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,

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