Well known throughout polite society for her wit and verse, English world traveller Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) also worked to introduce the practice of inoculation against smallpox to the medical establishment of eighteenth-century Britain, despite their resistance to taking advice from a woman.
In an age noted for its wit, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu outshone many of her contemporaries. While education was not considered mandatory for young women, Montagu channelled her enthusiasm, curiosity, and intellect into numerous areas, including the arts, language, history, and even science, sharing her insights and humor with others through social interactions, published writings, and letters to family and friends.
Born the Honorable Mary Pierrepont on May 26, 1689, Montagu was the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, the Duke of Kingston. As a young girl she would miss the companionship of her mother, Mary Fielding, who died in 1694 when Mary was five, and the lack of supervision that resulted from her mother's absence created a streak of eccentricity that lasted into Montagu's adult life. The loss of a supervisory parent would be replaced by the company of books, as Montagu's father confined her to the house, which included a large library. Academically inclined, Montagu devoured the many volumes of classics and contemporary literature available to her as the daughter of a member of the landed gentry, and also taught herself several languages, including Latin, with the encouragement of an uncle and Bishop Burnet, a family friend. Among her close childhood friends was Mary Astell, who, sharing Montagu's independent spirit and intelligence, would grow up to become one of England's first feminists.
In addition to her exposure to many of the intellectual lines of inquiry of her time, Mary's good looks, intelligence, and pleasant personality encouraged Montagu's father to expose his daughter to an active social life from an early age. Her social circles included some of the most noted thinkers and writers of the day, including novelist Henry Fielding (a nephew of her late mother) and poet Alexander Pope (author of "The Rape of the Lock"). Pope became one of her closest friends until that relationship was derailed years later by a series of quarrels, the root of which can only be speculated but likely stemmed from his unrequited declaration of love in 1722. Later in her life, Pope would prove to be one of her strongest critics, defaming her character as "dirty, avaricious, heartless, and eccentric to the point of insanity, " according to British Authors before 1800.
Throughout her teenage years, Mary exchanged numerous letters with friend Anne Montagu, a correspondence that would be taken up by Anne's brother, Edward, after Anne's death in 1709. Edward Wortley Montagu, a Cambridge graduate who had been called to the bar in 1699, was at first impressed by Mary's ability to quote Roman poet Horace; as the couple's letter-writing continued, that respect ripened into love. Upon reaching the age of marriageability, however, Mary's hand was promised by her father to a rich lord; as she was on her way to the home of her intended husband, Mary and Edward eloped. The year was 1712, Mary was twenty-three, and the young couple lived together in relative poverty for the next four years while Edward's political fortunes floundered during Tory rule. Fortunately, with the death of Queen Anne in 1714, his Whig party once again came into prominence. Edward was elected to Parliament and, in the winter of 1716, with his young wife only recently recovered from a case of smallpox that had left her beautiful face permanently scarred, he was assigned to the task of ending hostilities between Turkey and Austria. As his wife, Mary willingly accompanied her husband on the long journey to his post at Constantinople (since renamed Istanbul), the seat of the Ottoman Turks.
A busy port, the city of Constantinople was the center of the ancient kingdom of Byzantium and the former home of Emperor Constantine the Great. Amid the ruins of this ancient culture, Mary Wortley Montagu soaked up the history, culture, and language around her, and busied herself with travel, study, and writing. Her activities were supported by her husband, who was a strong believer in the then-radical concept of an educated woman. It would be during her stay in Constantinople that Montagu would write her Turkish Embassy Letters, a collection of witty correspondence that, when published after her death, would become her major contribution to English literature. The Montagus remained in Turkey until 1718. Upon her return to England in the fall of that year, Montagu worked to popularize a method of inoculation (rather than vaccination) against smallpox that she had discovered while abroad, hoping to save others from the illness she had battled three years earlier.
