Monday, November 30, 2015

Istanbul, Scandal and Smallpox

by Catherine Curzon

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas
By Charles Jervas
I cannot remember how or where I first heard of the remarkable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, but she is a lady with whom I have long been fascinated. Her life was one of adventure and learning and seems, in so many ways, to personify all that is great about the 18th century. She embraced scandal, achieved great things and left behind a lasting legacy of literature, a true woman of her age.

Mary was born in 1689 as Lady Mary Pierrepont to Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull, and his wife, Lady Mary Fielding. Christened at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden, Mary's mother died when her daughter was just three years old and the little girl, along with a trio of siblings, was sent to live with her paternal grandmother. Upon his death six years later, they were once again living with their father, the Earl, who proved a dedicated and loving father. He took particular delight in the company of young Mary, who had matured into a girl of beauty and good humour, impressing all who knew her with her keen wit and intelligence. When her father took her along to the iconic Kit-Cat Club she took her first tentative steps into salon society and dazzled the assembled patrons. Soon she was a regular fixture of the club, proving more than a match for her more seasoned fellows.

Lady Mary, however, had more on her mind than society and she whiled away long and happy hours in the library at her Thoresby Hall home, dedicating herself to education and working tirelessly on her writing. In fact, by the time she reached adolescence Lady Mary had already penned numerous poems and completed her first novel, quite a feat for one who had regular engagements at the Kit-Cat Club! 

Portrait of Edward Wortley Montagu by John Vanderbank, 1730
Edward Wortley Montagu, John Vanderbank, 1730
Lord Pierrepont recognised that his daughter had value as a society bride and earmarked the wonderfully-named Viscount Massereene, Clotworthy Skeffington as a match. Mary favoured Whig politician, Edward Wortley Montagu, but her father would not hear of it when the alternative candidate was so illustrious and though Mary and Edward corresponded regularly and were exceptionally close, the marriage appeared a hopeless case. 

Mary, however, was not one to be told what to do and rather than marry Clotworthy, she eloped with Edward, marrying him on 23rd August 1712. As Edward's career blossomed  Mary found herself popular once more among the chattering classes, earning illustrious admirers including George I himself, his admiration placing her in the very heart of court. She also gained adoring admirers in the iconic Alexander Pope and his waspish rival, Baron Hervey, a favourite of the queen and sometime best friend, sometime sworn enemy of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

The friendship between Pope and Mary would later collapse in spectacular fashion when she wrote an arch and merciless of parody of one of his works though society gossips whispered that he had declared his love to the lady and she laughed in his face, breaking his heart. Whatever the reason, the writer's love turned to loathing and he turned his most poisonous pen on the woman he had adored, writing vicious and thinly-veiled attacks on Mary and her peers.

Still, Mary was in her element in these exciting, fast-moving surroundings yet when she wrote and published her highly satirical Court Eclogues, she found the society that had adored her suddenly anything but welcoming. Laid low with smallpox in 1715, Mary's fellow courtiers discovered a poem she had written that mocked the Princess of Wales and, unable to return to court and engage in some damage limitation, she was ostracised. When she was well enough to emerge from isolation she left England to accompany her husband to Turkey, where he was to assume the office of Ambassador at Constantinople. It was a rueful departure but a perfectly-timed one, and Mary found herself thrust into a new world, one where she would thrive.

The newly-arrived noblewoman did not shrink from these utterly alien new surroundings but instead plunged headlong into her adopted culture. She wrote prolific letters and journals in which she chronicled life in Istanbul, the people she met, their cultures and the traditions that had excited for centuries. Watching the Ottoman women she discoursed on how free they seemed compared to the restrictions placed on their western counterparts, lamenting on the limitations of dress, ambition and behaviour that so confined her gender. Her writings were published as Letters from Turkey, a hugely influential collection that remain an invaluable record of Turkish art, as well as an inspiration to cultural writers. 

Photograph of the Obelisk at Wentworth Castle
The Obelisk
In addition, Mary memorialised the women she knew in poetry and letters and was at pains not to impress her own ways on this new world, but to respectfully become a part of it. She sought neither publicity nor publication for the majority of the work and instead distributed it to her closest friends, leading William Wentworth, 2nd Earl of Strafford,  to erect an obelisk at Wentworth Castle to celebrate her intellectual achievements.

One particular aspect of life in Turkey that fascinated Mary was the treatment of smallpox, the infection that had so blighted her own life. She was fascinated to learn of the Ottoman Empire's successful experiments with inoculation (known as variolation) and when she returned to England, it was with a passion for this virtually unknown procedure. Mary had her own child inoculated using Turkish method and when George I saw the success of variolation, he permitted members of his own family to undergo the procedure under the care of Charles Maitland, Lady Mary's doctor.

After her adventures in Turkey, English life seemed altogether too staid for Mary and she entertained herself by entering into a romantic correspondence with a French admirer known as Rémond. Far from a knight in shining armour, Rémond proved to be a thoroughly bad sort and first convinced Mary to invest a small fortune in South Sea stock, which she lost; he then came to her for money, threatening to blackmail her with the adoring letters that she had sent him. Mary had no choice but to reveal the truth to her husband and in 1739 she travelled to the continent alone. Although husband and wife did remain on friendly terms, they were eventually divorced. 

Mary engaged in new love affairs but as her health began to fail, her life entered a period of decline and by the age of sixty, she was shadow of herself. Disfigured by smallpox and plagued with ill health, she lived in virtual poverty, only returning to English shores to silence the repeated pleas of her daughter. Their reunion was to be short lived and Mary died that same year.

Portrait of Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756
Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756

Mary remains a literary force to be reckoned with thanks to her perceptive letters from Turkey; although her days ended sadly, these letters and writings reveal a life well lived and a woman of wit, intelligence and conscience who pushed the boundaries of her time.


Halsband, Robert. The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956. 
Halsband, Robert (ed.). The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-67: 
Grundy, Isobel. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment. Oxford University Press,  2001. 


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

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