Thursday, 12 February 2015

The remarkable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of the most remarkable characters of the eighteenth century, yet she remains relatively unknown outside eighteenth century scholarship. This is certainly undeserved, as she was an influential courtier, a prolific writer, and the author of the entertaining Turkish Embassy Letters, in which she wrote of her experiences living in Istanbul in 1717. The letters reveal a woman who was highly intelligent, witty, and open-minded. Her fascinating portrayals of Turkish life remain fresh due to the striking absence of popular European stereotypes and a willingness to take Ottoman elite society on its own terms.

Born Lady Mary Pierrepont in 1689, Mary spent her childhood educating herself from her father's extensive library at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire. She suffered under a governess whom she despised, but managed to teach herself Latin, and corresponded with the bishops Gilbert Burnet and Thomas Tenison, who supplemented her learning. Her literary talent showed itself early on; by the age of fourteen, she had written two albums filled with poetry, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modelled after Aphra Benn's Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684).

By 1710, her father was looking around for a suitable match for Mary. She ended up with two serious suitors: Edward Wortley Montagu and the fantastically named Sir Clotworthy Skeffington. Mary's father put pressure on her to accept Skeffington, but seemingly desperate to avoid this fate, she eloped with Wortley Montagu, despite the fact that she had apparently fallen in love with another man. Mary and her husband lived a secluded life in the countryside for a while. She gave birth to a son, also named Edward, and Wortley Montagu kept himself busy climbing the political ladder. Eventually he was made MP for Westminster and a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. To aid his career, the couple moved to London, where Mary's wit and beauty enabled her to shine in the most distinguished social circles. Among her friends she could number the most celebrated men and women of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay, Mary Astell, Abbe Antonio Conti, and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, to name just a few.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, early 18th century

Lady Mary is most famous for her Turkish Embassy Letters (published posthumously), and without them it seems unlikely that future generations would have remembered her at all. However, it was actually only by chance that Mary ended up accompanying her husband on his embassy to Istanbul. While she had been lying in bed with smallpox in 1715, someone had circulated her satirical court eclogues. These were taken to be an attack on Princess Caroline, and Mary was consequently disgraced. Following this, as she was unable to return to court, Mary accompanied her husband on an embassy to Turkey. The small family set out in 1716 and travelled a long and dangerous route across Europe, reaching Istanbul after seven months.

Lady Mary with her son Edward in 1717

Although Mary initially chafed at the fact that, as a woman, she was not allowed to move in mixed-gender social circles in Istanbul, she soon learnt how to circumvent such conventions. She came to emphasise in her letters that she, as a woman, could visit places which male travellers were not permitted to enter, such as the imperial harem and womens' bathhouses. She used the freedom the Turkish veils gave her - the drapery entirely concealed her identity - and explored the city's markets and mosques, visiting the Bosphorus, the Seraglio and its gardens, even managing to observe the army's military maneuvers. Learning Turkish meant that she could actively socialise with Turkish women, which was hardly common among European diplomats' wives. As a result, Mary felt able to mock the travel writers who were 'very fond of speaking of what they don't know', and scolded one correspondent for their letter being 'full of mistakes from one end 't'other', which came from reading old, inaccurate travel accounts of Turkey. Mary wrote:
'Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removd from Truth and so full of Absurditys I am very well diverted with 'em. They never fail giving you an Account of the Women, which 'tis certain they never saw, and talking very wisely of the Genius of the Men, into whose Company they are never admitted, and very often describe Mosques, which they dare not peep into.
Mary was very interested in the position of women in the Ottoman Empire, frequently remarking upon it in her letters. She was impressed with what she observed of the status of (upper-class) Turkish women, finding the fact that women owned property in their own right particularly striking, given the situation of her female English contemporaries. She confided to her sister in April 1717:
Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their Husbands, those Ladys that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with 'em upon a divorce with an addition which he is oblig’d to give 'em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire…'Tis true their Law permits [the men] four wives, but there is no Instance of a Man of Quality that makes use of this Liberty, or a woman of Rank that would suffer it.

European print of a Turkish woman, early 18th century

She was keen to expose the common travellers' myth which maintained that Turkish women spent all day engaged in amorous dalliances. She insisted that the female bathhouse, so often viewed by European men (who had never entered one) as a haven for sordid sexual practices, was merely 'the Women's coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc'. Although the ladies were 'in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked', she found nothing improper about the scene, saying that 'there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them'. Mary recounts a particularly amusing incident in the bathhouse 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'. She could not, however, entirely avoid confirming some European prejudices when describing a dance performed by the maids of a high-ranking official's wife, which she was invited to watch:
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, half 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.

