4.11 LADY MARY WORTLEY MONTAGU
Mary Wortley Montagu was daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston (1655-1726) and Mary Fielding (cousin of novelist Henry Fielding), who died when Montagu was five. As a female, she was tutored at home but was largely self-educated through reading the books in her father’s library. She read English and French literature and taught herself Latin so that she could read such classical texts as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In 1712, she married an attorney, Edward Montagu. He was elected to parliament, was sent as a peace negotiator to Constantinople, and was the British ambassador to Turkey (1716-18). Montagu joined her husband in Turkey, from which country she wrote remarkable letters describing her life while in the Middle East. She used her distant vantage point to criticize the limits and restraints—including physical restraints—placed upon women in Europe. At the Turkish bath, the women there entreat Montagu to undress for the bath, an invitation she must refuse because of her Western dress: “I was at last forced to open my skirt and show them my stays, which satisfied them very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband” (The Turkish Embassy Letters: LET XXVI). She used the same technique of contrasts in her Town Eclogues (1747), poems modeled after Virgil’s Eclogues; they use the pastoral form to comment on the city (or court). Through her travel accounts, in various genres, she made an early contribution to the important genre of the woman explorer.
Image 4.18 | Lady Mary Wortley Montague
Artist | R. Burgess
Source | Wikimedia Commons
License | CC BY SA 4.0
Separated from her husband in 1739, Montague traveled on the Continent until the year of her death, when she returned to London. A selection of her letters was published a year after she died.
Alexander Pope early admired her, exchanged letters and matched poems with her, though he later satirized her, for instance in “To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,” particularly for her popularizing smallpox inoculation in England. She had observed the practice in Turkey where she had her son inoculated. During a smallpox epidemic in England in 1721, she asked Dr. Charles Maitland to inoculate her daughter against the illness. She then visited several prominent households with her daughter to attest to the safety of the procedure. Conservative thinkers like Pope and anti-inoculationists ridiculed Montagu; though Voltaire, among others, praised her.
Despite being classically opaque, Montagu’s poetry contains some autobiographical elements, for instance, in “Saturday. The Smallpox.” In this poem, she reveals the identity conflict of a woman who has been taught to view herself mainly through her beauty, through her appeal to others (males), but who possesses, values, and attests to internal strengths, such as wit and charm.
4.11.1 From Turkish Embassy Letters LET. XXVI.
To the Lady ——.
Adrianople, April 1. O. S. 1717.
I am now got into a new world, where every thing I see appears to me a change of scene; and I write to your ladyship with some content of mind, hoping, at least, that you will find the charms of novelty in my letters, and no longer reproach me, that I tell you nothing extraordinary. I won’t trouble you with a relation of our tedious journey; but must not omit what I saw remarkable at Sophia, one of the most beautiful towns in the Turkish empire, and famous for its hot baths, that are resorted to both for diversion and health. I stopped here one day, on purpose to see them; and, designing to go incognito, I hired a Turkish coach. These voitures are not at all like ours, but much more convenient for the country, the heat being so great, that glasses would be very troublesome. They are made a good deal in the manner of the Dutch stage-coaches, having wooden lattices painted and gilded; the inside being also painted with baskets and nosegays of flowers, intermixed commonly with little poetical mottos. They are covered all over with scarlet cloth, lined with silk, and very often richly embroidered and fringed. This covering entirely hides the persons in them, but may be thrown back at pleasure, and thus permits the ladies to peep through the lattices. They hold four people very conveniently, seated on cushions, but not raised.
