Montagu, Mary Wortley: Title Commentary

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Turkish Embassy Letters

Turkish Embassy Letters


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]



I confess I am malicious enough to desire that the World shou'd see to how much better purpose the Ladys Travel than their Lords, and that whilst it is surfeited with Male Travels, all in the same Tone and stuft with the same Trifles, a Lady has the skill to strike out a New Path and to embellish a worn-out Subject with variety of fresh and elegant Entertainment. For besides that Vivacity and Spirit which enliven every part and that inimitable Beauty which spreads thro the whole, besides that Purity of Style for which it may justly be accounted the Standard of the English Tongue, the Reader will find a more true and accurate Account of the Customs and Manners of the several Nations with whom the Lady Convers'd than he can in any other Author. But as her Ladyship's penetration discovers the inmost follys of the heart, so the candor of her Temper passes over them with an air of pity rather than reproach, treating with the politeness of a Court and gentleness of a Lady what the severity of her Judgment cannot but Condemn.

In short, let her own Sex at least do her Justice; Lay aside diabolical Envy and its Brother Malice with all their accursed Company, Sly Whispering, cruel backbiting, spiteful detraction, and the rest of that hideous crew, which I hope are very falsely said to attend the Tea Table, being more apt to think they haunt those Public Places where Virtuous Women never come. Let the Men malign one another, if they think fit, and strive to pul down Merit when they cannot equal it. Let us be better natur'd than to give way to any unkind or disrespectful thought of so bright an Ornament of our Sex, merely because she has better Sense. For I doubt not but our hearts will tell us that this is the Real and unpardonable Offence, whatever may be pretended. Let us be better Christians than to look upon her with an evil eye, only because the Giver of all good Gifts has entrusted and adorn'd her with the most excellent Talents. Rather let us freely own the Superiority of this Sublime Genius as I do in the sincerity of my Soul, pleas'd that a Woman Triumphs, and proud to follow in her Train. Let us offer her the Palm which is justly her due, and if we pretend to any Laurels, lay them willingly at her Feet.

Astell, Mary. Preface to the Turkish Embassy Letters. From The Collected Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu, Vol. 1, edited by Robert Halsband, p. 467 Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


SOURCE: Turner, Katherine S. H. "From Classical to Imperial: Changing Visions of Turkey in the Eighteenth Century." In Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit, edited by Steve Clark, pp. 113-28. London: Zed, 1999.

In the following essay, Turner compares the correspondence of Montagu to that of Elizabeth Craven, a later letter-writer who argued that Montagu's Turkish letters were not authentic and were probably written by a man.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters, written between 1716 and 1718 but published (posthumously) only in 1763, remains one of the best known of eighteenth-century travelogues, and Montagu herself was one of the most celebrated woman writers of her time. Born in 1689, she was an indefatigable and accomplished letter writer, corresponding with leading literary figures such as Alexander Pope as well as an extensive network of family and friends. She also wrote essays and poems (both romantic and satirical), and a play (collected in Montagu 1977); her participation in a wide range of genres, including travel writing, indicates her ability to transcend gender-based literary categories. Fewer than twenty British women published travel narratives during the eighteenth century, and Montagu was a pioneer of this small but highly significant cluster of women, whose works provide a fascinating, often oblique, commentary on the cultural and political trends of their time.

The attractive vision of Turkey presented in the Embassy Letters typifies a particular version of English Enlightenment culture and aesthetics. Bernard Lewis sees in Montagu's account 'the new myth, still in its embryonic form, of the non-European as the embodiment of mystery and romance' (Lewis 1993: 83). In many ways, however, Montagu's Letters are uncharacteristic of the eighteenth century of which they are so often claimed to be paradigmatic. In 1789, Lady Elizabeth Craven, England's other great eighteenth-century woman traveller to Turkey, takes issue with many of Montagu's opinions in her own travelogue, A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople, and pronounces indeed that Montagu 'never wrote a line of them' (Craven 1789: 105). In her later Memoirs, and in the enlarged edition of the Journey, published in 1814, Craven expands on this view, pronouncing that the Embassy Letters 'were most of them male compositions, pretending to female grace in the style, the facts mostly inventions' (Craven 1814: 289). There had in fact been a spurious 'fourth' volume of Montagu's Embassy Letters published in 1767, perhaps written by John Cleland; but by the 1780s its spuriousness, and the authenticity of the 1763 volumes were not in doubt.

Montagu's highly favourable impressions of abroad, especially of Turkey, and especially of Turkish women, are Craven's chief targets. Craven found an unexpected ally in the person of Lady Bute, Montagu's daughter, who, having failed to suppress the publication of the Embassy Letters in 1763, was later delighted to find support for her disowning of her mother's vulgar publishing activities. Ladies Craven and Bute later corresponded about the authorship of the Embassy Letters, Lady Bute agreeing heartily that most of the Letters were 'composed by men', and suggesting that Horace Walpole 'and two other wits' had written them (Craven 1826: II 116).

