Miscellany — Autumn 2017

The Electronic Enlightenment Project is pleased to publish a mini-edition and critical analysis of 25 letters between the Bluestocking socialite and Shakespeare critic Elizabeth Montagu and select correspondents. This collection has been transcribed, edited, annotated and “re-read” by Jack Orchard (Swansea University), for the Digital Humanities component of an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award undertaken with the Electronic Enlightenment Project, Bodleian Library, Oxford.Dr Robert V. McNamee, Director Electronic Enlightenment & Oxford Text Archive

Reading and sociability in the correspondence of Elizabeth Montagu and friends — a shared reading of letters in a born-digital mini-edition.

Compiled primarily from Montagu holdings across the UK, the editorial rationale behind the collection are three-fold.

1. Material and archival diversity

Firstly, there was a material focus: I wanted to include samples of letters which were fragmentary as well as complete, had print instances as well as manuscript, and which came from a wide-variety of archival sources. Represented here are letters from:

2. Broad range of correspondents

Secondly, I wanted to give as broad a range as possible within these materials of the key correspondents within Montagu’s creative life, both those who are well-recognised correspondents, such as Elizabeth Carter and James Beattie, and those who have largely escaped scholarly attention but were key members of Montagu’s epistolary circle, such as her early Bullstrode Circle friends William Friend and Anne Donnellan, and the most overlooked beneficiary of her literary patronage, the put-upon cleric Robert Potter. The collection is also supplemented by a letter from Catherine Talbot, one of the Bluestocking scholars central to my own research. The correspondents represented in this edition, who all have comprehensive or updated EE Biographies, are:

In addition to these figures and letters new EE biographies for two key figures in the dissemination of Bluestocking ideas in the generation following the correspondents in this edition. First, Amabel Hume-Campbell (1751–1833), daughter of Jemima Grey and historian of the French Revolution, in whose education Catherine Talbot took an active interest; and second, Montagu Pennington (1762–1849), nephew of Elizabeth Carter and early 19th Century publisher of Carter’s memoirs, of Talbot’s works, and of their correspondences.

3. Diversity of interpretative techniques & functions

The third and final editorial rational behind the collection grows from the thematic basis of my own doctoral research: namely, the concepts of shared reading-experience and community interpretation, which is evident in a variety of different forms within this selection of letters. I will close this miscellany by outlining a few particularly prominent examples of this read/critique experience. Firstly we have the most direct expression of community interpretation in direct critical discussion of a literary text, seen here in the aforementioned discussion of Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765) in the letter from Elizabeth Montagu to Sarah Scott:

Mr Johnson’s preface is in some parts ingenious & prettily written, he has a peculiar neatness of expression sometimes, tho he often appears affected or pedantick, yet some of his periods are very elegant. As to the corrupted passages of his author he has not done much but there is not perhaps much for a sober Critick to do, but what appears to me extremely deficient is his examen of the plays In which he neither enters into the conduct of the drama nor characters of the persons in a critical manner, and sometimes ascribes things to them Which seem to me totaly unjust.

See Elizabeth Montagu to Sarah Scott, 18 February 1766
Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: montelEE0160070a1c

Montagu’s diagnosis of the flaws in Johnson’s analysis of Shakespeare is fascinatingly prescient: a) anticipating her Essay on Shakespear (1769), where she argues for his superiority over contemporary French drama taking the emotional impact of Shakespeare’s characterisation as its central subject, anticipating the Romantic turn in Shakespeare scholarship, preceding William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817) by almost half a century.

The second form of interpretation that Montagu practices is the abstraction from a number of sources into broad theories of history and culture. Her correspondence shows her analysing and dissecting ancient Greece and Rome, ancient Scotland, the Georgian court and political world, the London beau monde, the industrial north, and Revolutionary France, through a combination of literary allusion and personal reflection. Among the letters in this collection there is a particularly rich seam of cultural critique in her letters with James Beattie. Like Montagu’s other correspondents within the Scottish Enlightenment, he participated in her cultural reflections inspired by reading the conjectural stadial histories and Ossianic nationalist myths that filled the Edinburgh presses in the 1760s and 70s. Here is her reflection, following a lengthy exchange over the Ossianic poetry, on the correlations between national and ethnic character, and the poetic language employed by that nation:

