Monday, August 29, 2016

"I love without hope of return": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 5


Lady Mary Wortley Montague, by Carlos Francesco Rusca, 1739

A continuation of "Friends and lovers."

Princess Docile and Prince Somber

That Lady Mary's marriage to Edward Wortley Montagu was emotionally unfulfilling seems clear. In later life Lady Mary wrote a fable about Princess Docile and her suitor Prince Somber. Prince Somber seems to be based on Wortley; he treats women "with a coldness verging on Contempt." [1]

Wortley's coldness as a suitor seems to have extended into the marriage. In October 1712—just two months after their elopement—Lady Mary was complaining to Wortley of his neglect after he had gone to the north of England without her; left behind, she sent after him letters that went unanswered. "I sometimes imagine you not well," she wrote, "and sometimes that you think it of small importance to write, or that greater matters have taken up your thoughts. — This last imagination is too cruel for me....How can you be so carelesse?" And on their first anniversary, she began a letter to him, "I can not misse an Oppertunity of saying kind things to you thô you will never make use of one to say them to me. How could you write me so ungracious a letter? why Would you do it?" [2]

Their adventure in Turkey seems to have temporarily brought them closer; Lady Mary became pregnant with their daughter around the time she visited the harem and saw dances that made her think of "something not to be spoke of" (see Part 3 of this series, "In the harem"). But after their return from Constantinople Wortley increasingly found reasons to be away on business. Lady Mary's public profile, and the vicious attacks on her by Pope and others alleging sexual improprieties, may have estranged the couple further.

At some point after their experiences in the Ottoman lands Lady Mary composed a "little treatise" that she later described to Joseph Spence: "It was from the customs of the Turks that I first thought of a septennial bill for the benefit of married persons..." The "septennial bill" would ensure that "every married person should have the liberty of declaring every seventh year whether they choose to continue to live in that state for another seven years or not..." It's an obvious point, but someone content in their marriage is less likely to be thinking about the advantages of having the right to dissolve it at will. [3]


Francesco Algarotti (detail), by Jean-Étienne Liotard, ca. 1745

"I find you so different from the rest of mankind": Francesco Algarotti

Enter Francesco Algarotti, a young Italian intellectual who arrived in London in the spring of 1736. Young, handsome, intellectually daring and a sparkling conversationalist, he dazzled both Lady Mary and her friend Lord Hervey; soon both were utterly smitten with him. In August Lady Mary declared in a letter to Algarotti, "I no longer know how to write to you. My feelings are too ardent; I could not possibly explain them or hide them...I see all its folly without being able to correct myself." [4]

Folly indeed. Not only was Algarotti half her age (at the time of his arrival he was 23, while she was 46), he seems to have had a decided preference for male lovers. Since her own close friend Lord Hervey was probably one of them, Lady Mary is likely to have been aware of this preference. Nonetheless, she wrote a remarkable letter to Algarotti when she learned of his plans to return to Europe. Comparing herself to Queen Dido being abandoned by Aeneas (although perhaps a more apt comparison would have been to the apocryphal tale of Sappho's unrequited love for Phaon in Ovid's Epistles), she wrote,
I like everything in you, and I find you so different from the rest of mankind...that it does not surprise me that you have inspired sentiments which until now have not been inspired in anybody...

My reason makes me see all its absurdity, and my Heart makes me feel all its importance. Feeble Reason! which battles with my passion and does not destroy it, and which vainly makes me see all the folly of loving to the degree that I love without hope of return.

...you must believe that you possess in me the most perfect friend and the most passionate lover. I should have been delighted if nature permitted me to limit myself to the first title; I am enraged at having been formed to wear skirts.
Why was my haughty Soul to Woman joyn'd?
Why this soft sex impos'd upon my Mind?... [5]
Algarotti did not return to London for more than two years. In the intervening time he published a book of philosophical dialogues, Il Newtonianismo per le dame (Newtonianism for women, Naples, 1737). In 1742 it was translated into English by Elizabeth Carter as Sir Isaac Newton's theory of light and colours, and his principle of attraction, made familiar to the ladies in several Entertainments. In the fourth Entertainment there is a brief tribute to Lady Mary's pioneering inoculation efforts: "How many, as well fair Circassians as English Beauties, have had their Charms preserved by the Inoculation of the Small Pox..." [6]

"I am leaving to seek you"

During Algarotti's absence Lady Mary sent him anguished, abject letters imploring him to write; these letters make for difficult reading. He did ultimately return to London in 1739 for a second visit. His sojourn lasted about three months, some of it spent staying with Hervey. During this visit, Lady Mary wrote an erotic poem in which the speaker imagines watching a lover sleep:
Between your sheets supine you sleep
Nor dream of vigils that fond Lovers keep
While wakeing I indulge the pain
Of Fruitless Passion oft declar'd in vain... [7]
Given her own recognition that her love was "fruitless," what happened next is extraordinary. On 16 July, about two months after Algarotti had left London to travel to Russia, she wrote him, "I am leaving to seek you. One need not accompany such a proof of an eternal Attachment with an embroidery of words. I shall meet you in Venice." [8] A few days later she left England for the Continent, not to return for more than two decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, her fantasy of living with Algarotti was never realized.

"I have begun to scorn your scorn"

Algarotti spent much of the next two years at Frederick the Great's Prussian court in Berlin, and acting as his ambassador to other European kingdoms. In that capacity he journeyed to Turin 1741. Having waited in vain for him to come to Venice for nearly two years, Lady Mary went there to meet him. Her visit lasted almost two months, and they were in close contact: Algarotti apparently gave her a poem on the subject of love that was later found in her copy of the 1741 edition of Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves, and he added some brief notes to her letters to Lord Hervey. But this visit disabused Lady Mary of the illusion that Algarotti was capable of returning her romantic feelings. After he left Turin, she wrote him a final letter:
I have begun to scorn your scorn, and in that vein I no longer wish to restrain myself. In the time (of foolish memory) when I had a frantic passion for you, the desire to please you (although I understood its entire impossibility) and the fear of boring you almost stifled my voice when I spoke to you, and all the more stopped my hand five hundred times a day when I took up my pen to write to you. At present it is no longer that. I have studied you, and studied so well, that Sir [Isaac] Newton did not dissect the rays of the sun with more exactness than I have deciphered the sentiments of your soul...I saw that your soul is filled with a thousand beautiful fancies but all together makes up only indifference...About manuscripts, statues, Pictures, poetry, wine, conversation, you always show taste, Delicacy, and vivacity. Why then do I find only churlishness and indifference? Because I am so thick as to strike out nothing better... [9]
To Hervey she wrote that her visit to Turin was "a very disagreable Epoque of my Life." She would not meet or correspond with Algarotti again for fifteen years. [10]


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish dress (detail), by Jean-Étienne Liotard, ca. 1756

"You can hide the passions, never will you succeed in exterminating them"

Lady Mary spent the next two decades living and travelling in Italy and southern France. She remained on cordial, if emotionally as well as physically distant, terms with her husband (who apparently had no clue about Algarotti), and received £1200 a year from him for living expenses. She spent most of this time in quiet retirement near Brescia, where perhaps she was too isolated. She wound up becoming the victim of Count Ugolino Palazzi, who exploited her financially and, when it became clear that she wanted to return to Venice, tried various stratagems to prevent her from leaving; she only escaped with difficulty.