No one else seems to have taken these assertions seriously; yet, questions of personal grievance and arrogance aside, this curious episode suggests how uncongenial Montagu's account became to at least some later eighteenth-century readers. It therefore provides a point of entry into a wider discussion of changes in eighteenth-century perceptions of travel writing, of women travel writers, and (not least) of Turkey itself. It is worth noting here that Craven's critical observations on Turkey, which to a large extent are a reactionary engagement with Montagu's, were taken seriously by the influential reviews (the Monthly, the Critical and the Analytical), although they slyly mocked her style and arrogance. Moreover, the Monthly Review commended her liberal reflections, 'which do honour to the writer, both as a lover of her own country, and as a citizen of the world' (Monthly Review 80 [1789], 209).

There are two main reasons for the generally positive reception of Craven's text in 1789. First, little else in the way of original travel writing on Turkey had been published since Montagu's text in 1763: James Porter's Observations on the Religion, Law, Government, and Manners, of the Turks (1768) was a compilation of travellers' accounts, and the focus of Richard Chandler's Travels in Asia Minor (1775) was largely archaeological. Second, a woman travel writer was still something of a novelty in her own right, no doubt because the genre's roots in masculine erudition and experience—at least until the closing decades of the century—remained powerfully deterrent (see Turner 1995: 168-246). The Analytical Review, anticipating its readers' interest in Craven's travelogue, notes that 'The letters of this sprightly female will naturally excite curiosity' (Analytical Review 3 [1789], 176). Craven's personal notoriety—her private life was nothing if not colourful—is also hinted at here.

The Turkish aspect of Craven's account seems to have been its main source of marketable interest. The title of the travelogue places Constantinople as the climax of her journey, and the running head throughout the volume is 'Lady Craven's Journey to Constantinople'. In fact, only about 70 of the 327 pages of Craven's Journey deal with Turkey, as critics were quick to point out (e.g. Monthly Review 80 [1789], 200-1; Critical Review 67 [1789], 281; Gentleman's Magazine 59 [1789], 237); and the revised title of the 1814 edition duly read Letters from the Right Honorable Lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Anspach, during her Travels through France, Germany, and Russia in 1785 and 1786. In 1789, though, Craven was no doubt exploiting public interest in Turkey: not only did the harem still exert a powerful pull on the British reader's imagination, but recent political developments made the Turkish focus of the Journey topical. The increasingly aggressive behaviour of Russia and Austria towards the declining Ottoman Empire was becoming an alarming threat to British trading interests in the Levant. Craven's account was published during the Russian and Austrian war against Turkey, 1787-92 (though her journey was made earlier, 1785-86). Britain had formed the Triple Alliance with the United Provinces and Prussia against Austria in 1788; and by 1789 all parties were eager for peace between Turkey and its aggressors, not least because the Triple Alliance were anxious to direct their energies against the tide of the French Revolutionary army (Shaw 1976: i 258-60). With the turmoil, indeed even disintegration of European affairs, following a decade on from the loss of America, it seems likely that Britain was anxious to preserve trading links with a safely weak but intact Ottoman Empire, which might indeed offer itself as an arena ripe for colonial domination; by British rather than Russian or Austrian interests.

What follows is a comparison of Montagu's and Craven's accounts, which will illuminate crucial changes in representations of gender and empire, as mediated through the eyes of the woman travel writer in Turkey. An account of the publishing histories of the travelogues will lead—through the issue of gender and propriety—into an analysis of the conflicting visions of Turkish women offered by Montagu and Craven. The latter part of the chapter will probe the changing concepts of cultural politics and history which the texts illuminate. In particular, Craven's repudiation of Montagu is a significant contribution to an emergent colonial discourse, displacing Montagu's classical, tolerant and largely ahistorical stance. Craven's text exemplifies what Homi K. Bhabha has defined as 'the objective of colonial discourse', which is to construe the colonised as a 'population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction' (Bhabha 1986: 154).

The mere existence of their narratives testifies to the privileged status of Montagu and Craven. Their rank made possible nor only their access to European and Turkish high society—'The Turks are very proud, and will not converse with a stranger they are not assured is considerable in his own country' (Montagu 1763: II 131-2)—but their very expeditions. Lady Mary, who travelled through Austria and Hungary to Constantinople, with 'thirty covered waggons for our baggage, and five coaches … for my women' (vol. II, p. 110), points out that:

The journey we have made from Belgrade hither, cannot possibly be passed by any out of a public character. The desert woods of Serbia, are the common refuge of thieves, who rob, fifty in a company, so that we had need of all our guards to secure us; and the villages are so poor, that only force could extort from them necessary provisions.

(Montagu 1763: II 2)

Elsewhere, she describes her distress at the 'insolencies' of their escorts 'in the poor villages through which we passed' (vol. I, p. 152). Craven travelled with a smaller entourage but rather less sensitivity. Her Journey (1789) is peppered with name-dropping, and pervaded by a strong sense of her own importance, as in this passage: 'At Soumi I conversed with a brother of Prince Kourakin's and a Mr. Lanskoy, both officers quartered there; and to whom I was indebted for a lodging: they obliged a Jew to give me up a new little house he was upon the point of inhabiting' (p. 154).

The Critical Review concludes its account of Craven with the waspish pronouncement that the 'rest of the journey affords little subject of remark, except that whatever accommodations rank and beauty could demand, and despotic power could procure, Lady Craven enjoyed' (Critical Review 67 [1789], 286).

