Wednesday 21 August 2013

Istanbul, Scandal and Smallpox: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (London, England, 15th May 1689 – London, England, 21st August 1762) 

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas
 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
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. 

Photograph of the Obelisk at Wentworth Castle
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.

Portrait of Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl, 1727
Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl, 1727

The friendship between Pope and Lady Mary dissolved spectacularly when she returned to London and though she always claimed to be utterly ignorant of the reasons for their estrangement, we Gin Lane gossips heard a tale or two. Lady Mary wrote a very arch parody of one of Pope's works that set his teeth on edge and, of course, there was the friendship with Hervey, whom we have already heard that Pope loathed and an even closer relationship with Philip, Duke of Wharton. There was also the suggestion that Pope told the lady he adored her and she laughed in his face, breaking his heart. Whatever the reason, the writer's love turned to loathing and he turned his most poison pen on the woman he had adored, writing vicious and thinly-veiled attacks on her person.

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.

Portrait of Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756
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.


Unknown said...

This shows just how important letter writing is as an art form and a means of referral to the past. I wonder if we will have the same standard of archival evidence one thousand years from now. Somehow I doubt it. What a force to be reckoned with. It's sort of Jane Eyre meets Lady MacBeth cum Diana Spencer!

Catherine Curzon said...

And yet another of Pope's myriad enemies!

Anonymous said...

All Lady Mary's portraits after 1715 are "touched up"! She was so hideously scarred by the small-pox that she never went out after that without wearing a veil to cover her face. So her enthusiasm for innoculation is understandable. She had BOTH her children done, the boy while in Turkey and the girl in England after she was weaned. (The wet-nurse had not had small-pox and Lady M didn't want to risk the nurse catching it.) BTW the family doctor was MaiTland, not MaRland and he went on to do an experiment with condemned prisoners in Newgate. The six volunteeres (3 men and 3 women all due to be hanged)who were innoculated survived and were pardoned. He later employed one of the women as a nurse. Lady M wanted the King to have his grandchildren innoculated - the children of the future George II - and the king agreed for the princesses to be done but not the princes - the boys were condidered too valuable to risk - and of course, girls were more vulnerable to having their looks destroyed.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thanks for your informative comment; the typo on Doctor Maitland's name has been amended!

Anonymous said...

Really great history, Lady Mary was quite a Lady indeed!
I read articles in the journal of medicine about her great work.
Marcus Scriven wrote horrible things about her I was shocked a man
Would challenge history with out knowledge.

Catherine Curzon said...

She has attracted her fair share of critics, sadly!

Gem Twitcher said...

...but was the gossip on her personal habits and cleanliness to be believed?

Catherine Curzon said...

Sir, I could not possibly comment!

Unknown said...

Thank you very much for this post!!!!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for stopping by!

Mari Christian said...

Most remarkable woman. Thank you as always, Catherine.

Dr. Thomason said...

I love Lady Mary! She is the subject of one of my book chapters. Great to see her featured here.

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure!

Catherine Curzon said...

Oh, do tell more!