Study Guide

Mary Wortley Montagu

Mary Wortley Montagu Essay - Critical Essays

Montagu, Mary Wortley (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Introduction

Mary Wortley Montagu 1689-1762

(Born Mary Pierrepont) English epistler, poet, essayist, translator, and dramatist.

The following entry provides recent criticism on Montagu. For earlier evaluations of her works, see LC, Volume 9.

Montagu is celebrated as a consummate writer of intelligent, witty, and frequently scandalous letters. Spanning the years 1708 to 1762, Montagu's correspondence is addressed to a wide variety of recipients and is considered remarkable for its versatility and range. By turns gossipy, philosophical, descriptive, eccentric, affectionate, worldly, thoughtful, and sarcastic, the letters share one common attribute: the forceful imprint of their author's personality.

Biographical Information

Born in London to an aristocratic family, Mary Pierrepont (Lady Mary after her father became the earl of Kingston in 1690) as a child devised for herself a rigorous academic program, which included writing poetry and teaching herself Latin. While she was still in her teens the brilliant and beautiful Lady Mary captured the attention of Edward Wortley Montagu (usually referred to simply as Wortley), a politician eleven years her senior. Wortley asked Lady Mary's father for her hand, but the men could not agree on the financial conditions of the proposed marriage, and Wortley and Lady Mary eloped in 1712. Montagu spent the first few years of her marriage alone in the country while Wortley attended to business in London. Her letters from this period reflect her dissatisfaction with the arrangement and her husband's seeming indifference to her.

In 1715 Montagu joined Wortley in the capital, where his political career was flourishing. She moved with ease in prominent social and literary circles, counting among her many friends and admirers Alexander Pope. The following year, Wortley having been appointed ambassador to Turkey, Montagu went with him and their young son to Constantinople. There, displaying her customary curiosity and enthusiasm, Montagu studied Turkish life and language and wrote a number of letters detailing her observations and experiences to friends and acquaintances back in England. These later formed the basis of her famous Turkish Embassy Letters. Her visit to Turkey is important from a medical as well as a literary standpoint: noting the success of the Turkish practice of smallpox inoculation, Montagu (who had herself suffered from the disease in 1715) had the procedure performed on her son and, later, her daughter. Through this example and her anonymously published essay “A Plain Account of the Inoculating of the Small Pox by a Turkey Merchant,” she was instrumental in convincing her countrymen of the practical merits of the procedure.

Montagu returned to London in 1718 and for the next two decades presided over high society, which celebrated her sparkling wit and flamboyant behavior. Beginning sometime around 1728 she and Pope engaged in a bitter public quarrel that started for unknown reasons. Pope lampooned Montagu in The Dunciad and elsewhere, and she retaliated with Verses Address'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace. Between December 16, 1737 and February 21, 1738, Montagu anonymously wrote and published nine issues of the periodical The Nonsense of Common-Sense, offering articles of various sorts, including economic analysis, social commentary, and fiction. Having met and fallen in love with Francesco Algarotti, a young Italian count in 1736, Montagu left her husband, her children, and her country in 1738 to live with Algarotti in Italy; the count, however, apparently had a change of heart and failed to meet her in Venice. Nevertheless, for over twenty years Montagu remained abroad, mainly in Italy. She returned to England shortly before her death of cancer in 1762.

Major Works

As a female aristocrat, Montagu abhorred the notion of writing for print, and circulated her works primarily in manuscript. A few were published in her lifetime, however, usually without her consent. For instance, in collaboration with Pope and poet John Gay she wrote Six Town Eclogues, clever and defamatory satires of well-known society personalities. Montagu had no intention of publishing the work, but in 1716 three of the eclogues were pirated, with coy hints of their authorship, as Court Poems. The original grouping was later issued in Six Town Eclogues. With Some Other Poems. Aside from the anonymously published pieces in The Nonsense of Common-Sense, the only works Montagu intended for publication were Turkish Embassy Letters. The fifty-two letters in the collection are thought to be based in part on Montagu's real correspondence and in part on a journal she kept during her journey to and residence in Turkey. So great were their popularity when they were first issued the year after her death that successive editions were augmented with Montagu's other, private, correspondence as it became available. Among the series of letters unearthed and published by nineteenth-century editors were her letters to Wortley; to her sister, Frances; to Lady Mar; and to her daughter, Lady Bute. However, Montagu's complete correspondence was not available until Robert Halsband's definitive edition of 1965-67.

Critical Reception

Despite the letters' history of piecemeal publication, the critical reception of Montagu's correspondence has remained remarkably stable and consistently approving throughout the years. As a result of the personal nature of her work, critics have commonly focused as much on Montagu's character as on her writing, describing the woman as well as the letters as intelligent, high-spirited, and somewhat hard-hearted. Not surprisingly, since they were revised and possibly augmented by Montagu, the Turkish Embassy Letters are generally considered her most accomplished. Since their first publication, the letters have been highly praised for both their style and their substance: witty, polished, and entertaining, they are also valued for Montagu's informative, accurate observations of Turkish life as well as her penetrating and remarkably unprejudiced insights into Middle Eastern culture.

