Books: Escape from worthy clots
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: comet of the Enlightenment by Isobel Grundy Oxford University Press, pounds 30, 680pp; Amanda Foreman traces the route of an intrepid poet, wit, satirist, traveller - and pioneer of vaccination
Saturday 08 May 1999
However, the majority of the pen portraits of Lady Mary are vicious in the extreme. The poet Alexander Pope led the charge to assassinate her character, accusing her of being lewd, spiteful, dirty, untalented and avaricious. For the past 200 years it has been the poisonous writing of Lady Mary's enemies which has shaped her reputation. It is only recently that scholars have begun to reassess the blighted figure in Pope's poems and turned instead to the blazing figure in the portraits.
Isobel Grundy, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, has spent years editing and collating Lady Mary's writing. This biography is literally the product of a lifetime's work. It is the definitive study of an outstanding 18th-century adventurer and poet. However, the sub-title that Grundy has chosen conveys a poignancy. "Comet of the Enlightenment" suggests a falling star that lights up the sky but leaves no trace behind.
Lady Mary was a scholar, poet, wit and innovator, but she helped to traduce her own reputation by destroying most of her papers before she died. Her daughter, Lady Bute, burned the rest. What remains are fragments, scraps, and tied bundles in other collections. There is no Wortley Montagu MSS anywhere waiting obediently to be examined. This has made Grundy's task doubly hard and her achievement all the more extraordinary.
The bare outlines of Lady Mary's life are the stuff of novels. The daughter of Lord Pierrepont, who later became the Duke of Kingston, she grew up without her mother, who died young, and rarely in the company of her socially ambitious father. When she was 21, her father chose the wondrously named Clotworthy Skeffington to be her husband. This, Lady Mary decided, would be "hell". Instead she chose for herself "Limbo" - marriage to a man she esteemed and liked but did not love.
Edward Wortley Montagu MP was some years older, difficult, exacting and smug, but he was well read and he did love her. They eloped just days before her wedding to Skeffington, to the joy of gossips and the outrage of their families.
Free from one form of bondage, Lady Mary found herself caught in another which, though more pleasurable, was no less real. Her true vocation was poetry and writing polemics. Instead, she dutifully kept house for Edward in the country while he remained in London. After a couple of years, she rebelled and he allowed her to join him.
Thereafter her integration into London court and literary society was extremely rapid. Her two best male friends were Lord Hervey, who remained true as far as he was capable throughout, and Pope, who later turned against her so spectacularly. She also cultivated the Whig politician Robert Walpole, whose mistress became one of her best female friends.
Lady Mary could not avoid creating scandal. Aside from her naturally iconoclastic spirit, it was partly her desire to attract attention and partly the flavour of the times, which took a malicious interest in women poets. In 1715, shortly after the devastating attack of smallpox, the 26-year-old poetess caused maximum affront when a printer illicitly printed her "Roxana", a satire on court life. Plenty of people recognised themselves in the seven eclogues which also contained a raft of insider's gossip and information.
Fortunately, Edward was appointed the British Ambassador to Turkey and Lady Mary was able to abandon the hue and cry of London. The next two years assured her fame for posterity, while ensuring her infamy among contemporaries. She is remembered today for two reasons; first, for her unrivalled literary descriptions of Turkish life and the lives of Turkish women in particular. Second, for having discovered the Turkish practice of inoculation against smallpox. She had her own son, Edward, inoculated and then championed the practice on her return home.
Although powerfully supported by Princess Caroline, Lady Mary's cause divided society as well as the medical establishment. She became the butt of every joke and the easy target for scabrous attacks in the press. She never lost her faith in the practice, but later came to regret the sacrifices she had made. Friends turned against her, including Pope, and her infamy may have alienated her husband, too.
She continued to write poetry, run her husband's household, bring up her two children, and cultivate the best society had to offer. But Pope's enmity, as well as the spite he encouraged in others, led to her gradual disillusionment with England.
Twenty years after her return from Turkey she left home again, this time for Italy and on her own. It was not only Pope who drove her away but a cultural theorist, Francesco Algarotti, who lured her to Venice. She was middle aged and madly in love. Her friend, Lord Hervey, was also in love with Algarotti, and it was not long before they both found him wanting.
Nevertheless, Lady Mary decided to remain abroad for the next 20 years. Her life in exile was not always happy; she became caught in the evil grasp of a confidence trickster and gangster named Palazzi, who kept her a virtual prisoner for several years.
Yet she dreaded going back to England. When she did, in 1762, she discovered to her delight that Pope's wounding satires had failed to outlive their author. Now regarded as a fascinating relic from Queen Anne's time, Lady Mary was no longer the object of national vilification. During her last months she had the satisfaction of receiving endless visitors to her cramped little house.
As Isobel Grundy states, Lady Mary chose a difficult course in life and made it more difficult for herself as she went along. The complexities of her character have outraged, puzzled and even put off some biographers. By contrast, Grundy has used her sympathy for Lady Mary to great effect; not only recreating the whole person but giving her context and meaning. At nearly 700 pages, this is an exhaustive, even daunting, biography, but well worth the effort.
Amanda Foreman's life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (HarperCollins) is on the long list for the Samuel Johnson Prize
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