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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 1689-1762

Writer, early `feminist', socialite, introduced smallpox inoculation in England.

Mary Pierrepont, daughter of Duke of Kingston. A bright girl, learned Latin as a child; `before she was eight' elected by acclamation to the Kit-Cat Club; friend of chief advocate of women's rights of the time, Mary Astell; Good friend of Ann Wortley (whose father was the Sidney Montagu who took the name Wortley upon his marriage), through this friendship met Edward Wortley Montagu, they exchanged a long set of letters (which are recorded); Montagu proposed to her father, but was rejected for not promising to provide a fixed establishment in London and other financial details; she was to be married to another when she eloped and married Montagu, 1712; son Edward Wortley Montagu born, 1713; was a favorite of the Princess of Wales and Queen Caroline; became well known to Pope; secretly published `Court Poems', 1716.

In December 1715 smallpox ruined her good looks and left her without eyelashes and with a deeply pitted skin.

Her husband ambassador to Turkey, 1717; Mary and child accompanied him to Constantinople; daughter Mary born, 1718; learned a little Turkish and had her son Edward inoculated against small-pox, 1717;

Obtained a warrant to be her sisters guardian (her sister apparently had mental problems), 1731; the poet and writer Alexander Pope was in love with her and wrote a number of poems dedicated to her, she apparently laughed when he openly declared his love, leading him to hate her and attack her via a number of literary works; she replied in kind (including, for instance, probably writing `Versus addressed to an Imitator of Horace by a Lady', 1733); she had an affair with a Frenchman named Remond, she apparently tried to `buy him off' by making some money for him on inside speculation, but he gave the profits to her, they quarreled and in the end lost all the money, he threatened to blackmail her; she apparently had a number of admirers in literary circles.

Left England for Venice alone (but apparently still on friendly terms with her husband) and never meet her husband again although she wrote him a stream of letters, 1739; from 1736 to 1742 her life was dominated by an infatuation with Francesco Algarotti, an Italian intellectual; met Horace Walpole in Florence, 1740 who noted her `impudence, avarice, and absurdity.'; Lived in Italy and France; husband died in England, 1761; returned to England and died, 1762. These arrangements, with Lady Mary remaining out of England, may have been politically motivated, and conducive to all concerned.

She hoped her granddaughters would get an education but not marry. Her relationship with her son Edward appears to have been dismal (to put it charitably).

Her `Letters' [1] were first published in 1763, and established literary reputation.

She is considered a famous poet [1] [2] . Her dying words are supposed to have been "It has all been most interesting."

Mary's role in introducing innoculation is much more active than often supposed - not in introducing the medical procedure itself, but in changing the nature of the medical community. Sometime I will have to elaborate - for now, a small note from the The Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography:

"The small-pox was a disease which had carried off her only brother, and which had nearly scarred herself for life. The mitigation of it promised by inoculation she introduced into England on her return from Turkey, and after a battle of several years, in which she was opposed by the faculty and the public -- receiving, however the support of the clever princess of Wales, subsequently Queen Caroline -- she triumphed, and thus paved the way for the adoption of Jenner's great discovery." (Universal Biography)

Jenner's discovery was vacination, as opposed to inoculation (vacination was safer).

A number of good, detailed biographies exist of Mary. An excellent on-line biography, containing selections of her work, is Selected Prose and Poetry of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, edited by Richard Bear, University of Oregon. Bear notes that this edition is considered by some modern scholars to have been very poorly edited (much of the early published material of Lady Mary was pirated), but is of historical interest just the same.

A short example of her descriptive writing: Dining with the Sultana.

[Microsoft Encarta Entry] .

"[Lady Mary's father] belonged to the newly formed Kit-Cat Club, a group of fashiononable men devoted to the Whig cause and Hanoverian succession." (Halsband).
Thanks to Carolyn Creed, Assistant Proffessor, Brandon University).

Lady Mary had an acid wit, and a philosophy that went with it:

"The one thing that reconciles me to the fact of being a woman is the reflexion that it delivers me from the necessity of being married to one."