Stopping at Padua on her way to Venice at the end of 1756, she was reunited with Algarotti, who had an estate in the area. Her friendship with him was renewed, along, perhaps, with the dim embers of that passionate attraction which once caused her so much pain. (She was now 67, while he was in his mid-forties.) Her letters to him from Venice have a bantering, flirtatious tone, but nonetheless express deep feeling:
Farewell Philosophy: here are the fine beginnings of Dotage. I gave proof of it last night at the academy of M. Barbarigo in the presence of three or four hundred people. There was excellent Music. Perhaps you do not know that I love Music to the point of Hatred. I could not listen to it with impunity...I have kept myself as distant as I could from that charming seductress, and I flattered myself that my weakness was not known. Poor human Wisdom! it is your ultimate effort: you can hide the passions, never will you succeed in exterminating them. This Reflection smells terribly of Marivaux. —

Let us return to my Story. I abandoned myself to the Pleasure of listening to enchanting sounds which stir the soul, thinking mine frozen enough by time to be able to resist even the Sirens. Mademoiselle Barbarigo with her Angelic face joins her voice with the Instruments, the Applause is deserved and general; her mother's eyes sparkle with joy. A certain Chevalier Sagramoso (whom I shall hate all my life) whispers to me, out of an accursed Politeness, that he had heard my daughter sing in London. A thousand pictures present themselves at the same time to my mind, the Impression becomes too strong and, fool that I am, I burst into tears, and am obliged to leave in order not to disturb the concert by my sobs. I return home, exasperated at having drawn public scorn on myself deservedly: a sentimental old woman, what a Monster! [11]
Lady Mary alternated spending time in Venice (during the Carnival seasons) and Padua (during the summers) until two events finally called her back to England. The first was the death of her husband Wortley in January 1761, and familial struggles over his will (which left the bulk of his fortune, more than £1 million, to his second-oldest grandson, rather than to his own estranged son). Second was her own ill health: she discovered, probably just weeks before Wortley's death, that she had breast cancer.

Her friend, the older writer Mary Astell, had undergone a mastectomy in 1731 (without anesthesia, which was not developed for another century). Astell had died in agonizing pain two months after the operation. Lady Mary decided against any but palliative treatments, although she knew that the cancer was likely to prove fatal within a year or two. After a final summer in Italy, in September 1761 she set out for London.

"Dragging my ragged remnant of life to England"

But "dragging [her] ragged remnant of life to England" [12] was complicated by the continuing war in Europe. Britain was allied with Prussia against France, Spain, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Lady Mary's route inevitably passed through hostile or contested territory. It was a long and hazard-filled journey. But by mid-November she had arrived at the port city of Rotterdam, where she stayed for two months while waiting for an opportunity to cross the Channel. It finally came in mid-January 1762; by the end of the month she was living in a house in London near that of her daughter Lady Bute.

Lady Mary's final months were spent re-acquainting herself with her family and her old friends, and coming to know some of the new members of London's fashionable and political worlds who had emerged in the two decades of her absence. But by summer she was very seriously ill. In her last days she gave the volumes of her lifelong journals to Lady Bute. Her daughter apparently read and re-read the journals, and allowed her own youngest daughter, Lady Louisa Stuart, to read the early volumes "with copying or note-taking expressly prohibited." But shortly before her own death in 1794, Lady Bute had all of Lady Mary's diaries burned. [13]

Lady Mary died on 21 August 1762, just two days shy of the fiftieth anniversary of her elopement with Edward Wortley Montagu. She had not had an easy life. But she had become a highly regarded poet, a thought-provoking essayist, a dangerous wit, an intrepid traveller, and an intellectually and sexually adventurous woman during a time in which it was increasingly difficult for women to escape conventional family-oriented roles. As her biographer Isobel Grundy has written, "her intellect made her hated...and her emotional sensitivity made her suffer." But towards the end of her life she wrote that "there is no happiness without an alloy, nor indeed any misfortune without some mixture of consolation, if our passions permitted us to perceive it." [14]


Coda: The Embassy Letters

In December 1761, while she was stranded in Rotterdam, Lady Mary entrusted the two manuscript volumes of her account of her experiences in the Ottoman lands to the Reverend Benjamin Sowden, a British Presbyterian minister. Her intention was apparently for Sowden to have them published. But after her death, Sowden contacted Lord Bute about the volumes. Horace Walpole reported that "her family are in terrors" about what they might contain. Lady Mary's son-in-law Lord Bute paid Sowden £200 for the manuscript, which was duly surrendered. [15]

But Sowden had allowed two English travellers who had expressed interest in the manuscript to borrow it overnight, and they managed to transcribe it before returning it. Without the family's knowledge or approval, Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e Written during Her Travels... was published by Becket and De Hondt in three volumes in London in 1763, and became a sensation. Known as "The Turkish Embassy Letters," the book made Lady Mary posthumously famous.

Many editions followed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lord Byron was a fervent admirer, and the letters were one of the chief inspirations of his book-length narrative poem Don Juan (1819-24). Subsequent editions of the Embassy Letters added more letters and correspondents, until in the mid-1960s Robert Halsband edited a scholarly edition of The Complete Letters (Oxford University Press, 1965-67). But it's remarkable to think that without the unauthorized actions of Sowden and the travellers who pirated her manuscript, we would likely know very little today about Lady Mary's extraordinary life and writings.

Last time:  "Friends and lovers"



  1. Quoted in Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 40.
  2. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, To Edward Wortley Montagu, October 1712, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, pp. 98-99; Montagu, Letter to Edward Wortley Montagu, 23 August 1713, Selected Letters, p. 110.
  3. Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, Collected in Conversation, Vol. 1, edited by James M. Osborn, Oxford University Press, 1966, No. 765, p. 312.
  4. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, August 1736, Selected Letters, p. 226.
  5. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, 10 September, Selected Letters, pp. 227-228.
  6. Francesco Algarotti, Sir Isaac Newton's theory of light and colours, and his principle of attraction, made familiar to the ladies in several Entertainments, Vol. 2, translated by Elizabeth Carter, London, 1742, p. 14.
  7. Isobel Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: A Critical Edition, Vol. 2, Doctoral thesis, Oxford University, 1971, p. 598.
  8. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, 16 July 1739, Selected Letters, p. 245. 
  9. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, ?May 1741, Selected Letters, p.285-286.
  10. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 438. 
  11. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, 12 March 1757, Selected Letters, pp. 436-437.
  12. Montagu, To Sir James and Lady Frances Steuart, 20 November 1761, p. 495.
  13. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 623.
  14. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. xviii; Montagu, To Sir James Steuart, 12 April 1761, Selected Letters, p. 490.
  15. Quoted in Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 624.