You ask me why the Eastern Nations are in their poetical composition so full of glaring images & exaggerated metaphors? One reason, I presume, is, that they are little addicted to write or read prose. Fiction & Bombast are call’d le Phoebus in ye french language; ye marvellous is affected in poetry more than in prose, exaggeration is a road to ye marvellous. The first passage from Hieroglyphic representation to imitation by words must naturally be by images. The Greeks by a certain subtlety of parts, & the popular character of ye Philosophers, addicted themselves greatly to Metaphysicks, this banish’d from the learned the grosser images. They cultivated all the parts of Rhetorick, thence grew precision, & consequently ye figurative style became less in use, words acquired certain & exact signification …Ossian exaggerates only the strength & valour of his Heroes, & the beauty of his Women. As Poetry professes to please & surprise it will always embellish & magnify. We owe much to ye Metaphysical turn of ye Greeks for refining our ideas and spiritualizing them. While only Fables & panegyricks were fabricated by the Poets, clear, & adequate, & well proportioned phrase could never be establishd. Obscurity was necessary, exaggeration would be sought...As to the Passions I believe them to be much more violent in warm Countrys, & as the Asiatick life is more indolent, the body employd in less motion, & the mind less diverted by variety of objects, it desires what it likes with more vehement & uninterrupted attention.

See Elizabeth Montagu to James Beattie, 13 December 1772,
Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: montelEE0010032a1c

Drawing on a collection of insights from contemporary historians, including Henry Home, Lord Kames, and William Ferguson, as well as some of her own theoretical reflections formulated in an abortive ‘Essay on Ornament’, sent in a letter to Kames 6 years earlier, Montagu articulates the Stadial historical commonplace of a continuum between art, historical status, political condition, and national character, to present a theory of the way in which Asian and Ossianic poetry can be used as a critical resource for examining their fundamental characteristics as peoples. In a letter to Lord Kames a year prior to this, she would go so far as to assert that poetry provides a more useful resource for understanding past ages than direct historical analysis.

The third mechanism of textual engagement seen here is the social functions of texts, whether this be in terms of book-borrowing and exchange, shared reading, or patronage. In all of these scenarios discussions or references to texts have a function in establishing the terms of the relationship between the correspondents, beyond that inherent in the shared intellectual exchange itself. A little example from this selection includes Lord Bath’s invitation to tea (Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: montelEE0160072a1c) with its casual allusions to unknown pamphlets and the enclosure of the ‘second volume’ of the Histoire de Jean Sobieski, Roi de Pologne (1761) — it is reasonable to assume that Montagu is receiving volume 2 having finished volume 1. This illuminates the way in which an ongoing reading experience becomes part of the social fabric of their relationship: as much a part of their social interaction as the letter itself, or the tea to which it refers. A more substantial case is that of Robert Potter, whose letter in this collection reflects a desire to participate in the kind of intellectual exchange Montagu enjoys with Beattie, but which is ultimately subsumed by the need to please and assert his worth and deference:

Mr Bryant’s dissertations on Rowley’s poems entertained and informed me; though neither his arguments, nor those of the learned Dean, can induce me to believe that lines in Waller and Addison’s Cato were written by Rowley. Mr Warton’s pamphlet will, I should imagine, finally close that controversy. Dr Warton’s account of the Life and Writings of Pope, might, in my opinion, have well been spared, after Ruffhead’s, but this is an age of anecdote it would be well however if gentlemen would take the pains to understand an author, before they undertake to comment on him. But I am showing my self as fastidious as I think Dr Johnson. Let me therefore change the subject, and make inquiries after Dr Beattie

Robert Potter to Elizabeth Montagu, 25 June 1782
Electronic Enlightenment ID: montelEE0160075a1c

This reflection on contemporary literary controversies, the literary critical squabbles between Jacob Bryant and Samuel Johnson over the merits of seventeenth-century poet Samuel Rowley, and the competing Pope biographers Joseph Warton and Owen Ruffhead, looks initially not dissimilar to exchanges Montagu has with Beattie and Carter about the Ossian controversy, or with Lord Bath on the latest works of professional public-enemy Charles Churchill. In context, however, preceded by an account of the critical attacks on Potter’s translation of Euripides, ‘they are grossly illiberal, and mainly ignorant’, and a description of the loss of his daughter, ‘a violent inflammation seized her lungs, an unrelenting Hectic burnt her up, and she was carried off very rapidly’, the discussion quickly deteriorates into bitterness and self-deprecation. By the time Potter refers to ‘gentlemen . . . tak[ing] pains to understand an author, before they undertake to comment on him’, he isn’t referring to Pope any more, but once again to the ‘Critical Reviewers’ who he claims have ‘abused’ the first volume of his Euripides.

