Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Mary Wortley Montagu, by Charles Jervas, after 1716.

The Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (15 May 1689 – 21 August 1762) was an English aristocrat and writer. Montagu is today chiefly remembered for her letters, particularly her letters from Turkey, as wife to the British ambassador, which have been described by Billie Melman as “the very first example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient”.[1]



Lady Mary Pierrepont was born in London on May 15, 1689; her baptism took place on May 26 at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden.[2] She was a daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull.

After her mother’s death,also her fathers she was raised by her father’s mother until she was nine, and then was raised by father.[3] She began her education in her father's home. Family holdings were extensive, including Thoresby Hall and Holme Pierrepont Hall in Nottinghamshire, and a house in West Dean in Wiltshire. She used the library in her father’s mansion, Thoresby Hall in the Dukeries of Nottinghamshire, to “steal” her education, teaching herself Latin.[3] Thoresby Hall had one of the finest private libraries in England, which she loved, but it was lost when the building burned in 1744.

Lady Mary's close friends included Mary Astell, a champion of women's rights, and Anne Wortley Montagu, granddaughter of the 1st Earl of Sandwich. With Anne, she carried on an animated correspondence. Anne's letters, however, were often copied from drafts written by her brother, Edward Wortley Montagu, and after Anne's death in 1709 the correspondence between Edward and Lady Mary continued without an intermediary.

By 1710 Lady Mary had two possible suitors to choose from: Edward Wortley Montagu and Clotworthy Skeffington.[3] Mary's father, now Marquess of Dorchester, rejected Wortley Montagu as a prospect because he refused to entail his estate on a possible heir. Her father pressured her to marry Clotworthy Skeffington, heir to an Irish peerage. While Lady Mary had fallen in love with another unidentified man, in order to avoid marriage to Skeffington, she eloped with Wortley.[3] They were married on August 23, 1712 in Salisbury.[3]

The early years of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's married life were spent in seclusion in the country. She had a son, Edward Wortley Montagu the younger, on May 16, 1713, in London.[3] Her husband became Member of Parliament for Westminster in 1715, and shortly afterwards was made a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. When Lady Mary joined him in London, her wit and beauty soon made her a prominent figure at court. She was among the society of George I and the Prince of Wales, and friends with Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Abbé Antonio Conti.[3]

In December 1715 Lady Wortley Montagu contracted smallpox. She survived, but while she was ill someone spread rumors of the satirical “court eclogues” she was writing. Unable to return to court, Lady Mary left London in August 1716 to accompany her husband on his embassy to Constantinople.[3]

Early in 1716, Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed Ambassador at Constantinople. Lady Mary accompanied him to Vienna, and thence to Adrianople and Constantinople. He was recalled in 1717, but they remained at Constantinople until 1718. She had a daughter, Mary Wortley Montagu, on 19 January 1718 in Constantinople. After an unsuccessful delegation between Austria and Ottoman empires, they returned to England.[3]

The story of this voyage and of her observations of Eastern life is told in the Turkish Embassy Letters, a series of lively letters full of graphic descriptions; Letters is often credited as being an inspiration for subsequent female traveller/writers, as well as for much Orientalist art. Lady Mary returned to the West with knowledge of the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox, known as variolation. In the 1790s, Edward Jenner developed a safer method, vaccination.

Before starting for the East she had met Alexander Pope, and during her absence he wrote her a series of extravagant letters, which appear to have been chiefly exercises in the art of writing gallant epistles. Very few letters passed between them after Lady Mary's return, and various reasons have been suggested for the subsequent estrangement and violent quarrel. The last of the Constantinople letters to Pope purports to have been written from Dover on November 1, 1718. It contains a parody on Pope's Epitaph on the Lovers Struck by Lightning. The manuscript collection of these letters was passed round a considerable circle, and Pope may have been offended at the circulation of this piece of satire. Jealousy of her friendship with Lord Hervey has also been alleged, but Lady Louisa Stuart says Pope had made Lady Mary a declaration of love, which she had received with an outburst of laughter. In any case Lady Mary always professed complete innocence of all cause of offence in public. She is alluded to in the Dunciad in a passage to which Pope affixed one of his insulting notes. A Pop upon Pope was generally thought to be her work, and Pope thought she was part author of One Epistle to Mr A. Pope (1730).

