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. 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] (See "Charm'd with their Civility and Beauty," part 2 of this series, for more about Lady Mary's role in bringing smallpox inoculation to Britain.)

"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. (Palazzi and his brothers would later be convicted of "violent outrages against their tenants, including murder." [11])

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! [12]
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" [13] 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. [14]

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." [15]

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. [16]

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, Selected Letters, note p. 454.
  12. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, 12 March 1757, Selected Letters, pp. 436-437.
  13. Montagu, To Sir James and Lady Frances Steuart, 20 November 1761, p. 495.
  14. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 623.
  15. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. xviii; Montagu, To Sir James Steuart, 12 April 1761, Selected Letters, p. 490.
  16. 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 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 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: " 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 but 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 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.
  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.
  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 1717, 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 face 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 the 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:
  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.
  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.