A Modern Woman Born 1689 by Elizabeth Robins
Published in The Anglo-Saxon Review, a quarterly miscellany edited by Lady Randolph Spencer Churchill. London and New York: John Lane, publisher. Vol. I (June 1899), 39-65.
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates. See below for citation for this version.
NO generation goes unapprised of the greatness of Homer or of Dante, but how much in need are the preoccupied of the more modest service of a reminder, every now and then, of some friendly, charming figure lingering, it may be, on the outskirts of literature, and growing vaguer with the years!
Mr. Walter Bagehot, sighing by the way, 'Nothing is so transitory as second-class fame,' wrote in 1862: 'The name of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is hardly now known to the great mass of ordinary English readers.' One's own regret would rather take this shape: What a loss that so many are content with knowing only her name and one or two facts about her, in lieu of knowing her! Within the last month I must have spoken to a dozen intelligent people about my new friend. It was astonishing how many who would rejoice in her and in her Letters had no intimate knowledge of either. I have come to feel I should know the reason of this if some one would tell me why it is that the unenlivening things that people do or say are just the things that get themselves repeated through the ages with a damnable iteration. What is there in this tradition of being a professional letter-writer, and of 'having something to do with small-pox,' to tell the reader on the look out for diversion that Lady Mary's utterances are a mine of delight, and Lady Mary herself the most beguiling of companions?
From one friend who had every reason to be on easy terms with her, I heard again the old rumour of Lady Mary's scholarship, her translation of Epictetus, and the fact that her lover, Mr. Edward Wortley, began his suit by presenting to her a copy of Quintus Curtius 'in honour of her Latinity.'
What wonder that, in spite of having encountered her in her Turkish dress on an old staircase, and never passing up or down without a stirring of curiosity--what wonder that, all things considered, a casual reader like myself began to look through her Letters with a solemnity born of a great and somewhat depressed sense of respect! A blue-stocking lady of quality, one says to oneself, who wrote descriptions of Turkish life and held advanced opinions about 'Woman.' Then with a shock of amused surprise one lights on an early utterance of hers:
. . . my only consolation for being of that gender has been the assurance it gave me of never being married to any one among them.
It is probably necessary to be 'of that gender' to appreciate why in the first encounter, turning the pages a little mistrustfully, dipping here, tasting there, one is subtly reassured as to Lady Mary
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by the prominence given to certain of her Letters to . . . 'lutestring.' I have not a notion what this fabric was, but I am sure it was much to be coveted, and, indeed, Lady Mary's anxiety about it seems to reflect honour upon both.
She writes to her sister, the Countess of Mar, who is in Paris with her Jacobite lord: 'I have left . . . 3 guineas to be laid out in plain lutestring.' Again: 'My paper is done, and I will only put you in mind of my lutestring . . . of what colour you please.' In the next: 'I am afraid you have quite forgot my plain lutestring, which I am in great want of,' &c. Another time: 'Since you find it so difficult to send me the lutestring . . . I beg you would lay out my money in a night-gown ready made.' In the letter after this: 'Pray don't forget the night-gown and let it be what you please.' But in those days London was farther from Paris than it is from New York to-day, and Lady Mary says in her next: 'I have been very free in this letter, because I think I am sure of its going safe. I wish my night-gown may do the same.' But her heart is true to lutestring. 'I only choose that [the night-gown] as most convenient to you; but if it was equally so I had rather the money was laid out in plain lutestring, if you could send me 8 yards at a time of different colours . . . but if this scheme is impracticable, send me a nightgown à la mode.'
One begins to look out anxiously in the midst of Court gossip, discussions of inoculation, and news about Pope, Congreve, and Gay, to discover if that lutestring ever got safely to London. One fears the worst from the plaintive refrain, 'I wish you would think of my lutestring.' But in the very next letter we are partly reassured. 'I have received by Lady Lansdowne the very pretty night-gown you sent me; I give you many thanks for it.' So little is our interest in the night-gown reproved, we find Lady Mary writing, eight months after, her enthusiastic acknowledgment of that garment à la mode. 'I have already thanked you for my night-gown, but 'tis so pretty it will bear being twice thanked for.'
