|Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas|
Don't put away your fard or your fan just yet, because we're headed back to sunnier climes than these to hear the story of a life of excitement, scandal and letter-writing! We were in India yesterday and today we're travelling again, this time for a stop in Turkey in the company of a woman of letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Born Lady Mary Pierrepont and christened just along from my tottering abode at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden, Lady Mary's mother died when the little girl was just three years old, and the child took up residence with her paternal grandmother. Six years after her arrival the girl's guardian died and Mary and her three siblings were returned to the custody of their father, Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull and future Marquess of Doncaster. Delighted with the little girl's beauty and intelligence, Pierrepont took her as his guests when he attended the legendary Kit-Cat Club. Here she became a regular fixture, dazzling the illustrious patrons with her wit and charm.
Although Pierrepont was determined to encourage his daughter's social education, Lady Mary was more interested in furthering her academic horizons and spent long hours in the extensive library of her Thoresby Hall home. As intelligent as she was engaging, by her adolescence Lady Mary had produced dozens of poems and even a novel. She corresponded with a number of friends and thinkers including Anne Wortley Montagu, granddaughter of the Earl of Sandwich, and sister to her future husband.
|Portrait of Edward Wortley Montagu by John Vanderbank, 1730|
As she entered adulthood, Lady Mary was considered a very eligible young lady and her father had earmarked the wonderfully-monickered Viscount Massereene, Clotworthy Skeffington as the perfect match, rejecting the alternative, Edward Wortley Montagu, as unsuitable. Determined not to marry Skeffington, Mary eloped with his rival and they were married on August 23, 1712. Less than a year later their first child was born Wortley embarked on a high successful political career, rising from Whig Member of Parliament to Lord Commissioner of the Treasury in a very short space of time. With this new role, Mary found herself plucked from her secluded married life and dropped into the centre of George I's court, where she swiftly became a favourite, charming all who knew her. She was very close to Baron Hervey and attracted the admiration of Alexander Pope, who wrote her adoring letters and would continue to do so for years to come.
Entertained by her new lifestyle, Lady Mary wrote vignettes and poetry for her own amusement and produced a series of highly satirical Court Eclogues, written in the voice of a series of amusing characters; these satires were to prove her social undoing. Whilst Lady Mary was gravely ill with smallpox in 1715, one of her fellow courtiers handed out copies of a poem that appeared to be highly offensive towards the Princess of Wales. By the time of her recovery, Lady Mary was utterly ostracised from court and when her husband gained the office of Ambassador at Constantinople, she was happy to accompany him to escape the forced unhappiness of her life in England. Although her time in Turkey was to last only three years, Lady Mary thrived in her new surroundings.
She immersed herself in this new world and wrote prolific letters detailing every aspect of her life in Istanbul, describing the people she met, their cultures and traditions. Watching the Ottoman women she discoursed on how free they seemed compared to the restrictions placed on their western counterparts, lamenting on the limitations of dress, ambition and behaviour that so confined her gender. Her writings were published as Letters from Turkey, a hugely influential collection that remain an invaluable record of Turkish art, as well as an inspiration to cultural writers.
|The Obelisk at Wentworth Castle|
In addition she wrote poetry and letters decrying the experience of women, as well as perceptive articles regarding the treatment of her sister, who suffered from bouts of insanity and whose guardian Lady Mary was later appointed. However, Lady Mary did not seek publication for any of her writings other than her Turkish letters, preferring to keep her creative work to a small circle of friends. Despite this, in 1747 William Wentworth, 2nd Earl of Strafford, erected an obelisk at Wentworth Castle to celebrate Lady Mary's intellectual achievements.
After her own battle with smallpox, Lady Mary was fascinated to learn of the Ottoman Empire's successful experiments with inoculation and brought this knowledge back with her when she returned to England. Despite cynicism towards the procedure, she had her own child inoculated and George I allowed members of his own family to undergo the inoculations under the care of Charles Maitland, Lady Mary's doctor.
|Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl, 1727|
Bored by life in England and looking for something to occupy herself, Lady Mary entered into a romantic correspondence with a French admirer known as Rémond. For one so intelligent Lady Mary proved herself romantically naive and invested and lost a large amount of money in South Sea stock at his request. When he attempted to blackmail her using their love letters, Lady Mary finally revealed her actions to her husband and, in 1739, travelled to the continent alone. Although she and Wortley remained on friendly terms, they were eventually divorced. She enjoyed other love affairs in the years that followed but as her health began to fail, her life entered a period of decline.
|Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756|
By the age of sixty the celebrated beauty was in dire straits. Disfigured by smallpox and plagued with ill health, she lived in virtual poverty on the continent and only returned to England at the repeated pleas of her daughter. Their reunion was to be short lived and she died that same year.
Lady Mary remains a literary force to be reckoned with thanks to her perceptive letters from Turkey; although her days ended sadly, these letters and writings reveal a life well lived and a woman of wit, intelligence and conscience who pushed the boundaries of her time.