The circumstances under which Montagu's and Craven's texts were published testify to the critical significance not only of their rank, but also of their gender, and illuminate changing concepts of private and public identity. The Embassy Letters emerged into the literary world like the elegant ghost of their recently deceased author, appearing in 1763 in three small octavo volumes. The first of these contained a preface written in 1724 by Mary Astell, confessing herself

malicious enough to desire, that the world should see, to how much better purpose the Ladies travel than their Lords; and that, whilst it is surfeited with Male-Travels, all in the same tone, and stuff with the same trifles; a lady has the skill to strike out a new path, and to embellish a worn-out subject, with variety of fresh and elegant entertainment.

(Montagu 1763: I viii)

Montagu is the eighteenth-century woman travel writer of whom it was most often and enthusiastically proclaimed that her gender qualified her to describe scenes 'not to be paralleled in the narrative of any male Traveller' (Monthly Review 28 [1763], 392): namely, the Turkish bath, the harem, and the lifestyles of aristocratic Turkish women. She was evidently proud of this privilege and of the distinction it guaranteed her within the corpus of travel literature; she concludes the letter describing the bath as follows: 'Adieu, Madam, I am sure I have now entertained you, with an account of such a sight as you never saw in your life, and what no book of travels could inform you of, as 'tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places' (Montagu 1763: I 164-5).

For all her contempt of authors who descended to the vulgar activity of publication (see for example Montagu 1965-67: III 37; 'it [is] not the busyness of a Man of Quality to turn Author'), Montagu was clearly anxious that the Embassy Letters eventually be published. She kept the manuscript with her wherever she travelled, and on her final journey home entrusted them to an English clergyman at Rotterdam, with instructions to publish them after her death. (See Halsband 1956: 278-9, 287-9, for an account of their journey into print.) It was her travel letters, rather than her poems or essays (some of which had been circulated in manuscript or even published anonymously during her lifetime), that Montagu was concerned to have preserved for posterity.

Astell's 'Preface' aside, the propriety of publishing is not an issue within Montagu's text, for all its prominence in her thought and activity elsewhere. Craven, however, engages vigorously with the issue. She seems to have had few qualms about the propriety of publishing; indeed, she somewhat showily published in a quarto volume illustrated with six engravings. Of the women travel writers who published in the eighteenth century, only Craven and Radcliffe (whose literary reputation was already well established) published in anything grander than octavo; and only Craven's book had plates. The Gentleman's Magazine is unimpressed, however, noting that 'What Lady C. here offers to the publick in a costly quarto might certainly have been very well compressed to the size of Lady Montague's Letters' (Gentleman's Magazine, 59 [1789], 237). The Journey is prefaced with a claim that Craven is publishing in order to satisfy friends' curiosity, and 'to show the world Where the real Lady Craven has been', her husband's mistress having for some years passed herself off as Lady Craven on her travels through France, Switzerland and England. The Monthly Review observes: 'the one great object in view, in publishing this correspondence, appears to be an effort to wipe away some unfavourable imputations at home, and to manifest the respect shewn to the writer abroad' (Monthly Review 80 [1789], 201).

The 'letters' which make up the Journey are written to the Margrave of Anspach, with whom Craven had developed 'a more than sisterly affection' on her travels in Europe following her scandalous separation from Lord Craven in 1781 (Monthly Review 53 [1789], 201). Unfortunately, his wife the Margravine was still alive, albeit in a sickly fashion, and it appears that Craven decided on a grand tour of exotic locations in order to remove the embarrassment to the Margrave created by her continued residence at Anspach, and to kill time until both the Margravine and Lord Craven had expired; he in fact held out until 1791, at which point she promptly married the Margrave. She and the Margrave then returned to England, but her long absence and widely publicised adultery had enabled Lord Craven to turn their children against her: all six refused to acknowledge her (J. Robinson 1990: 87). Moreover, she was no longer received at court, which must have been a serious blow to a woman of her pretensions. In 1814, Craven, now the Margravine of Anspach, reissued the Journey with minor alterations and additions. The new title blazons the name and rank of her correspondent, and celebrates their relationship: Letters from the Right Honorable Lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Anspach … Their relationship and Craven's virtue are indignantly defended in several additional letters, and in the new preface, where we are informed that she 'constantly refused estates and titles' offered by foreign potentates lest she be called suddenly home by her husband and children:

my husband had all his [sic; for 'my'] fine property in his own power, and therefore I could not consent to take any duties on me, when I felt, that my first duty, that of a mother, must make me forsake those duties my gratitude and pride might have made me take elsewhere—my duty as a mother lay in England.

(Craven 1814: v)

The 1814 edition also inserts references to her marital problems with Lord Craven and her deepening friendship with the Margrave; he is presented as a saintly refuge from the callous Lord Craven, who had prevented their children from writing to her, and whose appalling behaviour is clearly intended to exonerate her from any accusations of unwifely conduct. Craven casts herself in the role of restless exile, happy neither at home nor abroad, whose journeying is less a violation than a proof of propriety. The changes made to the 1814 edition engage with the increasingly severe moral climate of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, and negotiate the difficult no-man's-land between public propriety and private affairs which the earlier Journey had, perhaps naively, opened up for public inspection.

