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’.

Her first published work also takes up the matter of courtship, but in a very different voice from that of her correspondence with Wortley – or, indeed, from that in which, in letters to her daughter, she would later deplore the ‘Impudence’ of Richardson’s heroines. A contribution to the Spectator written in response to a piece by Addison about a club of appetitive widows, it adopts the persona of one of his characters to reverse the direction of his satire. Having already buried six husbands, Mrs President says just enough about each to make clear ‘how short a Sorrow the loss of them was capable of occasioning’. Hovering uneasily in the wings is one Edward Waitfort, a cautious if persistent lover who delivers ‘insolent’ lectures on her conduct and whom the widow torments by repeatedly rejecting him for other candidates. Lady Mary’s authorship of the piece – it was written in 1714 – was not made public until the 20th century, but Addison and Steele were both friends of her husband; and one of the many mysteries of her biography is whether, and in what spirit, Edward Wortley recognised himself in the ironic portrait of Waitfort.

The widow’s self-portrait, it should be said, is hardly more flattering. While the piece does speak up for women, it is more interested in talking back to Addison. Even before Pope’s attacks on her in the Dunciad and elsewhere made ‘confutation ... a leading imperative of Montagu’s writing’ (to adopt a phrase from Grundy’s 1992 preface to the Essays and Poems), the impulse to answer back and to counter received views seems stronger in her than any attachment to a particular position. So, too, does the wish to experiment with different voices and genres. As Grundy is well aware, this can be something of a problem for feminist criticism – at least for the sort intent on enlisting the past in support of present opinion.

Grundy calls attention to two poems on the subject of rape, occasioned by the same incident: an early-morning attack by an armed footman on Lady Mary’s friend, Griselda Murray. Murray succeeded in foiling the attempt, but she was living apart from her husband at the time; and as Lady Mary remarked of the affair in a letter to her sister, ‘the most groundless Accusation is allways of ill Consequence to a Woman.’ In verse, however, Lady Mary seems to have amused herself by adopting the perspective of the amorous footman, in whose voice she explains how he was suddenly overcome by long-suppressed ardour for his mistress when he chanced to view ‘the dear Disorder of [her] Bed’ in the course of bringing her tea. A comic ballad that Grundy also ascribes to Lady Mary compounds the offence against late 20th-century orthodoxy by implying that the woman in question was more willing than otherwise to be ravished. It is far from clear that Lady Mary did in fact compose these mocking verses, though the victim persisted in attributing them to her. But the woman who, in a letter written a few years later, would pointedly dismiss as quixotic ‘the Defence of any Woman’s Reputation whatever’ makes at best a prickly conscript for feminism. ‘To say Truth,’ the same letter adds, ‘I have never had any great Esteem for the gennerality of the fair Sex, and my only Consolation for being of that Gender has been the assurance it gave me of never being marry’d to any one amongst them.’

Lady Mary was evidently proud of this witticism, since she later repeated it in her commonplace book. Yet the testimony of her travel letters suggests that it was not so much ‘the gennerality of the fair Sex’ that she despised as the familiar customs and constraints she associated with them. Both the so-called ‘Turkish Embassy Letters’ of 1717-18 and those written from her self-imposed exile in Italy more than thirty years later bear witness to a need to envisage alternatives. The deservedly famous letter that describes her visit to the women’s bath at Sophia represents the bathers’ reception of their guest as a triumph of female civility: ‘I know no European Court where the Ladys would have behav’d them selves in so polite a manner to a stranger.’ By her count there were ‘200 Women’ gathered ‘stark naked’ in the bath, ‘yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest Gesture amongst ’em’. Though some recent commentators have faulted her for refusing to take off her riding habit – to keep her clothes, they imply, was to retain her superior position and the attendant privileges of the ‘gaze’ – her own account calls attention to the refinement of her hostesses, who tactfully decline to notice the stranger’s unfashionable habit of remaining dressed. From the perspective of me Turks, after all, the unwashed Westerner would have been the barbarian.

Whether she is glorifying the bathers’ nakedness or celebrating, as elsewhere, the anonymous liberties of the veil, Lady Mary insists on seeing Turkish women as freer than their Western counterparts, and delights in overturning her predecessors’ gloomy emphasis on harem confinement. Her report on the bath ends in a characteristic reversal, with the Englishwoman ironically representing herself as the prisoner: ‘I was at last forc’d to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfy’d ‘em very well, for I saw they beleiv’d I was so lock’d up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband.’

