|Intro||Writer and poet from England, editor|
|A.K.A.||Lady Mary Pierrepont, Mary Pierrepont, Mary Wortley Montagu|
|Was||Explorer Poet Writer Playwright|
|From||United Kingdom Great Britain|
|Type||Film, Television, Stage and Radio Literature|
|Birth||15 May 1689, Nottingham, United Kingdom|
|Death||21 August 1762, Nottingham, United Kingdom (aged 73 years)|
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (née Pierrepont; baptised 26 May 1689 – 21 August 1762) was an English aristocrat, letter writer, and poet. Lady Mary is today chiefly remembered for her letters, particularly her letters from travels to the Ottoman Empire, as wife to the British ambassador to Turkey, which have been described by Billie Melman as "the very first example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient". Aside from her writing, Lady Mary is also known for introducing and advocating for smallpox inoculation to Britain after her return from Turkey. Her writings address and challenge the hindering contemporary social attitudes towards women and their intellectual and social growth.
Lady Mary Pierrepont was born in May 1689 and baptised on 26 May 1689 at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden, London. She was the eldest child of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull (c.1655–1726), by his first wife Mary Fielding (d.1692). She had three younger siblings, two girls and a boy.
Early life and education
Aged seven, she was chosen by members of the Kit-Cat Club as the subject of their toast to the beauty of the season, and they had her name engraved on the glass goblet used for this purpose. Mary and her siblings were raised by their paternal grandmother until she died when Mary was nine years old. She was then passed to the care of her father. Her education began in her father's home. The family's land-holdings were extensive, including Thoresby Hall and Holme Pierrepont Hall in Nottinghamshire and a house in West Dean in Wiltshire. To supplement the instruction of a despised governess, Lady Mary used the library in Thoresby Hall to "steal" her education, teaching herself Latin, a language usually reserved for men at the time. By 1705, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, Mary Pierrepont had written two albums filled with poetry, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modelled after Aphra Behn's Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684). She also corresponded with two bishops, Thomas Tenison and Gilbert Burnet.
Marriage and embassy to Ottoman Empire
By 1710, Lady Mary had two possible suitors to choose from: Edward Wortley Montagu and Clotworthy Skeffington. Lady Mary corresponded with Edward Wortley Montagu via letters from 28 March 1710 to 2 May 1711. After May 1711, there was a break in contact between Lady Mary and Edward Wortley Montagu. Mary's father, now Marquess of Dorchester, rejected Wortley Montagu as a prospect because he refused to entail his estate on a possible heir. Her father pressured her to marry Clotworthy Skeffington, heir to an Irish peerage. In order to avoid marriage to Skeffington, she eloped with Montagu. The marriage license is dated 17 August 1712, and the marriage probably took place on 23 August 1712.
The early years of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's married life were spent in the country. She had a son, Edward Wortley Montagu the younger, on 16 May 1713, in London. A couple of months later, on 1 July 1713, Lady Mary's brother, aged twenty, died of smallpox and left behind two children. On 13 October 1714, her husband accepted the post of Junior Commissioner of the Treasury. When Lady Mary joined him in London, her wit and beauty soon made her a prominent figure at court. She was among the society of George I and the Prince of Wales, and counted amongst her friends Molly Skerritt, Lady Walpole, John, Lord Hervey, Mary Astell, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Abbé Antonio Schinella Conti.
In December 1715, Lady Mary contracted smallpox. She survived, but while she was ill someone circulated the satirical "court eclogues" she had been writing. One of the poems was read as an attack on Caroline, Princess of Wales, in spite of the fact that the "attack" was voiced by a character who was herself heavily satirised.
In 1716, Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed Ambassador at Constantinople. In August 1716, Lady Mary accompanied him to Vienna, and thence to Adrianople and Constantinople. He was recalled in 1717, but they remained at Constantinople until 1718. While away from England, the Wortley Montagu's had a daughter on 19 January 1718, who would grow up to be Mary, Countess of Bute. After an unsuccessful delegation between Austria and the Ottoman Empire, they set sail for England via the Mediterranean, and reached London on 2 October 1718.
