One of the Pyramids of Egypt

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment by Isobel Grundy
    Oxford, 680 pp, £30.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 19 811289 0

Immediately after becoming a woman, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando returns from a spell as Ambassador Extraordinary in Constantinople for tea and literary gossip with Addison, Pope and Swift – only to find that her pleasure in their company dissipates when the volatile Pope turns the force of his anger against her. Offended by Orlando’s carelessness in letting sugar splash into his tea, Pope responds by handing her ‘the rough draught of a certain famous line in the “Characters of Women” ’. Woolf may have intended her mock-biography as an affectionate portrait of Vita Sackville-West, but Isobel Grundy is surely right in thinking that these episodes in Orlando’s career were primarily inspired by the life and letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Of course Lady Mary was not herself Britain’s Ambassador to the Porte, only the wife of one; nor did she need to have her sex transformed in a mysterious ceremony at Constantinople in order to experience the misogynist bite of a satire by Pope. Though she had in common with Orlando both her aristocratic birth and an appetite for poetry, she had nothing like his/her ability to survive through several centuries. Yet insofar as Woolf wanted to suggest not only the dizzying number of parts one individual can play – including those conventionally associated with the opposite sex – but the fundamental elusiveness of human personality, Orlando catches far more of Lady Mary than her travels east or her quarrels at home.

As with Orlando, the difficulty of knowing her is compounded by gaps and contradictions in the record. Though it was not true, as Lady Mary once claimed, that she ‘never printed a single line in my Life’, both her class and her sex fed her profound ambivalence about publishers. Most of what she wrote circulated only in manuscript; the few significant exceptions appeared anonymously, except when others chose to attach her name, accurately or not, to a poem or letter. Occasional collaborations with other writers compound the problem, as does the fact that much of her writing apparently went up in flames. ‘My cheife Amusement is writeing the History of my own Time,’ she announced to her daughter in 1752, only to protest that she was not ‘turning Author’ in her old age: ‘I can assure you I regularly burn every Quire as soon as it is finish’d.’ The diary she kept throughout her life survived her for three decades, until that same daughter in her turn chose to burn it.

Lady Mary’s fame – even notoriety – in her own day meant that many people left accounts of what she said and did; but it also meant, as her previous biographer, Robert Halsband, has demonstrated, that dubious anecdotes had a habit of attaching themselves to her. Though Grundy attempts to solve the problem of naming by reserving ‘Montagu’ for the literary career and ‘Lady Mary’ for the rest, the variousness of her subject’s performances defeats her; and Oxford University Press inadvertently adds to the confusion by spelling the name ‘Montague’ in gilt letters on the binding.

Lady Mary owed many of her voices to experiments with literary convention. The daughter of the future Duke of Kingston had access to an extraordinary library (the first private collection in England to have a printed catalogue); and whether or not she had already succeeded in ‘stealing the Latin language’, as she later put it, by the age of 14 she was turning out imitations of Ovid and Virgil as well as poetry and fiction in the style of her contemporaries. In the fragmentary romance in which she subsequently rewrote the story of her early years, the heroine first comes to the attention of her future husband when she pronounces sagely on the merits of the latest play; and ‘he was still more astonish’d to find her not only well read in the moderns, but that there was hardly any beautifull passage in the Classics she did not remember.’ This doubtless exaggerates the erudition of both parties, but it is clear evidence of her aspirations.

The autobiographical romance ends ‘according to Custom’ with a meeting of the family lawyers. In real life the courtship of Mary Pierrepont and Edmund Wortley dragged on for nearly three years, and the letters in which they hesitantly negotiated their way towards marriage can be quite painful to read. He was at once jealous and cold, distrusting of her and fearful of committing himself; she carefully discriminated between degrees of ‘Esteem’ and of love, while alternately defending herself against his misconstructions and defiantly offering to break off all relations. In the private code she and her female friends used to describe their marital prospects, Wortley was no ‘Paradise’ but only ‘Limbo’ – a future to be considered primarily because it was not the ‘Hell’ to which her father seemed determined to consign her. Like Richardson’s Clarissa, she announced that she would prefer to remain her own mistress; but just as parental insistence on ‘the odious Solmes’ acts as a spur to the flight with Lovelace, so a threatened union with Clotworthy Skeffington – the name is worthy of Dickens – precipitated Lady Mary’s elopement with Wortley. Richardson’s novel was more than thirty years in the future, but despite her aristocratic contempt for his ignorance of ‘high Life’ (and despite the fact that Wortley, as Halsband observed, was ‘no Lovelace’), she would read in the early volumes ‘a near ressemblance of my Maiden Days’ and confess herself ‘such an old Fool as to weep over Clarissa Harlowe like any milk maid of sixteen’.

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