Books: Wanted: the lost works of Lady Mary

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment

by Isobel Grundy

Oxford pounds 30

In 1727 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote to her sister, the exiled Lady Mar, soon to take leave of her senses, with a description of the coronation of George II which she had recently attended. The letter is a characteristically virtuoso epistolary performance. After admitting that she "cannot deny but I was very well diverted the Coronation Day", Montagu lights on the unfortunate Countess of Orkney who, she claims, "indisputably" drew all eyes on the occasion. "She exposed behind a mixture of Fat and Wrinkles, and before a considerable pair of Bubbys a good deal withered, a great Belly that preceded her; add to this the inimitable roll of her Eyes, and her Grey Hair which by good fortune stood directly upright, and 'tis impossible to imagine a more Delightful Spectacle. She had embellished all this with a great deal of Magnificence which made her as big again as usual, and I shou'd have thought her one of the largest things of God's making if my Lady St John had not display'd all her Charms that day."

This invaluable gem of courtly bitchery is one of the set pieces of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's collected correspondence. It captures her inimitable wit and the lampooning ability which she was to use to damaging effect in her literary skirmishes with her erstwhile worshipper, Alexander Pope. For a further example from the English tradition of letter writing of such liveliness, allied to clearly remarkable gifts of mind and descriptive powers, one has to jump two centuries on, to Virginia Woolf. From her own day onwards Montagu's letters have always been the most visible, and publicly celebrated, aspect of her writing which she hoped would survive for posterity, and of which she never disclaimed authorship, though one suspects that today the letters are constantly quoted but seldom read. In 1726 she recognised their enduring value, and advised her sister to put "none of 'em to the use of Waste paper".

Some of the letters, of course, she edited for publication herself. The famous Embassy Letters, the product of the 18 months Lady Mary spent as consort to her husband Edward during his ambassadorship in Constantinople, were actually prepared for posthumous publication by Montagu, and appeared in 1763, nine months after her death. They include Montagu's notorious account of her visit to a Turkish public bath at Sofia, where her description of 200 women sitting "stark naked" caused outrage, not least among Islamic commentators who, refusing to admit that Turkish woman practised communal nudity, accused Montagu of lying. However, as Isobel Grundy reminds us, this series of letters is an exception to the others, and looks like a conscious bid for literary fame. The Embassy Letters are an Enlightenment travel treatise: relaxed and racy, but with everything personal and private excised.

Time and chance have dealt more severely with other parts of Montagu's correspondence, and for her biographer, keen to reveal Montagu as a comet streaking across the Enlightenment sky, it must be particularly galling to recognise that her letters to some of the intellectual giants of the age, like Congreve, Rousseau, Montesquieu, for instance, and to her cousin Henry Fielding, have completely disappeared.

There are significant gaps in her personal letters too (those, for example, to her errant son, the dreadful Edward who married a washerwoman while still in his teens, and then embarked on a life of drink and debt, were destroyed by his descendants, anxious to avoid embarrassment); but these are as nothing to the disappearance of Montagu's other major literary works. Her lifelong diary was destroyed, and a "History of (her) own time" was "consecrated to the fire" as she finished it. At her death, 21 large volumes of prose and verse in manuscript were said to survive, but the scholarly edition fills only five, and certainly the love poetry and fiction that do still exist are only a small proportion of what Montagu actually completed. A large part of the problem is that Montagu wrote for a society that still subscribed heavily to the idea of a manuscript culture. Writing circulated in manuscript and was sometimes copied out by the recipient before being passed on. What little Montagu did allow into print was naturally - because she was a woman, and an upper-class one at that - published anonymously. We know from various contemporary remarks that Montagu was highly esteemed as a poet. The Duke of Buckingham referred to "the Fam'd Lady Mary" as a prospective Poet Laureate when the office became vacant; but as to the precise scale of her poetic achievement, the biographer is to some extent left groping about in the dark.

All these drawbacks do all the more credit to Isobel Grundy's extraordinary feat in bringing Lady Mary Wortley Montagu alive in all her various guises. This is the first authoritative biography in more than 40 years, and the first to make use of all the scholarly work which, in the intervening period, has definitively established Montagu as perhaps the most significant woman writer between Aphra Behn and Jane Austen (Fanny Burney notwithstanding).

Grundy began her career in the 1960s as a research assistant to Robert Halsband, the editor of the complete edition of the letters, and for much of the past 30 years she has been painstakingly uncovering Lady Mary's hidden literary and biographical traces. This biography, which runs to almost 700 pages, is the product of an enormous amount of scholarship. Its detail, designed to illustrate the world in which Lady Mary moved, is truly prodigious, and yet the book rarely suffers from that besetting sin of the academic biographer: of throwing in every bit of research, however tangential. And most amazingly of all, the interest of the narrative never slackens: from Lady Mary's rejection of her suitor, the improbably named Clotworthy Skeffington, and her elopement with Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712, right through to her return to England from Italy in 1761 after more than 20 years of travelling around the continent (some of the time spent in chasing a shifty Italian bisexual called Algarotti, with whom she was besotted), the story holds you gripped.

Grundy sees Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as "conspicuous as an icon", but "hidden as an agent". She was a beautiful woman, and remained one even after a smallpox attack in 1715 left her badly scarred, but she was also a writer, and the abuse and vilification that were hurled at her, most prominently by Pope whose public attacks portrayed her as a monster, were a result of the conjunction of these two mutually exclusive identities. As Grundy very appositely remarks: "As a highly visible, assertive, unconforming woman Lady Mary was a lightening rod for misogynist anxiety and anger."

One of the most fascinating episodes in Montagu's life in which she was forced, to some extent, to play hidden agent, is her role as a proselytiser for inoculation against smallpox. The terrifying onslaught of the disease is horrifically conveyed by Grundy in her description of Montagu's own attack: "her whole skin, both where it was all spot and even where there was space between the spots, was so swollen that her face became literally unrecognisable" - and that was just the beginning of it. In Turkey Montagu had observed inoculation being practised, and while there had had her son inoculated against the disease. One of the little boy's wrists was pricked with a needle, and a tiny droplet of smallpox matter was mixed with the blood. Within five days of the operation Edward was reported as "singing and playing and very impatient for his supper".

The England of the early 1720s saw several serious smallpox epidemics in which the disease seemed "to go forth like a destroying angel". Montagu became an active promoter of inoculation, persuading and encouraging parents, visiting convalescent patients, and mobilising a network of influential supporters which included members of the royal family. Inoculation became a much debated and controversial issue. Montagu contributed her own published essay to the debate, and was praised for her involvement, though more as a figurehead than as a medical pioneer. However, the History of Smallpox published at the beginning of the 19th century gives Montagu on balance more credit for introducing inoculation to this country than the most distinguished of surgeons, and that opinion holds true today.

In past 12 months there has been a minor spate of biographies of 18th- century figures, including Victoria Glendinning's indifferent life of Swift, and the overhyped Georgiana by Amanda Foreman. Sadly, with its lacklustre cover design, prohibitive pricing, and the customary failure of Oxford University Press to publicise it adequately, Grundy's Lady Mary Wortley Montagu will probably not reach a very wide readership. But this should not be allowed to obscure the book's significant achievement. It deserves to be praised to the skies.