In 2016, it will be the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) death. A full programme of public performances, television programmes, exhibitions and creative activities are being organised in London and beyond. Shakespeare400 is a consortium of leading cultural, creative and educational organisations.
In light of this anniversary, I was recently browsing my bookshelves and came across a copy of Studies of Shakspere by Charles Knight (1851), I completely forgot I had this book. I am always thrilled when my collection manages to delight and surprise me. I have been buying secondhand books for over 30 years now. I began in my teenage years and, back then, could often be found in a dusty bookshop rather than partying hard at a disco (I grew-up in the 70s and 80s when discos were still ‘a thing’!)
I wouldn’t describe Studies of Shakspere as a ‘light read’ (yes, that is how ‘Shakespeare’ is spelt here, before you all rush to post a corrective comment below). It is a book to ‘dip in and out of’ which is the way I mostly like to engage with my books anyway.
During one of my bedtime browsing sessions, I came across the writings of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu nee Robinson (c.1718-1800). Quoted in Knight’s book, alongside other notable writers and critics of the Georgian era, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Martin Sherlock and David Hume (1711-1776), Elizabeth has a powerful voice. A female critic of Shakespeare? I was intrigued to find-out more.
- English writer Mrs Elizabeth Montagu nee Robinson. Published by Payne. January, 1760.
Brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement, critical in talk.
(Hester Thrale (1741-1821) writing to Fanny Burney (1752-1840) about Elizabeth Montagu)
Elizabeth was a Yorkshire-born social reformer, arts patron and leading light of the Blue Stockings Society. She wasn’t a great fan of marriage and didn’t harbour particularly strong romantic feelings for men. However, despite these opinions on romantic entanglements, men adored her. They were drawn to Elizabeth’s wit, intelligence, beauty and charisma.
Women were just as fascinated by Elizabeth. In her social circle of Age of Enlightenment luminaries, fellow writer, Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821) gave Elizabeth the highest of charm ratings, 101 out of a possible 120. Mrs Piozzi also credits Irish intellectual, Elizabeth Vesey (1715-91), with adoring Elizabeth as much as she hated her own husband. This was, after all, also the age of the romantic friendship when women of a certain class could indulge intense, platonic, relationships with her own sex.
- Hannah More (1745-1833) English religious writer and playwright, and member of the Blue Stocking circle of intelligent educated women, being introduced to Society by the Duchess of Gloucester. Wood engraving, 1753.
Elizabeth was a leader of the famous Blue Stockings Society. The Society, which started in the 1750s, was a very tight-circle of women who met in the London homes of fashionable hostesses such as Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey (c1715-1791) and Frances Boscawen (1719-1805).
In the 1770s, Elizabeth Montagu hosted salons in Hill Street, London, which became home to some of the best salons in London. Her salons attracted the biggest literary and creative names of the age: Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and Horace Walpole.
The name ‘Blue Stocking’ was first used as an abusive term to insult the Puritans of Cromwell’s ‘Little Parliament’ in 1653. In Elizabeth’s time, it was used to describe botanist, Benjamin Stillingfleet’s (1702-71), who is thought to have turned-up to one of Elizabeth’s salons wearing blue woollen stockings. This style of stocking would normally have been worn by working men, gentlemen normally wore formal, white silk stockings
Elizabeth and her fellow Bluestockings were also important Arts Patrons, supporting a whole host of female authors: Elizabeth Carter; Hannah More; Frances Burney; Anna Barbauld; Sarah Fielding; Hester Chapone and Anna Williams. The Blue Stockings promoted friendship, philanthropy, education (particularly of women), arts patronage and creativity.
Prior to her marriage Elizabeth Montagu had many suitors, all of whom found their advances and declarations swiftly dismissed. The following extract is from Elizabeth Montagu, the Queen of the Bluestockings: Her Correspondence from 1720-1761 (2 Vols, London: John Murray, 1906) by Emily Climenson). Elizabeth writes to her sister Sarah Scott nee Robinson (1723-1795), about one such unlucky suitor, Mr Brockman of Beechborough:
Poor Mr B [Mr Brockman of Beechborough] really takes his misfortunes so to heart that he literally dying, indeed I hear he is very ill, which I am sorry for, but I have no balsam of heartsease for him, if he should die I will have him buried in Westminster Abbey next the woman that died of a prick of a finger, for it is quite as extraordinary, and he shall have his figure languishing in wax…..upon my word I compassionate his pains, and pity him, but as I am as compassionate, I am as cold too as Charity…. I am very sorry if the poor man is really what you think, unhappy; if his case is uneasy I am sure it is desperate; complaint I hope, is more the language, than misery the condition, of lovers.
To speak ingenuously you men use us oddly enough, you adore the pride, flatter the vanity, gratify the ill-nature, and obey the tyranny that insults you; then slight the love, despise the affection, and enslave the obedience that would make you happy: when frowning mistresses all are awful goddesses, when submissive wives, despicable mortals.
On another occasion, in 1742, Elizabeth wrote to Rev. William Friend expressing her characteristically strong opinions on marriage, flattery of the female sex, love, the superficiality of physical attraction and other matters of the heart.
Flattery has ever been the ladder to power, and I have detested its inverted effects of worshipping one into slavery, while it has pretended to adore one to deification. If ever I commit my happiness to the hands of any person, it must be one whose indulgence I can trust, for flattery I cannot believe.
I am sure I have faults, and am convinced a husband will find them, but wish he may forgive them; but vanity is apt to seek the admirer, rather than the friend, not considering that the passion of love may, but the effect of esteem can never, degenerate to dislike. I do not mean to exclude love, but I mean to guard against the fondness that arises from personal advantages….
