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  • Writer's pictureJulia Warren

Elizabeth Montagu: Salons and Blue Stockings

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

An 18th century portrait of literary luminary Elizabeth Montagu in a pastel pink dress with roses, deep green background
Elizabeth Montagu by Allan Ramsay, 1762


The 18th century was a period of great transformation and enlightenment; one of the more prominent names from this era is that of Elizabeth Montagu, whose contributions to literature, culture, and intellectual discourse had a deep and lasting effect. She is best known for her role in the establishment of the Blue Stocking Club, a gathering of intellectuals and literati that played a pivotal role in the literary and social landscape of the time. In this blog post, we will delve into the life and achievements of Elizabeth Montagu and explore her remarkable contributions to the world of literature and the intellectual salons of her time.

Early Life and Background

Elizabeth Montagu was born on October 2, 1718, into a wealthy and well-connected family. She grew up in York, England, and received an enlightened education: her parents, Matthew Robinson and Elizabeth Drake, encouraged her intellectual pursuits and provided her with access to a wide range of books and learning resources.

Literary Aspirations

From an early age, Elizabeth Montagu exhibited a keen interest in literature and the arts. She was an avid reader and a prolific letter writer, corresponding with some of the most prominent literary figures of her era. Her intellectual curiosity and literary acumen quickly earned her a reputation as a formidable intellect in London's literary circles.

An 18th century salon: several men and women lounge in chairs
Reading in a salon by Jean-François de Troy, ca.1728

The Blue Stocking Club

One of Elizabeth Montagu's most enduring legacies is her role in the formation of the Blue Stocking Club, which had a significant impact on the literary and social scene of the 18th century. The club's name derived from the informal attire of one of its members, who arrived in ordinary blue worsted stockings instead of silk - to signify their commitment to intellectual pursuits. According to the diarist & biographer James Boswell:

18th century portrait of a man, James Boswell, in red waistcoat and soft green fur edged cape
James Boswell by George Willison, 1765

‘One of the most eminent members of those societies, when they first commenced, was Mr Stillingfleet, whose dress was remarkably grave, and in particular it was observed that he wore blue stockings. Such was the excellence of his conversation, that his absence was felt as so great a loss, that it used to be said, ‘We can do nothing without the blue stockings’ and thus by degrees the title was established.’

(James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

The Blue Stocking Club was a groundbreaking institution, as it provided a platform for women to engage in intellectual discussions and share their ideas openly. Elizabeth Montagu played a pivotal role in organizing and hosting these gatherings in her London home, which became a hub for some of the most influential minds of her time. The club was not exclusive to women; it welcomed men who shared the same intellectual interests. These meetings were a far cry from the usual social gatherings, which tended to involve card games, gambling, and drink, as illustrated later by James Gilray.

An 18th century cariacature of fashionable people playing cards
Lady Godina's rout by James Gilray, 1796

An 18th century portrait of Samuel Johnson, gesticulating
Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, 1769

The club's meetings were a blend of literature, philosophy, and general knowledge discussions. They also featured readings, performances, and presentations by members and invited guests. Some of the most renowned thinkers of the time, including Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Joshua Reynolds, were associated with the Blue Stocking Club.

A portrait of an artist, holding a palette in his right hand, and shadowing his face with his left hand
Joshua Reynolds, self-portrait, ca. 1748

Literary Legacy

Elizabeth Montagu was more than just a socialite and hostess; she was a writer and critic in her own right. She penned numerous essays and letters that contributed to the literary discourse of her time. Her correspondence with literary giants such as Samuel Richardson, Alexander Pope, and David Garrick is a testament to her intellectual prowess and influence within literary circles.

In 1762, Montagu published her famous essay, "An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare," in which she defended Shakespeare's literary greatness against critics who questioned his status as a literary icon. Her work in Shakespearean scholarship helped shape the appreciation of the Bard's works for generations to come.

An 18th century portrait of the actor David Garrick, standing smiling between two female personifications of Comedy and Drama
David Garrick by Joshua Reynolds, 1760

An 18th century engraved portrait of the poet Ann Yearsley, wearing a broad hat and framed in roses
Ann Yearsley by Wilson Lowry, 1787

In 1775, Montagu was left a wealthy widow, and continued to display generous philanthropy, giving grants to many writers, in particular women writers. She also took part in raising subscriptions for other writers, including Ann Yearsley, the Bristol milkwoman poet whose works included A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade (1788).


Elizabeth Montagu's contributions to literature, culture, and intellectual discourse during the 18th century were both significant and enduring. Through her establishment of the Blue Stocking Club and her own literary endeavors, she provided a platform for intellectual exchange and debate at a time when social gatherings tended towards gambling, alcohol and debauchery.

Elizabeth Montagu's life and work serve as a testament to the enduring power of intellect and the profound impact one person can have on the world of literature and ideas.

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