Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
previous
next
page: 147

BASIL MONTAGU’S WIFE.

It is difficult to attempt the portrait of any one who has already been described by Carlyle. He threw all his impressions on paper with a touch of unconscious virulence, so that even his best‐loved heroes, even Oliver himself, disclosed under his revelations a cruel or a distressful side. I knew that beautiful lady of Carlyle’s description very well, as the young know the old; and I knew her for the course of many years, for Mrs. Montagu long survived her husband, and, returning to England, lived to a great age in the house of her daughter, Mrs. Procter. Whatever sorrows she had to bear, and they were neither few nor slight, she bore them in silence with a splendid courage, and did her best for all around her. No woman of our time could have had more reason to feel outraged by any allusion to her private griefs, and when I look up at the windows of the little house in page: 148 Storey’s Gate, where I once spent long hours, listening with enthusiasm to her wise and kindly wisdom, I feel amazement after a lapse of a long half‐century that the image of such a wife and mother should remain associated with the unredressed insults of Carlyle’s ungrateful pen. But to this subject I must needs return when I come to speak of her daughter, Mrs. Procter.

Mrs. Montagu’s maiden name was Benson, and she came from the same family stock as the present Archbishop of Canterbury. She was born in York. I do not know what was the occupation of her father, but I have reason to believe that her uncle was incumbent of the living of Bolton on the Wharfe, and that by him, and in his parish church, she was early married to a young lawyer named Skepper, a lineal descendant of the second partner of the famous firm of Fust and Scheffer, the earliest printers. This marriage must have occurred shortly before the year 1800. Mr. Skepper died early, and when Basil Montagu met the young widow, which I have always supposed to have happened while he was on the Northern Circuit, page: 149 her little Anne was a very young child. I have no record of the place or date of Mrs. Skepper’s marriage to Mr. Montagu. My father’s first memory of her referred to her as installed in the large house, No. 25, Bedford Square, where the children of his two previous marriages were gathered, nor do I know anything about Mr. Montagu’s second wife, who died prematurely, leaving, I think, two sons. Little Anne Skepper was thus brought up in the house of her stepfather, and could recall no other parent; she ever regarded him with profound respect and warm affection, and was a true sister in all her dealings with the other children of that complicated family. Mrs. Montagu was at all ages a most beautiful person; the only figure which in any way recalls her to me is the well‐known portrait of Mrs. Siddons as Queen Catherine. Speaking of Anne Skepper’s marriage to the poet Mr. Procter, then better known as Barry Cornwall, Mr. Coventry Patmore, who knew them all, says, “That a poet could hardly have aspired to a greater temporal reward than the friendship of the Basil Montagus and the hand of their daughter will not be questioned by any of the page: 150 many living persons who have had the happiness of knowing the family. No young man who understood what honour meant, and none understood it better than the high‐minded and sensitive young poet, could think that fame had in store for him any favour which could surpass or equal those which she was now conferring on him. Hence, perhaps, the sudden and final extinction of his literary ambition, which seemed to occur about this time, notwithstanding an amount of popular encouragement that, under ordinary circumstances, was calculated to fire him to redoubled exertions. The manners, at once stately and genial, of Mr. Basil Montagu and his wife have few or no counterpart in modern society. The stateliness was not that of reserve but of truth in action, and the geniality arose, not from easy good‐humour, but from earnest goodwill. Of Mrs. Basil Montagu it may indeed be said that for a young man to know her was an education. Even at a time when her great personal beauty was slightly (it was never more than slightly) obscured by age, there was that about her that no well‐disposed and imaginative young man could long behold without feeling page: 151 that he was committed thereby to leading a worthy life. If the reader is inclined to smile at this praise as somewhat obsolete in its mode, let him be assured by one who knew Mrs. Montagu that it seems so only because that style of woman is obsolete.”

I have quoted at length this page from Mr. Coventry Patmore’s biography of Mr. Procter because there are now left so few people who can recall the Montagu household. It was in the little drawing‐room at Storey’s Gate that I first met Mr. Patmore. He had just published his first book.

Mrs. Montagu’s great personal beauty and distinction were heightened by the pains which she took with her peculiar dress; it was almost that of a “Plain Friend,” and recalled the aspect of Elizabeth Fry. She never indulged in more than three dresses, and the material was black satin, which in the years when I first remember her (in the Forties) was very much in vogue. I imagine that she must have allowed herself one new dress every year, and she wore the three in strict and careful rotation. The costume was cut low and square in front, as in so many of the page: 152 portraits of Reynolds and Gainsborough; ample folds of white muslin met the dress, and, mounting to the chin, encircled her fine old face and head in beautiful pleats; the effect was that of a cap, but I do not know how it was managed, and it was a standing jest among her intimate friends that no one could ever divine the modus operandi of Mrs. Montagu’s toilet. I believe that the robe was cunningly fastened upon the shoulder, and the point of junction concealed under a fold of black satin. I have often seen her clear starching and ironing out the voluminous folds of white muslin with her own stately hands. The effect of the whole costume was charming to behold.

