All you need to know about the books you meant to read
THE TURKISH EMBASSY LETTERS by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1763)
Saturday 08 June 1996
Plot: Lady Mary is the unobtrusive heroine of this epistolary odyssey. Detached yet curious, she probes everything from Virgil to hairstyles, the nature of camels to the causes of warfare. In Turkey, she witnesses smallpox inoculation and, convinced of its efficacy, jabs her own child.
Theme: She appreciates rationality and fears mankind's espousal of brutality and prejudice. Repeatedly, Lady Mary withholds criticism: "Gallantry and good breeding are as different in different climes as morality and religion. Who have the rightest notions of both we shall never know till the day of judgement." Warfare is "proof of the irrationality of mankind" and she finds herself "inclined to believe Mr Hobbes that the state of nature is a state of war".
Style: Although the prose is superficially elegant and vivacious, there is a constant undertow of melancholy. Lady Mary is an Austen heroine, 100 years early.
Chief Strengths: The purpose of the letters is didactic, but Lady Mary's restless humour and blunt self-appraisal prevent her from becoming a bore.
Chief weaknesses: Lady Mary's tolerance does not always show understanding.
What they thought of it then: When they were published, the Critical Review praised the letters and Lady Mary for "the sprightliness of her wit, the solidity of her judgement and the excellence of her real character".
What we think of it now: Lady Mary is caricatured as a feminist icon, a sort of feisty neo-classical Freya Stark fearlessly toting her independence in exotic locations. This view must be balanced by Lytton Strachey's portrait of her as a tragic heroine who had the honesty "to look into the worthlessness of things".
Responsible for: Popularising inoculation, when British medicine consisted largely of leeches and purges. And provoking the only known area of agreement between Voltaire and Dr Johnson: they both admired Lady Mary's moral dash.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Frank Lampard's face drops when Holly Willoughby introduces him as a 'Man City legend'
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 General Election 2015: Stephen Hawking says he will vote Labour
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera writer mocked after issuing a warning about Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
General election 2015: Labour will toughen hate crimes legislation surrounding Islamophobia
HSBC review into moving headquarters from UK 'underway'