Article abstract: A writer, Montagu is best remembered for her epistolary literature—the letter as literature—and for her bold campaign to introduce the practice of smallpox inoculation into Europe.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was born in London, the eldest daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, the fifth earl and first duke of Kingston, and Lady Mary Fielding (a cousin of the novelist Henry Fielding), who died when her daughter was about four years old. From childhood, young Mary Pierrepont exhibited high intelligence and a strong will. Primarily self-educated, as a young teen she taught herself Latin in her father’s library and wrote poetry under male and female pseudonyms, both practices strongly forbidden a proper young lady of her day. Her childhood included the attentions of such literary personages as Joseph Addison, Sir Richard Steele, and William Congreve. In 1712, she rejected a marriage arranged by her father, eloping instead with Edward Wortley Montagu, a Whig member of Parliament, after a two-year secret correspondence. They had two children, a son and a daughter who was to become Lady Bute, the wife of John Stuart, prime minister under George III. While her husband remained at court, Lady Mary wrote letters and poetry and cultivated friendships with such literary luminaries as Alexander Pope and John Gay. During this period, in 1715, she survived the dreaded smallpox; her face, however, was permanently disfigured and scarred. This experience influenced her decision later in life to take action to help eradicate the disease.
After the Whigs came to power in 1714, Montagu’s husband was appointed British ambassador to Turkey. In 1716, Lady Mary journeyed across Europe with his embassy to Constantinople (now Istanbul), where she took up residence for two years. Her experiences during this formidable journey included learning the Turkish language and customs, giving birth to a daughter, observing the practice of inoculation against smallpox, and—something absolutely forbidden male travelers—visiting a Turkish harem.
Montagu’s earlier literary efforts included a set of six satirical “Town Eclogues” (1716) written in the style of the Roman poet Vergil, but it was the series of letters she wrote to friends and family during her Turkish adventure that established her literary reputation. They provided the primary source material for the fifty-two immensely popular Turkish Embassy Letters, written upon her return to England in 1718. The Letters, however, were not published until 1763, the year after her death. Mary Astell, a friend and popular feminist writer of the time, wrote the preface, and subsequent volumes featured Montagu’s poetry.
Dressed in the Turkish fashion, completely covered from head to foot, Lady Mary explored Constantinople’s markets, streets and baths to see first hand everyday life in the eighteenth century Turkish Empire. Instead of feeling restrained by Turkish dress, Montagu found that it invoked feelings of freedom because women could in effect experience more privacy and walk around with “entire liberty . . . without danger of discovery.” Montagu’s letters echo dissatisfaction at the constrained social role eighteenth century upper-class British women were expected to play: “Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the empire,” she wrote in a letter to a female friend. The Turkish Embassy Letters provide a playful, tongue-in-cheek account of her experiences, but on another level they were written to counteract much of the travel writing of contemporary men, many of whom tended to denigrate and exaggerate the differences between people. Lady Mary, herself in Turkish costume, tended to admire and identify with others and encourage tolerance.
Montagu also returned from Turkey deeply motivated to spread the concept of inoculation, the now-obsolete method of immunizing patients against smallpox by infecting them with a small amount of the virus. In one of the Turkish Embassy Letters written in 1717 to friend Sarah Chiswell, Montagu writes: “I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England.” She describes in the same letter how smallpox was in Turkey “entirely harmless” because of the process of ingrafting, the...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)