Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (15 May 1689 – 21 August 1762) was an English aristocrat and writer. Montagu is today chiefly remembered for her letters, particularly her letters from Turkey, as wife to the British ambassador, which have been described by Billie Melman as “the very first example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient”.
Lady Mary Pierrepont was born in London on May 15, 1689; her baptism took place on May 26 at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden. She was a daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull, and his first wife, Lady Mary Fielding.
Her mother had three more children before dying in 1692. The children were raised by their Pierrepont grandmother until Mary was 9. Lady Mary was then passed to the care of her father upon her grandmother's death. She began her education in her father's home. Family holdings were extensive, including Thoresby Hall and Holme Pierrepont Hall in Nottinghamshire, and a house in West Dean in Wiltshire. She used the library in her father’s mansion, Thoresby Hall in the Dukeries of Nottinghamshire, to “steal” her education, teaching herself Latin. Thoresby Hall had one of the finest private libraries in England, which she loved, but it was lost when the building burned in 1744. By fourteen Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had written two books filled with poems, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modeled after Aphra Behn's Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684). She also corresponded with two bishops, Thomas Tenison and Gilbert Burnet, who supplemented the instructions of a governess she despised. Lady Mary would later describe her governess' teachings as "the worst in the world".
By 1710 Lady Mary had two possible suitors to choose from: Edward Wortley Montagu and Clotworthy Skeffington. 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. Although Lady Mary had fallen in love with another unidentified man, in order to avoid marriage to Skeffington, she eloped with Wortley. They were married on August 23, 1712 in Salisbury.
The early years of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's married life were spent in seclusion in the country. She had a son, Edward Wortley Montagu the younger, on May 16, 1713, in London. Her husband became Member of Parliament for Westminster in 1715, and shortly afterwards was made a Lord 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 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 satirized. Disgraced and unable to return to court, Lady Mary left London in August 1716 to accompany her husband on his embassy to Istanbul.
Early in 1716, Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed Ambassador at Constantinople. Lady Mary accompanied him to Vienna, and thence to Adrianople and Constantinople. He was recalled in 1717, but they remained at Constantinople until 1718. She had a daughter, who would grow up to be Mary, Countess of Bute, on 19 January 1718 in Constantinople. After an unsuccessful delegation between Austria and Ottoman empires, they returned to England.
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 traveller/writers, as well as for much Orientalist art. Not only was Lady Mary the first European woman to travel in many of the places she visited; she was also the first European woman to witness the private lives of Islamic women, as they were utterly closed to males. 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 with a keen eye for detail. While in Turkey, she also recorded a particularly amusing incident in which a group of Turkish women, horrified by the sight of the corset she was wearing, exclaimed that "the husbands in England were much worse than in the East, for [they] tied up their wives in little boxes, the shape of their bodies". Lady Mary wrote that nowhere else were women as free as they were in the Ottoman Empire.
Lady Mary returned to the West with knowledge of the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox, known as variolation. In the 1790s, Edward Jenner developed a safer method, vaccination.
Before starting for the East she had met Alexander Pope, and during her absence he wrote her a series of extravagant letters, which appear to have been chiefly exercises in the art of writing gallant epistles. 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, and various reasons have been suggested for the subsequent estrangement and violent quarrel. The last of the Constantinople letters to Pope purports to have been written from Dover on November 1, 1718. It contains a parody on Pope's Epitaph on the Lovers Struck by Lightning. The manuscript collection of these letters was passed round a considerable circle, and Pope may have been offended at the circulation of this piece of satire. Jealousy of her friendship with Lord Hervey has also been alleged, but Lady Louisa Stuart says Pope had made Lady Mary a declaration of love, which she had received with an outburst of laughter. In any case Lady Mary always professed complete innocence of all cause of offence in public. She is alluded to in the Dunciad in a passage to which Pope affixed one of his insulting notes. A Pop upon Pope was generally thought to be her work, and Pope thought she was part author of One Epistle to Mr A. Pope (1730).
Pope attacked her again and again, but with especial virulence in a gross couplet in the Imitation of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, as Sappho. Verses addressed to an Imitator of Horace by a Lady (1733), a scurrilous reply to these attacks, is generally attributed to the joint efforts of Lady Mary and her sworn ally, Lord Hervey. She had a romantic correspondence with a Frenchman named Rémond, who addressed to her a series of excessively gallant letters before ever seeing her. She invested money for him in South Sea stock at his desire, and as was expressly stated, at his own risk. The value fell to half the price, and he tried to extort the original sum as a debt by a threat of exposing the correspondence to her husband. She seems to have been really alarmed, not at the imputation of gallantry, but lest her husband should discover the extent of her own speculations. This disposes of the second half of Pope's line "Who starves a sister, or forswears a debt" (Epilogue to the Satires, 113), and the first charge is quite devoid of foundation. She did in fact try to rescue her favourite sister, the countess of Mar, who was mentally deranged, from the custody of her brother-in-law, Lord Grange, who had treated his own wife with notorious cruelty, and the slander originated with him.
In 1739 she left her husband and went abroad, and although they continued to write to each other in affectionate and respectful terms, they never met again. Edward worked away from home, leaving Mary to raise their children, and she eventually divorced him. She exchanged many love letters with Francesco Algarotti, Count Algarotti, competing with an equally smitten John Hervey for the Count's affections. She never remarried.