Though Lady Mary found much to admire in Ottoman culture, from the brevity of women’s lying-in to the comfort of sofas (‘I shall never endure Chairs as long as I live’), the exhilaration of her account arises less from the appeal of any particular custom than from the pleasure of exercising her newfound capacities for cosmopolitan judgment. Significantly, the ‘Embassy Letters’ are not the actual documents received by her correspondents in 1717-18, but a selection transcribed by their author and preserved by her for posterity. On her final journey home to England more than forty years later, she took care to deposit the manuscript with a sympathetic acquaintance on the Continent rather than trust its future to the discretion of her family. Her ambivalence about publication notwithstanding, neither the letters’ posthumous appearance (in 1763) nor their subsequent acclaim by Voltaire and Gibbon was an accident.

Among the Turkish imports Lady Mary helped to make fashionable in Britain, none was more crucial than the practice of inoculating against smallpox. She herself had fallen victim to the disease in the winter before she set out for Turkey; and though she recovered her health, she appears to have sacrificed to its ravages a good measure of the beauty for which she had hitherto been celebrated. (One permanent loss was a pair of ‘very fine eye-lashes’.) In an eclogue on the subject reputedly composed while convalescent, ‘the wretched Flavia’ repudiates both mirror and portrait: ‘For now she shunn’d the Face she sought before.’ Though she had successfully arranged for her son to be inoculated by an experienced nurse in Turkey, it was the public repetition of the experiment on her three-year-old daughter during the 1721 epidemic in England that generated vigorous debate. When inoculation gained the firm support of the Princess of Wales, opposition papers duly lined up against it. As Grundy makes clear, Lady Mary had to combat not only popular fear but the heroic methods of Western physicians, who insisted on introducing large quantities of infected matter into patients already weakened by bleeding and purges. In an essay of 1722 she adopted the guise of a ‘Turkey Merchant’ in order to argue for the superior effectiveness of the simple procedure practised in Constantinople, but her attack on ‘the Knavery and Ignorance of Physicians’ was toned down by the editor; and generations passed before she was vindicated by science.

No science has yet arisen, however, that can isolate the origin of the quarrel with Pope. Though the manifestations of his virulent misogyny are clear enough, the cause of his rage against the woman he had once just as extravagantly flattered remains as elusive as ever. Stories abound, from Horace Walpole’s claim that she returned unlaundered some sheets she had borrowed from the poet, to her family’s belief that Pope had ventured a declaration of love and been met with a fit of laughter, but most of them are no more reliable than Woolf’s mischievous tale of Orlando’s clumsiness with the tea. Though the account of the rejected proposal was said to come from Lady Mary herself, Grundy contends that ‘Pope was far too self-protective to risk such a declaration.’ She may have opened the hostilities by responding flippantly to his sentimental epitaphs on a pair of lovers struck by lightning, or he may have dealt the first blow by cancelling some lines in praise of her in order to compliment another woman.

Pope’s first printed attack – a ballad entitled ‘The Capon’s Tale: To a Lady who father’d her Lampoons upon her Acquaintance’ (1728) – manages both to impugn her chastity and to imply that she has a habit of palming off her literary ‘Chicks’ as someone else’s. Though Grundy can locate no immediate occasion for the second charge, the question of authorship would soon become part of the hostilities, as Lady Mary’s initial appearance in the Dunciad made her name a weapon to be wielded by scribbling armies on both sides, and the embattled Pope came to suspect her of having a hand in every piece that accused him of mistreating her. Despite her firm denials, modern scholarship generally assumes that she did play some part in composing the scurrilous ‘Verses Address’d to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace’ (1733). Pope’s satire had included the notorious couplet whose allusion to the victims of a ‘furious Sappho’ as ‘P—x’d by her Love, or libell’d by her Hate’ turns the usual slander of venereal disease into a cruel pun on Lady Mary’s pro-inoculation activity. The authors of the ‘Verses’ (who definitely included Lord Hervey) responded in kind, closing their diatribe with the image of a deformed Pope wandering the earth like Cain. Someone (as usual the facts are obscure) saw to it that these verses were published – an event that Grundy suggests permanently evicted Lady Mary from the sanctuary accorded a woman of her rank and committed her ‘to a wilderness inhabited by warring tribes of pamphleteers’.

The battle with Pope was not her only paper war of the period. A witty parody of ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ turned the tables on Swift by attributing its misogynist portrait of a Celia who ‘shits’ to the writer’s own fit of impotence:

The Reverend Lover with surprize
Peeps in her Bubbys, and her Eyes,
And kisses both, and trys – and trys.

In Lady Mary’s version of the encounter, the frustrated lover vows revenge – ‘I’ll so describe your dressing room/The very Irish shall not come’ – but the canny whore has the last word: ‘I’m glad you’l write,/You’l furnish paper when I shite.’

