Lady Mary Wortley Montagu  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (26 May 168921 August 1762) was an English aristocrat and writer. Montagu is today chiefly remembered for her letters, particularly her letters from Turkey, which have been described by Billie Melman as “the very first example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient”.

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." 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”. 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."

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." 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."

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. 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.



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