In one of these covered waggons, I went to the bagnio about ten o’clock. It was already full of women. It is built of stone, in the shape of a dome, with no windows but in the roof, which gives light enough. There were five of these domes joined together, the outmost being less than the rest, and serving only as a hall, where the portress stood at the door. Ladies of quality generally give this woman a crown or ten shillings; and I did not forget that ceremony. The next room is a very large one paved with marble, and all round it are two raised sofas of marble, one above another. There were four fountains of cold water in this room, falling first into marble basons, and then running on the floor in little channels made for that purpose, which carried the streams into the next room, something less than this, with the same sort of marble sofas, but so hot with steams of sulphur proceeding from the baths joining to it, ’twas impossible to stay there with one’s cloaths on. The two other domes were the hot baths, one of which had cocks of cold water turning into it, to temper it to what degree of warmth the bathers pleased to have.
I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; “Uzelle, pek uzelle,” which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming. —— The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of a Guido or Titian, — and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.
I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I have often made, That if it were the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed. I perceived, that the ladies of the most delicate skins and finest shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough, to wish secretly, that Mr Gervais could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improved his art, to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions, while their slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty fancies. In short, ’tis the women’s coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, &c. —— They generally take this diversion once a-week, and stay there at least four or five hours, without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cold room, which was very surprising to me. The lady, that seemed the most considerable among them, entreated me to sit by her, and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty. They being however all so earnest in persuading me, I was at last forced to open my shirt, and shew them my stays; which satisfied them very well; for, I saw, they believed I was locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband, —— I was charmed with their civility and beauty, and should have been very glad to pass more time with them; but Mr W—— resolving to pursue his journey next morning early, I was in haste to see the ruins of Justinian’s church, which did not afford me so agreeable a prospect as I had left, being little more than a heap Of stones.
Adieu, madam, I am sure I have now entertained you with an account of such a sight as you never saw in your life, and what no book of travels could inform you of, as ’tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places.
Give me Great God (said I) a Little Farm
in Summer shady, & in Winter warm
where a cool spring gives birth to a clear brook
By Nature slideing down a mossy Rock
Not artfully in Leaden Pipes convey’d
Or greatly falling in a Forc’d Cascade
Pure & unsully’d winding throu’ ye Shade.
All bounteous Heaven has added to my Praier
Not artfully in Leaden Pipes convey’d
a softer Climate and a purer Air.
Our Frozen Isle now chilling Winter binds
Deform’d by Rains, & rough wth blasting Winds
ye wither’d Woods grown white wth hoary Frost
by driving storms their scatter’d beautys lost
The Trembling birds their leaveless coverts shun
And seek in distant Climes a warmer Sun
The Water Nymphs their silenced Urns deplore
Even Thames benumb’d a River now no more
The barren Meadows give no more delight
by Glist’ning Snows made painfull to ye Sight.
Here Summer reigns with one Eternal Smile
And double Harvests bless ye happy Soil.
Fair, fertile Fields to warm Indulgent Heaven
Has every Charm of every Season given!
No Killing Cold deforms ye Beauteous Year
The springing Flowers no coming Winter Fear
But as ye Parent Rose decays & dies
ye Infant Buds wth brighter Colours rise
And with fresh sweets ye Mother-scent supplys
Near them the Vi’let glows wth odours blest
And blooms in more than Tyrian Purple drest
The rich Jonquils their golden gleam display
And shine in glorys emulateing day.
These chearfull Groves their living Leaves retain
The Streams still murmur undefil’d by Rain
And growing Green adorns ye Fruitfull Plain
The warbling Kind uninterrupted Sing,
Warm’d wth Enjoyment of perpetual Spring.
Here from my Window I at once survey
The crouded City, & resounding Sea
In distant Views see Assian Mountains rise
And Lose their Snowy Summits in ye Skies.
Above those Mountains high Olympus Tow’rs
The Parliamental Seat of Heavenly Powers.
New to ye Sight my ravish’d Eyes admire
Each guilded Crescent & each Antique Spire
The Fair Serail where sunk in Idle ease
The Lazy Monarch melts his thoughtless days
The Marble Mosques beneath whose Ample Domes
Fierce Warlike Sultans sleep in peacefull Tombs
Those lofty Structures once the Christian boast
Their Names, their Honnours, & their Beautys lost
Those Altars bright wth Gold, wth Sculpture grac’d
By barbarous Zeal of savage Foes defac’d
Convents where Emperors profess’d of old
The Labour’d Pillars that their Triumphs told.