More soberly, if still more anonymously, Lady Mary tried her hand at political journalism. Though her paper professed to be of ‘no party whatever’, the Nonsense of Common-Sense clearly took aim at the opposition journal Common Sense. Among its other targets were the oppression of labourers in the woollen trade, the venality of printers, and the high rate of interest – the latter despite the fact that it was not a cause of Walpole’s. Her sixth paper came vigorously to the defence of female ‘Reason’, with a spirited satire on those fools who imagine themselves superior simply by virtue of their being men. Its author was evidently not the same Lady Mary who later claimed to believe ‘Politics and Controversie ... as unbecoming to our Sex as the dress of a Prize Fighter’.

In one of her finest poems, a ballad of the 1720s entitled ‘The Lover’, a female speaker wistfully describes the man who would succeed in melting her apparent coldness. This was the work whose delightful image of amorous domesticity – ‘when the long hours of Public are past/And we meet with Champaign and a Chicken at last’ – would later prompt Byron’s enthusiastic defence of her art: ‘Is not her “Champaigne and Chicken” worth a forest or two? Is it not poetry?’ Though ‘The Lover’ strongly implies that the man it would describe is an impossibility, its author came very near to forgetting what she knew. In her late forties, Lady Mary fell passionately in love with a young Italian intellectual named Francesco Algarotti, a man whose cultivation and charm seem to have strongly appealed to people of both sexes, including her own good friend, Lord Hervey.

Soon she was writing ardently in French to confess her ‘folie’ and to renounce for ever ‘cet Indifference philosophe’ on which she had hitherto prided herself. Algarotti seems genuinely to have liked and admired Lady Mary, but there is no evidence that he returned her love; and he had many other affairs, in both senses, to attend to. (Most notably, perhaps, he was to take up service as a diplomatic envoy for Frederick II of Prussia.) Some three years after their first meeting in London in the spring of 1736, ‘la triste Didon’ followed her ‘petit Ænée’ to the Continent. Though they briefly met in Turin and peaceably renewed their amitié more than a decade later in Padua, there was, needless to say, no champagne and chicken – unless one counts the assorted poultry Lady Mary would later amuse herself by raising at her rural retreat in Northern Italy. She would not return to England until she was dying of breast cancer in 1762.

Yet even as she passionately surrendered to the part of Dido, she could also address the same correspondent as Don Quixote in pursuit of ‘her Dulcinea’. There was always more than one Lady Mary, and more than one accounted for her final two decades of exile on the Continent. Grundy dwells at painful length on her entanglement with another and less savoury Italian: Count Ugolino Palazzi, a criminal aristocrat who seems to have spent ten years simultaneously bullying her with his ‘protection’, cheating her in shady real-estate deals, and otherwise enriching himself with her property. But the signs of newfound vulnerability alternate with ironic detachment from the world she has left behind and renewed pleasure in the perspectives afforded by distance and travel.

If she was once again a tourist, as Grundy notes, she was now also a tourist attraction: ‘I verily beleive,’ Lady Mary wrote from Venice, ‘if one of the Pyramids of Ægypt had travell’d, it could not have been more follow’d.’ Though some of those followers came less to venerate than to gossip and mock – ‘She is a better specific against lust,’ wrote the young Horace Walpole, ‘than all the bawdy prohibitions of the Fathers’ – she still had reason to know, as she said, that ‘the character of a learned Woman is far from being ridiculous in this Country.’ At Avignon, she had only to admire an ancient tower for the town council to vote her its lifetime use as a belvedere; at Gottolengo, it was all she could do to prevent the citizens from setting up a marble statue of her, book in hand, in the town square.

She had left England unhappy with both her children, mysteriously alienated from her daughter (who was now Lady Bute), and despairing of her son. Though time and distance did little for the lying and dissolute Edward (‘I have long wept the misfortune of being Mother to such an Animal’), they served – together, one suspects, with the imaginative needs of the writer – to turn Lady Bute into the beloved recipient of some lively remarks on contemporary fiction and a number of memorable letters on the education of women. It was to this ‘Dear Child’ that the mother addressed her bemused irony when the publication of a partly misattributed poem threatened to renew old scandals: ‘I thank God Witches are out of Fashion, or I should expect to have it depos’d by several credible wittnesses that I had been seen flying through the Air on a broomstick etc.’

Isobel Grundy is an astute and learned guide to this vertiginous history, though the wealth of detail in her account sometimes threatens to overwhelm the voice of her subject: at nearly seven hundred pages, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment is more than twice as long as Robert Halsband’s hitherto definitive Life of 1956. Given the judiciousness with which Grundy weighs conflicting evidence, her habit of italicising every speculative ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ seems unnecessarily defensive. Her notes reveal that she has even resorted to a firm of handwriting experts for another reading of her elusive subject. Having this volume at hand will make it far easier to distinguish what is known from what is necessarily speculation about Lady Mary’s life.