At Florence in 1740 she visited Horace Walpole, who cherished a great spite against her, and exaggerated her eccentricities into a revolting slovenliness. As Lady Mary was then in her sixty-third year, the scandalous interpretation put on the matter by Horace Walpole may safely be discarded. She lived at Avignon, at Brescia, at Gottolengo and at Lovere on the Lago d'Iseo. She was disfigured by a painful skin disease, (smallpox), and her sufferings were so acute that she hints at the possibility of madness. She was struck with a terrible fit of sickness while visiting the countess Palazzo and her son, and perhaps her mental condition made restraint necessary.
Her ex-husband spent his last years in hoarding money, and at his death in 1761 is said to have been a millionaire. His extreme parsimony is satirized in Pope's Imitations of Horace in the portrait of Avidieu and his wife.
Lady Mary had problems with both her children. Her daughter eloped with a suitor Mary disapproved of, while her son ran away from school repeatedly. After his father’s death, he contested a will in Mary’s name without her knowledge.
Her daughter, whose husband was now Prime Minister, begged her to return to England. She came to London, and died in the year of her return, on 21 August 1762.
She defied convention most memorably with her pioneering of a smallpox inoculation, a course of action unparalleled in medical advance up to that point. Lady Mary's own brother had died of smallpox and her own famous beauty had been marred by a bout with the disease in 1715. In 1717, she went to live in Turkey with her husband, the British ambassador to that country, and stayed for two years. In the Ottoman Empire, she visited the women in their segregated zenanas, learning Turkish, making friends and learning about Turkish customs. There she witnessed the practice of inoculation against smallpox, which she called engrafting, and wrote home about it. Variolation used live smallpox virus in the liquid taken from a smallpox blister in a mild case of the disease and carried in a nutshell. Lady Mary was eager to spare her children, and had her son inoculated while in Turkey. 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" process.
Emanuel Timoni, a Greek physician who also attended the Wortley Montagues, had also described the procedure a few years earlier. Dr. Timoni first described this procedure in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1714. James Pylarini described it again in the Transactions in 1716. They called it variolation (varus is Latin for pimple) or inoculation (inoculare means to graft).
In 1721, after a smallpox epidemic struck England, she had her three-year-old daughter inoculated by Charles Maitland, a physician who had been at the embassy in Turkey, and publicized the event. She persuaded Princess Caroline to test the treatment. Seven prisoners awaiting execution were offered the chance to undergo variolation instead of execution: they all survived and were released. Then six orphan children were inoculated: they all survived. In 1722 King George I allowed Maitland to inoculate two of his grandchildren, children of the Princess. The children recovered.
However, in another household, six servants became ill with smallpox after a child was inoculated. Some clergymen then announced that trying to prevent the illness was against God's will. Some physicians warned that inoculation might spread the disease. Nevertheless, inoculation became known as a way to prevent smallpox. In fact, using live virus did carry a risk of infection. About 3% of those inoculated developed smallpox and died. Others spent weeks recovering. However, that was preferable to catching smallpox in the wild, with its mortality rate of 20–40% and survivors left scarred and sometimes blind.
In response to the fear of inoculation, Lady Mary wrote an anonymous article describing inoculation as it was practised in Turkey. Inoculation gained general acceptance. In 1754 she was praised for bringing the practice to Britain.
In later years, 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 favor.
A number of Lady Mary's poems were printed in her lifetime, either without or with her permission or connivance: in newspapers, in miscellanies, and independently.
Her poetry was included in Anthony Hammond’s “New Miscellany of Original Poems, Translations and Imitations, by the most Eminent Hands” (1720). Verses Address'd to the Imitator of Horace, The Reasons that Induced Dr Swift to Write a Poem call'd the ‘Lady's Dressing Room’, and the Answer to the Foregoing Elegy. London Magazine printed a number of her poems.
She wrote a political periodical called the Nonsense of Common-Sense. She wrote Six Town Eclogues, with some other Poems (1747). She was included in Dodsley's Collection of Poems. She wrote notable letters describing her travels through Europe; these appeared after her death in three volumes from Becket and De Hondt. During the twentieth century Lady Mary's letters were edited separately from her essays, poems, and play, and from her longer fictions.
She wrote a series of poems about society's unjust treatment of women. She had notable correspondence with Anne Wortley and wrote courting letters to her future husband Edward Wortley Montagu, as well as love letters to Francesco Algarotti. She wrote letters berating the vagaries of fashionable people to her sister.
Montagu's poetry circulated widely, in manuscript, among members of her own social circle. She seems to have avoided publication in print in order to avoid the personal attacks that inevitably followed. However, 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 so that he could publish them.
Montagu's Turkish letters were to prove an inspiration to later generations of European women travellers to the Orient. In particular, Montagu staked a claim to the particular 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 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 consistently derides the quality of European travel literature of the 18th century as nothing more than "trite observations…superficial…[of] boys who only remember the best wine or the prettyest women."
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. Julia Pardoe, in describing her own visit to a bathhouse, wrote "I should be unjust if I did not declare that I saw none of that unnecessary and wanton exposure described by Lady Mary Montagu. Either the fair Ambassadress was present at a peculiar ceremony, or the Turkish ladies have become more delicate and fastidious in the ideas of propriety." Emmeline Lott, who wrote a book about her experience working as a governess for the son of Ishamel Pasha, claimed that Montagu's aristocratic rank meant that she had seen only the most attractive elements of Oriental life: "…her handsome train, Lady Ambassadress as she was, swept but across the splendid carpeted floors of these noble Saloons of Audience, all of which had been, as is invariably the custom, well “swept and garnished” for her reception."
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.
In 1901, her letters were edited and published as The Best Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu by Octave Thanet.