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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003