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.

The term ‘romance writings’ used for the present publication is perhaps not altogether happy. What Grundy has found and presents are (with one exception) short tales, novellas or contes. The exception is a fairly long narrative written in Italian, apparently at Montagu’s dictation, in order to make a legal complaint (evidently never pursued) against a man who, with his confederates, had rooked her during a long sojourn in Northern Italy. As Grundy says, in the absence of her diary or her history of her own times, this Italian memoir is ‘her most extended surviving autobiographical narrative’. The other pieces are tales, all of them more or less sardonic, each about a woman of beauty and ability whose good qualities are abused and who does not get what she wants. One, the (incomplete) ‘Sultan’s Tale’, belongs in the tradition of fiction evoked by The Arabian Nights; it is an ‘Oriental tale’, of the sort that can be studied in Robert Mack’s recent and illuminating collection. The earliest offering is a short epistolary novel, ‘Indamora to Lindamira’ – the only piece (aside from the Italian memoir) which is datable, as it comes from the young Lady Mary Pierrepont’s teenage album. (It is also the only one to have been published before, in the series of Juvenilia edited by Juliet McMaster.) The two tales that follow, ‘Mademoiselle de Condé’ and ‘Louisa’, are more sophisticated pieces. Set in the French court of the late 17th century, they represent sexual passion and frustration, the viciousness of elegant mores and the difficulties of a woman who may always expect to have her beauty and desirability traded on, even though she is constantly warned that her ‘ruin’ means punishment in this life and the one to come. Hypocrisy always performs well in the elegant masquerade of manners, and is particularly able to indulge its variegated talents in court life.

Montagu had a thorough knowledge of European fiction from the Renaissance to her own time. There are echoes in her writing of Sidney’s Arcadia, and moments that sound like L’Astrée. References to Amadis de Gaule make it clear that she knew that novel, while the description of the court of the Roi des Bons Enfants seems intended to recall Rabelais. The biggest single influence on Montagu’s writing, however, is Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves. Indeed, all of Montagu’s fiction seems to belong more to the French line than the English – even if one can see the influence of English writers like Aphra Behn, Mary Davys and Eliza Haywood, with whom she was undoubtedly familiar. She also seems to have read the pious Penelope Aubin – against whom she reacts, as she was to react, in a more complicated manner, against Richardson. Both stylistically and philosophically, we can see the influence of La Rochefoucauld, although it is also true that Hobbes and Mandeville made a deep impression. She is familiar with the work of Fontenelle – of whom she makes fun, turning him into a comic character; she rebels against Fénelon’s Télémaque; and has evidently studied the early work at least of Marivaux and Prévost.

It is particularly maddening that we cannot date most of Montagu’s fiction. Did she or did she not know the works of Voltaire? ‘La Princesse Docile’, the most ambitious and lengthy of the prose narratives here, obviously postdates Pamela (1740), and disparages it: ‘her Governess had already given her Pamela, to form her Heart.’ It is most probable that ‘La Princesse Docile’ was written after Diderot’s Les Bijoux indiscrets (1747) and Zadig (1747) and even Clarissa (1747-8). It is, however, almost certainly written some years before Candide (1759), although it is likely to remind the reader of that better-known philosophical tale.

‘La Princesse Docile’ is written in French: not quite the French of a Frenchwoman, and sometimes simply wrong in grammar or idiom, but even so, very fine, witty and interesting. The numerous inconsistencies in spelling and the missing accents (venial flaws common among French writers of the period in handwritten pieces, as Grundy points out) do not, however, hide its diamond-hard brilliance, and Grundy has performed a highly creditable feat in giving us a translation that actually sounds like an 18th-century composition. The work itself is a non-realistic fantasia. It has the characteristics of court comedy of intrigue, but also those of fairy-tale, Oriental tale and even science fiction (one of the heroine’s admirers comes from the planet Venus). The Queen, the heroine’s mother, is befriended by a fairy. The religion of the slightly Orientalised court is that of ‘the Goddess Vishnu’. This travesty of Hindu belief offers a useful mode of attacking Christianity, and especially the kind of worship of the Virgin taught to girls.