Jean Paul Flandrin's 1842 work, Odalisque with a slave, was based on a
description which Lady Mary Wortley Montagu gave of a nude Turkish woman, but
he exaggerates the erotic elements which Lady Mary was so keen to downplay, in her
rejection of one-sided traditional European portrayals of voluptuous Turkish women.

Yet notwithstanding her considerable rehabilitation of Turkish women from their dubious reputation in Europe, Mary was neither naive nor overly romantic about the situation of even upper-class women in Turkey. She recounts incidents of honour killings committed when a wife was found to be unfaithful, and describes the immense social stigma attached to women who could not conceive. She wrote that 'in this country 'tis more despicable to be marry'd and not fruitfull, than 'tis with us to be fruitfull before Marriage', and describes the 'Quackerys' which Turkish women resorted to in order to 'avoid the Scandal of being past Child bearing'. Mary was herself pregnant while in Istanbul, and she quipped to Anne Thistlethwayte that although she was rather worried about her approaching confinement, she was 'in some degree comforted by the glory that accrues to me from it'.

An embassy such as Wortley Montagu's would generally last around twenty years, but due to a combination of national and international problems, and Wortley's own incompetence, he was recalled prematurely in 1717. Upon the family's return to England, Mary divided her time between the education of her children and producing a considerable literary output of letters, essays, poems and fairy tales. Having seen the benefits of smallpox inoculation as practiced in Turkey, she inoculated her own children and worked vigorously for the introduction of smallpox vaccination in England. After some initial success, the campaign faltered due to widespread distrust of the practice among the medical establishment. Meanwhile, she and Edward drifted apart, and in 1739 she left England, purportedly to travel, but in reality in order to meet a certain Count Algarotti. Though never formally dissolved, the marriage effectively ended at this point, and Mary lived abroad for most of the rest of her life, writing to her children and friends from Italy and France.

Mary Wortley Montagu, pictured in Turkish dress in 1756

In January 1762, tired and ill, she returned to England, and people rushed to see 'that extraordinary Phenomenon' whose reputation had preceded her. Mary was suffering from the advanced stages of breast cancer and was living in somewhat straitened circumstances, but Horace Walpole told friends that she was still very lively. Her last months were spent in receiving friends and admirers, and she died in August 1762. Her letters from Turkey were published in May 1763 and met with immediate success. However, the publication was unauthorised, and Lady Bute, Mary's daughter, was furious and concerned about the effect this publication might have on the family's position. To avoid any further possibility of such scandal, Lady Bute burned all of her mother's diaries, which stretched from her marriage to death. In doing so, Lady Bute robbed posterity of what would have been a fascinating collection of sources. 

~ By Caecilia Dance

Friday, 19 December 2014

Infertility in Samuel Pepy's England

I recently came across a striking passage in Samuel Pepy's diary in which he receives advice on how to get his wife Elizabeth pregnant. At the time of writing, July 1664, he and Elizabeth had been married for eight years, but they remained childless. While attending a dinner on 26th July, Samuel asked the women present if they could give him any advice on how to overcome his and his wife's apparent infertility. The women "freely and merrily" gave the following precautions as a certain means of conceiving:
1. Do not hug my wife too hard nor too much. 2. Eat no late suppers. 3. Drink juice of sage. 4. Tent and toast. 5. Wear cool Holland-drawers. 6. Keep stomach warm and back cool. 7. Upon my query whether it was best to do it at night or morn, they answered me neither one nor another, but when we have most mind to it. 8. Wife not to go too straight-laced [with her corset]. 9. Myself to drink Mum [a kind of beer] and sugar. 10. Mrs Ward did give me to change my plate. The 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 10th they all did seriously declare and lay much stress upon them, as rules fit to be observed indeed, and especially the last: to lie with our head where our heels do, or at least to make the bed high at feet and low at head.
Sadly for the Pepys, Elizabeth never did get pregnant. One diary entry from September 1664 reveals that when Samuel returned home after dinner with a friend, "I find my wife not well - and she tells me she thinks she is with child; but I neither believe nor desire it". Whether this shows genuine resignation or a display of bravado, we will probably never know.

Elizabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys in 1666



















But how typical were the remedies suggested to Pepys in the wider context of 17th century England? The womens' recommendation that the couple should have sex whenever they both feel like it is unsurprising, as contemporary opinion held that it was necessary for both partners to enjoy sex in order to conceive. Supposed aphrodisiacs were therefore touted as helpful in overcoming infertility. Not only did aphrodisiacs stir up lust; they were also thought to have physical effects on the body which made both men and women more fertile. Many more foods were considered aphrodisiacs than today. Aristotle's master-piece (1684) listed:
...among such things as are inducing and stirring up thereto, are...Hen-eggs, Pheasants, Woodcocks, Gnatsappers, Thrushes, Black Birds, young Pigeons, Sparrows, Partridge, Capons, Almonds, Pine-Nuts, Raysons, Currants, all strong Wines moderately taken; especially those made of the Grapes of Italy; but Erection is chiefly caused and provoked by Satyrium Eringoes, Cresses, Erysimum, Parsnips, Artichoaks, Turnips, Rapes, Asparagus, Candid Geinger, Gallinga, Acorns buried to Powder, and drank in Muscadel, Scallions, Sea Shell-Fish, &c.
Still life with oysters ~ Osias Beert (1610). Oysters and olives
were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs in 17th century England

Aphrodisiacs aside, infertility treatment was strongly influenced by the reigning humoural theory. It was commonly held that all disorders proceeded from an imbalance of the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Consequently, much advice was focused on balancing the humours in the womb, by avoiding excessive cold, moisture, dryness or warmth.

Of course, medical practitioners of dubious quality peddled secret elixirs and the like, which were supposed to provide sure-fire remedies for infertility. These were frequently advertised on handbills (advertisements of one or two sides). Remedies were, however, not left to the quacks alone. Women shared knowledge amongst themselves; many recipes for concoctions to cure infertility can be found in accounts and recipe books of the period.

These remedies may seem laughable now, but apparent infertility was extremely distressing for women in 17th century England. Pepys' experience would seem to bely the common view that infertility was always believed to be a woman's problem; in the diary, he recognises that the problem could be his as well. Yet women often bore the brunt of the blame. If a woman failed to have children, she had failed her primary purpose in life. Seemingly infertile women risked being mocked and even shunned by their contemporaries, and some women must have at times empathised with Rebecca when she cried to her husband Jacob, "Give me children, or else I die" (Genesis 30:1).


~ Caecilia Dance

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

'Lisztomania': Franz Liszt, sex and celebrity

The 19th century witnessed the rise of the celebrity musician. Previously, musicians were wholly dependent on aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons, and their output was determined by the wishes of these sometimes despotic individuals. Bach, for instance, was a mere Kapellmeister, and Haydn was not much more than a court servant. Even Mozart was unhappily dependent on patrons such as the Archbishop of Salzburg. Beethoven could perhaps be credited with starting the cult of the musician, but it was not until Paganini appeared on the musical scene in the early decades of the 19th century that a performer achieved celebrity status. Niccolo Paganini, an Italian violinist, was renowned for his outstanding talent. His gripping performance style was an important influence for Franz Liszt, who attended one of his concerts in 1832, saying afterwards, "what a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What suffering, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!...As for his expression, his manner of phrasing - they are his very soul!" But Liszt's meteoric rise would eclipse even Paganini's bright star. As one observer remarked in 1832 of Liszt, "when he appears, he will eclipse all other like a sun!"

Franz Liszt was a musical genius, undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of all time. He could boast of extraordinary technique and immense powers of expression, and was already delighting audiences at the age of twelve. At his first public concert in Vienna, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that some audience members had cried out "A miracle!", while others suspected some sort of trickery, until the piano was turned around so that the audience could see that he was really playing himself. Professional musicians were just as impressed with Liszt's talent. In 1832, Liszt performed Mendelssohn's incredibly difficult new piano concerto with brilliance and entirely without error - even though he had never seen the score before. Awestruck, Mendelssohn hailed this as a miracle.

Liszt in 1837, aged 26

Musical ability was, however, not the only reason for Lizst's success and rise as a celebrity. He was blessed with an extraordinary charisma which mesmerised audiences, sending them into hitherto unknown frenzies of ecstasy, a phenomenon for which Heinrich Heine coined the term 'Lisztomania'. In 1837, one observer described how "when I first heard him I sat speechless for a quarter of an hour afterwards, in such a stupor of amazement...Such execution...no one else can possess. He plays sometimes so as to make your hair stand on end!" In 1840 Robert Schumann described Liszt's extraordinary power of "subjugating, elevating, and leading the public", noting that audiences were "overwhelmed by a flood of tones and feelings". Hans Christian Andersen, who attended another of Liszt's recitals in 1840, touched on a common idea that Liszt was divinely inspired: "When Liszt entered the saloon,  it was as if an electric shock passed through it...the whole of Liszt's exterior and movements reveal one of those persons we remark for their peculiarities alone; the Divine hand has placed a mark on them which makes them observable among thousands".

