The Space Where the Story Should Be: or, of Blacksmiths and Bastards

I have not abandoned Montagu and Bath, but I have put them on pause for a bit, partly because I’m trying to decide what to do now both with them and with the blog posts; and partly because of my need to indulge a sudden wave of nostalgia for my early (embryonic, really) scholarly identity – as a Canadianist. Indulging this wave has meant plunging into an unknown area for me, sleuthing along—an explorer, beginning a journey into the small world of the long eighteenth century in Canada.

photo from many thanks

Eighteenth-century Canadian letters and documents – even counting those produced by the Loyalists – aren’t nearly so plentiful as British ones. However, they do exist, sometimes in significant quantity; sometimes as meager scraps; and often like tiny threads, some tied or tangled with others, that can be picked apart, fondled, and then followed to see if they are cut short or if they lead to a half-decent ball of yarn from which narratives can be unraveled and stories can be knit.

Thus, during one hot and sweaty week in the Maritimes this August, I found myself discovering the joys of the climate-controlled Nova Scotia Archives for the first time. I love the old, wooden card catalogues – once endemic to all libraries; now a rare pleasure — their warm and often worn wooden drawers cradling secrets, and demanding a tactile, physical relationship to research, so different from the mouse click that leads us into virtual labyrinths.

The Nova Scotia Archives has a satisfying number of these drawers that slide open to reveal creamy cards that lead to rows of binders that lead to slips of paper that lead to incredibly patient librarians who bring boxes of fragile documents and white gloves that allow the curious to pluck away, following thread after thread after thread towards balls of possibility.

And here, in the final hours of my last day in the library, as I idly perused a box of scrappy pieces of paper, I found a tiny thread that seemed to lead nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The papers I was perusing (I later learned) have been fully digitized, and are available here. They record the lives of the Eassons, a founding family in the fort town of today’s Annapolis Royal, situated in southern Nova Scotia, on the Annapolis River. This collection is primarily a collection of business documents and transactions – receipts, bills, records, and letters – letters like the one from 1749 that discussed mill stones to be shipped from England to Boston and eventually to Annapolis.

The Easson family was large and sprawling, descended from John Easson who emigrated from England in the early 1730s. John Easson had 4 children, one of whom was David (1748-1790). David had 5 children, the youngest of whom was Alexander “Sandy” (1786-1862). Once David died, the records suggest that Alexander’s elder brother David took over as head of the family business enterprises, and was eventually joined by Alexander who was making purchases in his own name by 1806. Alexander’s transactions through 1806 and into 1807 include receipts for all kinds of goods: cloth, rum, tea, nails, mending chains, blacksmith services. Each receipt is on a scrap of paper, carefully ordered within the library box, and each is followed by another receipt on another scrap. The receipt for fabric from June 8, 1807 – June 13, 1808, though, is followed by a scrap smaller than most—recording a payment made to William LeCain:

“Received of Alexander Easson the sum of ten pounds, in part for a Bastard Child Begotten by Ann Henderson this 18th Day of August 1807.”

When I first saw this receipt, it knocked the wind out of me, and I was stunned to stumble across something that seemed so momentous and extraordinary, casually placed in the midst of so many things that seemed so commonplace. It’s almost as if the exchange of money for a bastard child was, to the participants in the drama, simply another business transaction.

But to me, as a reader hundreds of years later, this receipt stands out as the kernel of a story quite different from those suggested by the amount of molasses purchased or the number of nails or the quantity of rum. And unlike those other receipts, this one inspires a host of questions and speculation. For example, Easson paid 10 pounds, in part for the child. And so I wonder, does this mean that the 10 pounds was only part of what he would eventually pay, or does this mean that the 10 pounds was for several things – part of which was the child? Almost 20 years later, Alfred Whitman, “overseer of the poor” in Annapolis submitted a bill to the town for 3 pounds 5 shillings, “being the balance on ten pounds” due to Hugh Lynch, “which he was to receive for the support and maintenance of a child of the name of Mary Jane McDonald.” Ten pounds, it seems, might have been the going rate for a child—orphan or bastard.

And I wonder why William LeCain collected the money. Was he, like Alfred, acting as a go-between, or was he more personally involved? LeCain was a blacksmith in Annapolis, but I can’t find evidence to suggest that — like the later Alfred Whitman — he had any professional interest in children and their support. Nor, can I find any family connection between LeCain and Ann Henderson who, like so many women, seems to have disappeared into the vortex of the past. There were Hendersons who became a prominent Annapolis family; however, these Hendersons didn’t arrive in the region until many years after this birth. If not a relative, is it possible that Ann Henderson was a domestic servant who worked for the LeCains?

And I wonder if Alexander was actually the father of the child? Or was he just the one paying the debt? In 1807, he would have been 20 or 21 and single, making it possible for him to have been the father – and it wouldn’t have been the first time that a lusty young scion had ruined a domestic servant. Alexander was still single in 1814, when, as the only remaining single son, he married Zeruviah Fairn, the widow of his elder brother David. Does this fact suggest that Alexander was a bit of a player, choosing bachelorhood over marriage? Or that he was cautious or awkward with women? Or, just that he was busy with other things, and waiting for the right woman?

As a reader, I so want to be able to follow this tiny thread to the rest of the story. The story of the lusty entitled son and the helpless domestic servant; the story of “the passion that could not be” between the scion of a wealthy family and an “unsuitable woman” and their desperate love that produced a child; the story of a wanton, seductive woman, who got more than she bargained for when she seduced Alexander.

It’s not as easy to find information about the LeCain family as it is about the Eassons, but one genealogical database provides the information that William and his wife Sarah Henshaw had 5 children:

  1. Peter Lecain, born about 1800; married Sarah Tomlinson.
  2. Thomas Lecain, born 1804; died Dec 17 1886; married Sarah (Elizabeth) Orde.
  3. William Lecain, born about 1804; married Helen Ritchie.
  4. Elizabeth Mary Lecain, born about 1805; died Aug 11 1851; married Alexander Easson Ritchie.
  5. Ann Lecain, born about 1807.

When I discovered this information, I immediately seized on the fact of that final child – a girl about whom nothing (compared to her siblings) is known; a girl who was born – coincidentally – the same year that her father accepted payment for a bastard child whose mother was named Ann. If this were an eighteenth-century novel, like Humphrey Clinker or Tom Jones, our suspicions would be confirmed, and in the final pages of the novel, we would discover that – aha– Alexander Easson, charming, lusty, and persuasive, had fathered a child by Ann Henderson, the LeCain’s domestic servant; and we would discover that the LeCains had sent Ann on her way, but adopted the child, and given her her mother’s name.

But this is not an eighteenth-century novel. It’s a tiny fragment of history, plucked from the larger context, and separated from the rest of the story. It’s a messy, raggedy thread that leads not to a good yarn, but to an odd-shaped hole, connecting us not to a historical narrative, but to the space left by those lives lived and lost within the thick fabric of time.

The End of the Affair

On the 25th of June, almost 250 years ago, Lord Bath concluded his dinner at Lord Bessborough’s house by taking tea in the garden.  This reckless behavior, sources tell us, ultimately resulted in his death.  “He threw away his life,” wrote his friend Lady Hervey, “by a needless piece of complaisance, in drinking tea out of doors, after being warmed and heated by a great deal of meat, a great deal of company, and a good deal of mirth at dinner.  He was not at an age, nor is ours a climate for those al frescos” (306).   For almost two weeks Lord Bath fought for his life, but he finally succumbed to his illness on the 7th of July 1764.   His death, wrote Reginald Blunt, “ended the greatest attachment of Elizabeth Montagu’s life” (108).

For me, this death — so long anticipated and dreaded — actually happened rather unexpectedly, marked by a sudden and abrupt end to the letters in the Huntington collection.  On June 23rd, Bath wrote one of his brief London notes to Montagu, reminding her to consider joining him in Tunbridge Wells later that summer.  And that was it.  I knew, of course, that he became ill at the end of June and died on the 7th of July – and I wasn’t really expecting a kind of Richardsonian to-the-moment writing where Bath might have narrated the events immediately prior to his death.  But I think I was expecting, oddly, some easing into the loss, perhaps some narration of the beginning of his illness.  Instead, there was a dreadful silence, a sudden gap, an unanticipated hole.  And I wonder if this was how Montagu also experienced the loss.  Later letters make it clear that she didn’t see him during his final illness; but rather waited at home for notes from servants and conversations with doctors, hoping as he rallied and despairing as he slipped, until all hope was lost in the final suddenness of his inability to rally again.