At times Montagu has been found wanting in kindness, particularly in her social-gossip letters to Lady Mar, which have occasionally come under fire for their sarcasm and evident delight in scandal and slander. Still, this does not detract from the letters' entertainment value; indeed, it may enhance it. Critics have observed that while Montagu's letters are always unaffected and candid, they rarely exhibit deeply felt personal emotion—the notable exception being the series of emotionally abandoned letters to Algarotti. Overall, Montagu's letters are noted for conveying poise and self-possession, clearly having been written to interest and amuse, but retaining nonetheless naturalness and spontaneity. Above all, Montagu and her letters are celebrated for intelligence and wit, qualities that provide unity to her diverse epistolary subjects and styles.

Principal Works

Court Poems [with Alexander Pope and John Gay] (poetry) 1716

The Genuine Copy of a Letter Written from Constantinople by an English Lady … to a Venetian Nobleman (verse letter) 1719

“A Plain Account of the Inoculating of the Small Pox by a Turkey Merchant” (essay) 1722; published in the newspaper The Flying-Post; or, Post-Master

Verses Address'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace [possibly with John, Lord Hervey] (poetry) 1733

The Dean's Provocation for Writing the Lady's Dressing Room (poetry) 1734

The Nonsense of Common-Sense. 9 issues. (periodical...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Criticism

Cynthia Lowenthal (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Veil of Romance: Lady Mary's Embassy Letters,” in Eighteenth Century Life, n.s. Vol. 14, No. 1, February 1990, pp. 66-82.

[In the following essay, Lowenthal argues that in the Turkish Embassy Letters Montagu romanticizes and aestheticizes Turkish women. “Such strategies,” the critic observes, “while appreciating Turkish women in ways previous travelers had not, also allow [Montagu] to gloss over and even to erase the genuine pain experienced by some women in Turkey.”]

In August 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu embarked on an extraordinary odyssey. With her infant son in tow, she accompanied her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, newly...

(The entire section is 9004 words.)

Joseph W. Lew (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Lady Mary's Portable Seraglio,” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 432-50.

[In the essay below, Lew maintains that Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters are “powerful critiques of both Ottoman and British culture” and anticipate by over two centuries the work of modern feminists.]

In 1717, the Whigs sent Edward Wortley to Holland, the petty states of Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. His mission foreshadowed the goals of English foreign policy in the Levant until World War I: he was to negotiate peace between Austria and a declining Ottoman Empire and to protect British naval and commercial...

(The entire section is 7198 words.)

Lisa Lowe (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Travel Narratives and Orientalism: Montagu and Montesquieu,” in Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 30-74.

[In the following excerpt, Lowe compares the Turkish Embassy Letters to the “tradition of letters about traveling in Turkey,” and asserts that “Montagu distinctly sets herself apart from that tradition by criticizing the representations of women, marriage, sexuality, and customs” in the travel accounts of her male predecessors.]

Eighteenth-century portraits of the oriental world as an exotic, uncivilized counterpart of Europe were crucial enunciations of the discourses that produced...

(The entire section is 7891 words.)

Isobel Grundy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘Trash, Trumpery, and Idle Time’: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Fiction,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 4, July 1993, pp. 293-310.

[In the following essay, Grundy examines Montagu's commentary on fiction—especially the new genre of the novel—throughout her poems, letters, essays, and other writings.]

Several different studies might be written under my subtitle. A full evaluation of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as fiction-writer must await examination of her unpublished, unread romance writings. Another approach would involve enumeration and evaluation of the books she owned.1 In neither of these studies would the novel occupy...

(The entire section is 7224 words.)

Anita Desai (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Introduction to Turkish Embassy Letters, by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, edited by Malcolm Jack, The University of Georgia Press, 1993, pp. vii-xxxvii.

[In this essay, Desai surveys the biographical background to the writing of the Turkish Embassy Letters,the circumstances of their publication, and the reception they received.]

At a gathering, in 1697, of eminent Whigs with literary and political ambitions at the Kit-Kat Club, Lord Kingston nominated his daughter Mary as their toast for the year. When the others objected that they had never set eyes on the candidate, he had her finely dressed and brought to the tavern. She had her health drunk by all...

(The entire section is 10974 words.)

Elizabeth A. Bohls (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Aesthetics and Orientalism in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Letters,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 23, 1994, pp. 179-205.

[In the essay below, Bohls declares that the Turkish Embassy Letters“are perhaps most valuable for their apparent aspiration, however partial and intermittent, to actual cultural exchange—a condition of intersubjectivity whose necessary precondition is an acceptance of the ‘other’ as an intelligent, sensitive, acting self.”]

As a woman traveller, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was uniquely privileged. When she went to Turkey in 1716 as the wife of the British Ambassador, she was assured access to the upper...

(The entire section is 10089 words.)

Jill Campbell (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Historical Machinery of Female Identity,” in History, Gender & Eighteenth-Century Literature, edited by Beth Fowkes Tobin, The University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 64-85.

