Docility Rampant

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Romance Writings edited by Isobel Grundy
    Oxford, 276 pp, £14.50, August 1996, ISBN 0 19 812288 8

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is known to us as the author of travel writings, witty poems and remarkable letters. If it were not for Isobel Grundy’s diligent work in the archives, we should not know that Lady Mary also produced prose fiction. This is hardly strange. She published in her own time neither the travel writings nor (of course) her letters to her daughter. She permitted the public to enjoy only a few poems (and one anonymously edited journal). These were written during brief periods of unusual literary confidence, and of association with literary people in London. In 1716 she travelled to Turkey, where her husband was sent as a rather incompetent ambassador. The best result of their two years’ residence in Turkey was the volume familiarly known to us as Turkish Letters. By 1724 she had prepared the collection for the press. At her request, Mary Astell, the leading feminist of her day, supplied the Preface. But Montagu was persuaded, chiefly by her husband’s relatives, not to do anything so foolish and damaging to her status and his career as to publish the book, and it was not printed until the 1790s, long after her death. The volume of travels and observations would probably not have pleased the authorities in Constantinople, and would certainly have been shocking to English society in the reign of George II. One of the letters describes a visit to a harem, in what is among the most elegantly erotic scenes in travel literature. Montagu constantly discusses sexual mores and paradoxically praises the unusual freedom that the complete shrouding of a supposedly modest woman can allow for the conduct of an assignation, since a woman’s own husband couldn’t recognise her if he met her on the street. Montagu tells us that she – a Western woman, nominally, at least, not only English but Christian – went about in heavy veils and dress disguised as a Turkish woman and was able to see sights which were forbidden to male travellers, or to Western females in European garb. At some point she disguised herself as a Turkish man in order to move about more freely still. Her letters repeatedly work on the motifs of disguise and freedom, and the relation between the two. Nobody knew better than Montagu that heavy veiling is in use in English polite society.

Lady Mary eventually made up for her obedience to her husband in a number of matters, including the suppression of the Turkish travel book, by an elopement from him. In 1739 she left England for Italy, hoping that her love for Francesco Algarotti, a young Italian, would result in a long and comfortable liaison. But her lover proved cold, and Lady Mary was left to enjoy Italy by herself. She never totally broke with her husband, and they maintained the fiction that she was travelling abroad for her health. She did adore her daughter, Lady Bute, to whom many of her best letters are addressed; and, as with Mme de Sévigné, the best correspondence was stimulated by the pain of absence (for which Lady Bute, fostering her husband’s ambition, may have been secretly grateful). Lady Mary returned to England only after her husband’s death in 1761; she died a year later of breast cancer. In her lifetime she was the victim of many covert sneers and attacks, which redoubled after she did the scandalous thing and left her husband. She was feared and derided as a learned lady and a wit, but her abilities and ambitions as a writer had few outlets. In many respects, she had less to show for her remarkable abilities than did other writing women of her time, even those in (moderately) high positions, such as Elizabeth Montagu.

Her rehabilitation began with the publication of Turkish Letters at the end of the 18th century, during the Revolutionary period, when daring behaviour, interrogation of received ideas and feminine investigation of social structures and manners were all (briefly) more acceptable than they had been. It continued with the publication of some of her letters in the 19th century. But the real work of recuperation is the province of Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy. Montagu now fills a good deal of shelf space in any library.

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