her Letters and Friendships from 1762-1800: Volume 2: 1777-2000, 349-68. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.

[In the following essay, Blunt describes the importance of Montagu and her letters, including how they shaped her persona and what her letters reveal about her character.]

On the death of any of her particular friends, and also of the great folk of her day, such as Lord Bath, Lord Chatham, Lady Hervey, Lord Lyttelton, Lord Chesterfield, her cousin the Primate, and many others, it was, as we have seen, Mrs. Montagu's custom to set down in her letters her...

(The entire section is 6891 words.)

Rebecca West (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: West, Rebecca. “Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800).” In From Anne to Victoria: Essays by Various Hands, edited by Bonamy Dobrée, pp. 164-87. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1967.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1937, West offers a critical overview of Montagu's life and works.]

In every age there are certain women who, because they are feminine without being womanly, because they conform completely to the masculine notion of what a woman should be and disregard all instructions from their own nature, enjoy great material success yet leave no sense of triumph. This class was conspicuously represented in eighteenth-century England...

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Rose Mary Davis (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: Davis, Rose Mary. “The Blue Stockings.” In The Good Lord Lyttelton: A Study in Eighteenth Century Politics and Culture, pp. 283-90. Bethlehem, PA: Times Publishing Company, 1939.

[In the following excerpt, Davis explores Montagu's relationship with Lord Lyttelton, referring to their correspondence, and discusses the Bluestocking social circle, which was created by Montagu and frequented by Lyttelton.]

Lord Lyttelton's insignificance in politics during the years when he sat in the House of Lords did not extend to the literary world. It was an age of literary dictators; and while he can claim no such position of authority as was given to Dryden, Pope, or...

(The entire section is 2913 words.)

W. Powell Jones (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Jones, W. Powell. “The Romantic Bluestocking, Elizabeth Montagu.” Huntington Library Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1949): 85-98.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses the importance of Montagu's letters and what they reveal about her. He also examines several unpublished pieces of correspondence in terms of the literary theory contained therein, focusing especially on the eighteenth century conception of romanticism.]


Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, “Queen of the Bluestockings,” is perhaps the most famous of those learned ladies of eighteenth-century England who courted literary circles, collected celebrities, and strove to be known as...

(The entire section is 5828 words.)

Katherine G. Hornbeak (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Hornbeak, Katherine G. “New Light on Mrs. Montagu.” In The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker, edited by Frederick W. Hilles, pp. 349-61. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949.

[In the following essay, Hornbeak examines those letters of Montagu that relate to her relationship with James Woodhouse, a poet and her employee, and what they impart about various aspects of her life.]

Luckily for Mrs. Montagu's peace of mind and prestige, the most unsympathetic account of her by a contemporary was not published until nearly a century after her death. Occasionally during her lifetime some critical comment on the Queen of the Blues struck...

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Edith Sedgwick Larson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Larson, Edith Sedgwick. “A Measure of Power: The Personal Charity of Elizabeth Montagu.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 16 (1986): 197-210.

[In the following essay, Larson analyzes Montagu's letters, arguing that money played an important role in her life and that she wielded power through financial charity.]

Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1720-1800) is too often perceived in terms of stale images conjured up by Samuel Johnson's sobriquet for her, “Queen of the Blue-Stockings.”1 Disparaging connotations of pretentious self-interest sometimes associated with the bluestockings have made it easy to dismiss her and her friends as women...

(The entire section is 5777 words.)

Sylvia Harcstark Myers (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Myers, Sylvia Harcstark. “Elizabeth Montagu: The Making of a Female Critic.” In The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship, and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 177-206. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Myers explores Montagu's life as it relates to the Bluestockings, including her relationship with the other members of the social circle and her efforts in literary criticism.]

In the late 1740s and early 1750s Elizabeth Montagu experienced ill health, the deaths of close relatives, the collapse of her sister's marriage, and an increasing awareness of the incompatibility underlying her relations with her husband....

(The entire section is 11942 words.)

Further Reading


Montagu, Elizabeth. A Lady of the Last Century (Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu): Illustrated in Her Unpublished Letters; Collected and Arranged, with a Biographical Sketch, and a Chapter on Blue Stockings, edited by Dr. John Doran. New York: AMS Press, 1973, 372p.

A collection of Montagu's letters on diverse topics.

“Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1720-1800).” In Women Critics 1660-1820: An Anthology, edited by the Folger Collective on Early Women Critics, pp. 96-110. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Offers a brief biographical sketch and excerpts from her writings.


(The entire section is 155 words.)