Small-pox and Epictetus aside, here is evidently a man and a brother--or, rather, the feminine equivalent--and one wants to know more of her than that she went to Turkey, and while she was gone was loved, and when she came back was hated, by Alexander Pope.
It seems that Lady Mary made her home as a child with that grandmother who was heiress of the Evelyns, mentioned in the Diary, and who in the early part of the last century lived in 'remote solitude at West Dean, Wilts, in a solemn old manor house with ancient avenues of trees, dismantled terraces, and bowling green.' One biographer supposes it to have been here, in the library of the Evelyns, that Lady Mary got her first impulse towards letters. However, when she was only eight, the motherless child went back
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to her father, the Duke of Kingston. She afterwards complained that he left her 'to the care of an old governess, who, though perfectly good and pious, wanted capacity' for her task. But that mattered little, for here too she found herself in a 'well-furnished library,' where she could pore over old romances, and even try here hand at imitating them. Ultimately, by the help, as she herself puts it, 'of an uncommon memory and indefatigable labour,' she taught herself Latin.
But life, even at that tender age, was not for her all humdrum routine and converse with a pious governess. Think of the rapturous excitement on the part of an appreciative person of eight, at being whisked out of that well-furnished library, dressed all in her richest attire, and borne to the Kit Kat Club. For it was in that sacred inner circle of fashion, Whiggery, and wit, that the Duke, her father, gaily vaunting the beauty and talents of his little daughter, declared that she, amongst the fair ones of England, most deserved the coveted honour of being the toast of the year. The Kit Kat rules forbad their electing any beauty they had not seen. Whereupon the Duke despatched a messenger with orders that the little Lady Mary should be decked out bravely and brought straightway to the tavern. She was received with acclamation, her health was drunk, and a unanimous vote made her the toast of the year. Passed round the festive board from statesman to poet, fed with sweetmeats and flattery, knowing her name was to be engraved in due form upon a drinking glass and her portrait painted to adorn the club-room, the person of eight may perhaps be forgiven that her 'sensations amounted to ecstacy.' One stops only to wonder if upon her return to the society of the pious governess, the library at home seemed as 'well furnished' as before.
But the Kit Kat experience did not prevent, it may even have encouraged, the self-education of the girl. She seems to have gone far enough alone along the thorny way of learning to attract the sympathy and help of her mother's brother, Mr. William Fielding (cousin of the novelist) and later of Bishop Burnet, to whom, when she was about nineteen, she sends her translation of the Enchiridion with sage excuses for her 'presumption' and reflections upon 'the sexes' very astonishing for her age and era.
Full early comes the 'very handsome' Mr. Edward Wortley into the saga. Lady Mary was only fourteen when at a little tea-party her 'critical observations' upon a new play (would we could have heard them!) roused the gentleman's interest. She appears to have had a taste for the Drama all her life; 'the few books' she died possessed of were almost all plays--the works of 'Ford, Shirley, Heywood, Marston, Webster, and the rest as far back as Gammer Gurton's Needle, and coming down to the trash of Durfey. But Lillo's domestic tragedies were what she most admired; for "my
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lady used to declare," said her old servant, "that whoever did not cry at George Barnwell must deserve to be hanged."'
She cared dearly about Dryden's plays, and her Theobald's edition of Shakespeare was 'manifestly much read.' So that whatever was said by the girl of fourteen about the nameless 'new play' it was not likely to be a mere youthful parade of information, a conventional echo from library or drawing-room, but something genuinely felt by an acute little lady with an innate appreciation for the play. In any case it did for Mr. Wortley, who abandoned his pursuit of the giver of the tea-party (she was evidently a poor creature with no soul for the Drama), and ultimately transferred his affections to Lady Mary.