At the centre of the story lies the problem of what women are supposed to be. It is the heroine’s mother who does her the first injury; when asked by the fairy what she wishes for her child, she replies: ‘Je ne demande que la Docilité.’ The fairy promises ‘une Docilité parfaitte’. This is poor Docile’s fate: to do what people tell her to do, to think as they would have her do. She takes her youthful education seriously and swallows what people tell her about religion and morality, which leads her to undervalue herself and to condemn her own beauty, wealth and rank. (As an aristocrat, Montagu thought the Christian religion too disrespectful of rank and power.) Docile also swallows all the stuff about the duty of a woman to maintain chastity no matter what should befall her, and she knows a woman should be faithful in the face of all temptations and injuries. Docile begins with the thoughtfulness about virtue that other heroines, like characters in Eliza Haywood’s novels, learn only at the end of their misadventures. In Docile’s case, virtue is the misadventure.

In this novel docility is rampant. Suppositious virtues and culturally circumscribed values plunge the beautiful young woman into one complicated misery after another. The ‘virtue’ to which she is attached is self-lacerating. ‘She remembered the maxim of her Philosopher, that it is better to be deceived by a thousand Rogues than to refuse one’s aid to a single person who truly deserves to be pitied. She felt herself very much consoled by this Reflection, and consequently made a vow to be a dupe all her life.’ Women, in their inculcated love of virtue, are supposed to hate conflict and to shrink from any protest against injustice.

In order to escape the persecution of lovers and of her mother, the Princess consents to marry the surly and gloomy Prince Sombre. Docile’s uncertain handling of her role as Queen and the machinations of enemies drive her from her throne. She and her gloomy husband seek shelter at the court of Le Roi des Bons Enfants, ‘King Goodchild’ (Grundy) or the King of Goodfellows, who rules over a carelessly happy court, where no one is allowed to preach or to gossip, where everyone has affairs but no one indulges sentiment: ‘ce n’estoit pas 1e Païs des Sentiments; ils ne cherchoient que des plaisirs sans peines’. Docile’s rebuttal of the King’s advances does not make her suspicious husband any more pleased with her. Virtue is not rewarded. Far from being morally educated by the spectacle of her virtue, the King and the Court of Goodfellows think she is unfeeling, even mad. She sacrifices her happiness and her honour in the name of Virtue and remains obedient to its dictates – obedient to the fetish of obedience.

Matters go no better in the last part of the narrative. Trying to rejoin her estranged husband, Docile is captured by corsairs but delivered by the Knight of Malta, an accomplished libertine-philosopher who is pleased to find out that she is not a virgin: ‘Il faut un siècle pour les vaincre, et deux autres pour s’en defaire.’ We are learning to do without those ridiculous notions of Virtue, Honour and Chastity which once encumbered women’s lives and kept them from the natural use of their bodies, the Knight argues. Such values only keep up the fictions of the past and tie the living to the dead: ‘Nos Ancestres sont tout morts, il n’y a plus de Romains au monde.’ When Docile protests that he does not despise Honour, for, after all, he is a warrior and risks his life, the Knight agrees with her. He is only following the fashion, but that fashion, she hopes, will soon change. Male valour will someday be as ridiculous as female prudery has now become.

Docile falls neither to the Knight nor to his arguments. But her stubbornly jealous husband is convinced, on her return, that she is a lost woman, and once again her subjects are turned against her, as her enemies play up the scandal: ‘Pamphlets about the imaginary Adventures of Docile were published in several countries, while she spent her life in Penances harsher than those of a Carmelite, but her Reputation was that of a Messalina.’

Clearly, this witty novella is autobiographical. We may think of Lady Mary Montagu as very dashing, aggressively witty, self-willed, tough, but that is not how she sees herself. She, like Docile, married a gloomy man she did not love in order to escape an unwanted suitor that her family was about to impose on her. She, too, felt that her life had been taken out of her control. She was continually hampered by the impediments not only of a woman’s life but of the values with which a young woman is indoctrinated. No solution is offered. All the libertine men who argue with Docile about her values are themselves conventional in their lust and certainly self-interested: they want to ‘liberate’ her only to exploit her. There are no good pictures of heterosexual relations here – the story is certainly not a ‘romance’ in that sense. Any happiness a woman might find with a man is of short duration, subject to his whim. Relations with women offer no alternative. The worst of Docile’s early troubles are the result of the hypocrisy and manipulation of a false female friend. And her own mother put the curse of docility on her. At least the fairy punishes the Queen in the end: ‘To escape finally from her, she turned her into a Brie Cheese.’

