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.

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