Mary Wortley Montagu 1689–1762
(Full name Lady Mary Pierrepont Wortley Montagu; also Montague) English epistler, poet, essayist, and playwright.
Known simply as Lady Mary to her contemporaries, Montagu is appreciated primarily for her witty, candid letters, which span the years 1708 to 1762 and address diverse correspondents and themes. A controversial figure of her time, she perhaps enhanced her reputation with the publication of satirical attacks of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Although much of her verse was written extempore, Montagu used a full range of poetic forms, including Ovidian and Horatian epistles, mock eclogues, ballads, and songs. Isobel Grundy remarked that "[Montagu's] poems demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Augustan tradition within which she wrote," but they are "none the less distinctively her own."
Montagu was the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, the fifth earl and first duke of Kingston. As a child she devised a rigorous academic program for herself, which included writing poetry and learning to speak Latin. In 1712 she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu. By 1715 they were circulating among prominent social and literary circles in London, where she befriended poets John Gay and Alexander Pope. She accompanied her husband when he was named ambassador to Constantinople in 1716; her subsequent correspondence with London friends became the basis for her famous "Turkish Embassy Letters." Montagu returned to London in 1718 and for the next two decades presided over high society, which celebrated her sparkling wit and flamboyant behavior. In 1722 she anonymously published an essay arguing for the practice of smallpox inoculation in England, after observing the procedure performed successfully abroad. Around 1722 she also engaged Pope in a bitter, public quarrel that began for unknown reasons and culminated in her Verses Address'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace (1733), which further incensed Pope. In 1736 she met and fell in love with Francesco Algarotti, a young Italian count. She wrote an anonymous feminist periodical, The Nonsense of Common Sense (1937-1938), before she left her husband and England in 1739. For over twenty years Montagu lived abroad mainly in Italy, and wrote many more letters, mostly to her daughter, Lady Bute. Shortly after Montagu returned to England in 1762, she died of cancer.
As a female aristocrat, Montagu abhorred the notion of writing for print and circulated her poems primarily in manuscript. A few were published during her lifetime, usually without her knowledge. For instance, Montagu, in collaboration with Gay and Pope wrote a series of eclogues which satirizes the manners and immorality of the court of George I; three of them were stolen and published anonymously in 1716 by the notorious Edmund Curll as Court Poems. The original grouping was later issued as Six Town Eclogues. With Some Other Poems (1747). Yet, Montagu may have intended to print her verse attacks on Pope and Swift. Enraged over Pope's repeated lampoons of her in his poems, Montagu wrote Verses Address'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, assisted by another of Pope's foes, Lord Hervey. The Verses is considered the best satire of Pope written at that time, mockingly equating Pope's offensive satire to his hunchbacked body. The Dean's Provocation for Writing the Lady's Dressing-Room (1734) expresses Montagu's disapproval of the "excremental vision" in Swift's poem, "The Lady's Dressing Room" (1732); her poem accuses Swift of being impotent and stingy. Among surviving manuscript poems, several treat the wretched conditions of women enduring miserable marriages, divorces, and attempted rapes, but some are contemplative musings about love, politics, and personal opinions. A hastily edited collection of some of her poems appeared in 1748 to her chagrin, and The Poetical Works of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e was printed posthumously in 1768.
Montagu's literary reputation rests chiefly on her erudite but entertaining correspondence, particularly the "Turkish Embassy Letters," although her contemporaries also "took her verse very seriously," according to Grundy. Such arbiters of literary taste as Pope, Lord Hervey, Horace Walpole, and Voltaire numbered themselves among admirers of her poetry. In the nineteenth century critics generally received Montagu's letters better than her other writings, especially her poetry, which most rejected as unpoetic. Twentieth-century scholarship has scrutinized her canon for feminist impulses and orientalist elements, yet again with slight attention given her verse. Montagu is considered a minor poet, but several critics have described her poetry as competent if not brilliant. Grundy suggested that "today Lady Mary's poems need no apology," adding that the range of her poetic forms is "remarkable." As Carol Barash recently noted, "Montagu remains the one eighteenth-century woman poet of whom there is both a standard edition and a critical biography."