The story of this voyage and of her observations of Eastern life is told in Letters from Turkey, a series of lively letters full of graphic descriptions; Letters is often credited as being an inspiration for subsequent female travellers/writers, as well as for much Orientalist art. During her visit she was sincerely charmed by the beauty and hospitality of the Ottoman women she encountered, and she recorded her experiences in a Turkish bath. She also recorded a particularly amusing incident in which a group of Turkish women at a bath in Sofia, horrified by the sight of the stays she was wearing, exclaimed that "they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband." Lady Mary wrote about misconceptions previous travellers, specifically male travellers, had recorded about the religion, traditions and the treatment of women in the Ottoman Empire. Her gender and class status provided her with access to female spaces that were closed off to males. Her personal interactions with Ottoman women enabled her to provide, in her view, a more accurate account of Turkish women, their dress, habits, traditions, limitations and liberties, at times irrefutably more a critique of the Occident than a praise of the Orient. Montagu also carefully constructed Ottoman female spaces, and her own engagement with Ottoman women, as full of homoerotic desire, which is consistent with the gender and sexual fluidity that characterized much of her life and writings.
Ottoman smallpox inoculation
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu defied convention, most memorably by introducing smallpox inoculation to Western medicine after witnessing it during her travels and stay in the Ottoman Empire. In the Ottoman Empire, she visited the women in their segregated zenanas, making friends and learning about Turkish customs. There she witnessed the practice of inoculation against smallpox – variolation – which she called engrafting, and wrote home about it in a number of her letters, the most famous her "Letter to a Friend" of 1 April 1717. Variolation used live smallpox virus in the pus taken from a smallpox blister in a mild case of the disease and introduced it into scratched skin of a previously uninfected person to promote immunity to the disease. Lady Mary's brother had died of smallpox in 1713, and her own famous beauty had been marred by a bout with the disease in 1715.
Lady Mary was eager to spare her children, thus, in March 1718 she had her nearly five-year-old son, Edward, inoculated with the help of Embassy surgeon Charles Maitland. On her return to London, she enthusiastically promoted the procedure, but encountered a great deal of resistance from the medical establishment, because it was an Oriental folk treatment process.
In April 1721, when a smallpox epidemic struck England, she had her daughter inoculated by Maitland, the same physician who had inoculated her son at the Embassy in Turkey, and publicised the event. This was the first such operation done in Britain. She persuaded Caroline of Ansbach, the Princess of Wales, to test the treatment. In August 1721, seven prisoners at Newgate Prison awaiting execution were offered the chance to undergo variolation instead of execution: they all survived and were released. Controversy over smallpox inoculation intensified, however Caroline, Princess of Wales, was convinced of its value. The Princess's two daughters Amelia and Caroline were successfully inoculated in April 1722 by French-born surgeon Claudius Amyand. In response to the general fear of inoculation, Lady Mary, under a pseudonym, wrote and published an article describing and advocating in favour of inoculation in September 1722.
Subsequently, Edward Jenner, who was 13 years old when Lady Mary died, developed the much safer technique of vaccination using cowpox instead of smallpox. As vaccination gained acceptance, variolation gradually fell out of favour.
After returning to England, Lady Mary took less interest in court compared to her earlier years. Instead, she was more focused on the upbringing of her children, reading, writing and editing her travel letters—which she then chose not to publish.
Before starting for the East, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had met Alexander Pope, and during her Embassy travels with her husband, they wrote each other a series of letters. While Pope may have been fascinated by her wit and elegance, Lady Mary's replies to his letters reveal that she was not equally smitten. Very few letters passed between them after Lady Mary's return to England, and various reasons have been suggested for the subsequent estrangement. In 1728, Pope attacked Lady Mary in his Dunciad, which inaugurated a decade in which most of his publications made some sort of allegation against her.