Vain Monuments of Men that once were great!
Sunk, undistinguish’d, by one Common Fate!
How art thou falln Imperial City, Low!
Where are thy Hopes of Roman Glory now?
Where are thy Palaces by Prelates rais’d
Where preistly Pomp in Purple Lustre blaz’d?
So vast, that Youthfull Kings might there reside
So Splendid; to content a Patriarchs pride
Where Grecian Artists all their skill displayd
Before ye happy Sciences decay’d;
So vast, that Youthfull Kings might there reside
So Splendid; to content a Patriarchs Pride; C
onvents where Emperors proffess’d of Old,
The Labour’d Pillars that their Triumphs told,
Vain Monuments of Men that once were great!
Sunk, undistinguish’d in one common Fate!
One Little Spot, the small Fenar contains,
Of Greek Nobillity, the poor Remains,
Where other Helens show like powerfull Charms
As once engag’d the Warring World in Arms:
Those Names that Roial Auncestry can boast
In mean Mechanic Arts obscurely lost
Those eyes a second Homer might inspire,
fix’d at the Loom, destroy their useless Fire.
Greiv’s at a view which strikes vpon my Mind
The short liv’d Vanity of Human kind
In Gaudy Objects I indulge my Sight,
And turn where Eastern Pomp gives gay delight.
See, the vast Train in various Habits dress’d!
By the Bright Seymetar and Sable Vest;
The Vizier proud, distinguish’d o’re the rest!
Six slaves in gay Attire his Bridle hold;
His Bridle rough with Gems, his Stirups Gold;
His Snowy Steed adorn’d with lavish Pride
Whole Troops of Soldiers mounted by his Side,
These toss the Plumy Crest, Arabian Coursers guide.
With awfull Duty all decline their Eyes,
No bellowing Shouts of noisy Crouds arise;
Silence in solemn State the march attends
Till at the dread Divan the slow processions ends.
Yet not these Objects all profusely Gay,
The Gilded Navy that adorns the Sea,
The riseing City in Confusion fair;
Magnificently form’d irregular
Where Woods and Palaces at once surprise
Gardens, on Gardens, Domes on Domes arise
And endless Beauties tire the wandering Eyes,
So sooths my Wishes, or so charms my Mind,
As this Retreat, secure from Human kind.
No Knaves successfull Craft does Spleen excite
No Coxcombs tawdry Splendour shocks my Sight;
No Mob Alarm awakes my Female Fears,
No unrewarded Merit asks my Tears;
Nor Praise my Mind, nor Envy hurts my Ear,
Even Fame it selfe can hardly reach me here,
Impertinence with all her Tattling Train
Fair-sounding Flatterys delicious Bane
Censorious Folly; Noisy Party Rage;
The Thousand with which she must engage
Who dare have Virtue in a Vicious Age.
4.11.3 “Town Eclogues: Saturday. The Small Pox”
FLAVIA. THE wretched FLAVIA on her couch reclin’d,
Thus breath’d the anguish of a wounded mind;
A glass revers’d in her right hand she bore,
For now she shun’d the face she sought before.
‘How am I chang’d ! alas! how am I grown
‘A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!
‘Where’s my Complexion ? where the radiant Bloom,
‘That promis’d happiness for Years to come?
‘Then with what pleasure I this face survey’d!
‘To look once more, my visits oft delay’d!
‘Charm’d with the view, a fresher red would rise,
‘And a new life shot sparkling from my eyes!
‘Ah! faithless glass, my wonted bloom restore;
‘Alas! I rave, that bloom is now no more!
‘The greatest good the GODS on men bestow,
‘Ev’n youth itself, to me is useless now.
‘There was a time, (oh! that I could forget!)
