From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Elizabeth Montagu (October 2, 1718 - August 25, 1800) was a British social reformer, patron of the arts, hostess, literary critic, and writer who helped organize and lead the bluestocking society. Her parents were both from wealthy families with strong ties to the British peerage and intellectual life, and she married Edward Montagu, a wealthy man with extensive holdings, to become one of the wealthiest women of her era. She devoted this wealth to fostering English and Scottish literature and to the relief of the poor.
Bluestocking work and writing
In 1760, George Lyttleton encouraged her to write Dialogues of the Dead, and she contributed three sections to the work, anonymously (her authorship of these is testified to elsewhere). It is a series of conversations between the living and the illustrious dead and works as a satire of 18th century vanity and manners. In 1769, she published An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear. In it, she proclaims William Shakespeare the greatest English poet and, in fact, the greatest poet of any nation. She also attacks Samuel Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare from 1765 for not having gone on to praise Shakespeare's plays enough. While Johnson had dealt with text, history, and the circumstances of editing, Montagu wrote instead about the characters, plots, and beauties of the verse in Shakespeare and saw in him a championing of all things inherently English. When the book was initially published anonymously, it was thought to be by Joseph Warton, but by 1777 her name appeared on the title page. Johnson, for his part, was estranged from Montagu at this point.
In the late 1760's, Edward Montagu fell ill, and Elizabeth took care of him, although she resented giving up her freedom. He died in 1775. In 1776, she adopted her nephew, the orphan of her brother. Matthew Robinson, the child, kept his family name, but he was named Elizabeth's heir. At that point, the coal and land holdings Montagu passed on to Elizabeth accounted for an income of £ 7,000 a year. She managed her wealth and estates well, and by her death her coal income was worth 10,000 pounds a year.
In 1777, she began work on Montagu House in Portman Square in London, moving in in 1781, on land leased for 99 years. She also expanded Sandleford's Montagu House in the 1780's, and she got Capability Brown to design its gardens. She died in Montagu House in London on August 25, 1800 and left all of her money to Matthew Robinson, her nephew.