Pope attacked her again and again, but with especial virulence in a gross couplet in the Imitation of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, as Sappho. Verses addressed to an Imitator of Horace by a Lady (1733), a scurrilous reply to these attacks, is generally attributed to the joint efforts of Lady Mary and her sworn ally, Lord Hervey. She had a romantic correspondence with a Frenchman named Rémond, who addressed to her a series of excessively gallant letters before ever seeing her. She invested money for him in South Sea stock at his desire, and as was expressly stated, at his own risk. The value fell to half the price, and he tried to extort the original sum as a debt by a threat of exposing the correspondence to her husband. She seems to have been really alarmed, not at the imputation of gallantry, but lest her husband should discover the extent of her own speculations. This disposes of the second half of Pope's line "Who starves a sister, or forswears a debt" (Epilogue to the Satires, 113), and the first charge is quite devoid of foundation. She did in fact try to rescue her favourite sister, the countess of Mar, who was mentally deranged, from the custody of her brother-in-law, Lord Grange, who had treated his own wife with notorious cruelty, and the slander originated with him.

In 1739 she left her husband and went abroad, and although they continued to write to each other in affectionate and respectful terms, they never met again. Edward worked away from home, leaving Mary to raise their children, and she eventually divorced him.[3] She exchanged many love letters with Francesco Algarottim, Count Algarotti, but never remarried. At Florence in 1740 she visited Horace Walpole, who cherished a great spite against her, and exaggerated her eccentricities into a revolting slovenliness (see Letters, ed. Cunningham, i. 59). As Lady Mary was then in her sixty-third year, the scandalous interpretation put on the matter by Horace Walpole may safely be discarded. She lived at Avignon, at Brescia, at Gottolengo and at Lovere on the Lago d'Iseo. She was disfigured by a painful skin disease, (smallpox), and her sufferings were so acute that she hints at the possibility of madness. She was struck with a terrible fit of sickness while visiting the countess Palazzo and her son, and perhaps her mental condition made restraint necessary.

Her ex-husband spent his last years in hoarding money, and at his death in 1761 is said to have been a millionaire. His extreme parsimony is satirized in Pope's Imitations of Horace (2nd satire of the 2nd book) in the portrait of Avidieu and his wife.

Lady Montagu had many problems with both her children; her daughter eloped with a suitor Mary disapproved of; her son ran away from school repeatedly and then after his father’s death, he contested a will in Mary’s name without her knowledge.[3]

Her daughter Mary, Countess of Bute, whose husband was now Prime Minister, begged her to return to England. She came to London, and died in the year of her return, on 21 August 1762. Her son, Edward, was also an author and traveller.

Important Works

A number of Lady Mary's poems were printed in her lifetime, either without or with her permission or connivance: in newspapers, in miscellanies, and independently.[3]

Her poetry was included in Anthony Hammond’s “New Miscellany of Original Poems, Translations and Imitations, by the most Eminent Hands” (1720). Verses Address'd to the Imitator of Horace, The Reasons that Induced Dr Swift to Write a Poem call'd the ‘Lady's Dressing Room’, and the Answer to the Foregoing Elegy. London Magazine printed a number of her poems.[3]

She wrote a political periodical called the Nonsense of Common-Sense. She wrote Six Town Eclogues, with some other Poems (1747). She was included in Dodsley's Collection of Poems. She wrote notable letters describing her travels through Europe appeared in three volumes from Becket and De Hondt after her death. During the twentieth century Lady Mary's letters were edited separately from her essays, poems, and play, and from her longer fictions.[3]