Some years afterwards was instituted that odd correspondence between her and Miss Anne Wortley, the favourite sister of Mr. Wortley, in which the letters on one side were composed by Edward and copied by Anne. Lady Mary not only affects to believe that her girl friend writes for herself, instead of for the brother in the background, but she refuses to credit the idea of any one else reading what she protests is for the eye of Mistress Anne alone. It is, however, amusing to note the difference between the effusions to 'dear, dear' Miss Wortley, and those to Mrs. Hewet, written about the same time, but wherein Lady Mary was obviously not so diligently minding her p's and q's. For not only was Mr. Wortley considerably her senior, but a gentleman of severe taste, as became a man of learning, the friend of Addison and contributor to the Tatler. And so it is not to Sister Anne but to Mrs. Hewet that Lady Mary, barely twenty, writes: 'I send you the Bath lampoons--Corinna is Lady Manchester, and the other lady is Mrs. Cartwright, who, they say, has pawned her diamond necklace to buy Valentine a snuff-box. The wars make men so violent scarce, that these good ladies take up with the shadows of them.'
The letters to Miss Wortley are not only irreproachable, as far as I remember, but full of a charming tenderness, which one wonders if the official recipient took to herself. 'I cannot bear to be accused of coldness by one whom I shall love all my life . . . your letters are the only pleasures of my solitude . . . ' And this, with its almost Elizabethan echo, 'I know no pretence I have to your good opinion by my hearty desiring it.'
How obviously a reply to a man's compliment is that lively letter beginning, 'I am infintely obliged to you, my dear Mrs. Wortley, for the wit, beauty, and other fine qualities, you so generously bestow upon me. Next to receiving them from Heaven you are the person from whom I would chuse to receive gifts and graces,' &c.
Writing to Mrs. Hewet, dwellers in the country are 'poor us,' but writing to Sister Anne: 'I forget there is such a place as London, and wish for no company but yours.' Then for fear Mr. Wortley, who early declared in favour of the domestic woman,
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should not perfectly apprehend her drift: 'You see, my dear, in making my pleasures consist of these unfashionable diversions, I am not of the number who cannot be easy out of the mode.'
Did the doubting lover think to set a trap for confession of less austere tastes, when he instructed his sister to ask Lady Mary to choose Miss Anne's books for her? The 'too delicate employment' is discreetly declined: 'your own fancy will better direct you.'
About the same time she thanks Mrs. Hewet 'ten thousand times' for two volumes of Mme. Du Noyer's 'spicy' Court gossip, which, however, Lady Mary complains a little later to that same correspondent, are 'horribly grave and insipid, and instead of the gallantry you might expect they are full of dull morals.' Certainly neither her commerce with the ancients, nor her desire to seem sedate enough to please Mr. Wortley, prevented her from keeping abreast of the light literature of her own time, for that same autumn wherein she writes Miss Wortley, 'My study at present is nothing but dictionaries and grammars,' making no mention of less grave pursuits, she is not only reading the scandalous New Atlantis, but even espousing the cause of the scandalous authoress. Thus Lady Mary scarcely out of her teens: 'People are offended at the liberty she [Mrs. Manley] uses in her memoirs, and she is taken into custody. Miserable is the fate of writers: if they are agreeable, they are offensive, and if dull, they starve.'
Nothing of this to Sister Anne! Without consciousness of intent to mislead, she perhaps felt it behoved a young lady to walk warily in the sight of the critical Mr. Wortley, who from the first seems to have shown himself of Pope's opinion about 'that dangerous thing a female wit.' Besides, there was that unlucky slip with Sister Anne, when Lady Mary had said 'it was as easy to write kindly to a hobby horse as to a woman, nay, or a man.' Faithless Miss Anne to tell that of all things to Mr. Wortley! Well, she died, and her indiscretions and her good offices alike were ended.
After 'many debates' with herself, Lady Mary replies direct to Mr. Wortley's declared but cautious suit. 'I know it is not acting in form, but I do not look upon you as I do upon the rest of the world,' &c. &c. . . . and all because of Sister Anne, forsooth!
Then she takes exception to the view of woman expressed by 'Mr. Bickerstaff' in one of the Tatlers, which Mr. Wortley has sent her. Lady Mary flies to the rescue, describing with fervour the unworldliness of some of her sex. There is perhaps more conviction, more 'Lady Mary,' in the sentence, 'Ignorance and folly are thought the best foundations for virtue, as if not knowing what a good wife is was necessary to make one so.' Then this wise and dignified comment on their own relations: 'I have so much esteem for you, I should be very sorry to hear you was unhappy, but for the world I would not be the instrument of making you so, which
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(of the humour you are) is hardly to be avoided if I am your wife. You distrust me--I can neither be easy, nor loved, where I am distrusted. . . . You must think otherwise of me or not at all.'
