"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 4, 2019

Edward Montagu, Rogue Scholar

Edward Wortley Montagu in 1775, by Matthew William Peters

I have a particular fondness for a really good last will and testament. There is great pleasure in observing someone who knows how to go out in style. One example of this surprisingly rare breed was written by Edward Wortley Montagu. Montagu, a renowned author, traveler, and con artist, lived as an eccentric (his father once threatened to disown him unless he learned to “act with more prudence than a downright Idiot,”) and, bless him, he died as one.

Montagu was born on May 16, 1713, the only son of diplomat Edward Montagu and his wife, the famed writer and socialite Mary Wortley. Edward's wanderings around the globe began early. When he was only three, his mother took him on an exciting, if highly dangerous, trek to Constantinople. While in that city, he achieved a certain fame by being one of the very first Westerners to be inoculated against smallpox.

After a number of turbulent and essentially unproductive years in Britain's most exclusive schools, he was sent for a brief period to that popular dumping ground for unsatisfactory aristocratic sons, the West Indies. By 1730, he was back in England, where he horrified his parents by marrying, in the disgusted words of his mother, "a woman of very low degree." The new Mrs. Montagu was a washerwoman known  to history only as "Sally."

The marriage played out rather predictably. Whatever Edward's reasons may have been for entering into this scandalous union--it was probably simple bloody-mindedness--he soon left his wife and the marriage was determinedly forgotten by everyone except the bride. His parents soon packed him abroad again, while his father contemplated disinheriting him.

Edward's tour of Europe initially followed the usual dissipated pattern of drinking and womanizing. After a while, however, he developed his own peculiar form of reformation. He talked of entering a monastery, of becoming a humble ploughman, of living out the rest of his days as a simple peasant. He proclaimed himself a changed character.

Then his head cleared and he became himself again. He went back to touring the continent's fashionable attractions and returned home in 1734, leaving behind mammoth debts all throughout Europe. However, he stayed in England only long enough to collect a legacy from his grandfather. Then he was off again, this time to the Netherlands. He endeavored to negotiate a reconciliation with his father, who was now forbidding his son to even come near him. However, the elder Montagu remained obdurate. Edward Senior, a notorious skinflint, was irked by what had proven to be his very expensive son. Aside from Edward Junior's personal debts, his father was forced to pay annuities (read: "hush money") to several of young Edward's former lady friends, not to mention his washerwoman wife. Worse, Edward Junior had begun to associate with notorious highwaymen. His father wanted nothing to do with this family embarrassment he had sired.

Young Edward shrugged and enrolled in the University of Leiden. A talented linguist and bibliophile, he settled down to study Oriental languages. Well, he settled down for about three months, at least. After that period, he became bored with such a respectable, cultivated lifestyle and went back home, leaving the usual trail of debts as his legacy to the Low Countries. When the War of Austrian Succession broke out, Montagu decided to seek an army commission, and in 1742, he was made a cornet in the seventh hussars. He proved to be a fine soldier, eventually rising to the rank of captain, then as aide-de-camp to the British commander-in-chief. In 1746, he was captured by the French, but he was soon freed in a prisoner-of-war exchange.

In 1748, Montagu felt he had advanced as far as he could in the military. Feeling restless, he resigned his commission and this least politic of men sought a diplomatic career. He eventually became a secretary to John Montagu, earl of Sandwich. The earl helped Edward gain a seat in parliament, which freed him from the possibility of being arrested for his numerous debts.

In 1751, Montagu blithely ignored his inconvenient early marriage and bigamously wed a society lady of equally rakish reputation named Elizabeth Ashe. This irregular marriage lasted less than three months before the groom abandoned his bride. He was not pleased when the courts ordered him to pay support for their new-born son, Edward Montagu III. (He already had sired at least three other illegitimate children by various women.)

Montagu's next career move was to turn professional gambler. He also helped launch an extortion racket aimed at cheating men at the gaming tables, and luring them into racking up huge gambling losses. Montagu and his cohorts then forced their victims to pay up, under threat of violence. This repulsive way of making a buck proved--as most such repulsive schemes do--hugely profitable, until one of the ring's victims, Abraham Payba, had his lodgings burglarized by Montagu and one of his cronies, Theobald Taaffe (who was also an MP. ) Payba defied them and made their crimes public. Montagu and Taaffe were arrested and tried for the robbery. They were found guilty, but successfully appealed their conviction. The pair then had Payba charged with defamation.

After this inglorious episode, Montagu demonstrated that his disreputable personal character was paired with a genuine classical scholarship. He published "Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Antient Republicks," an erudite work praising the civic purity of the ancient republics while condemning the degeneracy he saw around modern society. (It was a degeneracy he himself personified, but that seemed of little concern to him.) It was an immense critical and public success.

Montagu's father died in 1761. Although he left his son a generous allowance, the bulk of his estate went to Edward's sister, Lady Bute. (His mother, who, along with the rest of the family, thought Edward was barking mad, left him the grand sum of one guinea.) Edward was infuriated by this snub, announcing petulantly that he would shake "the dust of an ungrateful country" from his feet and live abroad. He traveled extensively in the East, where he continued his studies in Eastern and classical history and languages. This otherwise utterly worthless wastrel was a genuine scholar. Montagu's entire career, in fact, is a dispiriting slap in the face to those of us (the author of this blog included) who like to assume that knowledge automatically confers virtue. While in Egypt, he somehow persuaded the wife of the Danish consul that her husband had died, and she and Montagu entered into yet another of his illegal pseudo-marriages. (He seems to have had a fondness for the wedded state, just as long as there was nothing legitimate or honorable about it.) Before long, she discovered that her husband was indeed still alive. Montagu responded by cheerily telling her that this unsettling fact was irrelevant--as she was a Catholic and he a Protestant, their marriage had been invalid in any case.

Montagu did not remain a Protestant for long after this latest "marriage." After he traveled to Constantinople, he took to wearing Turkish dress and converted to Islam.

It was early in 1776 that this exasperating man conceived two charming bits of eccentricity. Having (falsely, as it turned out) received news of his first wife's death, he decided that he desperately needed a legitimate male heir, who would be granted a large chunk of his late father’s estate. Accordingly, Montagu placed a singular lonely-hearts ad in several English newspapers. He announced the glad tidings that he had “no objection to marry any widow or single lady, provided the party be of genteel birth, polished manners and five, six, seven or eight months gone in her pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, Montagu never saw what would no doubt have been the interesting responses to this announcement. Two weeks after his ad went into print, he died of a throat abscess.

However, he still managed to, as Poe would say, “kick up a bobbery” posthumously. His will (all printed versions have the names tactfully redacted) read:

"To my noble and worthy relation, the Earl of _____, I do not give his lordship any further part of my property because the best part of that he has contrived to take already.

Item, to Sir Francis_____ I give one word of mine, because he has never had the good fortune to keep his own.

Item, to Lord M_____ I give nothing, because I know he'll bestow it on the poor. Item, to _____ the author, for putting me in his travels, I give five shillings for his wit, undeterred by the charge of extravagance, since friends who have read his book consider five shillings too much.

Item, to Sir Robert Walpole, I leave my political opinions, never doubting he can well turn them into cash, who has always found such an excellent market in which to change his own.

Item, my cast-off habit of swearing oaths I give to Sir Leopold D_____ , in consideration that no oaths have ever been able to find him yet."

Montagu may have rarely known how to live, but at least he certainly knew how to die.

1 comment:

  1. Whew. Whatever his last will and testament, there must have been many who were glad it could at last come into effect.


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