Craven capitalises (in both editions) not only on her personal notoriety but also on the increasingly autobiographical scope of travel writing in the later eighteenth century. While Montagu's reasons for travel and her personal affairs are largely absent from the Embassy Letters, Craven's private dramas provide, quite publicly, a moral justification for her travels, as well as an almost novelistic source of semi-scandalous interest. This expanding narrative scope within travel writing could create problems for women travel writers, for whom the acts of publication and indeed travel might appear morally questionable, and for whom autobiographical frankness might be problematic. Craven's text and apologetic signals her awareness of these issues, but her aristocratic self-importance permits her to rise above bourgeois anxiety. When it comes, however, to describing Turkish women, Craven's moral sensibility is closer, as we shall see, to the middle-class propriety of the 1780s and 1790s than to any aristocratic largesse. Moreover, the emphasis she increasingly places on her submissive married relationship (Montagu, by contrast, barely mentions her husband, although she does briefly describe her experiences of childbirth in Turkey) can be related to an emergent imperial sensibility, within which visible domestic affection in the Christian institution of marriage testifies to the moral superiority of the coloniser. Craven and Montagu present strikingly different accounts of Turkish women. Montagu's approach is poetic and aesthetic, Craven's moral and economic. Robert Halsband has observed that while in the courts of western Europe Montagu mingled with princes and diplomats, at the Ottoman court her sex deprived her of this privilege (Halsband 1956: 71). Craven is similarly excluded, but with chagrin; at one point she resorts to spying on the Sultan through a telescope. This exclusion partly explains the absence of political and diplomatic material in both women's accounts and their focus instead on the status of Turkish women. Both writers commend the respect and apparent liberty granted to Turkish women, but Montagu's account of their grace and beauty is vigorously contradicted by Craven. Montagu describes the women of the harem with admiration:

They have naturally the most beautiful complexions in the world, and Generally large black eyes. They generally shape their eye-brows, and both Greeks and Turks have the custom of putting round their eyes a black tincture, that, at distance, or by candle-light, adds very much to the blackness of them. I fancy many of our ladies would be overjoyed to know this secret; but 'tis too visible by day.

(Montagu 1763: II 31-2)

Craven is less favourably impressed:

I have no doubt but that nature intended some of these women to be very handsome, but white and red ill applied, their eye-brows hid under one or two black lines—teeth black by smocking, and an universal stoop in the shoulders, made them appear rather disgusting than handsome … The frequent use of hot-baths destroys the solids, and these women at nineteen look older than I am at this moment.

(Craven 1789: 225-6)

'Nature' here is implicitly associated with British standards of beauty; Craven frequently equates it with western, and usually British, behaviour. The Critical Review notes the prevalence of the adjective 'ugly' in her account (Critical Review 67 [1789], 282). More recently, Montagu has also been accused of forcing Turkish women into a western frame of reference, most notoriously in this famous description of the Turkish bath:

They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our General Mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn, by the pencil of a Guido or Titian,—And most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair, divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the graces.

(Montagu 1763: I 161-2)

Such aestheticising strategies, Isobel Grundy (1992) and Cynthia Lowenthal (1990) have argued, allow Montagu simultaneously to appreciate the exotic otherness of Turkish women and to evade the more problematic issues of freedom and happiness within the harsher realities of Turkish women's experience. Elizabeth Bohls (1995), however, has recently presented a more radical version of Montagu's aestheticising strategies, arguing that she presents herself, daringly, as an aesthetic subject (a privilege usually reserved for males) in order to neutralise orientalist stereotypes of women, and to re-present them as aesthetic rather than erotic objects: statues and paintings rather than the lascivious harpies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century male-authored travels by the likes of Paul Rycaut and Aaron Hill.

Craven's strategy, by contrast, is simultaneously to de-aestheticise the oriental female, and to render her morally dubious once more. Where Montagu celebrates the steamy beauty of the Turkish bath, Craven (1789) is appalled by the baths at Athens, 'full of naked fat women; a disgusting sight' (p. 264). Craven's account of a 'Turkish' bath in fact occurs in Athens. This displacement testifies not only to Craven's tendency to lump together Greeks, Turks, Tartars and Cossacks as eastern and primitive, regardless of politics or national identity—and indeed to use the term 'Turk' as a term of abuse for any objectionable eastern individual—but also to the distance which Craven strenuously constructs between herself and the eastern other, especially in Turkey and its dominions, where the pernicious influence of Islam is stressed. The Critical Review observes that Craven is interested not only in 'the stupidity and indolence of the Turks', but also in 'the effects of their despotism on the conquered Greeks' (Critical Review 67 [1789], 285).

Craven's horror at the Turkish bath is similar to her 'disgusted' reaction to a Cossack belly dancer, 'who never lifted her feet off the ground but once in four minutes, and then only one foot at a time, and every part of her person danced except her feet' (Craven 1789: 173). A description in Montagu's earlier account of a similar entertainment had, by contrast, employed the term 'proper' in an aesthetic sense devoid of moral implication, and envisaged a neutralising coalescence of art and eroticism which would cast the insensitive western prude as the villain of the piece:

This dance was very different from what I had seen before. Nothing could be more artful, or more proper to raise certain ideas. The tunes so soft!—the motions so languishing!—Accompanied with pauses and dying eyes! half-falling back, and then recovering themselves in so artful a manner, that I am very positive, the coldest and most rigid prude upon earth, could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.