Sometime shortly before his death, Bath did write a brief scrap of a note to Montagu, and I was fortunate to be able to read a digitized version of this note thanks to the kindness and industriousness of John Overholt, curator at the Houghton Library, Harvard.  After reading one of my earlier blog posts, John tracked me down to let me know that the Houghton holds several letters between Montagu and Bath.  And one of these is the remarkable final letter between the two correspondents.  Bath’s last letter – a single sentence — was eventually glossed by Montagu; and thus, the words of both writers are preserved together in this final moment, materially united in a kind of braiding of the separate threads they wove through their almost four years of individual letters.

In this final sentence, Bath wrote: “it is a great comfort for me to think that I begin to flatter myself of dying where I hope[d] allways to do it(MS: Eng 1365 13 — link).  Montagu’s gloss insists that this note was written by a delirious man:  “This note written by the great & good Earl of Bath when delirious in his last illness & kept as sacred to sorrow & eternal regret of the best sincerest and most amiable of friends” (MS Eng 1365 13 — link).  But I wonder if, in fact, the single sentence was actually written in a brief moment of incredible clarity.   And I wonder this because in this final epistle I find echoes of the first letters in their relationship, and I wonder if Bath intended this echo – a reminder, perhaps, at the moment of sorrow to remember the moments of joy – to look back from the end to the beginning.

The epistolary relationship between Bath and Montagu began with a series of flirtatious, playful, and slightly risqué letters in the early winter of 1760.  The letters initiated a kind of epistolary game where the two represented themselves as pastoral lovers, waiting until the turn of the century in order to be together.  In Montagu’s first letter to Bath – clearly a response to one of his that has since gone missing, Montagu wrote:

As I do not expect a billet doux every morning, I was unluckily asleep (observe that I do not say not dreaming of my Lord Bath) when your letter arrived.  I cannot express how much I admire your Lordship’s parody of a Bishop’s pastoral letter; as  I have yet got but half way towards the ardors or fourscore, your Lordship will  not expect I should immediately comply with your proposal, but if you will be content with a sentimental love till I arrive at the tender age of eighty, a person and a passion so ripened by time must be very yielding” (MO 4502).

In Bath’s flirtatious reply (the first extant letter we have from Bath to Montagu), he continued the game, and I can’t help seeing in his use of the word “die” (or “dye” as he spelled it) the more risqué meaning of the word — the “petite mort” — a meaning particularly clear in Shakespearean plays and in songs like John Dowland’s “Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite.”  Bath wrote:

Indeed Madam, you are too cruel to desire to postpone my happiness til the beginning of next century.  I can dye for the Lady I love, any day she pleases to command me, but to live forty years for her is more than I can promise . . . . . . . therefore reduce the horrid period of forty years, to twenty at most” (MO 4226).

To this, Montagu replied:

I really think I cannot be too much upon my guard against a lover who at once strikes off twenty years in his suit; such vehemence and violence alarms me; had your Lordship begged off the twenty years by five years at a time, I really think you had prevail’d.  You say my Lord that at the end of forty years I promise only to listen, and I appeal to your own experience and the report of others, whether ever the woman who listen’d to a lover only listen’d” (MO 4503).

This flirtatious game continued, on and off, throughout the correspondence, sometimes incorporating other men or women who were represented as rivals.  In April 1764, for example, just a few months before his death, Bath wrote:

“I send you back Sir James Macdonald’s letter, which I forgot to read ‘til this morning . . . It must have been . . . cruelty to me that induced you to let me feel what a dangerous Rival I have; and to keep my Passion up by blisters, cruel pain, and dreadful colicks; believe me, Madam, My love, like my life, is not to be preserved by giving me perpetual Bitter Draughts; I do not want Sir James’ eyes to be a judge of beauty.  I can see merit, wit, and many other great, and valuable qualities without his aid, to point them out to me, and I can discern all the perfections that belong to you without his taste, to bid me observe them. Believe me, Madam, I stand in need of no artifice to increase my passion” (MO 4482).

Along with the political intrigues, the daily news, the descriptions of illness, the flattery, and the earnest protestations of love and friendship, this flirtatious thread ran through the letters, constantly reminding the readers of those first joyous, coy, and flirty letters – constantly evoking the wit, vivacity, and chemistry that first drew this unlikely pair together.

Thus, when I consider Bath’s final sentence in light of this flirtatious thread, and in the light of his infamous love of puns and wordplay, I so clearly see the beginning of the relationship in the end – the first playful words in the last painful ones.  And I wonder if perhaps Montagu could see this too, even if she characterized his letter as “delirious.”  As Bath’s words evoked the wrenching and somber spectre of his death in her arms, they also cheekily and so very poignantly reminded her of the beginning, and of his protestation that he could “dye for the Lady I love, any day she pleases to command me, but to live forty years for her is more than I can promise . . . . . . .

Plots, Poems, Progress: Montagu & Bath in the Fall of ’63

Almost immediately after Elizabeth Montagu returned from her summer trip to Spa in 1763, she and her husband set off for Northumberland. During the 1750s, Edward Montagu had inherited collieries in Northumberland and Yorkshire; and in 1758, he inherited an estate at Denton.  He “went north” once or twice a year until his death in 1775, and Montagu often accompanied him — playing the role not just of “lady of the manor,” but also of shrewd business partner.  Indeed, upon his death, Edward Montagu left the business — outright — to his wife, who continued to increase its value.1  While she appreciated the success and financial gain of the collieries, Montagu did not appreciate the north itself, and in her letters she represented it as a wild, rude place of uncouth people and inhospitable weather.  She also found herself extremely lonely in the north, separated for many weeks from her London friends at a time when her relationship with her husband was often strained. Letters from friends were a tangible life line for Montagu — a thread connecting her to others, to the possibility of a return to “civilization,” and to the busy, chattering world of London life in the fall of 1763.

The summer journey to Spa seemed to have shifted the arc of the relationship between Montagu and Bath yet again; and the many letters between them that fall were lengthy, newsy, and conversational.  They were also easy in general, the letters suggest an easy intimacy, a comfort, a security; their bond seemed strong and certain.  And the strength of their relationship is suggested not so much by the content of the letters as by the fact of the letters themselves.  Montagu wrote to Bath by almost every single post for two months; and Bath did the same (I have a record of 19 letters from Montagu and 22 letters from Bath until she began her journey back to London).  Their letters were incredibly regular; both writers seem to have made special and conscious effort to keep that epistolary life line firm and unbroken.  Montagu wrote out of affection but also out of  boredom and sometimes desperation; Bath wrote out of affection and also out of concern for her boredom and desperation.  Each of his letters seems like a hand, outstretched to clasp hers, keeping her grounded and buoyed and comforted during her northern ordeal.

I think this is the longest unbroken stretch of full letters (not notes or scraps) between the two of them so far in this collection.  And the letters themselves provide rich snapshots of the fall of 1763,  with its scandals and plots and news.   They clearly illustrate a world in flux and a culture on the move — they seem to fix, as if under glass, myriad shifting currents.  And they bring that world of 250 years ago into sharp relief for me as I sit and read letter after letter after letter.  Unlike the notes or scraps or more sporadic correspondence between Bath and Montagu, these letters provide a coherent portrait, and they draw me — as I read — not into their relationship so much as into their world — a world so vividly represented that in my imagination I am there, watching, sensing, gossiping, and caught up in the odd excitement of the fall of ’63.