I have known many men see all the cardinal virtues in a good complexion, and every ornament of a character in a pair of fine eyes, and they have married these perfections, which might perhaps shine and bloom a twelvemonth, and then alas! (Ibid.)
Despite her views, Elizabeth did wed. In 1742 she married Edward Montagu (1692-1776), grandson of the Ist Earl of Sandwich (1625-1672). It was a financially and socially advantageous union despite their 28 year age gap (Elizabeth was 22, Edward 50). For the most part, it was an amicable union that produced one son, John (b.1743), whom Elizabeth doted on. She was devastated when he died a year later. The couple had no more pregnancies or children.
Elizabeth kept a female companion who performed in the role of servant. By all accounts, the young woman was not happy in her ‘role’ and escaped, as soon as possible, into marriage. Some theories put forward have suggested that Elizabeth’s female companion was actually her only sister, Sarah Scott nee Robinson (1723-1795).
Sarah was a prolific writer, more so than her sister Elizabeth, publishing her works anonymously. Sarah’s most famous publication was her utopian novel A Description of Millenium Hall and the Country Adjacent (1762), closely followed by the sequel The History of Sir George Ellison (1766).
In 1751, Sarah married mathematician and tutor to the Prince of Wales, George Lewis Scott (1708-1780), a marriage Elizabeth disapproved of vehemently. Elizabeth felt so strongly about the marriage, that she became temporarily estranged from her sister. Elizabeth’s instincts were correct. George was a bit of scoundrel but details of what actually went wrong with the marriage are sketchy. It is thought the marriage was one of convenience. There were also rumours that he had attempted to poison Sarah. The couple separated in 1752.
Elizabeth had strong, well-informed, opinions on many topics but none more so than on the subject of literature. One of Elizabeth’s most celebrated publications was Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769). It is this book which is quoted and referred to in my copy of Studies of Shakspere by Charles Knight (1851).
In her writing, Elizabeth confidently defends Shakespeare’s texts against French writer Voltaire’s (1694-1778) attacks. Elizabeth earned literary recognition for this essay and by 1785 it had run to 4 editions. Originally published anonymously, it was thought the book had been written by Joseph Warton (1722-1800) but by 1777, Elizabeth’s name appeared on the title page.
In the essay, she endorses Shakespeare’s writings as a vehicle to promote morality and educate the masses. She also declares, that although Shakespeare’s plays lack formal and classical structure, they do have a natural simplicity and truth of expression.
Below are a few extracts from Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, quoted in Studies of Shakspere by Charles Knight (1851). Knight refers to Elizabeth’s attack upon Shakespeare as being rather a ‘maudlin defence’ (p.542) and its ‘half-patronising, half-vindicating tone is very well meant’ (p.543). In fact, Elizabeth praises Shakespeare’s genius for most of the essay, declaring him to be the ‘greatest poet’.
Elizabeth also wrote specifically on his characters, plots and quality of verse. The extract below makes reference to Shakespeare’s lack of formal education. Elizabeth does not hold back with her intellectual snobbery:
Our author [Shakespeare], by following minutely the chronicles of the times, has embarrassed his dramas with too great a number of persons and events. The hurly-burly of these plays recommended them to a rude, illiterate audience, who, as he says, loved a noise of targets. His poverty, and the low conditions of the stage (which at that time was not frequented by persons of rank), obliged him to this complaisance; and, unfortunately, he had not been tutored by any rules of art, or informed by acquaintance with just and regular dramas. (Ibid. p. 542)
Our author is too much addicted to the obscure bombast much affected by all sorts of writers in that age…There are many bombast speeches in the tragedy of ‘Macbeth’ and these are the lawful prize of the critic. (Ibid. p.542)
On Julius Caesar:
The quarrel between Brutus and Cassius does not, by any means, deserve the ridicule thrown upon it by the French critic [Voltaire]….but it rather retards than brings forward the catastrophe, and is useful only in setting Brutus in a good light. (Ibid. p542)
On William Shakespeare:
It has been demonstrated with great ingenuity and candour that he was destitute of learning: the age was rude and void of taste; but what had a still more pernicious influence on his works was, that the court and the universities, the statesmen and scholars, affected a scientific jargon. An obscurity of expression was thought the veil of wisdom and knowledge; and that mist, common to the morn and eve of literature, which in fact proves it is not at its high meridian, was affectedly thrown over the writings, and even the conversation of the learned, who often preferred images distorted or magnified, to a simple exposition of their thoughts.
Shakspeare is never more worthy of the true critic’s censure than in those instances in which he complies with this false pomp of manner. It was pardonable in a man of his rank not be more polite and delicate than his contemporaries; but we cannot so easily excuse such superiority of talents for stooping to say affectation. (Ibid. pp. 542-3)
- Elizabeth Montagu’s house in Portman Square, London, c1800
In 1777, Elizabeth began work on Montagu House in Portman Square, London and moved there in 1781. Suring this decade her salons became increasingly more opulent attracting an even wider circle of literary luminaries. She called the mansion in Portman Square her ‘temple to virtue and friendship’. Samuel Johnson called her the ‘Queen of the Blues’.
Elizabeth died in Montagu House on 25th August, 1800. She left most of her property and money to her nephew, Matthew Montagu, 4th Baron Rokeby (1762-1831). He published a collection of his aunt’s letters in 1809, The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, with Some of the Letters of her Correspondents.
- It was at Elizabeth’s Mayfair salons the term ‘Bluestocking’ was coined.