Saturday, August 20, 2016

Friends and lovers: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 4


Lady Mary in the 1720s (detail), by Godfrey Kneller

A continuation of In the harem: "An Entertainment which was never given before to any Christian"

"Let the Freind, and the Lover be handsomly mix'd": Lady Mary's loves

Scholar Kathleen Nulton Kemmerer has pointed out that "...misogynist attacks on learned women from Christine di Pisan onward often equated 'knowledge' in a woman with lewdness," [1] and it was no different with Lady Mary. Sometimes thinly disguised as "Sappho," she was relentlessly subjected to rumors about her sexual life.

In his Imitations of Horace (1733), Alexander Pope famously wrote that the fate of "Sappho"'s acquaintances was to be either "P—x'd by her love, or libell'd by her hate." And in Sober Advice from Horace (1734), Pope went so far as to suggest that Lady Mary (now "Fufidia") not only took lovers to satisfy an insatiable sexual appetite, but cheated them financially:
For Int'rest, ten per Cent. her constant Rate is;
Her Body? hopeful Heirs may have it gratis.
She turns her very Sister to a Job,
And, in the Happy Minute, picks your Fob:
Yet starves herself, so little her own Friend,
And thirsts and hungers only at one End... [2]
Erasmus Jones alleged in his Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation (1734), supposedly written by "Father Poussin," that Lady Mary—recognizable as "Sappho" and from the references to wit, Turkey and Twickenham, where she and her husband lived near London—took female lovers:
Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with reason, it would be expected she should make some Additions to a Science in which Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, begins Amours with her own, and teaches the Female World a new sort of Sin, call'd the Flats, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey, as well as at Twickenham at this Day. [3]
So to discuss Lady Mary's possible loves is to run the risk of reiterating the misogynistic sexualization of her practiced by her enemies. But my intention in what follows is to honor her determination not to be confined by the hypocritical double standards of her society, and to celebrate her adventurous spirit.

Lady Mary herself jokingly dismissed the rumors of intrigues that followed her and other women in her circle:
'Tis a strange thing that Women can't converse with a Lawyer, a parson, nor a man midwife without putting them all to the same use, as if one could not sign a deed, say one's prayers, or take physic without doing you know what after it. This Instinct is so odd, I am sometimes apt to think we were made to no other end. If that's true, Lord ha' mercy upon me; to be sure, I shall broil in the next world for living in the neglect of a known duty in this. [4]
And after the passage of time and the destruction during her lifetime and after of so much of her writing (including her lifelong diaries), there are vast gaps in our knowledge of her emotional life. But there are some indications in her surviving letters and poems and in records of her conversation that Lady Mary's romantic life may have been as unconventional as her intellectual life. And not to discuss these questions at all seems like an avoidance of an area that was hugely important for her, and for other women of her class and era.

The fate of many women was to be forced to subsume their intellectual, emotional and sexual fulfillment to the imperatives of marriage (to a man chosen by their fathers to enhance their families' wealth and political connections) and children (to provide heirs). While Lady Mary did marry and have children, she did so with a man of her own—if not exactly free—choice.

Thanks to the lovelessness of most marriages it was not uncommon for both husbands and wives to seek other sexual partners, so it would not be particularly surprising if Wortley and Lady Mary did the same. But both before and after her marriage Lady Mary sought not just friends, but close intellectual and emotional companions. She once confessed in a private verse that for her, sexual attraction required that "the Freind, and the Lover be handsomly mix'd." [5] Perhaps it was the very intensity of her desire for connection that left her vulnerable to scurrilous attacks by her enemies.


Edward Wortley Montagu (detail), by John Vanderbank, 1730

"That odd question? Whether Mr. Wortley was the first"

It was rare for women and men of Lady Mary's class to marry for love, and certainly Lady Mary did not love Edward Wortley Montagu at the time of their elopement. As I wrote in the first post in this series, she eloped with Wortley because she was trying to escape an arranged marriage to an unappealing suitor named Clotworthy Skeffington. Wortley was hardly her romantic ideal; his main attractions, apart from his considerable wealth, were his literary acquaintances (some of whom she also knew) and his plans to travel abroad.

There is a curious footnote to their elopement. In the final crucial days before her marriage to Skeffington, and while Wortley was still vacillating, Lady Mary wrote to her friend Philippa Mundy, "...I know not what will become of me. You'l think me mad, but I know nothing certain but that I shall not dye an Old Maid, that's positive." [6]

One way, of course, that Lady Mary could be "certain" and "positive" that she would not die an old maid was if she were no longer a young maid. She had a Paradise with whom she was in love; could she have contrived a way to see him alone? Could her motive have been to "give herselfe" where she truly loved before a marriage to either of the men she did not? Or could it have been a last-ditch strategy to avoid marriage to Skeffington?

These speculations might seem to be making too much out of what might have been an off-hand comment to a friend. But in the early 1740s the writer Joseph Spence visited Lady Mary and recorded some notes of their conversation about an event that had occurred about 10 years after her marriage: "Lady Mary's visit to Duncan Campbell with Miss Skerrett? He told their names, etc. Was it of him or of some conjuress that she asked that odd question? Whether Mr. Wortley was the first, etc." [6]

Duncan Campbell was a mute fortune-teller who seemed to possess uncanny knowledge of his clients, and was suspected by many of being a fraud. When Lady Mary and her friend Maria (Molly) Skerrett visited him, he wrote down ("told") their names before they informed him of who they were. Could Lady Mary have been trying to test him with a question whose answer only she would know? This "odd question" is indeed suggestive.

A passionate friendship: Jane Smith

Of course, Lady Mary's first experience of love need not have been with a man, and much of her love poetry is addressed to women. Lady Mary had a series of intense friendships with other young women before her marriage; were these friendships romantic?

In 1704-1705 (she was 15) she dedicated a volume of her writing "to the fair hands of the beauteous Hermensilda by her most obedient Strephon." Strephon is a male identity adopted by Lady Mary in her early poems, while  the "beauteous Hermensilda" was probably Jane Smith, daughter of John Smith, the Speaker of the House of Commons. [8]

In "The Adventurer," written around this time, Strephon is the ardent adventurer of the title and the narrator. In somewhat heated terms he describes falling in love with "Calista" while watching her sleep in the shade:
A Careless Vail was cast upon her Breast
Which Little envy'd Zephyrs Kiss't.
The Wanton Gods the thin Loose Gause did move
Discovering whole charming Worlds of Love,
Amaz'd, confus'd I wondring stood and Gaz'd,
(Who at such Beauties cou'd bee unamazd)
But t'was not Long that I unmov'd did stand,
I Kneel't, and now grown bolder, Kiss't her hand,
She wak't and rose from off the Flowry Bed,
The Charming Vision disapear'd and Fled.
Love came this moment, —  [9]
Strephon's ardor when gazing at Calista's body is a pre-echo of Lady Mary's frank admiration of the "finest skins and most delicate shapes" of the Turkish women in the public bath in Sophia more than a decade later (see the second post in this series).