On the 7th of November, for example, Bath provided a detailed description of the “Soldiers’ Rebellion,”2 a mutiny in the North American colonies in response to a change in pay.   Bath reported, “We have some news from America, which at first alarm’d us greatly, but by the temper, resolution, and prudence of Gov’r Murray, all is well ended.  The whole Garrison, to a man, mutinied against an order of oeconomy which was sent from England.  The soldiers at Quebeck [sic], ever since the place has been in our possession, have always had (it seems) as they have never at Gibraltar, salt provisions allowed them, over and above their pay; but now it is ordered, that fourpence per day, must be deducted from each man to pay for his provisions, and he only receive the remaining two pence for himself.  This put them all into a mutiny and they drew up in the market place declaring they would not submit to such usage.  Upon this, Murray, the Gov’r went out to them, took only one servant with him, and a gun loaded with ball.  He then ordered the King’s standard to be sett up, and declared he would call them all, man by man, to assemble under the standard, and the first that refused to march he was determined to shoot dead upon the spot.  Upon this temperate but resolute behaviour of the general’s, they all obeyed, and made a circle round the standard, when Murray acquainted them that he was as sorry for the order, as any of them could be, but orders from Govt must be obeyed…..” (MO4448).  I love this snapshot of the young colony, newly won by the English and struggling to define itself, of the soldiers using what small power they had in order to fight a significant financial hardship and injustice, of the wealthy Lord Bath figuratively clapping Murray on the back for keeping order and handling the mess so well.  And I love, as always when it happens, the brief mention of my own country in these English letters — the reminder that we were here, and we were newsworthy.

Another kind of “mutiny” was in process at the same time in London, and on the 6th of November, Montagu wrote to Bath, using  an elaborate and provocative extended metaphor: “I suppose, ” she wrote, ” by this time the kettle people are assembled in town, and tho’ coals are dear, the fuel of discontents is sold cheap in pamphlet shops; every busy hand will stir the fire and every idle breath will blow it; so that the kettle will boil and bubble extreamly, but these factious olios, made of so many herogeneous [sic] things, like the chymists compositions are very apt to fly off in the moment of projection, and am afraid that for a time, discord will bid the fire burn, and cauldron bubble, then the most hungry of their party will begin to wish for their dinner . . . .  they will abandon their chiefs and go to St. James’s. The chiefs some of them, will be tired of stirring the kettle without tasting the broth, and they will follow, and they will patch up the administration...” (MO 4596)

I imagine, here, that Montagu was referring to the already infamous John Wilkes and the charge of seditious libel that he would face in Parliament before the end of the year.  Wilkes had already faced this charge once — in April — when, peeved at the Treaty of Paris, and certain England had been too generous in her settlements, he publicly criticized the King in issue 45 (a significant issue number because of the Jacobite uprising of 1745) of his publication The North Briton.  Wilkes slipped those charges by claiming that parliamentary privilege (he was an MP) protected him from charges of libel.  In the fall, Wilkes again went on the attack, and this time Parliament was quick to pass a bill that changed the rules of privilege, and Wilkes was eventually found guilty.

This was not poor Wilkes’s only crime in the fall of 1763; a poem he had written some years before, attacking various public figures, including Lord Bute, came to light and was read in parliament.  Wilkes had a reputation as a libertine (and a member of the notorious “Hellfire Club”), and his Essay on Woman — a kind of parody of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man is replete with explicit sex, “deviance” and vulgar language.  I have to admit that I find the poem rather clever and rather entertaining in a Rochesterian kind of way — it certainly makes clever use of Pope’s style and conceits — and (for those of us teaching eighteenth-century poetic forms, it makes excellent use of the heroic  couplet!).  Montagu did not share my admiration, though, exclaiming, “I think Mr. Wilkes needs no eternal punishment; his own mind is what are supposed the infernal regions to be.  He contemplates his God and surveys his works with the malice Satan is represented to do in Milton, but added to Satan’s metaphysical crimes he is all over filthy and loathsome with beastly sensuality” (MO 4606).  Oh, the SCANDAL!  I can imagine the salacious and prurient curiosity Wilkes must have inspired in the fall of 1763. And I can imagine the perverse pleasure Montagu must have taken in lambasting him with the full power of Milton behind her.  Wilkes and his two scandals — he would face charges in BOTH houses at once — filled the letters between Bath and Montagu that fall, and their preoccupation with him suggests that he must have been a constant topic of conversation in London.  The letters are so detailed that they transport me back to that fall, and I can feel the buzz that must have energized London society.  250 years later, these letters galvanized me into a flurry of action to read up on the specifics of the charges and to find a copy of the offending poem.

In this same letter, from early December, Montagu told Bath that she was finally to be “released from Northumberland,”3 and hoped to set out on her journey back to London by the middle of the month.  She would be coming without her husband, who would be remaining behind on colliery business. She explained: “Mr Montagu came up to make me a visit, because I had desired to be excused being at breakfast as I had slept ill.  I told him I could not sleep like the cabin boy in the rudest visitation of the winds that my curtains had been blowing like sails around me all night, and therefore I humbly proposed if he approved it, that I should set out for London as soon as we had entirely fix’d on what was to be done in our Colliery . . . and he said he believed it would be better I should do so, as the house is not as warm as those to which I have been used and that he did not like to be hurried . . . . he kindly added he did not desire to keep me here in hazard of my health” (NO 4606).

Here, Montagu alludes to the famous speech from Henry IV part 2, which ends with “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  In the play, Henry feels beleaguered and exhausted; and he bemoans the ability of others to sleep, while he cannot–perhaps not only because of his heavy responsibility but also because of some guilt for his part in the past murder of Richard II.  It’s an interesting allusion to make — especially from someone as well-versed in Shakespeare as Montagu was (in 1769, she published An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare).  And I wonder — with this tiny line — if she were signalling to Bath some slight guilt on her own part for skillfully and effectively manipulating her husband into letting her return to London.  Her journey would not be an easy one, as she well knew.  December weather was nasty and unpredictable — throughout England snow had already fallen (in fact, Bath wrote that he had been saving frost in his ice house in order to make her ice cream on her return (MO4454)), and the country recently had floods from a hurricane-like storm that saw 4 feet of water in some houses: “The roads, Montagu explained, are all torn up by the floods and I shall have 8 or 9 days disagreeable travelling, deep waters many; and cold lodgings. . . . . The passengers in the York stage the other day were in great danger, to of the horses were drown’t and the people saved with difficulty” (MO 4608).  The York coach was luckier than the Newcastle stage, though, which had not been heard of for some time, and was feared lost.

Before she concluded this letter, Montagu described a wondrous spectacle for Bath.  She explains that one day, while on the road, “I met a machine which Don Quixote would have taken for an enchanted castle full of imprisoned knights and damsels.  It was with great labour drawn slowly along by 18 horses, assisted by 40 men; it really looked like a travelling house, but was the boiler of a fire engine.  Your Lordship will suppose these are pretty large when you consider the effect of their operation and what the steam of this copper is to do.  We are to have one at our colliery, that will draw off a thousand hogsheads of water an hour (MO4606).

Her fantastical description sent me running to the computer to discover what it really was that Don Quixote would have regarded as an enchanted castle.  And my research suggests it was a Newcomen engine, patented by Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) in 1705, and designed to pump water from coal mines.  An earlier version was pioneered by Thomas Savery in 1698, and a newer model would be designed by James Watt in 1775.

This was a invention with staggering implications — this was the Industrial Revolution (according to the OED, a hogshead was about 238 litres — that’s 238,000 litres of water an hour!).  And, reading about Montagu’s awe as she watched the incredibly heavy piece of equipment being drawn along the road, I was right there with her.  I, too, could feel the amazement at first glimpsing this “fire engine” — a term that would eventually refer to engines that quenched fires, but originally clearly referred to engines powered by fire — a dragon of an invention that must have fired the imagination of an entire country, an entire generation, as it fired Montagu’s sense of wonder.

Montagu ended her description of this revolutionary sight, with a comment on the nature of man: “What a fine creature,” she extolled, “is man capable of such invention but with what depravity is the human mind subject to!  I did not think there had been such a creature as Wilkes.”  And with that, Montagu herself tied up my blog post.  Scandalous or wondrous, the human imagination can be a powerful agent of change — especially when we unleash its stunning power to dream — to dream of justice, of creation, of transformation.  And in my reading of these letters, I am once again reminded that the human imagination has the power to spark and inspire others, even across a significant temporal gap.