(Montagu 1763: II 89-90)

In the more proper climate of the 1780s, Montagu's aesthetic oriental women are re-becoming lascivious. Craven's reintroduction of moral judgement signals a germinating imperial ideology, as potent as had been previous moral assaults on Turkish sexuality (see Bohls 1995: 28-31 on the 'sexualised Orient' constructed by earlier male travel writers), but further bolstered, as we shall see, by a broader sense of Turkish cultural degeneracy. This new grounding permits Craven to claim what Norman Daniel (1966) has described as 'imperialism's perceived "moral right" to civilise any alien people which comes to replace the legal right that had characterised the Crusading impulse' (p. 67).

Craven treats with prurient disapproval what Montagu had appraised with amused tolerance in their respective accounts of Turkish women's 'liberty'. Both mention the freedoms offered by the anonymous garb of Turkish women, but Craven dwells repeatedly on its possibilities for intrigue and licentiousness, even imagining sexual assignations being conducted during services at Santa Sophia, by figures 'wrapped up like a mummy' (Craven 1789: 218). Montagu herself exploits the liberty which Turkish dress affords, wandering the streets of Constantinople 'every day, wrapped up in my Feriae and Asmak' (Montagu 1763: III 26). Craven would not countenance such assimilation:

As to women, as many, if not more than men, are to be seen in the streets—but they look like walking mummies—A large loose robe of dark green cloth covers them from the neck to the ground, over that a large piece of muslin, which wraps the shoulders and the arms, another which goes over the head and eyes … If I was to walk about the streets here I would certainly wear the same dress, for the Turkish women call others names, when they meet them with their faces uncovered—When I go out I have the Ambassador's sedanchair, which is like mine in London, only gilt and varnished like a French coach, and six Turks carry it; as they fancy it impossible that two or four men can carry one; two Janissaries walk before with high fur caps on—The Ambassadors here have all Janissaries as guards allowed them by the Porte—Thank Heaven I have but a little way to go in this pomp, and fearing every moment the Turks should fling me down they are so awkward.

(Craven 1789: 205-6)

Montagu's experience of Turkey stands in opposition to the restrictive idea of gendered space which was becoming a fact of life in eighteenth-century England, and London especially (see Lew 1991: 445-6). The trappings of Turkish femininity offer unlimited access to public spaces (and Craven also notes that 'as many, if not more' women than men occupy the streets). Craven's text rewrites the concept of separate spheres so that space and activity are divided along racial lines. Her 'if I was to walk about the streets here' is purely rhetorical. The Englishwoman is resolutely opposed to the anonymity of Turkish feminine costume (perhaps here the developing discourse of English individuality and strong character is an influence). Consequently, her evident difference opens up perceptible hostility between the women of different races, which can only be contained, quite literally, within a sedan chair borne by Turkish males. And yet this too poses a threat, Craven 'fearing every moment the Turks should fling me down they are so awkward'. For her journey out of Turkey, Craven is given as an escort another threatening male, 'a Tchouadar, that is to say, a kind of upper servant, or rather creature of the Visir' (Craven 1789: 285). This 'yellow looking Turk' (p. 286) is a constant source of irritation to Craven, competing with her for the servants' attention and for the lion's share of the party's provisions. At one point she finds that he has used her kettle to make himself coffee:

If any travellers were to meet us, they would certainly take him for some Grand Seigneur, and that I am of his suite, by the care taken of him, and the perfect indifference all, but my two companions and my servants, show for my ease and convenience … I thought it right to point to two most excellent little English pistols I wear at my girdle, and assure him they would be well employed against any offence I met with. And when the interpreter had done I could not help calling him a stupid disagreeable Turk, in English, which he took for a compliment, and bowed his head a little.

(Craven 1789: 291)

Turkish degeneracy and luxury here emerge as sexual savagery, barely containable through the brandishing of English pistols worn in a highly defensive position, 'at my girdle' (and through the futile yet cathartic effect of English insults). The 'moral right' of the English over the Turk is again asserted.

In 1763, the Monthly Review praises the Embassy Letters in gendered terms: 'There is no affectation of female delicatesse, there are no prettynesses, no Ladyisms in these natural, easy familiar Epistles' (Monthly Review 28 [1763], 385). Paradoxically, Montagu is celebrated as a writer because she is not typical of her gender, even though it is her gender which makes possible her most novel observations (her descriptions of the harem). In 1789, by contrast, the Critical Review notes archly that Craven saw objects 'in the true female view' (Critical Review 67 [1789], 282). If this is true, then Craven is doing so partly in response to the increasing cultural and ideological separation of male and female fields and abilities. Similarly, her highly restrictive notions of sexual propriety are very much of her time. If we recall Craven's aspersions on the authorship of Montagu's text, moreover, it becomes clear that narrowing concepts of female activity colour Craven's reading of Montagu's text to the extent that the Embassy Letters ' tolerant view of Turkish manners evinces their spuriousness.

Montagu's broader cultural tolerance is if anything still more offensive to Craven than her views on women. Jill Campbell (1994) has described how Montagu imagines Turkish culture as 'outside history, as a place where past and present, the literary and the natural, coexist' (pp. 74-5). She relates this to the anthropological phenomenon observed by Johannes Fabian (in Time and the Other), by which western travellers deny the contemporaneity of different cultures, co-existing in the same historical moment, and instead imagine the alien cultures they encounter as inhabiting the distant past of their own culture's history or prehistory (p. 75).