"There is the unforgettable story of her being told at the opera that her hands were dirty, and of her answering: "You should see my feet." (Kronenberger)

Mary was a member of the Hell Fire Club, also known as the Monks of Medmenham.

It appears some of her writting is currently being released "for the first time" almost 250 years after her death! The following appears to be a Clarendon Press publicity announcement released to library sites:

Montague, Mary Wortley. Romance writings. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996.

"Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is one of the most important women writers between Aphra Behn and Jane Austen, and one of her period's most provocative and entertaining writers of either sex. The narratives in this volume, with the exception of one juvenile piece, have never been printed before. They show the author experimenting in the genres of fiction and autobiography, more influenced by French models than by English, but always working experimentally against the grain of her various traditions. Besides page-turning narrative, these works offer the rare opportunity of a completely fresh take on literary movements, cross-cultural relations, gender ideologies, and other literary debates of the early eighteenth century. Our existing picture of what was once possible in literature and what was possible for women at this time cannot remain unchanged once these writings appear."

In Kings and Desperate Men, Louis Kronenberger seems a man with a mission. Although his forward notes that his book makes no claim to scholarship, he then presents us with a history that seems infused with a sense of "come the revolution!"... He airily informs us that `Almost all the aristocrats with brains spent their life misusing them' and that Lady Mary's eccentricity `only arose because she had more sense than the people around her and was bored by them.'

Nonetheless, perhaps even because of his sense of latent hostility, his grudging account of Lady Mary's life is of interest:

"Lady Mary Montagu was the most interesting Englishwoman of her century. Very much of a personage and something of an eccentric, she revealed in both roles... an independent mind. ...

In middle age ... remained away for twenty-two years. She and Montagu had long since ceased to matter to each other; now he could matter to her again, as someone to write letters to... And from the Continent she sent, to her husband and her daughter and friends, a steady stream of correspondence packed with her impressions... She moved about from place to place... she met everybody; she heard, or overheard, everything; she moralized; she satirized; she ridiculed; she devoured all the good books of her day and most of the trash; she held a sort of caravanserai court... At sixty-nine she confessed she had not looked into a mirror for eleven years. ...

She had lived her life in a richly personal way... never bothering to be fussy or correct, and never influenced by public judgment. She was an aristocrat in that she knew what she wanted and went and took it without apologizing; and perhaps she was also one in the narrower sense of distrusting sentimentality and defying ennui and in seeking, if only in her letters, to please. ... She hated bores, and she fled from them. She hated fools, and she quarrelled with them. ...

... she is hard as nails. No mother ever saw through a weak and worthless son more shatteringly than she did hers; or wrote to his father about him with less emotion...

... Her mind alone really interested her as she grew older; her vanity was gone, her sense of propriety was going. She did not care a straw whether she was being named in all sorts of grimy liaisons because men came and went in her house, and sometimes stayed. ... it is hard to conceive of an aging slattern who did not look in her glass for eleven years being very much concerned about lovers...

... Half a dozen others ... wrote as easily of London social life... Yet Lady Mary is far and away the superior of them all. She wrote better, she saw more, she knew more, she had certainly more vivacity and spirit. She cannot be paraphrased because she is inseparable from her letters. ... they are perhaps of all eighteenth-century letters the least given to arid patches; and they are certainly, for their bulk, the most varied. They formed the only book that Dr Johnson in later life read through - simply for pleasure - to the end. ... they are the only way of knowing a woman who, lacking glamour and magnetism and charm, is yet the best platonic female company that eighteenth-century England can provide." (Kronenberger)

Psychological biographies are always somewhat suspect. In the case of Lady Mary, much of her life is intimately documented through her letters. A very well written psychological biography is Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, by Iris Barry, published in 1928 by Hazell, Watson, and Viney. Perhaps these biographies served somewhat the role of the modern romance novel... In any case, Barry writes very well, it appears she has studied Mary's letters in depth, and she provides a feel for the surrounding context. I have left the following selection intact. This selection is a bit longer then I'd like for an extract. However, I suspect this book has been out of print for 70 years. If you like this extract, contact the publisher and ask to buy the book...