1 See Eliza Child. “Elizabeth Montagu, Bluestocking Businesswoman,” Huntington Library Quarterly 64.1 for an excellent analysis of Montagu’s involvement with mining in northern England.

2 See Peter Way. “Rebellion of the Regulars: Working Soldiers and the Mutiny of 1763-1764,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., vol. 57, no. 4 (Oct. 2000), 761-92.

3 Quoted from MO 4592; Oct 23

Elizabeth Carter’s Resistant Body: The Montagu-Bath Continental Tour

In the summer of 1763, Elizabeth Montagu and Lord Bath embarked on a continental tour—accompanied by Montagu’s husband, Lord Bath’s friend John Douglas (Canon of Windsor), and Elizabeth Carter.  Their destination was the popular European Spa in Belgium; but the journey there and back was designed to allow the travelers to experience more of the continent: they journeyed in a loop through northern France, Belgium, Germany, Holland and back to France.  “Google Maps” tells me that the route they took from Calais to Spa (the first half of the trip) would take us 5 hours and 7 minutes today, and the whole circuit could be completed in about 17 hours. In 1763, though, the journey to Spa took two weeks to accomplish, and a particularly hilly stretch of 21 miles between Liege and Spa took 9 hours.  The group set off from England on the 4th of June, arriving in Spa on the 16th.  They left on the 17th of August and arrived home in England in early September.  Montagu and Bath had been planning this trip for some time, and their letters suggest that it took some fancy footwork to convince Montagu’s husband that he wanted to go.  Everyone seems to have agreed, though, that it would be very good for Bath, in the wake of the tragic death of his son.

On their journey, the group met with the usual obstacles faced by 18th-century travelers: bad roads, carriage mishaps, poor weather, and bed bugs.  But the most threatening obstacle—especially for Carter—was the Anglocentrism they took with them.  Carter and Montagu documented their journey in a series of letters to friends and family back in England.  Montagu’s letters drew on fantasy to represent the journey as a whimsical adventure where magical things happened, culminating in the transformative power of the Spa waters.  But Carter’s representation was one of critical resistance to various foreign cultures, culminating in the failure of the Spa waters to effect any change in her body.

In light of her ultimate resistance, it is interesting that Carter’s initial reaction to the Continent was one of pleased surprise, confounding her English expectations. “Instead of the miserable dirty hole,” she wrote, “which . . . I expected to find Calais—by all that I have been able to see, it is a pretty clean town.” (253).  And she admitted that “Between St. Omer’s and Lisle are several towns, all very pretty, and vexatiously superior to our country towns in England” (257).

However, as the group progressed towards Spa, Carter became increasingly disenchanted with the landscape and the towns: Brussels, she described as “the most disagreeable town which I have yet seen in our way; the houses are extremely high, and the streets narrow, which makes it dark and close; and I shall be heartily glad when we leave it” (263).  And as they approached Liege, the country became not just ugly but also dangerous and menacing.  She referred to the lands around Liege as “lawless and undisciplined country” (267); and she explained that “All that I have seen of [Liege] is detestable: the streets are narrow and dark, and the people of a disagreeable countenance.  The English gentlemen who dined with us give them a very bad character” (269).

Even Spa itself, famous in the 18th century, and frequented by European aristocracy, received unfavourable reviews in Carter’s letters.  She reported that “The soil here is so rocky, that the vegetables are very bad; if one’s eyes were shut there would be no distinguishing carrots from green pease, nor either of them from a dried rush.  The strawberries are equally tasteless.  The people here all talk French, but it is not good” (276).  The houses of Spa were less attractive than those in English watering places, and the waters themselves were “very little, if at all, different from that which I have tasted in England” (272).  The Assembly Room disappointed because it was “just like an assembly room at Tunbridge or Bristol, only more formal, and consequently more dull” (280).

Carter reserved her most biting criticism, though, for Roman Catholicism and its churches. From Lisle, she reported that “The glare and foppery and childishness of the ornaments of the churches are beyond what any thing but the testimony of my own eyes could have given me any idea of.  The decorations of the altars are much more fit for the toilette of a fine lady, than for a place dedicated to the solemn service of religion.  I am quite sick of looking at so much tinsel” (258). And in one of her letters from Spa she described an out-door fountain made from a crucifix—a monstrous object stunning in its garishness:

Surely,” she wrote, “with the superstition of Popery, there is a strange mixture of profaneness.  I was lately struck by an instance of this kind in the garden of the Capuchins at this place, where there is placed a crucifix, by way of fountain, spouting water from the wounds of the hands and feet.  As little as I am inclined to image-worship, I could not help being much shocked at seeing so sacred a representation applied to such a purpose” (317).

Carter’s letters from the Continent were written against the backdrop of the recent Seven Years War.  In fact, visual reminders of that war—which involved England, but was not fought on her soil—appeared in the letters, and appeared to distress Carter.  From Wesel, a town occupied by the French during the war, she wrote: “Figure to yourself, a road broken and ploughed by heavy artillery and baggage-waggons, for it has never been mended since the war” (333).  And while the Dutch, whose neutrality during that war augmented an already acrimonious relationship between the two countries, received a rather dismissive—yet hostile—treatment by Carter, the French, who enjoyed a long and complex relationship with the English were marked by particular hostility in Carter’s letters.  Writing from Cologne, Carter remarked: “I cannot tell you much about why we went to Cologne; but I know I was glad of it, because it is in Germany; and I am glad we do not go to Paris, because it is in France; and because I have not the least wish to know more than I do about French principles, French manners, French fashions, and French dirt” (339). She referred to the French as “the most pestilent corrupters of the human heart, [whose] writings, more so than any I ever read, tend to the subversion of all principles, and sap the foundation of morality, and the stifling of all sentiment” (360).

The ultimate purpose of the continental trek, though, was for the travelers to engage in a course of treatment by ingesting the famed waters at Spa: for Lord Bath to enliven his spirits, depressed by the death of his only son in February; for Elizabeth Montagu to ease her chronic stomach complaints as well as a nervous affliction; and for Carter, to help with nerves and with the chronic headaches that plagued her throughout her life.  Bath and Montagu, as noted in both Montagu’s and Carter’s letters, obtained significant relief from the waters.  But Carter’s body remained unchanged by the waters—resistant to the healing powers of the Belgian Spa.  Early in the journey, Carter marked her body as different from those of the others.  She noted that she was the only one to become seasick on the passage across the Channel (252); and later, in Brussels, she explained that she alone was “devoured by bugs, which is the more provoking as they attack none of our company but myself” (266).

And, throughout the trip, Carter represented her head as a constant: “my head,” she wrote, “to its honour be it spoken, is just the same unchangeable head in all varieties of soil and climate” (274).  Although the sarcasm is clear in the letter, Carter’s attribution of a certain honour to her resistant head also evokes the spectre of pride in its heroic consistency, despite the changes around it. Ultimately, she explained that her health was  “not the worse for the waters, which I shall continue drinking without much dependence of getting better; my head-aches, and other little disorders I am subject to, prevent my taking them as regular as I ought . . . Mrs. M is upon the whole very well; but my Lord B. is the youngest, the liveliest, and the healthiest of the whole set” (295).   While her health remained the same, the other two, according to Carter, showed remarkable improvement.

Montagu’s descriptions of the journey were quite different.  She began a letter to Mrs. Vesey by asserting that “at Calais on the shore we were met by certain mermen crown’d with sea weeds, who carried Mesdames Carter and Montagu on their backs; as the petticoats were a little discomposed in this way of walking on other mens legs, it is better not to be too minute in the description of it” (48); and from Spa, she exclaimed to Benjamin Stillingfleet that she had “heard the Druids sing their mystick songs upon these mountains” (54).  For Montagu, this was a mystical, fantastical journey that worked magic on all except for Carter:

Lord Bath,” Montagu wrote, “is in very good spirits, as lively and as healthy as at 25.  His temper is perpetual sunshine and he is in all little amiabilities as well as great qualities the most perfect character I ever saw.  Mr. Montagu has always been chearfull and well amused.  I have recovered my health entirely.  Mrs. Carter has still her headach, which grieves me much” (56).