‘When opera-tickets pour’d before my feet;
‘And at the ring, where brightest beauties shine,
‘The earliest cherries of the spring were mine.
‘Witness, O Lilly ; and thou, Motteux, tell
‘How much Japan these eyes have made ye sell.
‘With what contempt ye you saw me oft despise
‘The humble offer of the raffled prize;
‘For at the raffle still the prize I bore,
‘With scorn rejected, or with triumph wore!
‘Now beauty’s fled, and presents are no more!
‘For me the Patriot has the house forsook,
‘And left debates to catch a passing look:
‘For me the Soldier has soft verses writ;
‘For me the Beau has aim’d to be a Wit.
‘For me the Wit to nonsense was betray’d;
‘The Gamester has for me his dun delay’d,
‘And overseen the card, I would have play’d.
‘The bold and haughty by success made vain,
‘Aw’d by my eyes has trembled to complain:
‘The bashful ‘squire touch’d by a wish unknown,
‘Has dar’d to speak with spirit not his own;
‘Fir’d by one wish, all did alike adore;
‘Now beauty’s fled, and lovers are no more!
‘As round the room I turn my weeping eyes,
‘New unaffected scenes of sorrow rise!
‘Far from my sight that killing picture bear,
‘The face disfigure, and the canvas tear!
‘That picture which with pride I us’d to show,
‘The lost resemblance but upbraids me now.
‘And thou, my toilette! where I oft have sat,
‘While hours unheeded pass’d in deep debate,
‘How curls should fall, or where a patch to place:
‘If blue or scarlet best became my face;
‘Now on some happier nymph thy aid bestow;
‘On fairer heads, ye useless jewels glow!
‘No borrow’d lustre can my charms restore;
‘Beauty is fled, and dress is now no more!
‘Ye meaner beauties, I permit ye shine;
‘Go, triumph in the hearts that once were mine;
‘But midst your triumphs with confusion know,
‘’Tis to my ruin all your arms ye owe.
‘Would pitying Heav’n restore my wonted mien,
‘Ye still might move unthought-of and unseen.
‘But oh! how vain, how wretched is the boast
‘Of beauty faded, and of empire lost!
‘What now is left but weeping, to deplore
‘My beauty fled, and empire now no more!
‘Ye, cruel Chymists, what with-held your aid!
‘Could no pomatums save a trembling maid?
‘How false and trifling is that art you boast;
‘No art can give me back my beauty lost.
‘In tears, surrounded by my friends I lay,
‘Mask’d o’er and trembled at the sight of day;
‘MIRMILLO came my fortune to deplore,
‘(A golden headed cane, well carv’d he bore)
‘Cordials, he cried, my spirits must restore:
‘Beauty is fled, and spirit is no more!
‘GALEN, the grave; officious SQUIRT was there,
‘With fruitless grief and unavailing care:
‘MACHAON too, the great MACHAON, known
‘By his red cloak and his superior frown;
‘And why, he cry’d, this grief and this despair?
‘You shall again be well, again be fair;
‘Believe my oath; (with that an oath he swore)
‘False was his oath; my beauty is no more!
‘Cease, hapless maid, no more thy tale pursue,
‘Forsake mankind, and bid the world adieu!
‘Monarchs and beauties rule with equal sway;
‘All strive to serve, and glory to obey:
‘Alike unpitied when depos’d they grow;
‘Men mock the idol of their former vow.
‘Adieu! ye parks! — in some obscure recess,
‘Where gentle streams will weep at my distress,
‘Where no false friend will in my grief take part,
‘And mourn my ruin with a joyful heart;
‘There let me live in some deserted place,
‘There hide in shades this lost inglorious face.
‘Ye, operas, circles, I no more must view!
‘My toilette, patches, all the world adieu!
4.11.3 “The Reasons that Induced Dr S to write a Poem call’d the Lady’s Dressing room”
The Doctor in a clean starch’d band,
His Golden Snuff box in his hand,
With care his Di’mond Ring displays
And Artfull shews its various Rays,
While Grave he stalks down -- Street
His dearest Betty -- to meet.
