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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.
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