Carter’s letters suggest that her antipathy towards the place, the people, and the religion, was somatised by the representation of her body as resistant to the healing power of Spa–as unmarked, unchanged, by travel.  And In this, she marked herself as different from others of her countrywomen whose bodies (or at least, their faces) were often marked by foreign culture: “I am much too obstinately English,” she wrote, “for my friends to be under any apprehensions of my assuming [a French character]  . . . I am sorry to say many of my country-women are not of the same way of thinking, for though they have with natural decency shewn their pale faces at Bath and Tunbridge, they are so polite at Spa to appear in no other than a glaring Parisian complexion” (304-305).  Here, English “naturalism” is negatively compared to French artifice, the original face to that affected and altered by French make-up, French culture. And in her letters, Elizabeth Carter represented not merely her face, but also her body, as resistant to foreign influence, allowing her readers to imagine that she maintained a “desirable” English purity—a kind of embodied nationalism—despite the continental immersion.


A series of letters between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot 3

Mrs. Montagu, “Queen of the Blues” 1, ed Reginald Blunt.

The Death of a Son: “An Irreparable Loss”

father and son

Sometime in mid-February, 1763, Lord Bath wrote to Elizabeth Montagu to explain why he had neglected to visit her the night before. He confided that he had received a letter from Madrid, telling him his dear son was ill with a “violent fever”; this news completely destabilized Bath, who reported that according to the letter his son had been,

attacked . . . with a violent headache, and vomiting, attended with a feverish disorder. Upon this they gave him a vomit, and soon after blooded him, taking away about 14 ounces. His fever, which was now confirmed obliged them to send for a Physician who gave him a draught, and afterwards blooded him again, in short in five days he was blooded six times, twice on the arms once in the foot twice in the legs, and once on the back of his hand, a way they often practised in Spain; they blistered him likewise on both legs, and now his fever is brought to intermit, so that they have given him the Bark, and now declare him out of all manner of danger. This, tho pretty satisfactory, is not sufficient to allay my alarms, til I hear once more from Madrid” (MO4411).

Montagu’s response was cheery, upbeat, and clearly designed to allay Bath’s fears. She wrote that she was not “at all alarm’d” since the circumstances “shew me so plainly that the disorder has spent itself.” She reported that she “read your Lordship’s letter ten times, and the oftener I read it the more I was satisfied about the person for whom you are so tenderly interested” (MO 4579). But Montagu’s optimism was misplaced, and Bath’s fears were realized when they eventually learned that Viscount William Pulteney (a Lieutenant-Colonel returning from service in the 7 Years War) had died of a fever at Madrid on the 12th of February 1763.

Lord Bath didn’t receive word of his son’s death until almost 3 weeks after its tragic occurrence. And this time lag gave me pause as I was reading through these letters. I have long known that William Pulteney junior died at 32 years of age — a bachelor, despite his father’s attempts to find him a good woman! But I have dreaded reading about that death. I dragged my feet through the preceding series of letters, procrastinating, and hoping that if I could not magically change the distant past, I could somehow keep Colonel Pulteney alive by not reading him into death. Despite my deliberate sluggishness, though, death slouched towards me one letter at a time, until it could no longer be avoided. And then, suddenly, it was all over; and I found myself on the other side of the epistolary wall of grief. It took me less than half an hour to read my way through the sparse correspondence from the beginning of February to the 21st of April, when the Viscount’s body arrived back in England to be interred in Westminster Abbey.1 But for Bath, this must have been an interminable stretch of telescoping time. If the three weeks between the Colonel’s death and Bath’s receipt of the news was the common amount of time it took for a letter to travel from Spain to London, then it is quite possible that his son was already dead when Bath first received word of his illness. Perhaps this explains Bath’s extreme anxiety — that mysterious parental intuition, like a silvery transparent thread that stretches from the body of the parent to the body of the child, and that gives a jolt, a charge, or a certain sensation of silence and emptiness when it is suddenly severed. Perhaps Bath felt this while reading the first letter, and perhaps he knew – even though he might have hoped. Living in the age of instant communication, I can’t quite imagine that time lag, that strange, liminal space where your son is dead, but not yet dead to you — and yet, until quite recently, so many, many people must have stood in that odd space of suspended animation.

When Bath finally received the news he had dreaded, it devastated him. He informed Montagu of his son’s death in a note that ended by explaining that Bath would leave London to grieve at his country home, but began with a brief and wrenching statement that, even 250 years later, carries with it a force of grief that sucks the air from the room: “Madam: I have suffered an irreparable loss, and am most miserable and unhappy, Pity me, and pray for me” (MO 4413). The single sentence is spartan — unadorned and almost terse–void of everything except the glaring fact of loss. I think it’s the nakedness of this statement, written by a man of wit and bad puns who clearly took so much pleasure in language, that somehow signals the overwhelming and unspeakable grief of a father for his son. In this note, Bath himself stands bare and vulnerable and empty.2 In grief, the famous orator was almost silenced; his busy pen was stilled.3

There must have been much grief of this kind in the eighteenth century, when death was an unwelcome yet often present and sometimes persistent force. Elizabeth Montagu, herself, had lost her only son many years earlier when “Punch” (John) died, suddenly, from a fever he developed while teething. Like Bath’s, Montagu’s grief then was signalled by her silence — a stark absence of letters — her usual stream of words blocked by a suffocating lump of grief. Linda Payne tells us that fevers, diseases, illnesses and accidents caused the deaths of about 30% of children before the age of 15 during the period between the 16th and the 18th centuries (“Health in England“). And there is some suggestion that the prevalence of death and the high rate of childhood mortality hardened 18th-century parents, and even taught them to be less attached to their children than they might other wise have been;4 but there is no evidence of this hardening in the grief expressed by Montagu for her very young son, nor later by Bath for his adult child. There is, instead, the indelible mark of deep love and unimaginable loss, so clearly visible and visceral, even after centuries have passed.

Bath’s grief was such that on the 22nd of March, he refused to attend the celebrations marking the end of the Seven Years War: “This morning,” he wrote, “the Peace is proclaimed. Perhaps you may have curiosity enough to go with Mrs. Carter to see the show; I shall be most dismally entertained at home, with considering the various distresses and calamities which war has brought upon us all, in which no body has suffered more than I have done” (MO4417). And when his son’s body was interred in the family vault, Bath again absented himself from the occasion, vowing to stay out of London so that “the melancholy ceremony of the interment of my son in Westminster Abbey may be over, before my return to town” (MO4421). Lord Bath never really rallied from the loss of his son, and he carried the heavy burden of his grief through the final year of his own life.

At the time of his son’s death, Bath was almost 83 years of age; his wife (about 12 years younger than he) had died 5 years earlier, and his first-born child — a daughter– had died when she was about 15 years of age. At 83, the man who once must have assumed that he would spend his final years cared for by wife, son, daughter, and perhaps by their families, found himself very much alone. And in Bath’s state of lonely grief, Elizabeth Montagu became even more important to him. In a letter he sent to Montagu from his country seat of mourning, he wrote: “I rather wish you would be more careful of your self, and less attentive to the pleasure of one who wishes you all manner of prosperity and happyness, and . . . I can safely say (now I have lost my son) there is no one in the world I esteem and love more truly and more affectionately than yourself” (MO 4415).


1 for those of you curious, as was I, about how a body might be preserved for two months and during transport, Benjamin Bell’s A System of Surgery Volume 6 (1788) provides a detailed description of contemporary embalming practice: “Of Embalming”.
2 strangely, Bath’s brief statement makes me think of Ben Jonson’s more poetic response to his young son’s death (Benjamin, 7 yrs old):

  • Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
  • My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy;
  • Seven yeeres tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
  • Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
  • O, could I lose all father, now. For why
  • Will man lament the state he should envie?
  • To have so soon scap’d worlds and fleshes rage,
  • And, if no other miserie, yet age?
  • Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
  • Ben. Jonson his best piece of poetrie.
  • For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
  • As what he loves may never like too much.

3 This letter is made even more poignant if you’ve previously read Bath’s note to Montagu from the 10th of January, where he explained his absence at Church that morning. It seems that Bath’s household celebrated his son’s birthday, even if his son was miles and miles away. As Bath explained to Montagu: “I have scarce one servant in my house out of bed. My servant that dresses me is exceedingly ill and cannot get up. They have all rejoyced so much on Lord Pulteney’s birthday, that they are at present very sorry and very sick. I played with the Doctor and several others, very quietly at quadrille, while all this rioting was going on in my house” (MO 4388).