Jane Smith apparently ended their friendship when she was appointed Maid of Honor to Queen Anne. In a poem dated 20 May 1705, Lady Mary writes as "Clarinda" bemoaning the loss of her unfaithful lover Hermensilda to the trees on which their names have been carved together:
Clarinda's name is on each Bark
With Hermenesilda's joyn'd
Of our past Loves a liveing Mark
Tho' she's turned faithless and unkind. [10]
The name Clarinda may refer to a poem by Aphra Behn, "To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman" (printed in 1688; Lady Mary knew Behn's work). In that poem, Clarinda is imagined to embody both "Nymph" and "Swain":
And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
With thy deluding Form thou giv'st us pain,
While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
In pity to our Sex sure thou wer't sent,
That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we shou'd — thy Form excuses it. [11]
Lady Mary's adoption of the identity of Clarinda—like Strephon, a wooer of women—may indicate her own feelings of sexual duality.

"A Woman I tenderly lov'd": Anne Wortley Montagu

A few years after her Strephon and Clarinda poems Lady Mary developed an intimate friendship with Anne Wortley; it was through Anne that she met her brother Edward. After Anne's death Lady Mary wrote Edward that Anne was "a Woman I tenderly lov'd." [12] Isobel Grundy writes, "Speculation has been rife about this friendship; Lady Mary's later involvement with Anne's brother Edward has even been read as pure displacement of her feelings for Anne." [13]

The letters the two women exchanged do involve "professions...that sound extravagant as addressed by one woman to another." [14] When they were separated in the summer of 1709, Lady Mary wrote to Anne, "I cannot help answering your Letter this minute and telling you I infinitely love you...your Friendship is the happynesse of my Life...no consideration can hinder me from telling you My dear, dear Mrs Wortley, no body ever was so entirely, so faithfully yours...I don't alow it possible for a man to be so Sincere as I am." [15]

Sometime after Anne's death, Lady Mary wrote a free translation of a poem addressed by the Roman poet Catullus to a female lover. Isobel Grundy dates Lady Mary's version between 1712 and (probably) 1715, that is, from just before to a few years after her marriage (although Grundy states that "it could belong to any time in the decade or so following 1712"). This poem is striking for its "sensuous descriptions of kissing":
Let us live my Lesbia and Love
When Dear desires our bosoms move
And their Quick Zest to pleasures give
Tis then we may be said to live.

Kiss me soft my Lovely Love
Soft and melting as the Dove
Fondly eager, kind, and sweet,
Thus our mixing Souls may meet,
Let thy gentle [ __ __ __ ]
The short transporting Joy prolong.

Do not yet thy lips remove,
Kiss me on my charming Love.
I dye with every pointed kiss
Oh let me dye in such a bliss,
Renew again the Amorous play
And kiss my ravish'd Soul away. [16]
In the ninth line, a word or words consisting of three syllables are missing. Given the regular meter and rhyme scheme, it is not hard to supply plausible candidates. And in his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Thomas Laqueur notes that in the eighteenth century, "dying" had a double meaning. With her invocation of "desires," "pleasures," "Joy," "bliss," and "Amorous play," Lady Mary clearly intends the sexual rather than the literal meaning. [17]


Lord John Hervey (detail), by John Fayram, c. 1737

After marriage: "...my Heart being ever as open to her as my selfe"

Lady Mary was hardly the only 17th- and 18th-century poet to write poems from the perspective of the opposite gender. For example, Lord Hervey, a close friend of Lady Mary's in the 1720s, wrote three "lesbian" love poems that she had copies of in manuscript. (A critical edition of Hervey's poetry, edited by Bill Overton, will be issued in Fall 2016 by Cambridge University Press.) It should also be noted that "concepts of identity, sex, and body" in the 18th-century could be "fluid and malleable." [18] Hervey, for example, was married with children and took a mistress, Anne Vane, but also travelled with his longtime male lover, Stephen Fox. Like Hervey, both before and after her marriage Lady Mary seems to have been romantically attracted to both men and women.

This may have been one reason she was called Sappho. Sappho, of course, was a time-honored example of poetic excellence; to call Lady Mary "Sappho" was an acknowledgment of her literary skill. At the same time, it may suggest that it was known that she shared Sappho's erotic desire for women.

Among her letters is one dating from late 1713 that is a passionate declaration of love from one married woman, disguised as "Fidelia," to another, "Almeria." It is not known whether Lady Mary sent the letter or received it, or whether it was "an exercise in fiction, like Lord Hervey's lesbian poems." As Grundy describes its contents,
Fidelia admits that she is laying herself open to the ridicule which she herself used to heap on 'fond Expressions' between ladies, yet confesses with amazement that she now sees Almeria 'rather with a Lovers Eye then with a Friends.' She thinks about her constantly, dreams of her, and hopes for a return of love, although 'I blush for what I say.' Her husband Aristus, she says, has noticed her coldness and is growing jealous...She concludes, 'I beg you burn this Letter which for the world I would not have seen by any one by your dear self.' [19]

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, by Charles Jervas

After her return from Turkey, Lady Mary's circle of friends included two older women around whom rumors swirled as well: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who had been involved in an emotionally fraught relationship with Queen Anne, and Claude-Charlotte Howard (née de Gramont), Lady Stafford, a woman who was presumed by contemporaries to have a sexual preference for women.

Isobel Grundy has written that the speaker of one of Hervey's "lesbian" poems "might easily be Lady Stafford." The poem depicts an older woman attempting to seduce the younger "Miss —" by enumerating the attractions and benefits of lesbianism, not least of which is that sex won't lead to conception and childbirth: "Still shall that Shape its taper form retain,...Admitted to the Joy, exempted from the Pain." Lady Mary wrote of Lady Stafford that she "knew me better than any body else in the world...my Heart being ever as open to her as my selfe." [20]

Lady Stafford may have introduced Lady Mary to Molly Skerrett, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was Lady Stafford's neighbor. During summers in the early 1720s, while Edward was elsewhere (as he so often found a reason to be), Lady Mary invited Molly Skerrett to live with her. In 1721 Lady Mary wrote to her sister,
I am still at Twicknam, where I pass my time in great indolence and sweetness. Mr. W. [Wortley] is at this present in Yorkshire. My fair companion puts me oft in mind of our Thoresby conversations; we read and walk together, and I am more happy in her than any thing else could make me except your conversation. [21]
In another letter she calls herself "a very hearty as well as humble Admirer" of "my little thread satin Beauty." [22] Their friendship continued for more than a decade until Skerrett's early death in childbirth. On the eve of her marriage to Prime Minister Robert Walpole in 1738 (she had been his mistress since 1724), Skerrett burned "a whole trunkful of letters, poems and papers of Montagu's." [23]

These possible romantic involvements with women are all speculative, although the circumstantial and literary evidence for some of them is significant. However, there is much less ambiguity about her last great love affair, which occurred when she was in her late forties: it was openly confessed by Lady Mary herself in her letters. The object of her love was the Italian essayist, poet, and aesthete Francesco Algarotti, who at the time he first came to London was in his mid-twenties. Despite the difference in their ages and Algarotti's preference for male lovers, Lady Mary left England and her husband to pursue Algarotti to Europe—a story that will be told in the next installment.