Home once more in England, the Montagus made a new home at Twickenham, near London and in the vicinity of Pope's home. The increased sophistication gained through her travels made Montagu now shine even more brightly in court. She was actively sought as a guest at numerous social functions, both with friends and through her husband's administrative capacity. Her vivaciousness and popularity made her even more attractive to Pope, who had a portrait of her painted and hung in a prominent place in his home. Pope, along with Horace Walpole, another leading literary figure of the day, was struck increasingly by her charms but spurned into anger after a declaration of his love for her resulted in rejection. The attractions of other men were of little interest to Montagu, who at this point devoted her time to her writing, to her friends, and to her growing family. A son, Edward Wortley Montagu Jr., had been born in 1713, and a daughter, also named Mary, had been born to the couple while stationed in Turkey. As a child, young Edward proved to be troublesome, and his parents were forced to send him to a tutor on the Continent, although his continued attempts to run away proved costly. As an adult, he would become notorious for marrying a succession of women, with nary a divorce between each marriage.
Between 1730 and 1750 several volumes of Montagu's poems were published, including Town Eclogues, which had been circulated without her permission in 1716 as Court Poems by a Lady of Quality and reprinted in its authorized edition in 1747 with additional verses. After 1727 her battle with Pope intensified, fueled by her participation in fellow poet Lord Hervey's Verses Addressed to the Imitator of Horace, a 1733 volume that directly attacked Pope. Pope responded by attacking Hervey as a homosexual and by publishing such poems as "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" and "The Dunciad, " which served to ostracize Montagu socially and affect her husband's political career by implying that he was a dullard, a miser, and that his wife was repeatedly unfaithful to him. Between 1737 and 1738 she published, anonymously, a newspaper titled The Nonsense of Common-Sense. Running for approximately nine issues, its contents satirized the Tory-sponsored Common-Sense and helped to support her husband's Whig party. While Montagu continued to write, it was unfashionable for a woman of society to lower herself by publishing her works, so much of her writing remained privately held by friends.
In 1739, shortly after organizing her daughter's wedding to the Earl of Bute, Montagu left her husband and her home in England and moved abroad. Some have surmised that her self-exile was a way of distancing herself from the negative public sentiment generated by Pope and Walpole and thus freeing her husband from its shadow, while others maintained that it was an effort to join the Italian author Francesco Algarotti, who was rumored to be her lover. While she would never see Edward Wortley Montagu again, the correspondence between Montagu and her husband showed that the couple remained full of affection for one another; indeed, without his wife's presence, Edward Wortley Montagu withdrew from friends and family and became miserly in his old age (by the time of his death, he had amassed almost a million and a half pounds, a considerable fortune for the period). Fifty years of age when she left England, Montagu did not join Algarotti, but lived alone, spending her middle years travelling in France and Italy and engaging in a voluminous correspondence with several people, most particularly her husband and her daughter, Lady Bute. Much of her time on the continent was spent in Brescia, a walled commune located at the foot of the Italian Alps, home to the Palazzo della Loggia and many Roman remains. Montagu remained away from England for twenty-three years, returning after her husband's death to spend her remaining time with her children. Unfortunately, her own death was imminent; she died of cancer, August 21, 1762, in London, at the age of seventy-three.
Despite the criticism heaped upon her by Pope and Walpole during her lifetime, Montagu was remembered for both her quick wit and her letters; even such a harsh critic as French writer Voltaire found her correspondence delightful. Dr. Samuel Johnson also enjoyed her prose, while historian Edward Gibbon would write, "What fire, what ease, what knowledge of Europe and Asia" upon reading her letters from Turkey. Her poetry, written in imitation of the style popularized by Pope, was collected in 1768 as Poetical Works; her Embassy Letters, written while she was in Turkey, escaped efforts by her family to acquire and destroy them and were released to great acclaim; a complete collection of her written works, containing both poetry and letters, was published in 1837; and a biography and an edited collection of Montagu's collected correspondence were published during the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately, Montagu's personal diary was burned by her daughter in 1794 due to concerns that its nature would reflect poorly on the daughter's own social standing in the court of George III.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 95: Eighteenth-Century British Poets, First Series, 1990, Volume 101: British Prose Writers, 1660-1800, First Series, 1991.
Drabble, Margaret, editor, Oxford Companion to English Literature, fifth edition, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Halsband, Robert, Life of Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1960.
Kunitz, Stanley, and Howard Haycroft, editors, British Authors before 1800, H.W. Wilson, 1952.
Bear, Richard, transcriber and annotator, Selected Prose and Poetry of Lady Wortley Montagu, http://www.darkwing.uoregon.edu (March 15, 1998).