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.

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