The third aspect of reading experience, and one which persists throughout Montagu’s intellectual life, but is particularly noticeable in her early correspondences of the 1740s, is that of satirical or emphatic quotation. A particularly poignant example of this is in the letter from Montagu to William Freind included here:

I am sure you who I take to be a connoisseur in Friendship will allow it is the most natural of any, the deepest impressions are made in youth when the heart is not hardened by time & accidents, the affections not blunted by disappointments nor the mind distracted by busyness, then we are tender & disinterested, Vanity fills not the space of our affections with the equipage of ye world nor does ambition employ our thoughts in its more serious trifles, the Passions are calm our lives serene, then before Hypocrisy or Pride avarice or ambition take us, is the time for Friendship when souls each other draw.

And Love is Liberty & nature law

Elizabeth Montagu to William Friend, 15 November 1741,
Electronic Enlightenment ID: montelEE0220197a1c

This letter, employing the characteristic pose of imaginative detachment which she will employ as an aspect of her epistolary persona throughout her life, the 21 year old Montagu reflects on the purity of a friendship experienced in youth, before the forced worldliness of day-to-day life and responsibility descends. To this end she creatively misquotes Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man:

What War could ravish, Commerce could bestow,
And he return'd a friend, who came a foe.
Converse or Love, mankind might strongly draw,
When Love was Liberty, and Nature Law.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, (London: printed by John Wright, 1734), p.43

Pope’s original text is refers to a golden age in the evolution of human society, when the savagery of prehistory has been transcended, but before commerce and artificial sophistication has entered to destroy the purity and immediacy of interpersonal sincerity. Placing her relationship in the context of this golden age, Montagu not only presents a touching and literary vision of her own youthful state, but shows an interest in the correlation between historical and personal states of being. This interest is, of course, the same one which we have seen manifesting itself, 30 years later, in the conversation with James Beattie.

The final interpretative resonance found in Montagu’s letters is best represented within this collection by the letter from Catherine Talbot to Jemima Grey. This literary pastiche goes one step beyond allusion to creatively extend the analogy between text and reality with comic, thought-provoking effect. Here is the opening of Catherine Talbot’s pastiche of the Cave of Montesinos episode from Don Quixote, with Jemima Grey cast as Quixote in search of her husband Philip Yorke:

Not finding Mr Yorke in haste to return, you have like a Lady Errant set out upon your Palfrey to go in Search of him. You set out in a G[l]oomy morning, November having desired leave to make an exchange with September, that it might veil you in its cl[o]uds & assist your disguise. You travelled over many a hill & dale still directing your course northwards, & made many a vain enquiry at many a Romantick castle. At length you perceived the recent track of well known Wheels, & followed it till you came to the brink what to vulgar appearance look’d like a coal pit, but was really an Enchanted Den. Here the Companion of your early days Calm Philosophical Indifference, forsook you & left you obstinately resolved to try the hazardous adventure. You descended by Oblique and Glomy Paths a thousand Fathoms deep, at length you beheld a large Plain & a Magnificent Palace.

Catherine Talbot to Jemima Grey, 13 September 1744,
Electronic Enlightenment ID: montelEE0280001a1c

Like Montagu, Talbot plays with the applicability of her source to her situation, but the format of pastiche enables her to draw out the ironic juxtaposition until it evolves into something more. Not only does the figure of the Lady Errant, by inverting the damsel-in-distress paradigm, come to represent ironically a masculine mechanism for valorising the devotion of a wife towards her husband, the ability to read imaginatively and with a sense of humour is presented throughout the letter as empowering. Unlike Cervantes original, in which Don Quixote is laughed at because he sees Palaces where there are none, Talbot’s Jemima is celebrated for being able to see a real ‘Magnificent Palace’ that is hidden to the ‘vulgar’, who aren’t able to use their interpretative faculties imaginatively. As it unfolds, the letter becomes a celebration of Talbot and Jemima’s relationship and reading practices, simultaneously enacting and describing a new theory of interpretation.

Thus, in this mini-edition, we see a microcosm of the reading and interpretative practices employed by Elizabeth Montagu and her correspondents. They are by no means unique in responding to texts in this way, however, and by bringing these letters into the context of Electronic Enlightenment, the hope is that they will be able to be put into dialogue with other community interpretative practices of other epistolary communities.

Jack Orchard
Collaborative Doctoral Award AHRC, University of Swansea
© 2017 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

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