Montagu, Mary Wortley: Introduction

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Montagu is celebrated as a consummate writer of intelligent, witty, and frequently scandalous letters. Spanning the years 1708 to 1762, Montagu's correspondence is addressed to a wide variety of recipients and is considered remarkable for its versatility and range. By turns philosophical, descriptive, eccentric, affectionate, worldly, thoughtful, and sarcastic, the letters share one common attribute: the forceful imprint of their author's personality.


Mary Pierrepont was born in London to an aristocratic family. She was known as Lady Mary after her father became the earl of Kingston in 1690. As a child devised for herself a rigorous academic program, that included writing poetry and teaching herself Latin. While she was still in her teens Lady Mary captured the attention of Edward Wortley Montagu (usually referred to simply as Wortley), a politician eleven years her senior. Wortley asked Lady Mary's father for permission to marry her, but the men could not agree on the financial conditions of the proposed marriage, and Wortley and Lady Mary eloped in 1712. Montagu spent the first few years of her marriage alone in the country while Wortley attended to business in London. Her letters from this period reflect her dissatisfaction with the arrangement and her husband's seeming indifference to her.

In 1715 Montagu joined Wortley in the capital, where his political career was flourishing. She moved with ease in prominent social and literary circles, counting among her many friends and admirers Alexander Pope. Wortley was appointed ambassador to Turkey the following year, and the couple, along with their young son, moved to Constantinople. There, displaying her customary curiosity and enthusiasm, Montagu studied Turkish life and language and wrote a number of letters detailing her observations and experiences to friends and acquaintances back in England. These missives later formed the basis of her famous Turkish Embassy Letters (originally published in 1763 under the title Letters of the Right Honorable 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. Her visit to Turkey is important from a medical as well as a literary standpoint: noting the success of the Turkish practice of smallpox inoculation, Montagu had the procedure performed on her son and, later, her daughter. Through this example and her anonymously published essay "A Plain Account of the Inoculating of the Small Pox by a Turkey Merchant" (1722), she promoted the practical merits of the procedure.

Montagu returned to London in 1718 and for the next two decades presided over high society, which celebrated her wit and flamboyant behavior. Beginning sometime around 1728 she and Pope engaged in a bitter public quarrel. Pope lampooned Montagu in The Dunciad and elsewhere, and she retaliated with Verses Address'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace (1733). Between December 16, 1737 and February 21, 1738, Montagu anonymously wrote and published nine issues of the periodical The Nonsense of Common-Sense, offering articles of various sorts, including economic analysis, social commentary, and fiction. Having met and fallen in love with Francesco Algarotti, a young Italian count in 1736, Montagu left her husband, her children, and her country in 1738 to live with Algarotti in Italy; the count, however, apparently had a change of heart and failed to meet her in Venice. Nevertheless, for over twenty years Montagu remained abroad, mainly in Italy. She returned to England shortly before her death in 1762.


As a female aristocrat, Montagu abhorred the notion of writing for print, and circulated her works primarily in manuscript. A few were published in her lifetime, however, usually without her consent. In collaboration with Pope and poet John Gay she wrote Six Town Eclogues, satires of well-known society personalities. Montagu had no intention of publishing the work, but in 1716 three of the eclogues were pirated, with coy hints of their authorship, as Court Poems. The original grouping was later issued in Six Town Eclogues. With Some Other Poems (1747). Aside from the anonymously published pieces in The Nonsense of Common-Sense (1737-38) the only work Montagu intended for publication was Turkish Embassy Letters. The fifty-two letters in the collection are thought to be based in part on Montagu's real correspondence and in part on a journal she kept during her journey to and residence in Turkey. Due to popular demand, successive editions of Turkish Embassy Letters were augmented with Montagu's other, private, correspondence as it became available.


Montagu's letters have maintained scholarly interest both because they offer intimate biographical details and because of Montagu's ability to write witty, engaging, and informative prose. Montagu told her sister in 1726, "The last pleasure that fell in my way was Madam Sevigny's Letters; very pretty they are, but I assert without the least vanity that mine will be full as entertaining 40 years hence." Montagu's work was described by nineteenth-century critics as masculine due to the confidence, intelligence, and honesty apparent in her writing. Critics described some passages as too coarse for a woman writer, and warned that young ladies should avoid reading them. Because the letters are often so personal, Montagu herself has been the object of criticism, even into the twentieth century. Especially in the earlier part of the century, critics found Montagu's witty social gossip malicious, and interpreted their formal character as cold and lacking in genuine emotion. Feminist critics have generally embraced Montagu's concern for women's issues, as evidenced especially in her Turkish Embassy Letters.

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Montagu, Mary Wortley: Introduction

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