She wrote a series of poems about society's unjust treatment of women. She had notable correspondence letters to Anne Wortley and courting letters to her future husband Edward Wortley Montagu. Love letters to Francesco Algarottim Count Algarotti. She wrote berating letters about the vagaries of fashionable people to her sister.[3]

Legacy and Influence

By fourteen Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had written two books filled with poems, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modeled after Aphra Behn's Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684).[3]

She had the ambition of a major writer coupled with influence in rank and society.[3]

She was friends with Molly Skerritt, Lady Walpole; John, Lord Hervey; Mary Astell; and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Abbé Antonio Conti.[3]

She was responsible for the introduction of the Turkish inoculation to smallpox into Western medicine.[3]

She was painted and copied many times; by Charles Jervas as a shepherdess in 1710, by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1715 and in 1722, by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, by Jonathan Richardson, and by Carlo Francesco Rusco.[3]

She defied convention most memorably with her pioneering of a smallpox inoculation, a course of action unparalleled in medical advance up to that point.[3]

Ottoman smallpox inoculation

Lady Mary's own brother had died of smallpox and her own famous beauty had been marred by a bout with the disease in 1715.[4] In 1717, she went to live in Turkey with her husband, the British ambassador to that country, and stayed for two years. In the Ottoman Empire, she visited the women in their segregated zenanas, learning Turkish, making friends and learning about Turkish customs.[5] There she witnessed the practice of inoculation against smallpox—variolation—which she called engrafting, and wrote home about it.[6][7] Variolation used live smallpox virus in the liquid taken from a smallpox blister in a mild case of the disease[5] and carried in a nutshell.[8] Lady Mary was eager to spare her children, and had her son inoculated while in Turkey. On her return to London, she enthusiastically promoted the procedure, but encountered a great deal of resistance from the medical establishment, both because it was an "Oriental" process and because of her sex.

Emanuel Timoni, a Greek physician who also attended the Wortley Montagues, had also described the procedure a few years earlier. Dr. Timoni first described this procedure in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1714. James Pylarini described it again in the Transactions in 1716. They called it variolation (varus is Latin for pimple) or inoculation (inoculare means to graft).[8]

In 1721, after a smallpox epidemic struck England, she had her three-year-old daughter inoculated by Charles Maitland, a physician who had been at the embassy in Turkey, and publicized the event. She persuaded Caroline, Princess of Wales, to test the treatment. Seven prisoners awaiting execution were offered the chance to undergo variolation instead of execution: they all survived and were released. Then six orphan children were inoculated: they all survived. In 1722 King George I allowed Maitland to inoculate two of his grandchildren, children of the Princess. The children recovered.[8]

However, in another household, six servants became ill with smallpox after a child was inoculated. Some clergymen then announced that trying to prevent the illness was against God's will. Some physicians warned that inoculation might spread the disease. Nevertheless, inoculation became known as a way to prevent smallpox.[8] In fact, using live virus did carry a risk of infection. About 3% of those inoculated developed smallpox and died. Others spent weeks recovering. However, that was preferable to catching smallpox in the wild, with its mortality rate of 20–40% and survivors left scarred and sometimes blind.[5]

In response to the fear of inoculation, Lady Mary wrote an anonymous article describing inoculation as it was practised in Turkey. Inoculation gained general acceptance. In 1754 she was praised for bringing the practice to Britain.[8]

In later years, Edward Jenner, who was 13 years old when Lady Mary died, developed the much safer technique of vaccination using cowpox.

Literary place

Montagu's poetry circulated widely, in manuscript, among members of her own social circle. She seems to have avoided publication in print in order to avoid the personal attacks that inevitably followed. However, her letters from Turkey were clearly intended for print, she revised them extensively and gave a transcript to the Rev. Benjamin Sowden in Rotterdam in 1761 so that he could publish them.