Next time: "I love without hope of return": Lady Mary in Italy
Last time: In the harem: "An Entertainment which was never given before to any Christian"


  1. Kathleen Nulton Kemmerer, A Neutral Being Between the Sexes: Samuel Johnson's Sexual Politics, Bucknell University Press, 1998, p. 28.
  2. Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 334, 347.
  3. Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation, 1734," Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1734pret.htm
  4. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letter to Lady Mar, 3 February 1726, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, p. 204.
  5. Isobel Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: A Critical Edition, Vol. 2, Doctoral thesis, Oxford University, 1971, p. 441.
  6. Montagu, Letter to Philippa Mundy, August 1712, Selected Letters, p. 80. 
  7. Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, Collected in Conversation, Vol. 1, edited by James M. Osborn, Oxford University Press, 1966, No. 756, p. 308.
  8. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 20-21.
  9. Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Vol. 1, p. 262.
  10. Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Vol. 1, p. 328.
  11. Aphra Behn, "To the fair Clarinda," quoted in Jennifer Frangos, "Aphra Behn's Cunning Stunts," The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2004, p. 23.
  12. Montagu, Letter to Edward Wortley Montagu, 28 March 1710, Selected Letters, p. 17. 
  13. Grundy,  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 28.
  14. Lady Louisa Stuart, quoted in Lois Mahaffey, Alexander Pope and his Sappho: Pope's relationship with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and its Influence on his Work. Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, 1963, p. 176.
  15. Montagu, Letter to Anne Wortley, 26 August 1709, Selected Letters, p. 8-10.
  16. Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 88, 340-341.
  17. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 2.
  18. Frangos, p. 22.
  19. Grundy,  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, pp. 69-70. 
  20. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, pp. 337-338. Montagu, Letter to Lady Bute, 6 March 1753, Selected Letters, p. 385-386.
  21. Montagu, Letter to the Countess of Mar, 1721, Letters, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1906, p. 209. https://archive.org/stream/letters00mont#page/209/mode/1up
  22. Montagu, Letter to Lady Mar, 6 September 1721, Selected Letters, p. 183.
  23. Grundy,  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 193.

Monday, August 1, 2016

In the harem : Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 3


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish-style dress, by Godfrey Kneller

A continuation of "Charmed with their Civility and Beauty": Lady Mary's visit to the public baths

The experience of childbirth

Inoculation was not the only "female folk-practice of a culture both remote and despised" that turned out to be superior to Western medical methods.

Shortly after arriving in Turkey, in mid-April 1817, Lady Mary became pregnant, and she gave birth to a daughter on January 19, 1718. For upper-class women in Britain, childbirth took place in a darkened room, with closed windows and shutters and drawn curtains. Female relatives and a midwife attended. Male midwives, who were permitted to use forceps (although not permitted to see or touch their patients without an intervening sheet), were increasingly common, but probably caused as many deaths as they prevented. The newborn child was "starved and purged for several days before being handed over to a wet-nurse." The child was usually sent to live with the nurse and not with its mother, and the separation could continue for several years. The new mother's "lying-in" involved spending "up to a fortnight in bed" without fresh air or daylight, and then another two weeks confined indoors, before she could begin to resume her normal life. [1]

In Turkey, by contrast, birth was a social occasion and male midwives were unknown. After the birth, a "honey-and-spice ointment" was applied (honey, we now know, has antibacterial properties that inhibit infection). New mothers, Lady Mary wrote, "See all Company the day of their Delivery and at the fortnight's end return Visits, set out in their Jewells and new Cloaths"; Lady Mary was returning birth visits after three weeks. She wrote to her sister that the experience of childbirth was "not halfe so mortifying here as in England," and continued, "I am not so fond of any of our customs as to retain them when they are not necessary." [2]


A lady receiving visitors (The reception), by John Frederick Lewis, 1873 
(from the Yale Center for British Art)

In the harem: "An Entertainment which was never given before to any Christian"

"I was invited to dine with the Grand Vizier's Lady," Lady Mary wrote her sister Lady Mar on April 18, 1717, "and twas with a great deal of pleasure I prepar'd my selfe for an Entertainment which was never given before to any Christian." Dining with an upper-class Turkish woman meant entering the harem. The Grand Vizier's wife was "near 50" and devout; "except the Habits and Numbers of her Slaves nothing about her...appear'd expensive." She told Lady Mary (through "the Greek Lady who was my interpretress") that "her whole expence was in charity and her Employment praying to God."

Perhaps not quite all her expense was charity. Lady Mary was given an immense feast "serv'd one Dish at a time, to a vast Number, all finely dress'd after their manner...I am very much enclin'd to beleive an Indian that had never tasted of either would prefer their Cookery to ours."
Their Sauces are very high [refined], all the roast very much done. They use a great deal of rich Spice. The Soop is serv'd for the last dish, and they have at least as great Variety of ragoûts as we have. I was very sorry I could not eat of as many as the good Lady would have had me, who was very earnest in serving me of every thing. The Treat concluded with Coffee and perfumes, which is a high mark of respect. 2 slaves kneeling cens'd my Hair, Cloaths, and handkercheif.
After this repast and watching the slaves "play and dance, which they did with their Guitars [perhaps an oud or saz?] in their hands," Lady Mary took her leave.

But the day wasn't over. Her interpreter urged her to visit Fatima, the wife of the Kahya, the true power behind the sultan's throne. If the entertainment provided by the Grand Vizier's wife had offered "little diversion," that offered by Fatima would be far more enticing.
All things here were with quite another Air than at the Grand Vizier's, and the very house confess'd the difference between an Old Devote and a young Beauty...I was met at the door by 2 black Eunuchs who led me through a long Gallery between 2 ranks of beautifull young Girls with their Hair finely plaited almost hanging to their Feet, all dress'd in fine light damasks brocaded with silver. I was sorry that Decency did not permit me to stop to consider them nearer...
The beauty of her attendants is eclipsed by that of Fatima herself:
I have seen all that has been call'd lovely either in England or Germany, and must own that that I never saw any thing so gloriously Beautifull, nor can I recollect a fact that would have been taken notice of near hers...I was so struck with Admiration that I could not for some time speak to her, being wholly taken up in gazing. That surprizing Harmony of features! that charming result of the whole! that exact proportion of Body! that lovely bloom of Complexion unsully'd by art! the unutterable Enchantment of her Smile! But her Eyes! large and black with all soft languishment of the bleu! every turn of her face discovering some new charm!
...and to that a behaviour so full of Grace and sweetness, such easy motions, with an Air so majestic yet free from Stiffness or affectation that I am perswaded could she be suddenly transported upon the most polite Throne of Europe, nobody would think her other than born and bred to be a Queen, thô educated in a Country we call barbarous. To say all in a Word, our most celebrated English Beautys would vanish near her.
If Fatima's beauty was mesmerizing, so was the dancing of her slave attendants:
Her fair Maids were rang'd below the Sofa to the number of 20, and put me in Mind of the pictures of the ancient Nymphs. I did not think all Nature could have furnish'd such a Scene of Beauty. She made them a sign to play and dance. 4 of them immediately began to play some soft airs on Instruments between a Lute and a Guitarr, which they accompany'd with their voices while the others danc'd by turns. This Dance was very different from what I had seen before. Nothing could be more artfull or more proper to raise certain Ideas, the Tunes so soft, the motions so Languishing, accompany'd with pauses and dying Eyes, halfe falling back and then recovering themselves in so artfull a Manner that I am very possitive the coldest and most rigid Prude upon Earth could not have look'd upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.