Liszt was, furthermore, a master of self-promotion, augmenting his talent by projecting an almost superhuman image; a musician with mysterious, otherworldly abilities. Upon checking into a hotel in Chamonix in 1836, he listed his profession as "musician-philosopher" and his travel route as "in transit from Doubt to Truth". Heine noted wryly of Liszt's self-presentation that "the whole enchantment is to be traced to the fact that no one in the world knows how to organise 'successes' as well as Franz Liszt - or better, now to stage them. In that art, he is a genius". Certainly, Liszt carefully cultivated his image, taking full advantage of new artistic mediums. His early depictions are traditional oil portraits, but he soon saw the utility of the lithograph, which could be produced and distributed quickly and cheaply. Liszt also took well to the new medium of photography, for which his pensive air was ideal, and he sat for Europe's leading photographers from the mid-1850s onwards.

Lithograph of Liszt in 1846, aged 35
Liszt in 1858, aged 47



















Liszt became so famous that he soon had royalty and nobility at his feet. Liszt was from quite a humble background; his father had been a clerk-musician employed by Prince Esterházy, However, he himself was exceedingly intelligent and well-read, and liked to project a cultivated image, mixing with luminaries of the Paris literary world such as George Sand, Victor Hugo, Heine, Dumas and Balzac. With this successfully augmenting his musical talent, wherever Liszt went in Europe (and he appeared more than 3000 times in public between 1838 and 1846), the nobility clamoured to meet him and hear him play. Liszt did not stand on ceremony with anyone. Observers were astonished when, at the end of concerts, he would step into the front row and casually converse in French with the members of high nobility as if he were a close friend.

 Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his 
aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, 
George  Sand and Marie d'Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor
Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a 
portrait of  Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.

Royalty were also keen to meet Liszt, and they showered him with honours. When Liszt left Berlin in 1842, King Friedrich Wilhelm gave him a coach pulled by six horses, accompanied by a procession of thirty other carriages and an honour guard of students. As the music critic Ludwig Rellstab put it, "he left not like a king, but as a king". The Austrian authorities gave him a passport on which simply stood Celebritate sua sat notus ("sufficiently known by his fame"). By 1845, Liszt's star was so high that rumours flew around that he was going to marry the fifteen-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain, who had supposedly created the title of Duke of Pianozares for him. However, all this adulation didn't make him more respectful to royalty, to whom he could on occasion be downright rude. When Tsar Nicholas I turned up late to a 1840 recital and started talking, Liszt stopped playing and sat motionless with head bowed. When Nicholas inquired why the music did not continue, Liszt said coolly, "Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks".

An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I
(Note the flowers strewed around him)

Although both men and women admired his performances, Liszt held a particular attraction for women. He was very good-looking, with strong features, luxuriant hair and a brooding air. Women wore Liszt's image on cameos and brooches, fought to collect the dregs of his coffee cup, tore his handkerchiefs and gloves to shreds, wore his cigar butts in diamond-encrusted lockets, turned his discarded piano wires into bracelets, and so on. A contemporary caricature of a Liszt concert in Berlin in 1842 depicts an audience of frenzied women variously screaming, swooning, trying to storm the stage, observing him through binoculars (from the front row) and throwing flowers at him. Heine once consulted a specialist in womens' diseases about 'Lisztomania'; the specialist smiled knowingly and talked at length about the mass hysteria caused by a musical aphrodisiac in a confined space.


Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842

And Liszt was by no means immune to all this feminine adulation. He enjoyed numerous affairs, evincing a preference for ladies of the highest social rank. Among his early conquests were Countess Adèle Laprunarède and Countess Pauline Plater. When the latter was asked to rank the three great pianists who had performed in her salon, she judged on decidedly non-musical criteria, saying that Hiller would make the best friend, Chopin the best husband, and Liszt the best lover. Liszt's most enduring relationship, however, was with Countess Marie d'Agoult, the daughter of a wealthy German banking family who had married into one of the oldest families in France. Together they had three illegitimate children, one of whom, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner.

Alan Walker, Liszt's biographer, describes what was probably Liszt's greatest achievement, completing the transition of the musician from servant to master: "Beethoven, by dint of his unique genius and his uncompromising nature, had forced the Viennese aristocracy to at least regard him as their equal. But it was left to Liszt to foster the view that an artist is a superior being, because divinely gifted, and the rest of mankind, of whatever social class, owed him respect and even homage".

List in 1847, aged 36

~ By Caecilia Dance