She wrote a remarkably beautiful Italian hand, or rather what we now know as the Elizabethan writing, the stems of the letters serried together, and the letters themselves wide apart. Every word was plainly separate. In her old age she was fond of teaching writing to her young friends. She would not tolerate a blot upon the page, and she abhorred a word of slang in conversation. It was just the time when Boz and Pickwick had started fresh forms of speech page: 153 among the new generation of young men and maidens, and I regret to say that they occasionally fell with her into deep disgrace! No one ever gave me so much the impression of a moral soldier under arms as Mrs. Basil Montagu. About a month before her death her son‐in‐law went upstairs to pay her a visit in her private sitting‐room. He came down and said to Mrs. Procter “My dear Anne, your mother must be ill; she has allowed herself to cough in my presence.” During that last thirty days, Mrs. Montagu sat up quietly reading as usual; she was a religious woman, and when she could no longer go out to church, she read her books of devotion steadily at home, but her daughter one day, standing softly behind her, saw that the book was upside down in her mother’s hand. When at length one Friday morning the brave old lady could no longer rise and sit in her accustomed arm‐chair, it was the first time that her granddaughter, Adelaide Procter, had ever seen her head recumbent upon its pillow. In three days she had quietly passed away, and for all those, now few in number, who can still familiarly remember her, the name of Anne Benson Montagu recalls page: 154 an image of majestic beauty and dauntless moral courage of which Englishwomen may well be proud.

A few words must be added about the only daughter of the famous advocate. Carlyle refers to her as having made “a considerable foreign marriage;” about which he evidently knew nothing, for it was not in any way a legitimate subject for his covert sneer.

Emily Montagu was born in Bedford Square, and was, I think, about fifteen years younger than her half‐sister Anne, who felt for her an affection which was one of the softest points in Mrs. Procter’s character. I only saw her at one epoch, when, in middle age and a second time widowed, she came back to England to see her mother, then living in Mr. Procter’s household. This was her story.

It will be remembered that the daughter of Lord Sandwich, educated and dowered by him, eventually married the Sardinian Ambassador, Comte de Viry. She disappeared from England, and over Sardinia and Savoy swept the great storm of the French Revolution, during which the House of Savoy took refuge page: 155 in the island, conveyed thither under the escort of the British Fleet. Forty years passed; the last king of the old line of Savoy, Charles Felix, was restored to his kingdom after Waterloo; and after a ten years’ reign, he died a holy death, and his coffin was conveyed in a “Water Funeral” across the Lake of Bourget (close to Aix‐les‐Bains) and laid in the abbey church of Hautecombe, where his forefathers had also been buried. Hautecombe is still considered an isolated point of Italian soil. To Charles Felix succeeded his distant cousin, the Prince de Carignan, whom we know as Carlo Alberto, and it was during the reign of that liberal king that two young Sardinian gentlemen came over to the Embassy in London, whose names were Comte William de Viry and Comte Adrien de Revel. The first‐named was, of course, nephew to Basil Montagu, and both of them were attracted to the refined, gentle daughter of the household. Emily Montagu preferred her cousin, but there were difficulties, probably arising from unwillingness on the part of the parents to part with their only girl. Comte de Revel at this juncture conquered his own feelings, and did page: 156 his best to promote his friend’s happiness. Presently the family opposition was surmounted, and Miss Montagu became Comtesse William de Viry, and went away with her husband to Turin. This was about the year 1840. But the marriage was of short duration; Comte William died early, leaving two very young children, a boy and a girl. The boy was the king’s godson, and destined to be a royal page; he was named Alberto, and was his mother’s darling. Then began a long renewed courtship on the part of Comte Adrien de Revel, a courtship of romantic tenderness and very little hope, for de Revel was sent on foreign missions, St. Petersburg always looming in the distance, and Alberto could not legally leave Italy, and Comtesse William de Viry refused to listen to her faithful lover until both were middle‐aged. At last, when Alberto was fifteen, and some change was made in the boy’s position and education, his mother gave way. Adrien de Revel obtained his lifelong desire, and they were married at Turin, where the Court to which they were attached habitually resided. After the ceremony they went to Genoa for their honeymoon, intending to return page: 157 shortly to the capital and their usual duties, for both of them were of an ideal strain, and fidelity to all their engagements was with both the habit of their lives. The long‐deferred wedding had taken place on a Wednesday, and on the next Monday morning Comte de Revel awoke at early dawn in the grip of the Cholera Fiend, then hovering over Europe. Nothing availed to save him. There were only twenty lives lost in Genoa, but his, alas! was one.

There is no need to say more. They are all gone now: the faithful lover, the faithful mother, and also the two children whom they had reared from their early orphanhood. Alberto became a soldier, and his sister eventually entered a convent. Madame de Revel did not survive many years, but I have only a vague memory of the news of her death coming to London, and of the grief caused by it to the English relatives who had always loved her well.

previous
next