If you imagine that Montagu herself was not in the least docile, read the Italian memoir, which embarrassingly describes how she became the victim of chicanery, was robbed and physically threatened: the narrative almost turns into a Gothic tale. Part of her trouble here was that she was trying to fit in with Italian ways while being uncertain what they were. There is a warning here, even for our generation: don’t try to buy property where you know nothing of the law or the customs. Conned into ‘purchasing’ property without becoming the real owner, Lady Mary put up with ill-usage without protesting. Wealthy, clever and sophisticated, she wanted to act the generous aristocrat who didn’t care about trifles – that was her picture of herself. And, like Docile, she wanted to maintain her own virtue by not suspecting people who might be innocent – thus setting herself up as ‘a dupe all her life’. The portrait of Docile, in other words, is self-critical as well as self-justifying.

It is not only in the Turkish Letters that Montagu deals with disguise and travesty. In what is arguably her best poem, ‘The Lover: A Ballad’, the female speaker admits to a friend that she has an ideal lover in mind, one who would combine good sense, good nature and discretion. His attentions would not compromise her reputation – he would ‘in public, preserve the decorums’. The private relationship is another story:

But when the long hours of public are past,
And we meet with champagne and a chicken at last,
May every fond pleasure that hour endear,
Be banished afar both discretion and fear.
Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd,
He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud ...
      Version in 18th-Century Women Poets, edited by Roger Lonsdale

The chicken and champagne aspects of life, the playful and the erotic, pertain to the ‘private’ and not to the social existence. Women have to hide their erotic feelings, keeping them only for private life and unofficial intervals. It is in a man’s public interest to brag about conquests. Thus the speaker in ‘The Lover’ decides:

But till this astonishing creature I know
As I long have lived chaste, I will keep myself so.

A woman ought, however, to see that genuine chastity is itself a disguise. Docile has not thoroughly learned the grim work of decorum; her false compliances are muddled in her mind by association with an unrealistic idealism and with what the author regards as religious claptrap.

Montagu herself had learned the conventions. Even her elopement in pursuit of Algarotti had a thin veil of decency thrown over it. But she gave the game away by acknowledging, in works meant for the ‘public’ like her verses and her epistles from Turkey, that she was skilled in the art of disguise. Compelled both to hide and to flaunt her adventurous ‘masculine’ nature, she lived her life in travesty. So does Docile, who literally engages in travesty at one point in order to make a getaway: ‘She commanded him to bring a horse and a set of men’s clothing to her at the edge of the Wood.’ But this heroine is not Rosalind or Orlando. She never wants to acknowledge the truth of her own disguising or to understand her ‘masculine’ aspects. She is always travestied in a ‘feminine’ Docility. She tries to reject the inevitability of constant disguise and thus of formality. She cannot readily adopt a role; her very informality makes her incoherent and confused, a perfect victim.

‘La Princess Docile’ was written after Montagu’s break with her husband, her disappointment in Algarotti and the abuse of her trust by Count Palazzi. These harsh experiences benefited her, in a way – they made her wit more sprightly and her insight more acute. They drove her to what was really a new medium for her: the short prose fiction in the French style. She had her own contribution to make to the development of this genre – or she might have had.

It is apparent that she could not bring herself to write what she really was thinking in the English language. Writing in French released thoughts and emotions that were unkindly looked on in moralistic England. Only in the Revolutionary 1790s did English women, most notably the brave Mary Hays, begin to question the fetish of female chastity, and the prurient, enslaving interest in a young woman’s technical virginity. By that time Rousseau would have strengthened the hand of the Télémaque party, insisting on woman’s natural timidity.

Montagu was a true libertine – and unconventional enough to question male libertinism – but only in French. Like Docile, she was scared of criticism. ‘When I print I submit to be answer’d and criticis’d,’ she wrote defensively in a letter. By not publishing, she thought she could escape criticism: in her continuous cranky efforts to keep subversive thoughts and possibilities battened down inside, she proved herself to be a Princesse Docile indeed. But she could have been England’s Voltaire.