Montagu's Turkish letters were to prove an inspiration to later generations of European women travellers to the Orient. In particular, Montagu staked a claim to the particular authority of women's writing, due to their ability to access private homes and female-only spaces where men were not permitted. The title of her published letters refers to "Sources that Have Been Inaccessible to Other Travellers". The letters themselves frequently draw attention to the fact that they present a different (and, Montagu asserts, more accurate) description than that provided by previous (male) travellers: "You will perhaps be surpriz'd at an Account so different from what you have been entertaind with by the common Voyage-writers who are very fond of speaking of what they don't know."[9] Montagu provides an intimate description of the women's bathhouse, in which she derides male descriptions of the bathhouse as a site for unnatural sexual practices, instead insisting that it was “the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc”.[10] However, Montagu's detailed descriptions of nude Oriental beauties provided inspiration for male artists such as Ingres, who restored the explicitly erotic content that Montagu had denied. In general, Montagu consistently derides the quality of European travel literature of the 18th century as nothing more than "trite observations...superficial...[of] boys who only remember the best wine or the prettyest women."[11]

Montagu's Turkish letters were frequently cited by imperial women travellers, more than a century after her journey. Such writers cited Montagu's assertion that women travellers could gain an intimate view of Turkish life that was not available to their male counterparts. However, they also added corrections or elaborations to her observations. Julia Pardoe, in describing her own visit to a bathhouse, wrote "I should be unjust if I did not declare that I saw none of that unnecessary and wanton exposure described by Lady Mary Montagu. Either the fair Ambassadress was present at a peculiar ceremony, or the Turkish ladies have become more delicate and fastidious in the ideas of propriety."[12] Emmeline Lott, who wrote a book about her experience working as a governess for the son of Ishamel Pasha, claimed that Montagu's aristocratic rank meant that she had seen only the most attractive elements of Oriental life: "...her handsome train, Lady Ambassadress as she was, swept but across the splendid carpeted floors of these noble Saloons of Audience, all of which had been, as is invariably the custom, well “swept and garnished” for her reception."[13]

Her Letters and Works were published in 1837. Montagu's octogenarian granddaughter Lady Louisa Stuart contributed to this, anonymously, an introductory essay called Biographical Anecdotes of Lady M. W. Montagu, from which it was clear that Stuart was troubled by her grandmother's focus on sexual intrigues and did not see Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Account of the Court of George I at his Accession as history.[14] However, Montagu's historical observations, both in the "Anecdotes" and the "Turkish Embassy Letters," prove quite accurate when put in context.

In 1901, her letters were edited and published as The Best Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu by Octave Thanet.


On a recent episode of the British TV show Antiques Roadshow, several paintings attributed to Lady Mary were brought in for valuation. Remarkable for their sensitive portrayals of royal courtiers of the Turkish Empire, the paintings show lively and genuine artistic talent. The colours are still vibrant, and it is interesting to note that she was allowed to paint male members of the royal family. These valuable works are currently in the hands of a private owner, who plans to bequeath them to a museum.[citation needed]



  • Halsband, Robert (1956). The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Illustrated ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • The complete letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 3 vols, edited by Robert Halsband, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-67.
  • Romance Writings, edited by Isobel Grundy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy, edited by Isobel Grundy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, revised 2nd 1993.
  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment, Isobel Grundy, Oxford University Press, USA; New edition 2001 714 pp ISBN 0-19-818765-3
  • The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lord Wharncliffe and W. Moy Thomas, editors. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1861.

