Biography and History

Elizabeth Montagu was born on October 2, 1720, in York, England. She was the first daughter and fifth child of Matthew and Elizabeth Robinson, two well-connected and wealthy members of society who were generally distant and preoccupied parents. She spent much of her childhood in Cambridge at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Conyers Middleton, Elizabeth’s grandmother and her second husband. On these stays, Montagu and her closest sister, Sarah, were introduced to academic pursuits and pleasures. They were educated in Italian, French, and Latin and read classical and English literature and history.

Montagu’s interest in lively intellectual life continued through many important friendships in her adolescence and early adulthood. She was a close companion of Lady Margery Harley, whom she met in Cambridge. Harley was three years older than Elizabeth and introduced her to a glamorous society life. After Harley married the second duke of Portland, Elizabeth regularly visited them in London, experiencing the sort of free intellectual discourse between men and women at their home that she would later emulate in her "bluestocking" gatherings.

Elizabeth married Edward Montagu on August 5, 1742, despite her disdain for marriage. Her only child John died unexpectedly in September 1744, devastating Elizabeth. Her relationship with her husband was cordial but distant; he was preoccupied with his business and political interests and she enjoyed her intellectual pursuits.

Montagu is most famous for her "bluestockings parties," gatherings of literary figures and intellectual socialites at her London home at which drinking and card games were banned in favor of witty discussion of literature, philosophy, and other topics. Often called the "queen of the bluestockings," Montagu and her friend Elizabeth Vesey organized these meetings. Montagu also pursued her own writing, including an appreciated and acclaimed essay on Shakespeare, displaying her nationalism and belief in his genius and condemning the less positive evaluations of contemporary critics such as Samuel Johnson and Voltaire.

Montagu died in 1800, leaving her estate to her nephew, Matthew Robinson Montagu.

Source: From the finding aid for C0078