A letter to Pope, written at Adrianople, shows Montagu adopting precisely this position:

I read over your Homer here, with an infinite pleasure, and find several little passages explained, that I did not before entirely comprehend the beauty of: Many of the customs, and much of the dress then in fashion, being yet retained. I don't wonder to find more remains here, of an age so distant, than is to be found in any other country, the Turks not taking that pains to introduce their own manners, as has been generally practised by other nations, that imagine themselves more polite.

(Montagu 1763: II 44)

This is to Pope, and about poetry, and is therefore consciously idealistic. This letter invokes a cultural continuity which dissolves national boundaries and represents difference as innocence from the ravages of civilisation: 'I never see half a dozen of old Bashaws (as I do very often) with their reverend beards, sitting basking in the sun, but I recollect good King Priam and his counsellors' (vol. II, p. 45). The Embassy Letters as a whole strives to articulate an innocence of history and politics, which are barely mentioned, and also of cultural judgement. Crucial to this project is the fragmentation of narrative identity which occurs within the Embassy Letters. Montagu's text differs markedly from Craven's in being addressed (rather unusually, in eighteenth-century travel literature) to a wide range of correspondents (fifteen in all, twelve of whom are women), ranging from her depressed sister, Lady Mar, to the Abbe Conti, to Alexander Pope, and including assorted female friends. All of Craven's letters, by contrast, are addressed to the Margrave (which may partly account for their celebration of her virtues and of the esteem in which she is held throughout Europe, Russia and Turkey). This formal difference makes for a greater stylistic variety within the Embassy Letters than in Craven's Journey. Montagu uses different literary and conversational registers for different correspondents, and deploys a range of descriptive topics. She addresses one letter to the Princess of Wales, writing as ambassadress for Christendom as well as Britain: 'I have now, Madam, finished a journey that has not been undertaken by any Christian, since the time of the Greek Emperors; and I shall not regret all the fatigues I have suffered in it, if it gives me an opportunity of amusing your R. H. by an account of places utterly unknown amongst us' (vol. I, p. 151).

To Lady Mar, Montagu writes anecdotal, humorous accounts of social and sexual customs and visits to exotic notables like the Grand Vizier's 'lady' and the Sultana Hafiten. With assorted Ladies, she is chatty and occasionally risqué. All her detailed (and celebrated) accounts of Turkish women, in harem or public bath or private audience, are addressed to women.

With the Abbe Conti and with Pope, not surprisingly, Montagu is most scholarly and philosophical. To the Abbe she writes 'of manners and religion' (vol. II, p. 1), government and welfare, antiquities and architecture, commerce, military parades, and Islam. To Pope she addresses witty and sometimes flirtatious letters, writing about poetry and pastoral; she resolutely denies Pope the almost erotic satisfaction which her letters to women friends offer, in accounts of her Turkish costume and luxurious lifestyle. One detects a distinctively plaintive note to Pope's declaration: 'I long for nothing so much as your Oriental Self. I expect to see your Soul as much thinner dresed as your Body' (Pope 1956: I 494). Through this dazzling variety of subjects and styles, Montagu refracts her narrative identity into a prismatic multiplicity. The Letters ' observing self becomes, quite literally, an embodiment of Enlightenment pluralism. Their multifaceted narrator was no doubt an important factor in the enthusiastic reception of the Critical Review which itemises the narrator's separate attractions, declaring that the letters will display, 'as long as the English language endures, the sprightliness of her wit, the solidity of her judgement, the extent of her knowledge, the elegance of her taste, and the excellence of her real character' (Critical Review 15 [1763], 435).

The freedom of the Embassy Letters from opinion, judgement, or 'vulgar prejudice' (to use a frequent eighteenth-century criticism of travel writing) seems to have made them peculiarly attractive to the critical and reading public of the 1760s. Montagu must have seemed a true citizen of the world. The Embassy Letters were published in the year of the cessation of the Seven Years' War in Europe; the war had in some ways undermined the viability of Enlightened ideals and seen them compromised by political contingency and nationalistic feeling. Montagu's visions of a distant and not immediately threatening foreign world perhaps reassured the reading public that Enlightened tolerance was still, albeit remotely, alive and possible. Alternatively, the confidence-boosting territorial gains made at the Peace of Paris may have fostered a relaxed and culturally tolerant mood among the reading and critical public. Furthermore, remarks like 'Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women, as the only free people in the Empire' (Montagu 1763: II 35) must have offered a pleasurable alternative to the bitter resonances of 'liberty' in its domestic context in 1763. The Embassy Letters were published and reviewed in May of 1763; the anti-government North Briton edited by John Wilkes had published its incendiary issue 45 in April; and 'Wilkes and Liberty' was becoming a rallying cry.

For all the enlightened pluralism of the Embassy Letters, one might argue that there are letters in which Montagu's narrative persona is more emphatically English and where, correspondingly, things Turkish are presented in a more ambivalent light. The first is in a letter (her only) to the Princess of Wales, in which (as mentioned earlier) she writes as spokeswoman for Christendom. She describes her arrival in Turkish territory:

The country from hence to Adrianople, is the finest in the world. Vines grow wild on all the hills, and the perpetual spring they enjoy, makes every thing gay and flourishing. But this climate, happy as it seems, can never be preferred to England, with all its frosts and snows, while we are blessed with an easy government, under a King, who makes his own happiness consist in the liberty of his people, and chooses rather to be looked upon, as their father than their master.

