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 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
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
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.
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
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.

Further Reading

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763)