Lady Mary went through a series of trials with her children. In 1726 and 1727, Lady Mary's son Edward ran away from Westminster School several times. He was then entrusted to a tutor with strict orders to keep him abroad. In later years, her son managed to return to England without permission and continued to have a strained relationship with both his parents. In August 1736, Lady Mary's daughter married John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, despite her parents' disapproval of the match. In the same year, Mary met and fell in love with Count Francesco Algarotti, who competed with an equally smitten John Hervey for her affections.
Lady Mary wrote many letters to Algarotti in English and in French after his departure from England in September 1736. In July 1739, Lady Mary departed England ostensibly for health reasons declaring her intentions to winter in the south of France. In reality, she left to visit and live with Algarotti in Venice. Their relationship ended in 1741 after Lady Mary and Algarotti were both on a diplomatic mission in Turin. Lady Mary stayed abroad and travelled extensively. After travelling to Venice, Florence, Rome, Genoa and Geneva, she finally settled in Avignon in 1742. She left Avignon in 1746 for Brescia, where she fell ill and stayed for nearly a decade, leaving for Lovere in 1754. After August 1756, she resided in Venice and Padua and saw Algarotti again in November. Lady Mary exchanged letters with her daughter, Lady Bute, discussing topics such as philosophy, literature, and the education of girls, as well as conveying details of her geographical and social surroundings.
Lady Mary received news of her husband Edward Wortley Montagu's death in 1761 and left Venice for England. En route to London, she handed her Embassy Letters to the Rev. Benjamin Sowden of Rotterdam, for safe keeping and "to be dispos'd of as he thinks proper". Lady Mary reached London in January 1762 and died in the year of her return, on 21 August 1762.
Important works and literary place
Although Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is now best known for her Embassy Letters, she wrote poetry and essays as well. A number of Lady Mary's poems and essays were printed in her lifetime, either without or with her permission, in newspapers, in miscellanies, and independently.
Montagu did not intend to publish her poetry, but it did circulate widely, in manuscript, among members of her own social circle. Lady Mary was highly suspicious of any idealising literary language. She wrote most often in heroic couplets, a serious poetic form to employ, and, according to Susan Staves,"excelled at answer poems". Some of her widely anthologised poems include "Constantinople" and "Epistle from Mrs Yonge to her Husband." "Constantinople," written January 1718, is a beautiful poem in heroic couplets describing Britain and Turkey through human history, and representing the state of mind "of knaves, coxcombs, the mob, and party zealous—all characteristic of the London of her time". "Epistle from Mrs Yonge to her Husband," written 1724, stages a letter from Mrs Yonge to her libertine husband and exposes the social double standard which led to the shaming and distress of Mrs Yonge after her divorce.
In 1737 and 1738, Lady Mary published anonymously a political periodical called the Nonsense of Common-Sense, supporting the Robert Walpole government (the title was a reference to a journal of the liberal opposition entitled Common Sense). She wrote six Town Eclogues. She wrote notable letters describing her travels through Europe and the Ottoman Empire; these appeared after her death in three volumes. Lady Mary corresponded with Anne Wortley and wrote courtship letters to her future husband Edward Wortley Montagu, as well as love letters to Francesco Algarotti. She corresponded with notable writers, intellectuals and aristocrats of her day. She wrote gossip letters and letters berating the vagaries of fashionable people to her sister, Lady Mar, and exchanged intellectual letters with her adult daughter, Lady Bute. During the twentieth century Lady Mary's letters were edited separately from her essays, poems and plays. Although not published during her lifetime, her letters from Turkey were clearly intended for print. She revised them extensively and gave a transcript to the Rev. Benjamin Sowden in Rotterdam in 1761. In 1763, the year after her death, Becket and De Hondt published this manuscript in three volumes, entitled Letters of the Right Honourable Lady My W---y M----e, commonly referred to as the Embassy Letters or Turkish Embassy Letters.