(Montagu 1763: I 155)

This is a striking passage in Montagu's text; all the more so in that it sounds, almost parodically, like a great deal of other eighteenth-century travel writers who draw such comparisons so frequently as to make them at best a trope, at worst a cliché, of the genre. It is, however, hardly xenophobia; the same could not be said for a letter to Pope, describing Austro-Turkish atrocities in the battle for Belgrade, which contains a virulent diatribe against the Turks:

You see here that I give you a very handsome return for your obliging letter. You entertain me with a most agreeable account of your amiable connexions with men of letters and taste, and of the delicious moments you pass in their society under the rural shade; and I exhibit to you in return, the barbarous spectacle of Turks and Germans cutting one another's throats. But what can you expect from such a country as this, from which the muses have fled, from which letters seem eternally banished, and in which you see, in private scenes, nothing pursued as happiness but the refinements of an indolent voluptuousness, and where those who act upon the public theatre live in uncertainty, suspicion, and terror.

(Montagu 1767: 27-8)

This letter implicitly rejects the classical idealising of Turkey which dominates most of the Embassy Letters, and declares indeed: 'I long much to tread upon English ground, that I may see you and Mr. Congreve, who render that ground classick ground' (Montagu 1767: 32). These passages are almost worthy of Smollett's Smelfungus, and disrupt the tolerant pluralism of the other letters. Or, I should say, would disrupt; although a recent editor of Montagu (Clare Brant, Montagu 1992: 148-50) includes this letter, it did not in fact appear in the 1763 edition of Embassy Letters. It was first published in the spurious 'fourth volume', containing five fake letters and some genuine material (an essay, a letter, some verse), which appeared in 1767. Robert Halsband, in his definitive edition of Montagu's letters, has documented the inauthenticity of most of the 1767 volume (Montagu 1965-67: I xviii and I 371). Discredited by the time Craven was writing, this literary imposture had nevertheless 'deceived even … the critics' in 1767, as the Monthly Review (70 [1784], 575) ruefully admits. The 1767 volume is a fascinating hoax, and reveals the extent to which Montagu's pluralistic tolerance is already nostalgic, indeed outdated, by the later 1760s; or at least is co-existing somewhat uneasily with a more xenophobic, politically defensive sensibility. Revealingly, Lady Bute was convinced that the volume published in 1767 must be 'genuine' (Montagu 1965-67: I xviii). In the genuine volumes of the Embassy Letters, by contrast, Turkish indolence is invested with a complex philosophical value, embodying both classical (specifically, Elysian) tranquillity, and the possibility of a modern epicureanism:

I am almost of opinion they [the Turks] have a right notion of life. They consume it in musick, gardens, wine and delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some scheme of politicks, or studying some science to which we can never attain … Considering what short liv'd weak animals men are, is there any study so beneficial as the study of present pleasure? I dare not pursue this theme.

(Montagu 1763: III 52-3)

Elsewhere, Montagu surrenders to the 'wicked suggestions of poetry', and observes 'the warmth of the climate, naturally inspiring a laziness and aversion to labour' (Montagu 1763: II 40-2). For Craven in the 1780s, however, indolence is anything but 'naturally' inspired: her 'nature' favours industry and (where such industry is not indigenous) colonisation. And her version of pastoral, as in this description of the valley of Baydar in Turkey, is decidedly imperial: 'a most enchanting and magnificent spot, intended by nature for some industrious and happy nation to enjoy in peace—A few Tartar villages lessen the wildness of the scene, but, in such a place, the meadow part should be covered with herds, and the mountainous with sheep' (Craven 1789: 190-1).

Craven's response to Turkish languor is one of prosaic disapproval: 'The quiet stupid Turk will sit a whole day by the side of the Canal, looking at flying kites or children's boats … How the business of the nation goes on at all I cannot guess' (p. 207). Her visions of commercial imperialism are couched in the language of emancipation and vision:

Can any rational being, dear Sir, see nature, without the least assistance from art, in all her grace and beauty, stretching out her liberal hand to industry, and not wish to do her justice? Yes, I confess, I wish to see a colony of honest English families here; establishing manufactures, such as England produces, and returning the produce of this country to ours—establishing a fair and free trade from hence, and teaching industry and honesty to the insidious but oppressed Greeks, in their islands—waking the indolent Turk from his gilded slumbers, and carrying fair Liberty in her swelling sails … This is no visionary or poetical figure—it is the honest wish of one who considers all mankind as one family.

(Craven 1789: 188-9)

This passage is especially commended by the Monthly Review for its 'liberal reflections, which do honour to the writer, both as a lover of her own country, and as a citizen of the world' (Monthly Review 80 [1789], 209). This judgement testifies to the ideological gulf not only between Montagu and Craven, but between the values of mid-century and those of later eighteenth-century culture, which looks forward to a new world of imperial expansion. The East is no longer merely an exotic playpen, but a land ripe for the type of colonial appropriation already well under way in India.

