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.