An important early letter was published, probably without Montagu's consent, titled "The Genuine Copy of a Letter Written From Constantinople by an English Lady" in 1719. Both in this letter and in the Turkish Embassy Letters more broadly, particularly in the letters about the scholar Achmet Beg, Montagu participates in a wider English dialogue on Enlightenment ideas about religion, particularly deism, and their overlap with Islamic theology. Montagu, along with many others, including the freethinking scholar Henry Stubbe, celebrated Islam for what they saw as its rational approach to theology, for its strict monotheism, and for its teaching and practice around religious tolerance. In short, Montagu and other thinkers in this tradition saw Islam as a source of Enlightenment, as evidenced in her calling the Qur'an "the purest morality delivered in the very best language" By comparison, Montagu dedicated large portions of the Turkish Embassy Letters to criticizing Catholic religious practices, particularly Catholic beliefs around sainthood, miracles, and religious relics, which she frequently excoriated. In relation to these practices, she wrote, "I cannot fancy there is anything new in letting you know that priests can lie, and the mob believe all over the world."
Montagu's Turkish letters were to prove an inspiration to later generations of European women travellers and writers. In particular, Montagu staked a claim to the authority of women's writing, due to their ability to access private homes and female-only spaces where men were not permitted. The title of her published letters refers to "Sources that Have Been Inaccessible to Other Travellers". The letters themselves frequently draw attention to the fact that they present a different (and, Montagu asserts, more accurate) description than that provided by previous (male) travellers: "You will perhaps be surpriz'd at an Account so different from what you have been entertaind with by the common Voyage-writers who are very fond of speaking of what they don't know.". Montagu provides an intimate description of the women's bathhouse in Sofia, in which she derides male descriptions of the bathhouse as a site for unnatural sexual practices, instead insisting that it was "the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc". However, Montagu's detailed descriptions of nude Oriental beauties provided inspiration for male artists such as Ingres, who restored the explicitly erotic content that Montagu had denied. In general, Montagu dismisses the quality of European travel literature of the 18th century as nothing more than "trite observations…superficial…[of] boys [who] only remember where they met with the best wine or the prettyest women".
Montagu's legacy is complicated by her self-consciously supportive writings about the slave institutions of the Ottoman Empire, and she wrote many letters with approving descriptions of the various slaves that she saw in the elite circles of Istanbul, including black eunuchs and large collections of serving and dancing girls dressed in expensive outfits. While in her famous bath house letter, she figures English women as slaves to their husbands, she frequently dismisses the idea that slaves of elite Ottomans should be figures to be pitied. In response to her visit to the slave market in Istanbul, she wrote "you will imagine me half a Turk when I don't speak of it with the same horror other Christians have done before me, but I cannot forbear applauding the humanity of the Turks to those creatures. They are never ill used, and their slavery is in my opinion no worse than servitude all over the world." She did not write about slavery in the Atlantic world, but the Jonathan Richardson the Younger portrait (featured at the top of this page) that depicts Montagu accompanied by a young black slave boy in a golden collar who holds an umbrella suggests she was familiar with and approved the tradition in which English aristocrats owned young black slaves and used them as part of their social equipage.
Montagu's Turkish letters were frequently cited by imperial women travellers, more than a century after her journey. Such writers cited Montagu's assertion that women travellers could gain an intimate view of Turkish life that was not available to their male counterparts. However, they also added corrections or elaborations to her observations.
In 1739, a book was printed by an unknown author under the pseudonym "Sophia, a person of quality", titled Woman not Inferior to Man. This book is often attributed to Lady Mary.
Her Letters and Works were published in 1837. Montagu's octogenarian granddaughter Lady Louisa Stuart contributed to this, anonymously, an introductory essay called Biographical Anecdotes of Lady M. W. Montagu, from which it was clear that Stuart was troubled by her grandmother's focus on sexual intrigues and did not see Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Account of the Court of George I at his Accession as history. However, Montagu's historical observations, both in the "Anecdotes" and the Turkish Embassy Letters, prove quite accurate when put in context. Despite the availability of her work in print and the revival efforts of feminist scholars, the complexity and brilliance of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's extensive body of work has not yet been recognised to the fullest.