(1689-1762) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the daughter of the first duke of Kingston, born in London as Lady Mary Pierrepoint. Her father, although a youngest son, would inherit his grandfather's fortune and the Evelyn estates. He obeyed his parents, taking part in an arranged marriage to Lady Mary Fielding; the couple had three daughters, Mary the eldest. She enjoyed an excellent education, although she had to seek it for herself, as her father took an active part in the court of King George I. As a young woman Lady Mary wrote essays and poetry, which she boldly passed about to members of her circle as a lark; she had no desire to become a professional writer. She also showed her independent spirit early in rejecting her father's selection of a husband. Instead she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712, infuriating her father, but she enjoyed life as the wife of a member of parliament (M.P.). While untitled, Montagu would become one of the wealthiest men in England.
The couple became friends with various writers, their literary circle including Mary Astell, Alexander Pope, and Joseph Addison, although Montagu would become Pope's enemy years later. When Lord Montagu became an ambassador to Constantinople in 1716, Lady Mary willingly joined him to live abroad for two years, her letters about their experiences gaining her fame when they were published in 1724. She became the first English woman to write of experiences in a non-Christian, nonwhite country. Her biographer Iso-bel Grundy notes Montagu's interest in the "melting pot" surroundings, writing of her family, "They had Arab grooms, Russian housemaids, French, English, and German footmen, miscellaneous Greek servants, and an Italian steward." More adventurous than many of her female friends, she visited Constantinople, delighting in its landscape.
one letter reveals Montagu's logical approach to life as she advises her friend Phillipa, who wonders whether to marry an unattractive man for wealth or a handsome man for love. She writes, "Believe from my experience there is no state so happy as with a man you like," encouraging Phillipa that she could learn to love a man, regardless of his physical form, if he could make her secure. Should Phillipa sacrifice security for love, Montagu asks, "The cares, the self denial, and the novelty that you will find in that manner of living, will it never be uneasy to you?" She continues, asking, "When time and cares have changed you to a downright housekeeper, will you not try," a question she completes with a stanza of poetry that asks whether Philippa will not return to her "father's hospitable gate." Montagu concludes by sensibly telling her friend to use her best judgment: "If you would avoid Mr. C. only because he is not well made, don't avoid him; if you would marry another only because you like him, don't marry him."
While in Turkey Lady Montagu learned of the scratch method designed to inoculate humans against smallpox. Having suffered deep scars from her own encounter with that disease, she had her children inoculated against it and publicized the method upon her return to England, although English physicians did not support it. In 1723 whatever disagreement she had with Pope caused him to include an unflattering representation of Montagu in print, a technique in which she also indulged. Facts have never revealed the source of their problems, although modern critics believe they were based on gender expectations. Pope's letters objectify Montagu as mere flesh, in the 18th-century way, while Montagu constructs herself as a reader and a writer. Despite their falling out, Pope was said to have had her portrait in his room at his death.
Lady Mary's interaction with other contemporary writers also proved interesting. While best known as a playwright, John Gay wrote the first English "town eclogue," "Araminata" (1713). The eclogue represented a mix of pastoral and burlesque with a bit of classicism. He published five eclogues, one of which bore a great resemblance to an eclogue by Montagu, published in her Town Eclogues (1716). Both eclogues were titled "The Toilette" and shared other characteristics, suggesting the two poets not only knew one another's work but might also have collaborated. Montagu's six eclogues appeared first as a group in 1747, but she had composed them between 1715 and 1716. Her "The Toilette" she calls her "Friday poem," as her group is arranged like the days of the week and includes her often anthologized "Satturday: The Small Pox." Gay's Shepherd's Week with a similar arrangement had appeared in 1714. Critics continue to wonder over the exact relationship between the two poems and their writers. The two works differ in length, Gay's poem 106 lines and Montagu's 78. Both provide the lament of a 35-year-old woman named Lydia, rejected by her lover, Damon, for his younger wife, Cloe. Some critics have judged Montagu's poem wittier, providing clever paradox in her vigorous approach. Gay's version has been described as too gentle. Both attempt to provide a satiric picture of marriage, juxtaposing country virtue with urban vice.
Additional familiar poems by Montagu include "Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband" and "Epitaph," contained in her Court Poems by a Lady of Quality (1716). In 1737 she launched a periodical in favor of Sir Robert Walpole titled The Nonsense of Common Sense, which included a feminist essay that critics believed was inspired by her friend Mary Astell. Her relationship with Lord Montagu turned sour, and she fell in love with a bisexual Italian count named Francesco Algarotti. Montagu had always believed that Italians respected women, while the English held them in contempt. Although she had never believed that women should usurp the power of men, she did believe they should receive an education and not be penalized for their intelligence. As Grundy notes, she had written of women in a letter, "We are educated in the grossest ignorance, and no art omitted to stiffle [sic] our natural reason; if some few get above their Nurses' instructions, our knowledge must rest conceal'd and be as useless to the World as Gold in the Mine." Her work became exposed through publication in Dodsley's Collection and the London Magazine, although Montagu claimed little interest in publication. She also claimed pieces she had not written had appeared under her name, while some of those she had written appeared under the names of others.
Montagu's husband agreed to divorce her if she would leave England. She complied, although she found painful the separation from her daughter, Lady Bute, and the grandchildren she would not meet for years. Novels such as one by John Cleland, author of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill, featured a false portrayal of Montagu. Titling his novel Memoirs of a Coxcomb, Cleland featured as hero Lady Bell Tavers, a corrupt woman of fashion clearly modeled on Montagu.
Despite the separation from her family and public vilification, Montagu made a successful independent life for herself for more than 20 years, a unique situation for a woman of her era. Letters written in order to preserve her relationship with Lady Bute and her family during her long absence prove an important part of Montagu's literary legacy. In 1741 the scholar Joseph Spence interviewed her in Rome with interest in her relationship with Pope. She described Pope's style, which at one time she had greatly admired, as only "a knack," just "all tune and no meaning," an approach that he himself had criticized in others. Spence claimed to have seen more than 50 letters written from Pope to Montagu, all of which were later lost. She lived in France and Italy after 1738, not returning home until 1762, the year after her husband's death. Montagu died shortly after returning to England while living with her daughter.
While Montagu seemed to live a charmed life in many ways, she expressed displeasure over feeling trapped in a man's world. As Grundy writes, "Most of the potential benefits of her rank came with a 'Men Only' label." That included the wealth with which she was always surrounded but that she never controlled. She lived as an intellectual woman in an era when rationality proved the rage, yet was anathema to the female blessed with it. The emotional sensitivity thought proper for a young woman that Montagu also possessed was used against her, an ironic punishment for compliance with her era's demands. She succeeded, however, in her struggle against the male dominance that threatened to suppress her intellectual expression. Her publications in the 20th century fill multiple volumes, including Complete Letters, 1965-7; Essays and Poems, 1977, 1993; and Romance Writings, 1996. Montagu interested later critics both as a writer and as a personality. They continue to search for unpublished pieces, which she mentioned and to produce scholarship based on Montagu's fascinating life and works.
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