Although the reviews criticise Craven's arrogant style, her ideological stance is congenial, and she represents an important strand in travel literature (and much else) of the 1780s and 1790s. P. J. Marshall and Glyndwr Williams (1982: 67) have claimed that, despite continuing interest in the Near East, the growth of British influence in India was rapidly eclipsing Near Eastern concerns. Craven's account and its reception would suggest otherwise; or, indeed, might suggest that the Turkish experience was providing a paradigm for British attitudes towards India in the following century. As Norman Daniel puts it:

It was in Turkey that the imperial attitude developed most rapidly, and not in India, where empire was further advanced. The mood of the conquerors of Bengal was as humble culturally as it was active, even aggressive, in war and commerce. Warren Hastings was a great patron of the study of Persian culture. The serious-minded servants of the Company contributed learned notes and translations and adaptations of Persian verse to specialised periodicals. The forms of the Mogul Empire were carried on, and diplomacy in India still used the Persian language. The significant change in the European attitude came in relations with the Ottoman Empire, a change that soon affected India.

(Daniel 1966: 71)

The years separating Montagu and Craven show quite graphically the disappearance, as far as Turkey is concerned, of such cultural interest and humility. Montagu transcribes Turkish poetry, pronounces herself 'pretty far gone in Oriental learning' (Montagu 1763: II 46-56), and is enormously impressed by Turkish cultural traditions. Craven displays no such interest, and represents the Turks as barbaric philistines. Admittedly, she has some justification for this view, given that the Turks are bombarding Athens during her journey; however, her concern is less with the destruction of the Parthenon per se, and more with the British failure to get in on the act: 'ruins, that would adorn a virtuoso's cabinet, are daily burnt into lime by the Turks; and pieces of exquisite workmanship stuck into a wall or fountain' (Craven 1789: 221). She is particularly chagrined when the Turks forbid any of her party to remove any fragments of sculpture: 'alas, Sir, I cannot even have a little finger or a toe' (p. 256).

The sense of Turkey as a degenerating culture which is expressed only in the spurious letter from Montagu to Pope dominates Craven's account, and chimes with contemporary opinion, which was coming to view the Turks not only as 'idle and effete under the influence of despotism, but as worse than savages' (Burke, speech on 29 March 1791; cited Marshall and Williams 1982: 165). Montagu combines a respect for Turkish cultural history with a poetic imagining of Turkish culture as existing outside history and indeed politics; Craven constructs an alternative history, within which Turkish culture is erased, and the Turks are instead configured as almost pre-historic in their barbaric indolence. Craven's travelogue looks forwards, not back, to the assimilation of the East into British imperial history. And the forceful narrative personality projected by Craven's text foreshadows the emergence of the moral centre which the colonial woman is to provide for the colonial project.


1. Primary

Craven, Elizabeth, Lady (1789) A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople. In a Series of Letters from the Right Hon. Elizabeth Lady Craven, to his Serene Highness the Margrave of Brandebourg, Anspach, and Bareith. Written in the Year MDCCLXXXVI, London: G. G. J. Robinson.

——Margravine of Anspach (1814) Letters from the Right Honorable Lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Anspach, during her Travels through France, Germany, and Russia in 1785 and 1786, London.

——(1826) Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach, Written by Herself, 2 vols, London: Henry Colburn.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley (1763) 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, among other curious Relations, Accounts of the Policy and Manners of the Turks; drawn from Sources that have been inaccessible to other Travellers, 3 vols, London: T. A. Becket and P. A. de Hondt.

——[spurious] (1767) An Additional Volume to the 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, London.

——(1965-67) The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols, Oxford: OUP.

——(1977) Essays and Poems, and 'Simplicity, a Comedy', ed. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

——(1992) Letters, ed. Clare Brant, London: Dent.

Pope, Alexander (1956) Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn, 5 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

2. Secondary

Bhabha, Homi K. (1986) 'The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism', in Francis Barker et al. (eds), Literature, Politics and Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference 1976-84, London: Methuen, 148-72.

Bohls, Elizabeth A. (1995) Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics 1716-1818, Cambridge: CUP.

Campbell, Jill (1994) 'Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Historical Machinery of Female Identity', in Beth Fowkes Tobin (ed.), History, Gender and Eighteenth-Century Literature, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 64-85.

Daniel, Norman (1966) Islam, Europe and Empire, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fabian, Johannes (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, New York: Columbia University Press.

Halsband, Robert (1956) The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lew, Joseph W. (1991) 'Lady Mary's Portable Seraglio', Eighteenth-Century Studies 24: 432-50.

Lewis, Bernard (1993) Islam and the West, Oxford: OUP.

Lowenthal, Cynthia (1990) 'The Veil of Romance: Lady Mary's Embassy Letters', Eighteenth-Century Life 14: 66-82.

Marshall, P. J. and Glyndwr Williams (1982) The Great Map of Mankind: British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment, London: Dent.

Robinson, Jane (1990) Wayward Women: a Guide to Women Travellers, Oxford: OUP.

Shaw, Stanford (1976) History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 2 vols, Cambridge: CUP.

Turner, Katherine S. H. (1995) 'The Politics of Narrative Singularity in British Travel Writing, 1750-1800', unpublished D Phil dissertation, University of Oxford.

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