Of course he reassured her for the time being, but his letters must have betrayed, less wittily, very much the same spirit that made Pope write to her later on: 'A plague of female wisdom! It makes a man ten times more uneasy than his own!'
She urges excellent reasons against young married people shutting themselves up in the country. 'You would be soon tired with seeing every day the same thing. Where you saw nothing else you would have leisure to remark all the defects,' &c., and winds up: 'However, preserve me your friendship, which I think of with a great deal of pleasure, and some vanity. If ever you see me married, I flatter myself you'll see a conduct you would not be sorry your wife should imitate.'
We have not nearly all, even of Lady Mary's half, of this curious correspondence. But there is a pathetic note in the fragments before us, which seems to have escaped her biographers--a passionate longing for her lover's perfect faith and perfect esteem, which his compliments to her beauty and her cleverness leave unappeased. She is disappointed, humiliated, irritated by his mere gallantry, and she is honest enough to let him see it. One may suppose that again he reassured her, or even more probably her own love did so, for a couple of months afterwards, Mr. Wortley has been allowed formally to propose for her hand. However, he would not commit himself to the entailing of his property upon the eldest son, so Lady Mary's father, with some heat, declined to consider the marriage.
Steele wrote to his wife in July 1710: 'I stay in town to-night, having business of consequence with Mr. [Wortley] Montagu, who goes out of town to-morrow to take a voyage.' Mr. Wortley returned from the Continent that same autumn, and a few days after his arrival Swift says in his Journal to Stella: 'Spent the evening with Wortley Montagu and Mr. Addison over a bottle of Irish wine.'
In the very next month, it is evident that he has not come back cured, and that negotiations have again begun.
'People in my way are sold like slaves,' she writes, 'and I cannot tell what price my master will put upon me. If this breaks off, I shall not complain of you . . . whatever happens I shall still preserve the opinion you have behaved yourself well.' But she is 'very much disquieted,' and seems to have at twenty-one some guess of the pathetic failure we are like to make in attempting to show our true selves to our fellows: 'You can frame not guesses about my heart from either my speaking or writing; and supposing I should attempt to show it you, I know no other way.'
But Mr. Wortley having, as the rumour goes, indoctrinated
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Addison and Steele, and through them the public, with the absurdity of settling landed property upon a son who might (oh, prophetic soul!) be a 'spendthrift, an idiot, or a villain,' refused to abandon his position in discussing the marriage settlements. 'I have not spirit to dispute any longer with you,' Lady Mary writes. 'You say you are not yet determined; let me determine for you, and save you the trouble of writing again. Adieu for ever. Make no answer. I wish among the variety of acquaintances you may find some one to please you; and can't help the vanity of thinking, should you try them all, you won't find one that will be so sincere in their treatment, though a thousand more deserving, and every one happier.'
Twice she says farewell, and 'this is the last letter.'
About March in this same year, Mr. Wortley seems to have suggested an elopement, and at the same time to have discovered an abundance of reasons against such a step. He could neither make up his mind to leave her, nor bring himself to enter whole-heartedly upon an irregular and romantic proceeding with a woman who, he evidently felt from the first, was likely to prove full of surprises. He sends her about this time surely the very oddest love-letter ever penned by man, in which he says:
'Think again, and prevent a great misfortune from falling on both of us. In you, I might [note that "might"] possess youth, beauty, and all things that charm. It is possible that they may strike me less, after a time, but I may then consider I have once enjoyed them in perfection; that they would have decayed as soon in any other.'
Ten days later, Lady Mary evidently sent him a heart-broken little note, letting him know something of the suffering it would be to her if he left her--then, later, taking her courage and sense of fairness in both hands, she wrote:
Tuesday, 10 o'clock, March 13, 1711.--I am in pain about the letter I sent you this morning; I fear you should think, after what I have said, you cannot in point of honour break off with me. Be not scrupulous on that article, nor affect to make me break first, to excuse your doing it. I would owe nothing but to inclination: if you do not love me, I may have less esteem of myself, but not of you. I am not of the number of those women that have the opinion of their persons Mr. Bayes had of his play, that 'tis the touchstone of sense, and they are to frame their judgment of people's understanding according to what they think of them.
