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.
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.
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.
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.