‘In the course of two posts I had letters from a Polish Prince, a great dealer in Cattle, one of the most distinguished of our Literati, my Northern Steward, a great Scotch Philosopher, my head Carpenter in Portman Square, the sweet Minstrel Dr Beattie, an artist at Birmingham, my Baillif at Sandleford & many characters between these extremes.’ 

The sheer range as well as unusual length of the missives in the Huntington Library’s collection of Elizabeth Montagu’s extensive correspondence has provided a rich source – as well as a practical challenge - for scholars working in a variety of fields, from social and economic history to histories of medicine, aesthetics, authorial selfhood and literary genre.  Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1718-1800) combined many roles: pioneering Shakespeare critic, businesswoman manager of coalmines and agricultural estates, philanthropist and patron of artists and writers. She pivoted between several important networks, social, political, religious and intellectual. Her letters connect people, places and concepts with graphic immediacy.  In 2017, the registered charity Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online (EMCO) was founded to fund the digitization of her 8000 extant manuscript letters, seven eighths of which are curated by the Huntington Library, CA.

An international team of literary scholars and Digital Humanities experts is preparing an online edition of the correspondence, with the help of funding from a British philanthropic donor as well as the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Foyle Foundation, Paul Mellon Centre for British Art and the Modern Humanities Research Association. The leader of the project is Professor Caroline Franklin (COAH, Swansea University); the website built by Digital Humanities Manager Alexander Roberts (ISS, Swansea University); the Editor-in-Chief if Professor Nicole Pohl (Oxford Brookes University) and Project Manager is Dr Joanna Barker. The project has two Research Associates: Dr Anna Senkiw and Dr Jack Orchard.

In our digital edition, mages of the manuscripts are viewed alongside diplomatic transcriptions and scholarly annotations, maps, illustrations and hyperlinks to relevant websites, all of which enable the correspondence to be mined for information and to provide new data for further research, especially illustrating the part women played in the British Enlightenment. The 8,000 extant letters are considered 'among the most important surviving collections from the eighteenth century' (Schnorrenberg). Less than a quarter of these documents has been previously published and then in partial archaic print selections. Making this correspondence freely available will shed new light on women’s intellectual history and provide data for further research into literature, linguistics, theatre, art and architecture and commerce as well as intellectual networking and the genre of the letter.

The research team, led by Professor Caroline Franklin, has worldwide links with Enlightenment scholars and also reached out to those curators and librarians who care for and preserve these valuable papers. A project website was set up and blogs and social media kept the network up to date on EMCO’s progress. By 2020, half of the Huntington Library’s holdings of Elizabeth Montagu’s correspondence has been digitized, and an up-to-date inventory constructed by our two Research Associates. With the help of the German-led Transkribus project, EMCO has used the very latest automatic handwriting technology to provide the editorial team with transcriptions of the letters. Experts on each correspondent have been commissioned to annotate and introduce each epistolary friendship. We are now close to publication of the first part of the edition which will comprise about a quarter of Elizabeth Montagu’s letters.

Portrait of Frances Reynolds