Note that Lady Mary seems to have been distantly related to the Montagu's on her father's side. Also note the mention of the introduction of copyright law by Edward Montagu...

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, by Iris Barry. Copyright 1928 by Hazell, Watson, and Viney, Ltd.

"After her tussle with her father Mary grew quieter. It seemed obvious to her now that she would never have her own way unless she learned considerably more finesse. Explosions and appeals had always proved useless. She felt how childish it was to rely on the good nature of other people. Allow them too near a glimpse into one's heart and they immediately took advantage of that innocent exposure.

In the two years that followed she had undertaken a correspondence with Mistress Anne Wortley, and by 1709 the interchange of letters occupied many of her leisure hours. She did not at first understand why she took so private a delight in those letters. She wished immensely to stand well in Mistress Anne's eyes, and Mistress Anne was as anxious to please her. They confessed their own deficiencies and their utter unworthiness of each other's love. In the same breath they scolded each other for neglect, and themselves for exactingness, and swore everlasting attachment, and looked gloomily forward to the inevitable breakdown of their friendship. Mary felt a terrible and uneasy pleasure, as though somehow she was engaged in a daring and dangerous rebellion against her father. And this was absurd, she thought; for there was no reason at all why she should not write to Mistress Anne as often and as intimately as she chose.

She had known the Wortleys for years; their father's house at Wharncliffe was only about thirty miles away from Thoresby. Her father was on excellent terms with his distant kinsman, Lord Halifax, and Lord Halifax was a kinsman of the Wortleys, too. His grandfather had been friendly with their grandfather, Samuel Pepys' friend, the Earl of Sandwich. There was nothing to distinguish the Wortleys at all sharply from the other suitably well-bred families that Mary knew; but somehow she felt that they were all, in a quite unintelligible way, very alien and dark and exciting.

There was the Hon. Sidney Montagu, their father. He seemed to belong to an older, more active, less thoughtful race of beings; a disreputable, rakish old fellow, who treated everyone with the same good-humoured persiflage, and for all the sniffs and frowns of the family had long maintained a mistress in considerable state in a grand house near by where he could visit her. He enjoyed having his brother, the Dean of Durham, to stay with him. He would listen to his exhortations to piety with a seeming deference and draw him out to speak of Revelation and the Principles of Natural Religion. Suddenly he would throw his head back, slap his thighs and burst into coughs and gulps and roars of laughter.

"Why, brother, you've hit the white!", he would cry. "My religion to a hair! I follow the laws of Nature. But what a sly devil you are. Encouraging us sinners in the ways of the flesh."

And the gentle Dean would look mightily offended and turn on him a glance of mild benevolence and shake his head at the chaplain by his side, so that his long white hair wagged and trembled under his black velvet skull-cap.

Sidney Montagu had married a young lady called Anne Newcomen, the passionately loved and illegitimate daughter of Sir Francis Wortley, whose name he adopted when he inherited his rich estates. His children, Anne, Katherine and Edward, were known indifferently as Wortley or Montagu; precise people called them Wortley Montagu. Like Mary's mother, Anne Newcomen had been dead these many years. In the early eighteenth century quite a number of wives failed to survive the first ten years of matrimony.

And Mary had always taken an interest in Anne and Katherine, and some notice of the much older Edward. Their circumstances gave her a curious sense of parallel - a rakish and widowed father, a country estate, an admiration for bookishness and wit. Even before she was very intimate with them, she had a silly feeling that she knew them from some past, transfigured time. And as she knew them better, she could hardly get out of her head the dream that she was a changeling; that instead of her own two sisters and brother she was really of one blood with Anne and Katherine - and that strange, self-contained, serious, powerful and exasperating gentleman, Mr. Edward Wortley Montagu.