[In this essay, Campbell asserts that in the Turkish Embassy Letters Montagu “attempts to use her experience of cultural disjunctions to construct a voice that can speak of sexual desire and of aesthetic pleasure.”]

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is known first to students of the eighteenth century not as the authorial voice heard in her many poems, essays, three volumes of letters, and a play; but as the satiric spectacle conjured in Pope's...

(The entire section is 8773 words.)

Isobel Grundy (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's ‘Italian Memoir’,” in The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual, Vol. 6, 1994, pp. 321-46.

[In the essay below, Grundy contends that Montagu's unpublished Italian Memoir is “neither an inadequate fragment of autobiography nor a self-deluded venture into the role of romantic heroine, but an approach to issues of gender roles and gender tyranny, of silencing and disempowerment.”]

As is well known, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lived for ten years in the then remote lake country of Northern Italy. During this time, 1746-1756, she saw almost no English people, though she read a large number of English books. She sent her...

(The entire section is 8590 words.)

Devoney Looser (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Scolding Lady Mary Wortley Montagu? The Problematics of Sisterhood in Feminist Criticism,” in Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds: Feminism and the Problem of Sisterhood, edited by Susan Ostrov Weisser and Jennifer Fleischner, New York University Press, 1994, pp. 44-61.

[In the essay below, Looser evaluates Montagu's reputation as a progressive and a proto-feminist.]

As with many women writers “found” by second-wave feminisms, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has been held up as an exemplary model of womanhood. Montagu is frequently taught alongside her eighteenth-century British “sisters,” Aphra Behn, Mary Astell, and Mary Wollstonecraft, all of whom...

(The entire section is 6584 words.)

Cynthia Lowenthal (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The ‘Spectatress’: Satire and the Aristocrats,” in Lady Mary Wortley Montague and the Eighteenth-Century Familiar Letter, The University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 114-52.

[In this essay, Lowenthal argues that in her letters concerning the English social elite Montagu “attempts to work through [the] competing demands of class and gender … and to emphasize the impossibility of separating private from public behavior.”]

Upon her return to England, and without the “enlivening sun” of Constantinople, Lady Mary supplies her own brilliance in a series of satiric letters composed primarily during the 1720s and 1730s and sent to her sister and other...

(The entire section is 16586 words.)

Joseph Epstein (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Wise, Foolish, Enchanting Lady Mary,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 13, No. 5, January 1995, pp. 8-17.

[In the essay below, Epstein offers a survey of Montagu's life and career.]

Once, and but once, his heedless youth was bit,
And liked that dangerous thing, a female wit.

—Alexander Pope

“A passionate man,” said Stendhal, “is seldom witty.” Building on that aphorism, one might go on to say that a witty man is rarely handsome. A beautiful woman who, along with being witty, is also commonsensical is rarest of all. They do, however, turn up, perhaps every century or two. Such a woman was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She...

(The entire section is 6586 words.)

Srinivas Aravamudan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization,” in ELH, Vol. 62, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 69-104.

[In the essay below, Aravamudan examines the implications of the “levantinization” or “transformation of identity that occurs when an individual from one culture is psychically and physiologically absorbed into another” that Montagu demonstrates in the Turkish Embassy Letters.]

Forth rush the Levant and the Ponent Windes.

—Milton, Paradise Lost (10.704)

Based on a journey to the Ottoman Empire undertaken during the years 1716-18, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's travel...

(The entire section is 15468 words.)

Sandra Sherman (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Instructing the ‘Empire of Beauty’: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Politics of Female Rationality,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 60, No. 4, November 1995, pp. 1-26.

[In the following essay, Sherman investigates the apparent anti-feminism of such works by Montagu as “A Satyr.” According to the critic, Montagu's harsh rebukes of female behavior are meant to reform women and are consonant with her view “that women can be rational, and belong in a public sphere defined by rational debate.”]

In her annotation of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's “A Satyr,” Isobel Grundy remarks that “As an attack on women, it stands out oddly among her works”...

(The entire section is 9889 words.)

Elizabeth Snyder (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Female Heroism and Legal Discourse in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's ‘Epistle from Mrs. Y[onge] to Her Husband’,” in ELH, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, June 1997, pp. 10-22.

[In this essay, Snyder maintains that in “Epistle from Mrs. Y[onge] to Her Husband” Montagu defines an “alternative heroine” by “subtly manipulating the meanings of various forms of the legal term ‘submission’ until they characterize a speaker who possesses a powerful and authoritative, and thus traditionally masculine, capacity for judgment.”]

In the January 24, 1738 edition of her political journal The Nonsense of Common-Sense, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu insists that...

(The entire section is 4544 words.)

Donna Landry (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Alexander Pope, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the Literature of Social Comment,” in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1650-1740, edited by Steven N. Zwicker, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 307-29.

[In the following essay, Landry compares the careers of Montagu and Alexander Pope. Despite the differences between the two writers, the critic observes, “their lives and writings tell us much about the forging of a national and imperial identity that would become disseminated around the globe.”]

Alexander Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu were both born in the year of the Glorious Revolution, 1688-89. Divided by family circumstance and...

(The entire section is 9425 words.)