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 . . . . . . .