4 See, for example, Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood and The Hour of Our Death and “The Sentimental Revolution” Wilson Quarterly 6.4 (Autumn 1982): 46-53 where Ariès reconsiders his earlier book on Childhood. See also Linda McMahon’s “‘So Truly Afflicting and Distressing to Me His Sorrowing Mother’: Expressions of Maternal Grief in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia” Journal of the Early Republic 32 (Spring 2012): 27-60.

The Arc of Cupid’s Arrow

Reading the Montagu-Bath correspondence is beginning to remind me of playing the game we called “concentration” when I was little. In this game, you shuffle pairs of cards and then lay them face down on a table. You turn up one card; then, you turn up a second card, hoping it’s the match for the first. If they match, you remove them from play (and score points). If they don’t match, you turn them both face down again, remembering where they are and what they are so that it becomes easier and easier to find the pairs as the game moves along. I was never very good at this game. For some reason, I had enormous trouble remembering where the cards were, so that after having turned up an “8″ and turned it back down, I’d forget where that card was. Later, upon turning up that prized second “8,” I’d find myself with the vague feeling that I’d encountered an “8″ before; but, for the life of me I couldn’t remember where.

The literary, epistolary version of this game began, for me, yesterday when I turned up a note from Lord Bath that reads:

you are so full of suspicions that I think it would be right to let you enjoy them, without attempting to explain them to you, but I did not stay the whole day with Mrs Middleton, but went to Mrs Johnston’s to play at Quadrille, as I had promised. If I could recollect the scolding words of a former letter, which gave you so much offence, I think I should be determined to repeat them, for you deserve it, for suspecting so much” (MO 4364)

This is one of many undated notes, C1762, sent between Bath and Montagu when both were enjoying the London Season. I’m not sure, yet, what Montagu’s suspicions were–perhaps the note containing those will eventually turn up. However, Bath’s reference to his own “scolding words” rang faint bells for me, creating a vague sense of déjà vu; and I began metaphorically turning up letter after letter after letter, in order to match them. I’ve read several hundred letters by now, and I’ve taken fairly good notes. I take these notes by hand because I find it more challenging to try to read the letters on the computer and then switch back and forth to take notes than it is to keep the letter on the screen and jot notes in my book. Yesterday, I cursed my laziness, though, certain that if I’d taken notes on the computer, I could just SEARCH those notes to find what I needed. However, when I finally found the letter, I also found that no search term would have been very helpful to me: “scold”? “scolding”?—those words are not there in the original letter, and they are not there in my notes, which, in my bad handwriting, simply make reference to an “odd and rather nasty letter.” Technology would have been no help to me, but playing more “concentration” as child might well have been very useful.

The letter I think Bath was referring to is one that he wrote and dated the 19th of August, from Tunbridge Wells. This is one of the maddening letters in this correspondence without a year, and the library has slotted it into the summer of 1761. But there is no referent for this letter in others from that summer–in fact, there are no letters from Montagu to Bath at all during the summer of ’61, and none–but this one–from him to her. A quick glance at Emily Climenson’s biography/selections-of-letters informed me that Montagu was actually in Tunbridge Wells with Bath in the summer of 1761. Hmmm. Once again, I turned over a series of letters in my mind, checking my notes, matching pairs, and finally found the correct home for Bath’s “odd and rather nasty letter” one year later, when, in the summer of 1762 HE went to Tunbridge Wells, and SHE stayed in Sandleford with a rather demanding husband.1

Reading the letters from this summer provides a clear snapshot of a difficult time in the relationship between Bath and Montagu. And I begin to see that there is an arc to this relationship—a visible trajectory that moves not unerringly forward, but forward all the same, passing through a series of different stages. I didn’t really see this arc very clearly as I progressed forward with the correspondence, but I begin to see its outlines now, as my reading becomes slightly recursive–certain letters striking a chord or sounding an echo, sending me back through my notes looking for the origin.

This is the half-way point in their relationship, which began in Tunbridge Wells in the summer of 1760 and will end with Bath’s death in the summer of 1764. And here, at this mid point, there is an odd and rather painful series of letters. Bath had been in Tunbridge for his health. He was proposing to leave the spa sooner than he had originally planned. This early departure seemed to concern Montagu, who thought that he should stay as long as he could to store up as much health as he could. In an effort to encourage him to have a care for his own health, Montagu wrote a letter replete with extensive and cringe-worthy flattery, culminating in this extended metaphor:

Nature does not make a great man once in a century, and when she does, she puts such a force and energy into his character; that he is hardly restrained by the general laws of the system, but like a comet, in excentrick motions, whirls about, at once the admiration and the dread of little minds. In time, his lustre continuing but his impetuous force and rapidity abating, from a comet he grows into a pole star, a guide to the traveller, and a direction to the mariner, and even those who once fear’d the blazing meteor will look up with reverence and love to the stars and bless the usefull light” (August 15: MO 4535).

While she had a tendency towards flattery in earlier letters, here, Montagu laid the hero-worship on thickly, licking his boots with her words and suffocating him with her language. Bath reacted in his next letter, demonstrating–I imagine–a little of the oratory that so frightened his enemies:

If I could be offended by any thing that comes from Mrs Montagu, it would be at the receipt of a letter, filled with much abominable and undeserved flattery; you cannot, I am sure, mean to abuse me by it, and I hope you have not so mean an opinion of me, as to think, I can be pleased, by it; Fye Madam; a woman of such superior talents and understanding, should be above flattering any Body; especially one she pretends to honour with her Esteem . . . . If you profess an esteem for any one, the honour is sufficient, without the addition of any flattery . . . . methinks I ought to tell you, that your letter is a little like the flattery of an author in a dedication who daubs his patron with the most fulsome stuff he can think of” (MO 4236).

Bath’s arrow hit its mark, and it drew blood. Montagu’s response is painful and miserable.

At my return from Southampton on Sunday night, I found two letters from your Lordship. One of them equally astonished and afflicted me. It contained an accusation of daubing fulsome flattery. The charge is a very heavy one, and not only affects my conduct towards your Lordship, but indeed my whole moral character. You will therefore, I hope, permit me to defend my meaning and intention; if my expressions were improper I ask pardon for them, I never thought your Lordship would accept flattery or fear it from me. . . . but pardon me if I say, it looks too like affectation when a man who has acted in the greatest scenes of life pretends an ignorance of his qualifications . . . . I mentioned your qualifications, not vainly to enumerate them, but to urge to you the duty of taking care of yourself for the sake of the country you have loved and served so well . . . . I must own it seems to me you was a little too severe in your expressions, as you know the sensibility of my temper, and the weakness of my health. I said in my letter from Southampton, that like poor Imogen in the play, I might complain, words were blows to me, this is so true that in the warfare of this world I have been cruelly wounded by those from whom I had a right to expect more gentle treatment. My health, and spirits, and strength impaired, witness it, but I do not blame my friends, it is my infirmity to be this vulnerable. Whenever my shatter’d frame resigns its breath, if the superstition was true, which supposes a corpse to bleed at the approach of its murderer, mine perhaps would bleed a few drops at the presence of some of my very good and in the main very kind friends. I hope they will not like children weep at the destruction of the bauble they have torn to pieces” (August 24, MO 4538).

Four days later, Bath responded rather meekly, yet perfunctorily: “I am much afraid, Madam, by the style of your last letter, that I may unadvisedly have offended you by some expressions of mine with regard to the flattery, bestow’d much too liberally upon me. I know how little I deserve it, and therefore am desirous of avoiding is, especially from friends. Abuse I have long been used to, and can bear it with great patience and Christian fortitude, from my enemys” (4270).

