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