The Ideal Figure, etc., etc.
"Blue=Stocking" Mrs. Montagu
By Pearl Adam
The prevalent notion of a "blue-stocking " pictures her as a loud-voiced woman with short hair and blue glasses. Yet Mrs. Montagu, who was first called by the name, would have been famous for her beauty and charm if her learning had not given her a higher claim to remembrance. She was a very lovely woman, skilled in all feminine graces, of whom, in old age, a famous man could say that she had passed through all the stages of man, and given a grace to each. She was born in York in 1720, of a beautiful mother and a handsome young father, who had married at the age of eighteen. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson had in all twelve children, and the cares of such a family, increasing quickly, fell so heavily on the shoulders of such a young couple that Elizabeth was sent to Cambridge to spend much of her time with Mrs. Robinson's mother. This lady had married a second time. Her husband was a very learned man - Dr. Conyers Middleton - and, with the best will in the world, he did his utmost to turn Elizabeth into a fearful little prig.
A Precocious Child
At the age of eight she had copied out the whole of the "Spectator." She was always present when the learned men of Cambridge came to discuss with Dr. Middleton Life and Death and Eternity, with branches into mathematics and philosophy and science. He expected her to repeat to him when they had gone as much of the conversation as she could remember; and as she did so, he explained any points that puzzled her. It is a fearsome picture - the small girl repeating parrot-wise the abstruse conversations of learned old men; and her step-grandfather condescending to explain to her now and then things whose explanations can only have puzzled her more deeply.
At home, too, she was exercised in a way unusual for a child. Her father encouraged her to cultivate her taste for repartee, and used to engage in sparring matches with her, until she became- so accomplished that he left off, because she always got the better of him. The children used to set themselves a subject for argument, and Mrs. Robinson would sit by and form a court of appeal if the argument grew too hot.
A Charming Hoyden
However, all this suited Elizabeth's temperament admirably. She received an education unusually good for a girl in those days, and her brain strengthened and grew clear and logical without in the least impairing the charm of her girlhood. She was a wild, high-spirited creature, very much of a tomboy. At the age of eighteen she went eight miles to a play with her sister and two brothers, supped at an inn, started home at two in the morning, and, before she had gone two miles, met with an accident, which she described in this quaint fashion :
"I had the pleasure of being overturned, at which I squalled for joy."
She adored dancing, and had a great sense of fun. Her nickname was " Fidget," for she could not keep still. She hated cards and getting up early; but she had delightful manners, and when she stayed in a house where eight o'clock breakfast was the rule, she came down at that hour as a matter of course, even if she had been dancing half the night - a form of courtesy not too common either then or now.
We get the best notion of her from her very delightful letters to the Duchess of Portland. This lady, five years Elizabeth's senior, was her chosen friend. She was the "Lovely, noble little Peggy" of Prior's poem, and had been Lady Margaret Cavendish. She it was who brought the name and estates of Cavendish into the Bentinck family. Elizabeth wrote long, light-hearted letters to her, in which it is odd to find her calling her great friend "Your Grace," where all else is so free from stiffness and etiquette. The letters are full of charming touches. She painted a little, but calls herself a hospital painter, "for I never drew a figure that was not lame or blind, and they had all something horrible in their countenances." From Tunbridge Wells and Bath, where her beauty and her wit claimed a double triumph, she wrote that life was "all the morning, ' How d'ye do's,' and all night, 'what's trumps ?' "
In London she took headers in the ornamental waters at Marylebone Gardens - a fashionable pastime - to the great delight of the onlookers, for she was quite fearless. Her beauty was of the kind which improves with every healthy occupation, and she was not afraid to submit it, wet and glowing, to the judgment of the bystanders. Zincke has painted her in the dress of Anne Boleyn. It is a lovely face, and full of meaning, which is more than one can say for the countenances of many famous beauties.
She had many suitors, of whom she chose the most unlikely. Edward Montagu was a man much her senior, quiet, reserved, a bookworm, and intellectual. He was very rich, a coal-owner, a member of Parliament, an earl's cousin, and altogether a very unromantic person. But he pleased Elizabeth, and with him her life was one of placid, happy union. He carried her off to Aller-thorpe, in Yorkshire, where the manners of the people displeased her greatly. Drunkenness reigned quite as much among the gentry as among the peasantry. Elizabeth writes that " most of the poor ladies in the neighbourhood have had more hogs in their drawing-room than ever they had in their hog-sty."
There was an old steward at Allerthorpe, a venerable creature, of the type which invariably makes a young wife's life a misery, purely on the ground that they have " dandled the master when he was no bigger nor that." When the master in question is a serious-minded, middle-aged man, and he brings home a young girl called (and with reason) ' Fidget," one can imagine the state of the white-locked retainer. Elizabeth writes that "I am told that he has never heard a hop that he had not echoed with a groan." There is something to be said for him. Ladies who marry sober, coal-owning members of Parliament are not supposed, whatever else they do, to hop !