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).