Long had he waited for this Hour,
Nor gain’d Admittance to the Bower,
Had jok’d and punn’d, and swore and writ,
Try’d all his Galantry and Wit,
Had told her oft what part he bore
In Oxford’s Schemes in days of yore,
But Bawdy, Politicks nor Satyr
Could move this dull hard hearted Creature.
Jenny her Maid could taste a Rhyme
And greiv’d to see him lose his Time,
Had kindly whisper’d in his Ear,
For twice two pound you enter here,
My lady vows without that Summ
It is in vain you write or come.
The Destin’d Offering now he brought
And in a paradise of thought
With a low Bow approach’d the Dame
Who smileing heard him preach his Flame.
His Gold she takes (such proofes as these
Convince most unbeleiving shees)
And in her trunk rose up to lock it
(Too wise to trust it in her pocket)
And then return’d with Blushing Grace
Expects the Doctor’s warm Embrace.
But now this is the proper place
Where morals Stare me in the Face
And for the sake of fine Expression
I’m forc’d to make a small digression.
Alas for wretched Humankind,
With Learning Mad, with wisdom blink!
The Ox thinks he’s for Saddle fit
(As long ago Freind Horace writ)
And Men their Talents still mistakeing,
The stutterer fancys his is speaking.
With Admiration oft we see
Hard Features heighten’d by Toupée,
The Beau affects the Politician,
Wit is the citizen’s Ambition,
Poor Pope Philosophy displays on
With so much Rhime and little reason,
And thô he argues ne’er so long
That, all is right, his Head is wrong.
None strive to know their proper merit
But strain for Wisdom, Beauty, Spirit,
And lose the Praise that is their due
While they’ve th’impossible in view.
So have I seen the Injudicious Heir
To add one Window the whole House impair.
Instinct the Hound does better teach
Who never undertook to preach,
The frighted Hare from Dogs does run
But not attempts to bear a Gun.
Here many Noble thoughts occur
But I prolixity abhor,
And will persue th’instructive Tale
To shew the Wise in some things fail.
The Reverend Lover with surprize
Peeps in her Bubbys, and her Eyes,
And kisses both, and trys--and trys.
The Evening in this Hellish Play,
Beside his Guineas thrown away,
Provok’d the Preist to that degree
he swore, the Fault is not in me.
Your damn’d Close stool so near my Nose,
Your Dirty Smock, and Stinking Toes
Would make a Hercules as tame
As any Beau that you can name.
The nymph grown Furious roar’d by God
The blame lyes all in Sixty odd
And scornfull pointing to the door
Cry’d, Fumbler see my Face no more.
With all my Heart I’ll go away
But nothing done, I’ll nothing pay.
Give back the Money--How, cry’d she,
[I lock’d it in the Trunk stands there
And break it open if you dare.]
Would you palm such a cheat on me!
For poor 4 pound to roar and bellow,
Why sure you want some new Prunella?
[What if your Verses have not sold,
Must therefore I return your Gold?
Perhaps your have no better Luck in
The Knack of Rhyming than of --
I won’t give back one single Crown,
To wash your Band, or turn your Gown.]
I’ll be reveng’d you saucy Quean
(Replys the disapointed Dean)
I’ll so describe your dressing room
The very Irish shall not come.
She answer’d short, I’m glad you’l write,
You’l furnish paper when I shite.
4.11.4 “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband”
Think not this paper comes with vain pretense
To move your pity, or to mourn th’offense.
Too well I know that hard obdurate heart;
No softening mercy there will take my part,
Nor can a woman’s arguments prevail,
When even your patron’s wise example fails.
But this last privilege I still retain;
Th’oppressed and injured always may complain.
Too, too severely laws of honor bind
The weak submissive sex of womankind.
