Elizabeth Montagu Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.