Mary was quite at a loss to know what she really thought of Mr. Wortley Montagu. He carried himself with an air of great self-importance; and such a characteristic in anyone else would have moved her to ridicule. But she found it impossible not to be impressed by his gravity and his spontaneous demand that he should be treated with the most careful consideration; almost with awe and submission. His two sisters were his slaves. It never occurred to them to doubt that he was the centre of the universe. They fell in with his moods; they listened to his opinions on politics and literature as though he were the one fountain of truth. His enemies were their enemies. Anne was especially adoring. She brought all her problems and affairs to him for his advice - all of them that she did not think too trivial for his attention. Mary knew that even her own letters were handed over to Edward for his perusal before Anne allowed herself to reply. And this, perhaps, was one reason why Mary's heart fluttered when she sat down to write. She wrote with half and eye on her correspondent's brother: it was for him that she wrote her wittiest, vividest and most artfully natural phrases.

She was not quite sure that she liked him. She admired him. He seemed the most extraordinary and most unconquerable self-willed of all the young men she knew. There was only one talent he lacked, the gift of grace and gaiety. In his presence she was always conscious of a peculiar constriction of her feelings, a haunting air of gloom and tension. She was tempted to become more and more high-spirited and extravagant in the hope that his long, handsome, and rather sulky face would relax into a smile. She wished violently to be prized by him; and even more to be trusted by him; to be let into his intimacy. She was afraid too: afraid that she was being quite even-mindedly and inhumanly weighed and judged, as though by a deity whom no cajolery could soften. Sometimes she said to herself that he was morose from an unappeasable vanity; but afterwards she recognized it as absurd to accuse him of vanity. He respected himself, certainly; but he had every reason to think highly of his accomplishments and to plot ambitiously for his future.

Edward Wortley Montagu had done brilliantly at Cambridge. He was as much talked about as any of the younger members of Parliament, especially since he had introduced a Bill into the House for the encouragement of learning and the securing of the property in books to the rightful owners thereof. People had laughed at the idea of `copyright,' but it had occasioned a great deal of serious discussion. It was still very fashionable to think well of and deal generously by men of letters: even men of fashion were accomplished phrase-makers and poets. Young Wortley Montagu was an intimate friend of the sensitive Addison, had traveled with him abroad, and gloried, too, in the friendship of Steele.

It was said in Nottinghamshire that young Wortley was looking for a bride. Indeed it was to be expected, for he had a fair inheritance, was past thirty, and could expect a well-dowered marriage partner. No one, however, could guess whom he would choose. Notoriously, he did not love women, shunned the society of all but his sisters, sneered openly at the gallants and time-wasters who trotted in fine array from one formal assembly to another to dance attendance on the reigning beauties and their satellites. Then a definite rumour had reached the ears of Mary that Mr. Wortley loved a certain maiden called Corinna. Fashion demanded that he be considered in love with her. The fact was that he had made inquiry, as custom allowed, of the figure that a husband might expect to get with her and apparently had found it interesting. At least Corinna boasted of her conquest.

There was still a good deal of the conscious idealist in Mary. She felt indignant that a prattling, foolish girl like Corinna should boast of Wortley's admiration who loved only learning.

One afternoon, riding over from Thoresby to visit her friend Mrs. Hewet, whose husband was Surveyor of Woods and Forests, Mary had found herself at a card-table with Corinna, and Edward Wortley Montagu keeping the bank for them. He made a polite remark about the new play of his friend Mr. Congreve. He mentioned that when he was last in town he had seen her sister Evelyn watching it from one of the stage boxes. She replied with a simple few-worded opinion of that play, which she had read. She summed it up so truly, she expressed herself so modestly that her phrases gave almost as much pleasure to the audience as to the phrase-maker. Mr Montagu was enchanted, and even more so to find she admired Mr. Congreve's one novel. Lady Mary's heart fluttered with satisfaction. She replied to Mr. Montagu again calmly, thoughtfully, only her eyes shining betrayed her mood. And as she spoke Corinna let her fan fall. Mary checked herself, smiled with courteous sympathy, paused while Mr. Montagu bent to recover the lost toy. Corinna's rich dress rustled, Mr. Montagu bowed, Mary looked politely on till Mr. Montague turned to her again. Corinna in the end was forced to remind him quite sharply that they were waiting for him to tally.

Mary had met the grave, shrewd Mr. Montagu again on other visits at neighboring houses, had bowed to him prettily, half gravely, and then fallen talking. Once or twice she had thought of him, when she heard her father had seen Mr. Addison, Mr. Steele, or Dr. Garth - all his own friends too. This was the world she sighed to share in, the one her father forbade.

