Christine de Pizan

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Poet, Essayist, Traveler

Mary Pierrepont, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (born 15 May 1689)


Beautiful, privileged, and well-connected, Lady Mary Pierrepont was the daughter of an earl, Evelyn Pierrepont, and Lady Mary Fielding--through whom Lady Mary was related to the British novelist Sarah Fielding (who was the sister of the novelist Henry Fielding). Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Sarah Fielding were second cousins, great-granddaughters of George Feilding [sic], earl of Desmond--I'll be posting on Sarah Fielding later this year

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,
painting by Jonathan Richardson
Unlike her Fielding cousins, who were both formally educated, Sarah at Miss Rooke's boarding school in Salisbury, her brother at Eton, Lady Mary Pierrepont received what education she had at home, Thoresby Hall. Although there was an extensive library, Lady Mary was later to say that she had to "steal" her education, teaching herself by reading widely and "trespassing" into more masculine territory by teaching herself Latin and reading both Greek and Latin classics. By time she was fourteen years old, she had filled notebooks with her own poetry, a novel, translations, and a play modeled on one by a writer we have already met, Aphra Behn.

Faced with the prospect of marriage to a man of whom her father approved but she did not, she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu, a rising politician--though when they married in 1712, his fortunes had not risen enough, and the couple struggled in poverty. In 1714, however, the Whigs returned to power, and Edward Wortley Montagu's prospects began to improve. He was elected to Parliament in 1715, and, in London, Lady Mary became a prominent figure at court and among writers and intellectuals.

In 1716, Lady Mary accompanied her husband, who had been appointed as ambassador to the Ottomon empire, to Constantinople. While there, she composed the work for which she is best known today, her Turkish Embassy Letters. In this wonderful example of travel writing, Montagu offers her reflections in a series of letters to a number of unnamed correspondents, most, but not all, of them female. While retaining the fiction of the personal letter, the epistolary form allows Montagu the freedom to write openly about a range of topics which may not otherwise be “appropriate” for her as a woman writer. 

One of the most interesting of these letters was written on 1 April 1717, addressed simply “To the Lady ---.” This letter, in which Montagu gives an account of her visit to a Turkish bath, has drawn attention for a number of reasons—The Norton Anthology of Literature includes Montagu’s letter in a “Norton Topics Online” unit on “Travel, Trade, and the Expansion of Empire,” for example, while other critics focus on the orientalizing, eroticizing elements of Montagu’s letter, in which “the sexuality of the Muslim woman is increasingly organized as a scopophilic experience, both voyeuristic and fetishistic,” in the words of one such academic reader

Montagu’s letter begins with a specific reference to the “new world” in which she finds herself in her travels, a world very different from that which she is used to, a world where, in her words, “everything I see appears to me a change of scene.” In Sophia, known for its hot baths, she decides to experience something of this “new world” for herself, though she must go “incognito,” as she tells her correspondent. Montagu hires a Turkish coach as a means of preserving her privacy—the scarlet cloth of the coach “entirely hides” the “persons inside them.”

The baths themselves are described as a series of five magnificent domed structures, open to the sky. The baths represent an exclusively female space, a world where women are safely secluded from the male-dominated society outside, a world where they are watched over by a “porteress.” This is a busy place—the bagnio she visits is already full of women at ten in the morning. Inside the baths, Montagu is no longer “incognito,” since she is still wearing her “traveling habit,” thus identifying herself as a western woman—by contrast, the two hundred or so women secluded there are, in Montagu’s words, “in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed.”

Certainly we can view this scene as a western European woman’s contact with the exotic “other,” or as Montagu’s “salacious need to penetrate these female domains and expose this activity for the voyeuristic pleasure of a male readership.” But Montagu’s account of her experience of the women’s baths in Sophia also reveals the way one woman who has spent her life in a world run by and for men finally encounters an all-female space, a space where men are entirely excluded. Whether we think of the image of a city of ladies or of “a room of one’s own,” Montagu is showing us a real-world version of such imagined spaces.

For Montagu, this place is like heaven, only one before the Fall: “there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them,” she writes, “they walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with.” The women occupy this privileged space only temporarily; they must return to the world of men. But for a brief time, they share an absolute freedom and intimacy that will sustain them through all the hours they spend outside their refuge.

If we look at Montagu’s experience in the Turkish baths from this perspective, the encumbrance of her “traveling habit,” and the “stays” that seem to keep her “locked up” inside it gain an altogether different significance. In describing the Turkish baths as a kind of Garden of Eden, inhabited by women “in a state of nature,” unburdened by shame or artifice, Montagu shows herself, by contrast, to be bound, literally and figuratively, unable to join in this community of women, forever separate from them. There is no equivalent retreat from the world of men for Montagu, no place to break free of the ties that bind her. 

Back in London, Lady Mary returned to her literary companions, enemies, and correspondents. She continued to write. Before leaving with her husband for Turkey, she had published an essay in Spectator, and several poems were published in Court Poems--all were published anonymously or pseudonymously, the poems probably printed without her permission. Between 1730 and 1750, several volumes of her poetry were published, and she produced a political periodical, Nonsense of Common-Sense, in 1737 and 1738. 

In 1739, Montagu left her husband. Perhaps she was seeking some sort of room of her own. She moved to Europe--she did not return to London until 1762, shortly before her death. Her Turkish Embassy Letters were first published in 1763.

(Another noteworthy element of Montagu's journey is her encounter with the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox, a disease she had suffered from herself and had been scarred by. After her return from Turkey in 1718, she helped to popularize this method of disease prevention.)

For an excellent biograpny, see Isobel Grundy's Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment. There is also an excellent essay on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu at the Poetry Foundation website--in addition to providing a good biography, there is also an analysis of Montagu's poetry, which often receives less attention than the letters, and a discussion of Montagu's feminism. The site includes complete texts of several poems and a good bibliography.

There are several very affordable editions of the Turkish Embassy Letters, but you can also read them at various online sources, including Project Gutenberg.