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." 
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." 
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...Wortley continued to write to her, though, and she wrote back with further details:
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. 
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...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 —" 
...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. 
Four days later, she wrote him a bold declaration: "I will venture all things for you."  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."  She wrote to Wortley on August 11, "Consult your own heart, and let that determine you." 
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." 
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." 
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."  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." 
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."  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." 
Only later would disillusionment come.
Next time: "Charm'd by their Civility and Beauty": The journey to Turkey
- 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.
- Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 25.
- Letter of 11 June 1712 from Lady Mary Pierrepont to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 66.
- Letter of 26 July 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, pp. 68-69.
- Letter of 2 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 71.
- Letter of 6 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 73.
- Letter of August 1712 to Philippa Mundy, Selected Letters, p. 80.
- Letter of 11 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 81.
- Letter of 15 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 87.
- Letter of 18 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 92.
- Letter of 19 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 94.
- Letter of 20 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, pp. 94-95.
- Selected Letters, p. 95, note 2.
- Letter of 23 August 1713 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 111.