A boy was born, who was christened by some sober name, but always called " Punch." (Think of the retainer !) He brought a very deep happiness into the life at Allerthorpe, and for the first time Elizabeth found that life without society or gaiety was completely satisfying. But he died before he was a year old.
There were no more groans from the old steward about hopping, and we never hear of " Fidget " again. The next nickname she bore was " Minerva."
Her health was not very good, and she spent much time in retirement, reading and studying, and, later on, writing. She turned out an essay on Shakespeare which roused Voltaire, and interested Johnson; and she also produced other literary efforts. Between whiles she entertained at Hill Street, in a room full of the fashionable Chinese curios. Her breakfast parties became famous, and her evening "conversation parties," in an age of card-playing, attracted first by their novelty, and then by their charm. All the witty and wise of England went there. There was only one disqualification. "I will ask no idiots to my house," said Mrs. Montagu. And, consequently, an invitation there became a guarantee of the hostess's good opinion.
In 1775, Mr. Montagu died, and his widow, if not absolutely heart-broken, mourned him sincerely and quietly, and did the best thing to honour his memory that she could. She took on the cares of estate ownership, and showed that she possessed admirable business qualities. She administrated the huge estates ably, justly, and kindly, started spinning-schools for the girls, and so forth, and took a practical interest in all her tenants.
She was now a very rich, completely independent woman of fifty-five, very hand-some and queenly, famed for both learning and wit, and endowed with great charm. She went to Paris in the following year, where Voltaire took the opportunity of delivering a scathing address on Shakespeare in her presence, to which she responded in a spirited pamphlet, upholding the conclusions of her Essay on Shakespeare. When she returned to England, she took up entertaining with fresh zest, and her fame spread even more.
For years she was friendly with Dr. Johnson, who was so kind as to say that he had seldom spent an evening "with fewer objections " than at her house. Fortunately, Mrs. Montagu's head was strong enough to bear this praise modestly, for there were even more overwhelming tributes to be received. When told that Lord Bath had said of her that he did not believe a more perfect human being was ever created, Burke said : "And I do not think he said a word too much."
In 1781 she was much occupied with the project of building Montagu (now Portman) House, in Portman Square. The building was designed, in close conclave with Mrs. Montagu, by "Athenian" Stuart. It was, of course, particularly adapted to entertaining, for Mrs. Montagu was never so happy as when her rooms were full of friends. There was a Cupidon room, with roses and jessamine and little cupids painted on the walls. There still exist some of Angelica Kauffman's paintings on the wall in another room. A very large and splendid chamber was called the Feather Room, because it was entirely hung with marvellous feather-work done by Mrs. Montagu herself. She used to beg her friends to save for her feathers from fowls and geese, and every bird was represented in the gleaming plumage of these curtains and draperies.
Cowper, in a poem on this room, begins :
The birds put on their every hue To dress a room for
He goes on for many lines, but does not mention anything so homely as geese !
In this room Mrs. Montagu entertained the King and Queen, and, later on, gave a breakfast to seventy of her friends. She also invited all the chimney - sweepers of London to eat roast beef and plum-pudding on her lawn every May Day. This lawn is one of the most beautiful in London to this day. In fact, the only drawback to the house, which stands at the corner of Portman Square and Gloucester Place, was the great danger of being waylaid by foot-pads or highwaymen on the way from London to the wilds of Tyburnia. However, Mrs. Montagu's popularity withstood even this test.
She was indeed for nearly fifty years the undisputed queen of literary and witty society in London. Imitators she had by the dozen, but of rivals ne'er a one.
Her friends ranged from Johnson down, included Garrick and Burke and Walpole, Wilberforce, and Beattie and Hannah More. The friendship of her girlhood with the Duchess of Portland lasted till the latter's death. Everyone speaks of her as being constant and affectionate, especially in seasons of distress. When she grew old, she was much laughed at because she remained so fond of society and dress. It struck the younger generation as funny that this old lady, childless and alone, feeble, and nearly blind, should still care what she wore, and still gather round her, in the large splendours of her house, a small group of intimates. But it is not so easy to be a queen of beauty and wit for fifty years, and then settle down to a quiet old age by the fire.
She had staunch friends to the last, and when she died, at the age of eighty, she was sincerely regretted. She is best remembered as the handsome, wise, calm, learned, blue-stocking Mrs. Montagu, but those who read her letters and the memorials of her life, and come under the spell of her charm, will like also to recall the wild, laughing, lovely girl who "squalled for joy " when she was overturned on the dark road, and scandalised her husband's old steward by indulging in the unheard-of occupation of hopping !
The beautiful and witty Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, who received the epithet of "blue-stocking" on account of her learning and talent, but who won universal popularity and affection by her charming personality and kindly disposition
From the original painting by Sir foshua Reynolds