And this is all that was said about the matter until the winter of 1762/3 when Bath made reference to this painful exchange in one of his many London notes. It’s this later reference that really interests me, and I wonder why he made it–it seems strange that he would risk scratching the scab and opening the wound again for Montagu. It seems to me that these letters mark a decisive direction in the arc of the relationship between Montagu and Bath, and that they perhaps bear witness to the force of Montagu’s passion for Bath, her confusion, her helplessness, her vulnerability. Their relationship began in Tunbridge Wells in the summer of 1760, but their correspondence doesn’t seem to have begun until the late fall, when Bath initiated a boldly flirtatious fantasy that had them both writing “love letters” with the understanding that theirs was to be a chaste love until she reached the age of 80. This playful fantasy was sustained throughout their relationship, but was most clearly articulated when they were both writing notes and seeing each other in London. When they were at a distance, their letters were more formal, more careful. And, rather than flirting, in many of the ones leading up to the summer of 1762 Montagu was flattering–sometimes awkwardly. Reginald Blunt (1857-1944) who finished Emily Climenson’s task of selecting, editing and commenting on many of Montagu’s letters, remarked that, “Mrs. Montagu, for all her wide intelligence, deep reading, and remarkable common sense, is often exhaustingly long-winded, and sometimes almost ‘nauseous’ (as her noble lover was once constrained to protest) in her flattery and adulation” (Blunt 2:19).

And it’s true. But, unlike poor Blunt, I find myself wondering why this witty, eloquent, commanding, popular woman did so often resort to obvious flattery in many of the letters in the first half of her relationship with Bath. And I wonder if it’s because their relationship felt more formal and less intimate when it was not bolstered by daily visits. And I wonder if these awkward and flattering letters, perhaps more than any others, signal Montagu’s love and passion for Bath. For, how does one convey love and passion in a formal letter that might be read by others as well as the intended recipient? And how does one convey love and passion across the gulf of class and across the gap of forty years? Possibly, Montagu’s excessive flattery was a sign of her inexpressible passion (obsession?) for Bath, her uncertainty about his feelings, and her confusion about the whole thing. Many of us who read those rather embarrassing letters can, I imagine, remember rather embarrassing things we did or said or wrote in moments of obsessive passion. However, unless you earned a police record for sitting outside your beloved’s house in the wee hours to make sure s/he really WAS home alone when s/he said s/he would be, there is no lasting record of your obsession, your insecurity. For poor Montagu, though, an indelible record endures as long as we read her letters.

After Bath left Tunbridge Wells, that summer of ’62, he spent several weeks at Sandleford, visiting with Montagu and her husband. After that visit, Montagu’s letters seem to have changed. In letters written after that autumn visit, the flattery all but disappears, her tone seems more confident, and she seems more comfortable. It’s sad, for the nosy ones among us, that we will never know what happened during that visit to set her at ease and make her feel certain of her place in Bath’s heart. However, when I turn those cards over again, in the epistolary game of “concentration,” and look again at the later reference Bath made to that awkward, summer exchange, I am left wondering if his reference to the “scolding words” that he could not “recollect” was intended as both a caution (don’t do this again; don’t get weird in your insecurity) and an assurance of his love (I remember how deeply I hurt you, and will not ever hurt you that deeply again, either in actions or with words–because I can’t remember the words, and so the ability to rebuke you is lost to me). Thus, I wonder if that terrible, embarrassing, painful time became a kind of private touchstone for the two of them–a secret code to steady Montagu when she lost faith in Bath’s heart.

1 “I am very well now,” she writes on August 17, 1762, “tho I live at a great expence of animal spirits. Mr Montagu not being very well, does not give me a moment’s leisure. I have not read a page uninterrupted since he came down. Whenever he is not quite well, he loves attendance and attentions that I should think very troublesome if any one paid them to me when I am sick. I am often so worn out now for want of an hour’s solitude I should be glad to run into a cave to hide myself. I think Mr. Montagu has been better these two days, and I hope I shall soon have time to read, write, or think. At present my head in a continual vertigo, for quiet is as necessary to me as air or any of the elements. However I am glad he finds so much pleasure in my attentions as to think them agreeable. I am always willing to sacrifice my own pleasure to his happiness, a little health and ease I should be glad to enjoy” (MO 4536).

Opium Encounters: Bluestocking Letters and Thoughts on Embodiment

In the Montagu-Bath correspondence, there is a note from Elizabeth Montagu that reads as follows:

of what elements can your Lordship be composed that neither pain nor my troublesome enquiries about that pain can disturb the harmony of your temper! I am rejoiced that some of your enemy’s forces are fled but till all are dislodged one cannot be at ease about you.  Thank God your Lordship took the opiate last night . . . The opiates operate towards a perfect cure as well as give a temporary relief” (MO 4504).

I have mused on this note, considering and reconsidering a familiar word in an unfamiliar context: “opiate.”  Opioids have been much in the news here, of late, with Purdue Pharma stopping the production of OxyContin, and provincial governments reacting with suspicion and caution to its replacement, OxyNeo.  But Oxy is only one of a number of opiates and opioids used for pain control in our society, and our society is only one small piece of a long and poppy-coloured history.  Opium has been around for a very long time—Paracelsus is credited with spreading its medicinal magic through Europe during the Renaissance; and in 1680 Thomas Sydenham apparently commented: “among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.1 During the eighteenth century, opium was available as a powder and a tincture; it could be smoked, and it could be suspended in ethanol to create laudanum.  In the nineteenth century, the poppy extract was further refined, and isolates like morphine and codeine became available.

Although I have long known in theory that opium was available in England in the mid-eighteenth century, this colourful drug has never really been associated with that period of time in my imagination.  In my imagination, conditioned by the canon of English literature, opium magically appears—in all its exotic eastern glory and mysticism—with the Romantic writers: its odour clings to Xanadu and wafts around St. Agnes’s Eve.  Later, it becomes associated with frustrated women who desperately dull the anguish of their boredom with discreet sips from beautiful glass vials hidden in their bosoms.  Opium, like absinthe, swirls in Pre-Raphaelite colour; and I escaped its seductive power when I moved back through time to the enlightenment.2

Opium is, for the most part, conspicuously absent from the bluestocking letters,3 and I have, while reading, occasionally wished for its presence.  For, while the letters lack the comfort of opium, they repeatedly evoke the spectre of pain. Though long, the lives of Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, and Lord Bath (all of whom surpassed 80 years) were punctuated by accidents and illness, and by uncomfortable physical conditions–both chronic and acute. Elizabeth Carter, for example, suffered life-long, often debilitating headaches (Lord Bath opined that if she drank less green tea, took less snuff, and studied less, she would suffer less!) and Montagu was plagued by digestive complaints.  While some illnesses and conditions seem to have responded to various remedies, others required that the pain be patiently endured: “I am sorry,” wrote Montagu to her cousin Gilbert West, “that the gout, by the frequency and length of his visits, behaves with the familiarity of an intimate acquaintance, though he was never introduced to you by his proper introductor, intemperance; however, you have therefore to oppose to him the great conquerors of pain, Patience and Fortitude” (1755; 3:333).

And patience seems to have been required even in matters of acute agony.  Toothaches appear, from the letters, to have been fairly routine, and patient suffering was required while one waited for the tooth to loosen enough to be pulled.  Elizabeth Carter commiserated with Montagu: “I grieve to think of the pain you have suffered and most heartily congratulate you on the removal of the cause.  There are few animal comforts I think higher than seeing an aching tooth fairly out of one’s head” (1773; 3:48). Her comment is rather matter of fact, and there is no description of the pain Montagu suffered; but anyone who has experienced an aching tooth can gloss that passage with a visceral memory, shuddering at how long Montagu’s increasing pain must have been borne.  Montagu herself described another painful occasion, when her maids, in attempting to revive her from a faint,

let the eau de luce4 fall into my eye, nostril and mouth, my eyes were inflamed and nostril, the mouth and uvula of the throat excoriated.  . .  Dr. Askew unhappily lay at Durham that night, so had no assistance till 2 at noon, then I was blooded, which abated the inflammation so far I could articulate.  The Doctor told me my safety depended on frequent gargling and drinking, so for four days, I was never a quarter of an hour without doing so, the spitting was more violent than from a mercurial salivation . . . When I came out of my fit, to see blood running from eye, nose and mouth drove Mr. Montagu almost distracted, and I knew not which way my agonies would end” (Climenson, 2:144).

