Lady Elizabeth Montagu

Novelist of 'cool detachment'


Elizabeth Montagu, writer: born London 4 July 1917; died London 10 January 2006.

Who exactly was Elizabeth Montagu? As a novelist she would have enjoyed the enigma of who EM was - and would have unravelled her own character beautifully. She enjoyed playing "Lady Agatha" in her niece's undergraduate film Bumboozle, the famous Dorset thriller writer whose umbrella caught fire at a critical moment in the plot.

There are several other disguises. One was the soignée ex-debutante in the 1930s who briefly modelled for Ponds Cold Cream. Another was the wartime sister in charge of casualty at St Thomas's Hospital in London. Sir John Colville's published diaries provide vignettes of her off-duty during the Blitz. An entry for September 1940 says:

Lunched with Betty Montagu in Hyde Park. A few shells burst over our heads but otherwise it was warm and peaceful . . . Betts talked a lot of nonsense about religion and the ineffectiveness of our propaganda in America.

She stayed at St Thomas's until 1946 and was on the teaching staff of the Royal College of Nursing from 1947 to 1950.

Next came the writer of three novels, all published by James Michie at Heinemann. For a brief period she was acclaimed as the author of Waiting for Camilla (1953), The Small Corner (1955) and This Side of the Truth (1957). Finally came Change, and Other Stories (1966). John Betjeman called The Small Corner "a clever and subtle novel". John Davenport said it was "a strangely compelling . . . study of a woman who is self-righteous to the point of mania". Graham Greene said of This Side of the Truth, "She does a very difficult thing, triumphantly."

She was a contributor to Encounter and other magazines. In 1958 she translated Carl Zuckmayer's drama Das kalte Licht ("The Cold Light") and she might have gone on writing for many more years but for the alcohol she felt she needed. She once described writing short stories as

almost as an unwilling exercise of the pen, as a relief, sometimes, from the intense exigency of one book, or, alternatively, in the exhaustion and lassitude which follows or precedes the birth of another.

In conversations she sized people up quickly and was economical with words. This was reflected in her novels and may have attracted Greene, who was also a family friend. He said of Waiting for Camilla: "The author writes with cool detachment, pinning down futility with the point of an acid pen."

The qualities which most fascinated Elizabeth Montagu's many friends were her sense of humour and irony. She could pick up a phrase and hold it in the air with a half-smile, challenging every assumption. She once described herself as a socialist and an agnostic but she remained politically neutral, while conservative in habit. Stylish and fast-moving and a woman of considerable physical courage, she drove a yellow open-top Sunbeam which usually left everyone else behind. A close friend, Marie-Thérèse d'Arcangues, said of her:

Her personality was a mixture of humour and temerity which inspired respect . . . She had a way of approaching things with a comic view of life which made every situation into a farce, like a clown who falls on his feet.

As a writer she enjoyed the enviable seclusion of an almost fictional romantic Dorset cottage, complete with barns, an apple orchard of tiny daffodil-filled lawn descending to a stream. "Only Lady Betty goes down there" was the probably apocryphal comment of the farmer pointing down a winding, increasingly muddy track.

She was born in 1917, the fourth and youngest child of the ninth Earl of Sandwich and his American wife, Alberta (née Sturges), and brought up at Hinchingbrooke, the Montagus' Huntingdonshire seat since the early 17th century, going to school at North Foreland Lodge and then studying German in Munich. To the younger Montagus she was the perfect aunt because she was fun and worldly, and seeing her was an escape from more conventional family interests in stately homes, local government, politics and the Church. She got away from it all and, with Anne Balfour-Fraser, built a house in the South of France that represented la liberté.

When alcohol and disability got the better of her she went to live with Charlie Delmas, a shipping heiress, in Mougins. She had lost her independence but they still travelled and did much together.

Although Elizabeth Montagu inherited paintings and objets d'art from her father's collection she was a collector in her own right of artists such as Sutherland, Nolan, Auerbach and Andrews. She herself occasionally painted country scenery and did amusing sketches of friends.

Back in England, she was able to enjoy the end of her life in her sun-filled Battersea flat, largely owing to the attention of devoted carers.

John Montagu

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