I suppose you may have read that the Turks have no Music but what is shocking to the Ears...I can assure you that the Music is extremely pathetic...Tis certain they have very fine Natural voices; these were very agreable.
When her visit is over, after incense and coffee, Lady Mary is dazzled; "...[I] could not help fancying I had been some time in Mahomet's Paradice, so much I was charm'd with what I had seen." [3]

Lady Mary's approving response to her harem experiences stands in contrast to those of other (male) observers of Middle Eastern and North African dances, who were far more censorious. In his Satire XI, the first-century Roman poet Juvenal wrote disparagingly of the entertainment at a banquet,
Forsitan expectes ut Gaditana canoro
Incipiat prurire choro, plausuque probatae
Ad terrain tremulo descendant clune puellae.
(As one online translation has it:
"Perhaps you’re expecting the sound of tunes from Cadiz
To set you going, dancing girls shimmying to the floor,
Wiggling their bottoms around to appreciative applause.") [4]
A seventeenth-century French traveller, Sieur du Loir, wrote that Turkish dances "represent all too well the feelings and movements of lovemaking." And Alex Russell, an eighteenth-century British traveller in Aleppo (then part of the Ottoman Empire), wrote that "The Turkish dance consists…in lascivious postures, and movements inelegant, or indecent." [5]

Unlike many previous writers, Lady Mary was not judging Ottoman culture from an assumed place of superiority. Instead, as her championing of inoculation and acceptance of Turkish bathing, cooking and childbirth customs shows, she tried to record her experiences with an open mind and a candid honesty. It took remarkable bravery to report in writing, even to her sister, that she was mesmerized by Fatima's beauty and found the sensuous dancing of her women brought to mind "something not to be spoke of."

Next time: "That odd question": Lady Mary's friends and possible lovers
Last time: "Charmed with their Civility and Beauty": Lady Mary's visit to the public baths



  1. Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 6.
  2. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, pp. 159-160; Letter to Anne Thistlethwayte, 4 January 1718, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, p. 167; Letter to Countess Mar, 10 March 1718 [old style 1717], from The Letters and Works of Lady Wortley Montagu, volume 2, edited by Lord Wharncliffe, Bentley, 1837, p. 44: https://archive.org/stream/lettersandworks07montgoog#page/n58/mode/1up
  3. Letter to Lady Mar, 18 April 1717, Selected Letters, pp. 160-165.
  4. Juvenal, "Satire XI. An Invitation to Dinner—The Entertainment." Translated by A. S. Kline. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/JuvenalSatires11.htm#anchor_Toc284430966
  5. Alex Russell, The Natural History of Aleppo, Second Edition, Vol. 1, revised and enlarged by Patrick Russell, Robinson, 1794, p. 141 and note XXXVI, p. 384.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"Charmed with their Civility and Beauty": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 2


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (detail), by Jonathan Richardson (?), ca. 1726

A continuation of "I tremble for what we are doing": Lady Mary's elopement

The journey to Turkey

In August 1716 Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman court. Lady Mary and their three-year-old son accompanied him on the lengthy journey across Europe to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople.

Wortley's mission was to represent Britain in the peace negotiations that followed the Ottoman defeat by the forces of the Hapsburg Empire at the battle of Peterwardein, in what was then southeastern Hungary. As recently as 1683 Ottoman armies had besieged Vienna, and lately new conflicts had broken out between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers. The human cost of those conflicts was made vividly apparent to the Wortleys. Their route to the Ottoman lands crossed the Peterwardein battlefield, where the bodies of those slaughtered only a few months previously were still visible. Lady Mary wrote of
...the feild being strew'd with the Skulls and Carcases of unbury'd Men, Horses and Camels. I could not look without horror on such numbers of mangled humane bodys, and refflect on the Injustice of War, that makes murther not only necessary but meritorious. [1]
The public baths

Lady Mary approached Ottoman culture with an open mind, and found much to admire and even emulate. In Sofia, an Ottoman-held city about 150 miles from the frontier, she visited the "Hot Baths that are resorted to both for diversion and health." [2] Her experience of the baths is worth quoting at length:
I was in my travelling Habit, which is a rideing dress, and certainly appear'd very extrordinary to them, yet there was not one of 'em that shew'd the least surprize or impertinent Curiosity, but receiv'd me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European Court where the Ladys would have behav'd them selves in so polite a manner to a stranger. I beleive in the whole there were 200 Women and yet none of those disdainfull smiles or satyric whispers that never fail in our assemblys when any body appears that is not dress'd exactly in fashion...

The first sofas were cover'd with Cushions and rich Carpets, on which sat the Ladys, and on the 2nd their slaves behind 'em, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any Beauty or deffect conceal'd, yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest Gesture amongst 'em. They Walk'd and mov'd with the same majestic Grace which Milton describes of our General Mother [Eve in the Garden of Eden]. There were many amongst them as exactly proportion'd as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shineingly white, only adorn'd by their Beautifull Hair divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.

I was here convinc'd of the Truth of a Refflexion that I had often made, that if twas the fashion to go naked, the face would hardly be observ'd. I perceiv'd that the Ladys with the finest skins and most delicate shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, thô their faces were sometimes less beautifull that those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough to wish that Mr. Gervase [the painter Charles Jervas] could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improv'd his art to see so many fine Women naked in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking Coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their Cushions while their slaves (generally pritty Girls of 17 or 18) were employ'd in braiding their hair in several pritty manners. In short, tis the Women's coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc. They generally take this Diversion once a week, and stay there at least 4 or 5 hours without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cool room, which was very surprizing to me.

The Lady that seem'd the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undress'd me for the bath. I excus'd my selfe with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in perswading me. I was at last forc'd to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfy'd 'em very well, for I saw they beleiv'd I was so lock'd up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband.

I was charm'd with their Civility and Beauty, and should have been very glad to pass more time with them... [3]
The contrast with contemporary British hygienic practices was stark. Immersion baths were uncommon in Britain at this time, and were generally taken while wearing a shift (rather than fully naked). It was more common for people to bathe using a sponge or cloth that had been dipped in a basin of cold water; warm baths were thought to be unhealthy. The pleasure Ottoman women took in bathing naked would indeed have been "surprizing."