Book reviews

  • Prescott, Sarah. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment, Isobel Grundy 1999. Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 202 (May, 2000), pp. 300–303


  1. ^ Melman 1992
  2. ^ Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, p. 5. Oxford UP (1999).
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Grundy, Isobel. "Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 28 Feb. 2011. 
  4. ^ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, (1689–1762). Date of Montagu's illness. Retrieved on 2011-01-31.
  5. ^ a b c Rosenhek, Jackie Safe Smallpox Inoculations. Doctor's Review, February 2005. Retrieved on 2011-01-31.
  6. ^ "Sequence 263 (Page 59): Montagu, Mary Wortley. Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M--y W---y M----e :written, during her travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, to persons of distinction, men of letters, &c. in different parts of Europe: which contain...". Retrieved 2008-08-27. 
  7. ^ Wortley Montagu, Mary. Modern History Sourcebook: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762): Smallpox Vaccination in Turkey). Retrieved on 2011-01-31.
  8. ^ a b c d e Case, Christine L. and Chung, King-Thom. Montagu and Jenner: The Campaign Against Smallpox. SIM News 47(2):58-60, 1997
  9. ^ Montagu and Halsband 1965-1976: 343
  10. ^ Montagu and Halsband 1965-1976: 314
  11. ^ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu , Selected Letters, Penguin: 359
  12. ^ Pardoe, J. (1837). The city of the sultan. London,, H. Colburn.
  13. ^ Lott 1866: vi-vii
  14. ^ Looser, Devoney, British Women Writers and the Writing of History 1670-1820 (JHU Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8018-7905-1) pp. 64-67

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu — Mary Wortley Montagu Portrait von Charles Jervas, nach 1716. Mary Wortley Montagu (* 26. Mai 1689 in London; † 21. August 1762 ebenda) war eine englische Schriftstellerin, die durch ihre Briefe und Gedichte berühmt wurde …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu — Mary Wortley Montagu Lady Mary Wortley Montagu par Charles Jervas Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (26 mai 1689 21 août 1762), est une écrivaine britannique. Mary Pierrepont était la fille aînée du Duc de Kingston. Enfant précoce, elle apprit seule le… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Mary Wortley Montagu — Porträt von Charles Jervas, nach 1716. Mary Wortley Montagu (* 26. Mai 1689 in London; † 21. August 1762 ebenda) war eine englische Schriftstellerin, die durch ihre Briefe und Gedichte berühmt wurde …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Mary Wortley Montagu — Lady Mary Wortley Montagu par Charles Jervas Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (26 mai 1689 21 août 1762), est une écrivaine britannique. Biographie Mary Pierrepont était la fille aînée du Duc de Kingston. Enfant précoce, elle apprit seule le latin et le …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley — orig. Lady Mary Pierrepont (baptized May 26, 1689, London, Eng. died Aug. 21, 1762, London) English writer, the most colourful Englishwoman of her time. A prolific letter writer, Montagu is remembered chiefly for 52 superb letters chronicling her …   Universalium

  • Montagu,Lady Mary Wortley — Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. 1689 1762. English writer noted for her erudite and amusing letters, first published in Turkish Letters (1763). * * * …   Universalium

  • Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley (Pierrepont) — (1690 1762)    Letter writer, was the eldest dau. of the 1st Duke of Kingston. In her youth she combined the attractions of a reigning beauty and a wit. Her early studies were encouraged and assisted by Bishop Burnet, and she was the friend of… …   Short biographical dictionary of English literature

  • Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley — orig. Lady Mary Pierrepont (bautizada 26 may. 1689, Londres, Inglaterra–21 ago. 1762, Londres). Escritora inglesa, la mujer más original de su época. Una escritora prolífica, Montagu es recordada principalmente por sus 52 magníficas cartas en que …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley — (1689 1762)    She was born in London to Evelyn Pierrepont, the wealthy Earl of Kingston, where she became a friend of Mary Astell, the defender of woman s rights (see entry). In 1712, she secretly married Edward Worley Montagu, a Whig member of… …   British and Irish poets

  • MONTAGU, LADY MARY WORTLEY —    an English lady, born in Nottinghamshire, celebrated for her wit and beauty, and for her Letters on the Manners of the East (1690 1762) …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

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