Later when visiting Mistress Anne Wortley at Wharncliffe the grave gentleman came in, lingered, drank some tea. How glad she was, now, she had taught herself a little Latin, teased William to teach her more, had read here and there classical writers of whom she could speak. Had she read Quintus Curtius? Alas, no. Mr. Montagu regretted it. After a little pause, during which she knew he was quizzing her, he walked out of the parlour again, though at her departure he came to mount her and her sister Francis on their ponies.

It must have been quite a month or more later that a messenger arrived with a wonderfully bound copy of the Historia Alexandri Magni for Lady Mary. Her father, fortunately, knew nothing of it. Mrs. Norton secretly liked her young ladies to receive gifts, though she scolded. Frances and Mary ran away to a window seat to look at the handsome volume. Inside the cover Mr. Montagu had written a verse:

"Beauty like this had vanquished Persia shown,
The Macedon had laid his empire down,
And polished Greece obeyed a barbarous throne.
Had wit so bright adorned a Grecian dame,
The am'rous youth had lost his thirst of fame,
Nor distant Indus sought through Syria's plain;
But to the Muses' stream with her had run,
And thought her lover more than Ammon's son."

Naturally, for long afterwards Frances, to vex her, always spoke of Mr. Montagu as `the Macedon'. But all the same, in spite of being a little confused about getting the book, and Frances' knowing of it and the laughter, Mary felt a great satisfaction. She had been right after all. She knew that she had parts, she had cultivated them to the best of her power, and almost the first time she had the occasion to try her power on a man of real wit, she had made a conquest. For that was what it undoubtedly was. Mr. Montagu recognized that she was a woman of wit.

It was after that the correspondence with Mistress Anne Wortley began. The time was coming soon to be allowed to consider themselves as women, to go to visit in state, to be seen a great deal in London, to have suitors treating for them in wedlock - in fact, to enter heaven. Nothing could have been more suitable than that Mary and Anne should be friends, confidants. So they corresponded. There were times when the correspondence flagged. Edward was not always at his sister's side, and a little of the colour went out of Mary's letters when there was no chance of their being overseen. Things hung fire a little, too, when the Pierrepoints were in London in the spring. Frances and Mary had made the tedious but gladly borne journey up to Arlington Street soon after Twelfth-night, had been to the Opera, heard Nicolini the new contralto, and seen him perform his famous but rather opera-bouffe business of strangling a lion. Through the lion was a sadly un-leonine man in a skin, the sharp-eyed Mary was amused to see that Nicolini's paucity of attire gave no offense to, but rather interested, ladies who to her knowledge were prudish to a degree and cried out at the things the play-writers put in the mouths of the players. But Mary herself had as much gusto as she had honesty.

She had visited with Mrs. Selwyn, mother of Marlborough's aide-de-camp Sir John, and sister of the Nottinghamshire Mrs. Hewet to whom many of Mary's chattiest letters were written while she was in town. She was learning Italian - a concession wrung from her unwilling father - she was reading all the later books, including Mrs. Manleys New Atlantis, which shot more than a few bolts at celebrated men and women, or more specifically, lovers, of the day.

Books by women always intrigued Mary particularly. She devoured Aphra Behn, and thrilled at the stories about that singular lady's life - as a spy, as a courtesan, as a successful writer, as a famous dramatist. Years ago she had pored over Mrs. Astell's Serious Proposal to the Ladies, and often dreamed of a secluded University for Women where she, Mary, would certainly dazzle all her beautiful and noble fellow students by her brilliance and learning and assiduity.

The desire to win her father's admiration - as, clearly, learning did - had played a great part in making her take to study and neglect her needle and her guitar. She was glad now: for everyone played the guitar, since it had been discovered that is was the Queen's favorite instrument..." (Barry)

If you want to read more, contact the publishing house Hazell, Watson, and Viney, Ltd., London and Aylesbury...

Other Resources:

The Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography

Family Research and History Section Maintained by Bruce R. Montague:
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