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (detail), by Godfrey Kneller (?), ca. 1715

Smallpox inoculation

Lady Mary's observation that when surrounded by beautiful naked bodies she didn't pay much attention to faces is also worth noting. In late 1715 she had nearly died from a severe case of smallpox. The disease had left her face scarred and caused her "very fine eye-lashes" to fall out. She had been a celebrated beauty before the infection, with comment particularly focussing on her eyes (Alexander Pope had written that "other Beauties envy Wortley's Eyes"). [4] After her recovery she wrote a bitter eclogue, "Satturday, The Small Pox," whose refrain is "Now Beauty's Fled":
The wretched Flavia on her Couch reclin'd,
Thus breath'd the Anguish of a wounded mind.
A Glass revers'd in her right hand she bore;
For now she shunn'd the Face she sought before.
How am I chang'd! Alas, how am I grown
A frightfull Spectre to my selfe unknown! [5]
Worse, of course, than disfigurement was death: smallpox had very high fatality rates (nearly one-third of those who contracted the disease died) and was easily transmissable. It has been estimated that in the eighteenth century nearly half a million people died of smallpox in Europe every year.

From Adrianople, a city in northwest Turkey about 100 miles from Constantinople, Lady Mary wrote to her friend Sarah Chiswell about a curious practice she had witnessed:
The Small Pox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting (which is the term they give it). There is a set of old Women who make it their business to perform the Operation...[T]he old Woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox and asks what veins you please to have open'd. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lye upon the head of the needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens 4 or 5 veins... [6]
Lady Mary reported that after about a week those inoculated come down with a mild form of the disease, and that the few telltale spots that appear "never mark." After another week or so, the patients "are as well as before their illness," and immune to the disease.
Every year thousands undergo this Operation...There is no example of any one that has dy'd in it, and you may beleive I am very well satisfy'd of the safety of the Experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little Son. I am Patriot enough to take pains to bring this usefull invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our Doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of 'em that I thought had Virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their Revenue for the good of Mankind, but that Distemper is too beneficial to them not to expose to all their Resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps if I live to return I may, however, have courage to war with 'em. [7]
As Lady Mary foresaw, the struggle to establish smallpox inoculation in Britain would indeed be long and bitterly fought. Her biographer Isobel Grundy has written that her attempt to introduce inoculation after her return from Turkey became a "scandal":
This first step in preventative medicine stemmed not from scientific theory or the medical establishment, but from the female folk-practices of a culture both remote and despised. The battle to naturalize the new practice in England was fought out in the press with no holds barred. Not only was this no place for a lady; it was no place for a woman, since antifeminist rhetoric was one of the trustiest weapons of the anti-inoculation faction. This left another indelible mark on Lady Mary's reputation.

Conspicuous as an icon, she is hidden as an agent. The extent of her inoculation activity has to be inferred from hints in pamphlets and from the way her friends' children fill the roster of early inoculees. [8]
Later Lady Mary said that she "never would have attempted it, could she have foreseen the vexation, and even persecution, it was to bring on her." [9] British surgeons also insisted on "improving" the Turkish inoculation technique by making larger, more painful wounds, introducing a greater amount of infected matter, and accompanying the procedure with (unnecessary and dangerous) purging and bleeding.

Still, inoculation was so much a success that Lady Mary felt "much pull'd about and solicited to visit" those undergoing the procedure.  And ultimately her inoculation campaign was vindicated by the praise of no less a luminary than Voltaire. In his letter "On Inoculation" he described her as "a woman of as fine a genius, and end[ow]'d with as great a strength of mind as any of her sex in the British kingdoms." He further wrote that that "ten thousand children, at least, of persons of condition, owe in this manner their lives to her majesty [Princess Caroline of Wales, who set an example by inoculating her children in 1722] and to the lady Wortley Mountague." [10]

Next time: In the harem
Last time: "I tremble for what we are doing": Lady Mary's elopement



  1. Quoted in Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 133.
  2. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Lady —. From Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, p. 147.
  3. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Lady —. Selected Letters, pp. 148-149.
  4. Quoted in Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 101.
  5. Isobel Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: A Critical Edition, Doctoral thesis, Oxford University, 1971, pp. 383-384.
  6. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Sarah Chiswell. Selected Letters, pp. 158-159.
  7. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Sarah Chiswell. Selected Letters, pp. 159-160.
  8. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. xix.
  9. Quoted in Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 220.
  10. Voltaire, Letters Concerning the English Nation, https://archive.org/stream/lettersconcerni00conggoog#page/n90/mode/2up

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"I tremble for what we are doing": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 1


Portrait of a Lady, possibly Lady Mary Pierrepont (detail), studio of Charles Jervas (?)

Lady Mary Pierrepont Wortley Montagu is perhaps best known as "Sappho," the object of a misogynistic attack by Alexander Pope in his "Imitations of Horace" (1733). Pope wrote that the fate of her male acquaintances was to be either "P—x'd by her love, or libell'd by her hate." "P—x'd" can only be read as "poxed," a cruel reference to Lady Mary's disfigurement by smallpox, and also a salacious insinuation of venereal disease.

This vicious attack (who, in fact, is libelling by hate here?) has obscured most of what makes Lady Mary such an extraordinary figure: she was the medical heroine who introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain, saving thousands of lives. She was also an acclaimed poet, a woman noted for her learning and wit, and the first Western woman to give an account of Ottoman culture. And our understanding of Lady Mary's accomplishments is based on only a portion of her writing: her lifelong diaries, many of her letters and a work entitled "History of My Own Time" were burned, the last by Lady Mary herself.

Paradise, Hell, and Limbo

One reason Lady Mary, her family and her correspondents may have destroyed so much of her work is that she can be amazingly frank in her judgments of others and in the description of her own feelings. This frankness is apparent from the first group of her letters to have survived, those sent as a young woman to her girlfriends and to her wary, jealous, reproachful and censorious suitor Edward Wortley Montagu.

These letters read like something out of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747), although they were written almost forty years earlier. This was a connection Lady Mary made herself when, as an old woman, she read Richardson's novel a few years after it was published: "This Richardson is a strange fellow. I heartily despise him and eagerly read him, nay, sob over his works in a most scandalous manner. The 2 first Tomes of Clarissa touch'd me as being very ressembling to my Maiden Days." [1]

In Clarissa the heroine's father arranges her marriage with a man she not only doesn't love, but towards whom she has a positive aversion. Her father remains deaf to Clarissa's pleas to allow her to remain unmarried rather than force her to unite with a man she despises. In desperation she begins a secret correspondence with her suitor Lovelace in the hope that he can rescue her from her unhappy fate.

This situation has some remarkable parallels to that of Lady Mary. For young women of the aristocracy, potential marriage partners were generally selected by the male heads of families on the basis of financial, social and political advantages they would bring to the family. The daughters whose happiness was involved were rarely consulted.

