Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu [New Year’s Resolution]
I have been curious about Lady Mary for a long time and I picked up this volume of letters. It’s a bit of a con. There is an unreadable academic introduction and then what folllows is an unchanged bowdlerised 1906 version of the letters – interesting, the academic tells me, in itself for socio-cultural reasons. Letter editors in 1906 do not feel the same need to hold your hand as more recent scholars. That leaves a lot unexplained. We start out with her early letters to Mr. Wortley Montagu. She was in her late teens and was enjoying a will we/won’t we relationship with him. Though the register of language is clearly different, in essence a lot of these letters say: “UR dmpd. Nvr cll me agn.” The sequence begins with a letter from March 1710 which finishes thus:
I don’t enjoin you to burn this letter. I know you will. ‘Tis the first I ever writ to one of your sex, and shall be the last. You must never expect another. I resolve against all correspondence of the kind; my resolutions are seldom made, and never broken.
To Mr. Wortley Montague. I have this minute received your two letters etc.
Clearly Wortley Montagu was a bounder because her confidence that he would burn her letters appears to have been entirely misplaced. At least he responded to her letters though.
So, not a strong start. She elopes with Wortley Montagu – a mistake. This does lead to a number of interesting letters to him about how to get elected.
I hope you are convinced I was not mistaken in my judgment of Lord Pelham ; he is very silly, but very good-natured. I don’t see how it can be improper for you to get it represented to him that he is obliged in honor to get you chose at Aldburgh, and may more easily get Mr. Jessop chose at another place. I can’t believe but you may manage it in such a manner ; Mr. Jessop himself would not be against it, nor would he have so much reason to take it ill, if he should not be chose, as you have after so much money fruitlessly spent. I dare say you may order it so that it may be so, if you talk to Lord Townshend, etc. I mention this, because I can not think you can stand at York, or any where else, without a great expense. Lord Morpeth is just now of age, but I know not whether he ‘ll think it worth while to return from travel upon that occasion. Lord Carlisle is in town; you may, if you think fit, make him a visit, and inquire concerning it. After all, I look upon Aldburgh to be the surest thing. Lord Pelham is easily persuaded to any thing, and I am sure he may be told by Lord Townshend that he has used you ill; and I know that he ‘ll be desirous to do all things in his power to make it up. In my opinion, if you resolve upon an extraordinary expense to be in Parliament, you should resolve to have it turn to some account. Your lather is very surprising if he persists in standing at Huntingdon; but there is nothing surprising in such a world as this.
But the letters really come into their own once she finally goes abroad. Her letters from her journey to Turkey are fantastic: interesting, engaging, funny and still very, very readable.
One of her many correspondents was Abbé Conti and in her letters to him, she is regularly very scathing about catholicism in general and transubstantiation in particular. I was fascinated by this and wondered how the correspondence could possibly continue in those times of religious turbulence.
She also corresponds with her sister who is married to a leading Jacobite and I can’t help wondering how that works when she is also corresponding enthusiastically with the English court. Truly a modern edition with a guide through these mazes would have been very welcome.
Lady Mary quotes from Roman poets, in Latin. My edition believes translation is for wimps so I did my best with my school Latin but it is challenging. Oh for a modern edition.
Childbirth is not the centre of her life in the way it might be to a modern mother. Here is how she announces to her sister that she has had a daughter. Below is the entire reference to the event. Note that her sister is not informed of the baby’s name. Those were clearly more robust times. No epidural either.
In the first place, then, I wish you joy of your niece; for I was brought to bed of a daughter five weeks ago. I don’t mention this as one of my diverting adventures; though I must own that it is not half so mortifying here as in England; there being as much difference as there is between a little cold in the head, which sometimes happens here, and the consumption cough, so common in London. Nobody keeps their house a month for lying-in; and I am not so fond of any of our customs as to retain them when they are not necessary. I returned my visits at three weeks’ end ; and, about four days ago, crossed the sea, which divides this place from Constantinople, to make a new one, where I had the good fortune to pick up many curiosities.
About 1739, I found myself thinking (in the middle of letters to the Countess of Pomfret and others), oh no, she was born in 1689 – how much longer has she got?
Quite a bit longer – what do you think of this extract from a letter to her daughter in 1749?
I was quietly reading in my closet, when I was interrupted by the chambermaid of the Signora Laura Bono, who flung herself at my feet, and, in an agony of sobs and tears, begged me, for the love of the holy Madonna to hasten to her master’s house, where the two brothers would certainly murder one another, if my presence did not stop their fury. I was very much surprised…However, I made all possible speed thither…and was directed to the bed-chamber by the noise of oaths and execrations; but, on opening the door, was astonished…by seeing the Signora Laura prostrate on the ground, melting in tears, and her husband standing with a drawn stiletto in hand, swearing she should never see tomorrow’s son I was soon let into the secret. The good man, having business of consequence at Brescia, went thither early in the morning; but as he expected his chief tenant to pay his rent that day, he left order with his wife that if the farmer, who lived two miles off, came himself, or sent any of his sons, she should take great care to make him very welcome. She obeyed him with great punctuality, the money coming in the hand of a handsome lad of 18; she did not only admit him to her own table, and produce the best wine in the cellar, but resolved to give him chère entière. While she was exercising this generous hospitality, the husband met midway the gentleman he intended to visit…he returned to his own house, where…he opened his door with the passe partout key, and proceeded to his chamber, without meeting anybody, where he found his beloved spouse asleep on the bed with her gallant. The opening of the door waked them; the young fellow immediately leaped out of the window, which looked into the garden, and was open, it being summer, and escaped over the fields, leaving his breeches on a chair by the bedside – a very striking circumstance. In short, the case was such, I do not think the queen of the fairies herself could have found an excuse, though Chaucer tells us she has made a solemn promise to leave none of her sex unfurnished with one, to all eternity.
Later on she offers advice to her daughter about the education of her granddaughters and she really struggles to justify what she believes to be worthwhile (the education of girls) and what she knows to be socially inappropriate (the education of girls).
I really cannot recommend the letters strongly enough, although I would steer clear of this edition unless your knowledge of the period is excellent. To be honest, I can’t see that the bowdlerising did much harm but then I don’t know what I’m missing. My next mission is to get hold of Lytton Strachey’s “Biographical Essays” which features our heroine. Since the edition I have, disapprovingly omits all letters to her lover whom she spent quite a while junketing around the continent with/after, I feel there is more to learn.
“Daughters of Britannia” by Katie Hickman [New Year’s Resolution]
I thought that this would provide more background on Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu but, alas, it largely quotes from the Embassy letters which I have just read. For the rest, it is a mildly entertaining description of the set-up of British embassies abroad over the centuries and the travails of diplomatic spouses. There is one chapter, “Dangers” which describes kidnappings and being caught in the cross-fire of civil wars and uprisings. The author covers in some detail the domestic aftermath of the assassination of the British ambassador to Ireland. The author’s father was a counsellor in the embassy at the time and her mother was up at the house trying to comfort the ambassador’s children. Their mother was in England and heard the news on the car radio which must have been dreadful. I vaguely remember the event myself (I was 7) but to read about it from someone who saw the domestic fall out at close quarters was really surprisingly distressing.