18th century, Arts

Mary Montagu

By Ella Harris

Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762), court beauty, wife of the British Ambassador to Istanbul and prolific letter-writer, was the first major female travel writer of her time. She was a correspondent with Alexander Pope, knew and was disliked by Horace Walpole, and introduced the Turkish, then Ottoman, method of inoculation to Britain. Often seen as strange by those around her, it seems she did little to dispel such feelings; in 1739 she left her husband, whom she had journeyed from London to Istanbul to live with during his Ambassadorship, to go travelling. They never saw each other again.  Trying to determine what makes an original mind is a fruitless game; we know that she was close friends with Mary Astell, a writer whose work advocating education for girls saw her called the ‘first English feminist’, and that her family home at Thoresby Hall had a fine private library. But her letters display such a startlingly modern conception of culture and cultural interaction that it seems impossible to attribute her mind’s working to any one group of external factors. Lady Mary died in London, having been begged by her children to return from her travels in Italy and France, having hinted her own writings that she may have been suffering from mental illness.

While Lady Mary makes various appearances in Pope’s work, and is suspected of having written some poetry herself, the most enduring record of her thought comes from the letters she wrote on her journey to Istanbul in 1717, a correspondence she continued while living in that city. Her letters chart her voyage across the eastern world; usually treated by travel writers as a fantastical land full of strange delights and alien customs. Indeed so much so that Ros Ballaster argues ‘consumption of ‘the East’ came in the eighteenth century to be almost coterminous with the consumption of fabulous narrative’1. Lady Montagu however takes pains to inform us that she has not ‘made use of the privilege of a traveller; and my whole account is writ with the same plain sincerity of heart, with which I assure you that I am, dear madam, your ladyship’s.’   Lady Mary writes home to Mrs Sarah Chiswell about the invention of ‘ingrafting’ which she witnesses in Adrianople, an early example of vaccinations against small pox.  Lady Montagu, who of course contracted the disease herself, recognised the vast potential of this process of inoculation and is so satisfied with ‘the safety of the experiment’ that she intends ‘to try it on my dear little son.’

This example shows almost more than any other the degree to which Lady Montagu treats the foreign world she encounters with a degree of legitimacy and veracity not normally awarded to it, trusting its logic enough to take from it a scientific, medically useful fact (of inoculation). Her attitude towards the customs of alien lands and her willingness to transfer practices across cultures exemplifies Lady Montagu’s conviction that life at home and life away are structurally the same, that all cultures can be reconciled into the same system of thought.   This is in direct contrast to some male travel writers of the time; Defoe, writing about his journey around the British Isles, is quick to point out fundamental differences between different regional types. Henry Neville’s piece of imaginative travel writing, The Isle of Pines in which four English voyagers find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island and through necessity re-create a moral site which values promiscuity and licence. For Neville, that his work is framed by the motif of travel allows him to explore ideas which even in a novel, if set in England, would be seen as highly taboo. Moral systems seem to be pinned down to physical locations; conventions cannot be redefined from within. In short, it is not the fictitiousness that allows this freedom, but the foreignness. Morality, like the physical infrastructure of a country, is man made and so a deserted island is virgin territory not only politically but also morally.

Unlike Neville, Lady Montagu does not buy into this moral relativity. Just as she is willing to take medical practices she is also enthusiastic to adopt moral or social constructs which she perceives as better than those of England. She writes of the Turkish practices that ‘As to their morality or good conduct, I can say, like Harlequin, that ‘tis just as it is with you; and the Turkish ladies don’t commit one sin the less for not being Christians’, contrasting with George Sandy’s’ 1610 remark that the harems contained ‘much unnatural and darksome Bannias: yea, women with women’, a common Orientalist trope which the critic Daniel Carey has noted was based more often on rumour than on concrete observation. Lady Montagu herself remarks that these kinds of statements show either ‘exemplary discretion or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given accounts of them’. Lady Montagu praises the custom of wearing ‘ferigee’, arguing that ‘this perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery’. It is interesting that Lady Montagu, Like Neville uses her description of foreign lands to suggest customs that she herself would benefit from. Just as Neville demonstrates his enjoyment of promiscuity, Lady Montagu makes a feminist case for what she perceives as the liberty of women. However whilst Neville would not be willing to transfer his desires into his native country, and indeed is not even willing to transfer them to later generations on the Isle of Pines, Lady Montagu is very seriously arguing for the rights of women. Her concern is not a self-interested desire but a real conviction in what is morally and politically correct. She does not indulge in fiction but values fact, and unlike Neville she does not need the solidity of England to verify what is factual.

Throughout late seventeenth and early eighteenth century travel writing we see an association between England, or the ‘civilised world’ and fact, contrasting with the idea of eastern countries as belonging to the realms of fiction and fantasy. Even Lady Montagu cannot avoid measuring things in the currency of her homeland, noting that people pay the ‘value of an English twopence’ to get onto the bridge at Hague. Whilst Neville makes the factual into fiction in order to escape English conventions and Defoe’s writing makes the unfamiliar familiar in order to reassert his control, Lady Montagu finds her power somewhere in the middle of these two positions. Her lack of colonial arrogance in her treatment of other cultures, as well as her ability to actively engage in their world (for example in her learning of Turkish) allows her to benefit from her travels in ways not explored by many other travel writers of the time.

Lady Montagu normalises and internalises the foreign; she dismantles the boundary between our civilised world of ‘facts’ and the foreign world of fantasy, allowing a discourse of ideas between the two, and opening up endless possibilities of advancement for all cultures concerned.  Rogers writes that ‘a journey may lead us into unexpected territory, but the manifest destiny of a tour is to deposit writer and reader back at the starting point’2 revealing what I would argue is the success of Lady Montagu. Her journey into a world normally treated as fantastical and her treatment of it as fact mean that although she may physically return home she will certainly have advanced metaphorical miles.

1 R Ballaster Fabulous Orients, Fictions of the East in England 1662-1785 (Oxford 2005)

2 Ibid