As Lady Mary's biographer and editor Isobel Grundy writes, "[Mary's friend] Philippa Mundy shared with Mary and [Mary's sister] Frances a playful secret code for use in their letters, in which Paradise meant marriage for love, Hell meant marriage with reluctance and detestation, and Limbo meant marriage with indifference. Each of the three confided in the others about a Paradise whom she truly loved. But none of them expected to be able to marry her Paradise, and none of them did." [2]

Edward Wortley Montagu was not Lady Mary's Paradise, but Limbo. He was the eldest surviving son of a prominent and wealthy family and a friend of the writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. He was also the brother of Anne Wortley, a woman Lady Mary had "tenderly lov'd" but who had died during the winter of 1710. Edward, who had taken over his sister's correspondence with Lady Mary, entered into marriage negotiations with Lady Mary's father a few months after Anne's death. The proposed financial settlements had broken down, however, and ultimately Wortley broke off contact with Lady Mary for more than a year.


Portrait of Lady Mary Pierrepont as a shepherdess (detail), by Godfrey Kneller, ca. 1712

In the meantime, Lady Mary's father arranged a marriage which she considered Hell to a man with the infelicitous name of Clotworthy Skeffington. In the summer of 1712, as the settlements with Skeffington were being made final, Wortley began secretly sending letters to Lady Mary again. He apparently asked Lady Mary if she was still interested in marrying him; she replied,
...I am very far from a thought of what you seem to hint at the end of your Letter. My Family is resolv'd to dispose of me where I hate. I have made all the Opposition in my power; perhaps I have carry'd that opposition too far. However it is, things were carry'd to that height, I have been assur'd of never haveing a shilling, except I comply...That Threat would not have oblig'd me to consent, if it had not been joyn'd with an Assurance of makeing my Maiden Life as miserable as lay in their power, that is so much in their power I am compell'd to submit...

You see, Sir, the Esteem I have for you. I have ventur'd to tell you the whole secret of my Heart...By this real and sincere Account of my Affairs you may see I have no design of any Engagement beyond freindship with you, since should we agree, tis now impossible, my fortune only following my obedience. [3]
Wortley continued to write to her, though, and she wrote back with further details:
I see all the Misfortune of marrying where it is impossible to Love...I said every thing...I thought proper to move him [her father], and proffer'd in attonement for not marrying whom he would, never to marry at all...He told me he was very much supriz'd that I did not depend on his Judgment for my future happynesse, that he knew nothing I had to complain of etc., that he did not doubt I had some other fancy in my head which encourag'd me to this disobedience, but he assur'd me if I refus'd a settlement he has provided for me, he gave me his word, whatever proposalls were made him, he would never so much as enter into a Treaty with any other; that if I founded any hopes [for inheritance] upon his death, I should find my selfe mistaken...

...I told him that I prefer'd a single life to any other, and if he pleas'd to permit me, I would take that Resolution. He reply'd, he could not hinder my resolutions, but I should not pretend after that to please him, since pleaseing him was only to be done by Obedience; that if I would disobey, I knew the consequences — he would not fail to confine me where I might repent at Leisure....

He spoke this in a manner hinder'd my answering. I retir'd to my chamber, where I writ a letter to let him know my Aversion to the Man propos'd was too great to be overcome, that I should be miserable beyond all things could be imagin'd, but I was in his hands, and he might dispose of me as he thought fit. — He was perfectly satisfy'd with this Answer, and proceeded as if I had given a willing consent. [4]
Soon she began to see Wortley as her only possible escape from Hell. The marriage settlements with Skeffington were about to be signed; the marriage would follow only days afterwards. Wortley, though, did not seem to grasp that a crisis was at hand, or perhaps he was wavering. "You talk of next Winter. All the preparations for the finishing of this hard Affair are allready concluded," she wrote him on August 2. "If you have anything to say, write by the same direction. It must be soon. When I go into the Country, tis in order to —" [5]

The elopement

Four days later, she wrote him a bold declaration: "I will venture all things for you." [6] Eloping seemed the only way out, although it would sever her from her family and many of her friends and leave her financially dependent on Wortley. He, though, was still waffling: eloping meant that he would gain nothing monetarily from the marriage. Even at this late date he was holding out hope that her father would negotiate with him; Lady Mary had to repeatedly try to disabuse him of that notion.

His uncertainty placed her in a precarious position. In the middle of her clandestine correspondence with Wortley she wrote Philippa, "Limbo is better than Hell. My Adventures are very odd; I may go into Limbo if I please, but tis accompanny'd with such circumstances, my courage will hardly come up to it, yet perhaps it may. In short I know not what will become of me." [7] She wrote to Wortley on August 11, "Consult your own heart, and let that determine you." [8]

But her heart was in turmoil. "I tremble for what we are doing," she wrote him on August 15. "Are you sure you will love me forever? Shall we never repent? I fear, and I hope." [9]

Her correspondence with Wortley may have been betrayed to her father, because on August 17 he told her in anger that the next day she would be sent from Acton, then just west of London, to the family's place in West Dean, about 45 miles to the southwest. She wrote to Wortley early in the morning of August 18, "I send you this Letter at 5 a Clock, while the whole family is asleep. I am stole from my Sister to tell you we shall not go till 7, or a little before. If you can come to the same place any time before that, I may slip out...If this is impracticable, Adeiu, I fear for ever." [10]

Although Lady Mary watched from her balcony for an hour, Montagu did not come in time. But a short time later, on horseback, he followed the route of her carriage. That evening he stopped at the same inn at which she was staying, but she had already gone to bed. He contrived to get a note to her early the next morning; she wrote back, "Why did you not bring a coach etc. to be set up at another Inn? I would fain come but fear being stopp'd." [11] Her travelling companions, her brother and a new lady's maid, had orders to watch her closely and made it impossible for her to get away. She continued on in their company to West Dean, and wrote to Wortley the next day, "We have more ill luck than any other people...All things conspire against the unfortunate, but if you are still determined, I still hope it may be possible one way or another...Adeiu. I am entirely yours if you please." [12]

A few days later she stole away from the house to Wortley's carriage waiting for her on the road. They drove to Salisbury, only a few miles away, where they were married the same day.

Two months later her sister Frances wrote to Philippa, "...she's perfectly happy, and it seems has found paradise...when she expected but limbo." [13] On their first anniversary, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote to her husband, "This night last year I gave my selfe to you; was that to do again I would repeat the Gift, thô from all Mankind I could chuse a Master." [14]

Only later would disillusionment come.

Next time: "Charm'd by their Civility and Beauty": The journey to Turkey



  1. Letter of 22 September 1755 from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to her daughter Lady Bute. From Montagu, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, p. 415.
  2. Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 25. 
  3. Letter of 11 June 1712 from Lady Mary Pierrepont to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 66.
  4. Letter of 26 July 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, pp. 68-69.
  5. Letter of 2 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 71.
  6. Letter of 6 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 73.
  7. Letter of August 1712 to Philippa Mundy, Selected Letters, p. 80.
  8. Letter of 11 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 81.
  9. Letter of 15 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 87.
  10. Letter of 18 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 92.
  11. Letter of 19 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 94.
  12. Letter of 20 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, pp. 94-95.
  13. Selected Letters, p. 95, note 2. 
  14. Letter of 23 August 1713 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 111.