If sighs have gained or force compelled our hand,
Deceived by art, or urged by stern command,
Whatever motive binds the fatal tie,
The judging world expects our constancy.
Just heaven! (for sure in heaven does justice reign,
Though tricks below that sacred name profane)
To you appealing I submit my cause,
Nor fear a judgment from impartial laws.
All bargains but conditional are made;
The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;
Defrauded servants are from service free;
A wounded slave regains his liberty.
For wives ill used no remedy remains,
To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.
From whence is this unjust distinction grown?
Are we not formed with passions like your own?
Nature with equal fire our souls endued,
Our minds as haughty, and as warm our blood;
O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue,
The change is justified by something new;
But we must sigh in silence -- and be true.
Our sex’s weakness you expose and blame
(Of every prattling fop the common theme).
Yet from this weakness you suppose is due
Sublimer virtue than your Cato knew.
Had heaven designed us trials so severe,
It would have formed our tempers then to bear.
And I have borne (oh what have I not borne!)
The pang of jealousy, the insults of scorn.
Wearied at length, I from your sight remove,
And place my future hopes in secret love.
In the gay bloom of glowing youth retired,
I quit the woman’s joy to be admired,
With that small pension your hard heart allows,
Renounce your fortune, and release your vows.
To custom (though unjust) so much is due;
I hide my frailty from the public view.
My conscience clear, yet sensible of shame,
My life I hazard, to preserve my fame.
And I prefer this low inglorious state
To vile dependence on the thing I hate –
But you pursue me to this last retreat.
Dragged into light, my tender crime is shown
And every circumstance of fondness known.
Beneath the shelter of the law you stand,
And urge my ruin with a cruel hand,
While to my fault thus rigidly severe,
Tamely submissive to the man you fear.
This wretched outcast, this abandoned wife,
Has yet this joy to sweeten shameful life:
By your mean conduct, infamously loose,
You are at once my accuser and excuse.
Let me be damned by the censorious prude
(stupidly dull, or spiritually lewd),
My hapless case will surely pity find
From every just and reasonable mind.
When to the final sentence I submit,
The lips condemn me, but their souls acquit.
No more my husband, to your pleasures go,
The sweets of your recovered freedom know.
Go: court the brittle friendship of the great,
Smile at his board, or at his levee wait;
And when dismissed, to madam’s toilet fly,
More than her chambermaids, or glasses, lie,
Tell her how young she looks, how heavenly fair,
Admire the lilies and the roses there.
Your high ambition may be gratified,
Some cousin of her own be made your bride,
And you the father of a glorious race
Endowed with Ch------l’s strength and Low---r’s face.
4.11.5 Reading and Review Questions
What’s the effect of Montagu’s commenting on the whiteness of the skin of the Turkish ladies in the bath? And of her allusion to Milton’s Eve, the mother of all mankind?
What values—societal, social, gendered—does Montagu promote in “Constantinople,” and how? What’s the effect of the speaker’s glancing reference to the Vizier’s slaves?
Flavia, the speaker of “Saturday. The Smallpox,” has suffered the scarring that smallpox could leave behind. She laments the loss of her beauty. Because of her lost beauty, what else has she lost? What do these consequent losses suggest about a society that values a woman’s beauty over her mind and character?
Montagu’s “On the Reasons that Induced. . . ” rebuts Swift’s “On a Lady’s Dressing Room,” in which an enamored gentleman loses all desire for an actress, once he sees her filthy dressing room and unclean personal sanitary habits. To what does Montagu attribute Swift’s poem? In the so-called Battle of the Sexes, to what does she seem to attribute male animosity towards women? Why? How effective, if at all, is her implicit argument?
In “The Letter of Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband,” the speaker condemns double standards and laws that men have made and from which they benefit at women’s expense. What are the grounds for the speaker’s condemnation? How logical are they? Consider the speaker’s appeal to reason and fairness. Does her own situation of having committed adultery affect her logic? How, and why?