I like to believe that when Askew finally arrived, he kindly and efficiently knocked Montagu out with opium—in the same way I like to believe that the “cordial” administered to Frances Burney during her graphically-described mastectomy was laudanum.

But neither writer says this.  In Lord Bath’s case, though, opium is fact.  Montagu’s “opium” note to Bath seems to be a response to this one, from him: “To tell you the truth Madam . . . I was in a great deal of pain last night, when I took leave of you, and so I continued for some time, whilst the remainder of the enemy’s trenches were levelling, but at present as almost all the gravell is brought away, matters go on with much less pain and trouble, and I am almost totally at ease” (MO 4295).  The military metaphor, echoed by Montagu, seems to gesture towards the consuming pain Bath must have experienced before taking the opium.  If “gravell” denotes, as it usually does, “kidney stones,” then we can only imagine the blinding, searing nature of the “great deal of pain” mentioned by Bath himself.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry asserts that real pain resists linguistic description and cannot adequately be conveyed in language: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language” (4). And it seems that we witness this linguistic unsharability in the bluestocking letters, which evoke the spectre of pain–it haunts the edges of the text–without concrete manifestation or graphic description.  There were no words for Montagu’s agony following the spilling of the eau de luce; and Bath’s gravel pain could only be hinted at, figuratively.  As readers, then, we tend to imagine the pain, to fill in the gaps between the words by extrapolating from our own somatic experience—however limited that might be.

But what if our imagination, drawing on our own experience, is misleading?  What if the pain experienced by these writers could be neither conveyed in language nor accurately understood by comparison to our own bodies?  What if “pain” was quite a different experience for Montagu, Bath,  and Carter than it is for many of us?  My questions remind me that in her provocative scholarship on female patients in eighteenth-century Germany, Barbara Duden cautioned us—over 20 years ago—not to assume that we could meet the bodies of the past through our own corporeal senses.  Duden explained:

To grasp this ‘body’ of Eisenach, I went in two complementary directions.  I tried to understand my own body as a modern woman and—in contrast—to look at theirs.  I knew that I could only listen to the women if I was able to bracket the certainties about the body I ‘have.’  My body and theirs are woven out of different thematic strands.  I am housed in a body in which blood circulates.   All my blood is equally precious, it does not divide into bad and good blood.  I cannot have too much blood, an ‘excess’ of blood.  Nor does my blood ebb and flow; I cannot feel my blood clotting, stopping, trying to find its way out.  My blood cannot be lazy and it cannot erroneously go astray.  Yet this is what Eisenach’s women consistently report, and I cannot but take them at my word.  In my investigation I formalized two distinct procedures by which I hoped to come close to these women, without succumbing to the danger of indiscriminately using my sense of body to interpret theirs” (185-6).

But it is easy to forget Duden’s caution, and tempting to assume a kinship between bodies (apparent biological facts) across space and time.   However, if I try to “bracket” my body, I begin to more clearly see it: “pain” for me is unusual, wrong, and at odds with my understanding of “health” and “wellness.”  Pain is an anomaly to which I am extremely sensitized and of which I am always eager to rid myself.  To “bracket” my body is also to begin to more clearly see the implications of the body Elizabeth Carter describes in a letter to Elizabeth Vesey: “within this week my strength, I thank God, has returned amazingly, and I have quite recovered my appetite, and the power of reading.  Moreover my own natural head-ache is returned after five weeks absence, and very glad I was to receive it, in the room of that most outrageous pain which had taken its place” (1788; 3:294).  Carter’s sense of herself as strong and healthy (unlike mine) includes a headache—a constant “pain” that she describes as “natural.”  And, sitting here, in my bracketed body, I muse about the possible readings and meanings of this representation.   Is it possible that Carter’s “natural” headache made her less sensitive to other physical pain of all kinds than I am?  Is it possible that she had a higher tolerance or pain threshold than I do? And, in what way might this constant pain have affected Carter’s experience not just of her body, but also of her mind, her self, her world?

In Sensing Changes, Joy Parr draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s “embodied history” as she explores and theorizes “the body as a way of knowing” (9).  Quoting Katherine Hayles, Parr explains:

What humans know and how they organize and reason with that knowledge is ‘marked by the particularities of our circumstances as embodied human creatures.’ What are these particularities? Some of these we can assume persist over long stretches of history and across cultures.  Humans stand upright and are a certain distance above the ground when they crouch to sit or rest. . . . Some of these change with the lifecycle and over time.  A child’s sense of ‘too high’ is different from an adult’s . . . Some are altered by contemporary technologies . . . . Much of the bodily knowledge that comes from interactions with the world is not readily captured in words” (9).

Like Elaine Scarry, Parr interrogates the limits of language, and she focuses specifically on the intersection of technologies and bodies, giving as an example the invention of moveable type—which she suggests made people more dependent on their eyes, less on their ears—and thus affected humanity in numerous subtle and nuanced ways.

It seems to me that pain might function as one of Parr’s “particularities.”  And if it does, it is likely that the chronic pain experienced by some of my friends and colleagues does not merely add to or detract from an embodiment similar to my own, but fundamentally constructs that embodiment in ways that are foreign to me, difficult to articulate, and thus difficult for me to apprehend.  A similar “particularity” might exist in the remote northern communities I’ve visited,5 where a dentist flies in once or twice a year, and where people–like Montagu–must live a long time with the pain of a toothache; and in places and countries where medical assistance can be impossible to access, and where vast numbers of people live, like Elizabeth Carter, with constant pain as a “natural” condition.  If the concerns (like health, illness, pain) in the bluestocking letters are representative of the concerns of their time, then it seems that–unlike me–most eighteenth-century folk lived with some kind of constant or intermittent pain–a “natural” sensation that only became an anomalous signifier if it appeared in an unfamiliar body part or with unfamiliar intensity.  Thus, we might consider how this individual experience of “natural” pain may have nuanced ways of knowing; and then we might consider how that individual experience, shared by the majority of bodies in a generation or a century, affected history and also obscures our ability to clearly appreciate that history–a past that comes to us in language, a partial and at times erratic emissary.


1Additional Trivia: During my winding quest for information about opium, I encountered “theriac”—a panacea of mythic proportions—containing a high percentage of opium. “Theriac was an ancient multi-ingredient preparation; originating as a cure for the bites of serpents, mad dogs and wild beasts, it later became an antidote to all known poisons. The name theriac (treacle), (Greek theriake, Latin theriaca, French thériaque) was derived from the Greek for wild beast – theriakos. The first formula was created by Mithridates Vl, King of Pontus, a skillful ruler but a monster of cruelty, who, living in such a fear of being poisoned, took a great interest in toxicology. In the 1st century AD, Nero’s personal physician Andromachus improved the formula of Antidotum Mithridatium by adding flesh of vipers, which was commonly believed to be the best antidote against snakebite, and by increasing the proportion of opium. It became known as Theriac of Andromachus, and contained 64 ingredients including various minerals, herbals, poisons and animal flesh and blood, all combined with honey in the form of electuarium. Later it became the cure-all medicine which, accumulating all the simples into one form, was supposed to be a universal panacea against all diseases. In the Middle Ages this famous electuarium become a patent medicine and entered official dispensaries and pharmacopoeias. The most famous and expensive Theriac in Europe was that of Venice. It was not until the l8th century that it was excluded from medical use.”

2However, Thomas Shadwell was apparently addicted to opium, and died from an overdose—hail MacFlecknoe

3while “opiate” does appear several times in the published letters of Montagu, Carter, and Talbot, it does so in a figurative sense–a long letter, for example, as an opiate—except on three occasions: a letter from Gilbert West, who reports to Montagu that doctors have dosed Mr. William Pitt with opiates (2:174) and two letters describing Catherine Talbot’s untimely decline and painful death.

4Eau de Luce: “Take spirit of wine one ounce, spirit of sal ammoniacum four ounces, oil of amber one scruple, white castile soap ten grains.  Digest the soap and oil in the spirits of wine, add the ammoniacum, and shake well together” (Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1806, V 100).



  • Duden, Barbara.  “History Beneath the Skin” Michigan Quarterly Review. 30.1: (Winter 1991): 185-6.
  • Parr, Joy. Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
  • Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: OUP, 1987.