You may have wit, good humour, and good nature, and not like me. I allow a great deal for the inconstancy of mankind in general, and my own want of merit in particular. But 'tis a breach at least, of the two last, to deceive me. I am sincere. I shall be sorry if I am not now what pleases, but if I (as I could with joy) abandon all things to the care of pleasing you, I am then undone if I do not succeed. Be generous!
Taken with the context, these last two words must have laid hold on Edward Wortley's heart. Surely he could not have thought
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wholly 'worldly' in his sense the girl who (in spite of the caution inculcated by a social condition that taught girls almost nothing else but caution) showed him how passionately she cared that the quite unfashionable, but finer kind of human relation should be the basis of her much-thwarted marriage. Again and again she asks of him some sign that he will help make the dream come true. Of other women she writes: 'They know very well what it is to be admired, but are perfectly ignorant of what it is to be loved.'
Not all unpromising was the material offered Mr. Wortley in this proud and greatly-hoping heart. If presently she came to accept his jealous distrust of her sex as a part of the ancient burden of women, her love discovered to her an unexpected meekness in taking up the load.
One hears something suspiciously like a sob behind the words of the spoilt beauty:
I can bear being told I am in the wrong, but tell it me gently. Perhaps I have been indiscreet. I came young into the hurry of the world, a great innocence and an undesigning gaiety may possibly have been construed coquetry and a desire of being followed, though never meant by me.
We find that this 'being followed' was done in good earnest by at least one other man, who got as far as making proposals to Lady Mary's father. He, seeing the settlements were to be handsome, commanded Lady Mary to accept with becoming gratitude this suitor with the great Irish estates. She refuses, but her father holds firm. 'I proffered,' she writes Mr. Wortley, 'in atonement for not marrying whom he would, never to marry at all,' but in vain. She is to do as she is told. 'I objected, I did not love him. They [her father and relations] made answer they found no necessity of loving; and that if I considered this town I should find very few women in love with their husbands,' &c. So far from trying to move her lover from his inconvenient convictions, 'I confess I am entirely of your mind. . . . I cannot blame you for being in the right.'
The reader is forced to agree with her when she says, 'I have told you my affairs with a plain sincerity, I have avoided to move your compassion, and I have said nothing of what I suffer.'
It was after this that Mr. Wortley (was it really he?) urged the elopement, and she tells him that she is almost ready to believe she is about 'to enter upon a state of perfect happiness in complying.' Later she begins 'to fear again.' Her father will never relent, and she must go to her husband as portionless as the beggar maid to King Cophetua. Perhaps she already had had occasion to recognise the value set by Mr. Wortley upon money. 'Reflect now,' she writes, 'for the last time in what manner you must take me; I shall come to you with only a nightgown and petticoat, and that is all you will get with me.' She is willing to pass the first days of the honeymoon in going to Mr. Wortley's father to ask for his pardon and his blessing, but she
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cannot disguise that she can think of a better way of passing the time. The joy of travel seizing her thus early" 'I should wish to go out of England, if it suits with your affairs.'-- 'I think the best scheme is going to the Spa.'-- 'You had better come with a coach and six at seven o'clock to-morrow. She [a friend] and I will be in the balcony that looks on the road; you have nothing to do but to stop under it, and we will come down to you.' She cannot refrain from adding: 'I believe to travel is the most likely way to make a solitude [à deux] agreeable . . . remember you have promised it!' The last letter but one before the elopement is taken up with urging the advantages of just the kind of roving varied life Lady Mary afterwards invented for herself with so much success, and to which she never was able to convert Mr. Wortley. In the last letter before she goes off with him in the 'coach and six' she admits, 'I tremble for what we are doing. Are you sure you will love me for ever?'
* * * * *
It is upon the occasion of Mr. Wortley's absence at Durham, some two months after their marriage, that she next addresses him: 'I don't know very well how to begin; I am perfectly unacquainted with a proper matrimonial stile!' but she laments his absence 'as if you was still my lover. . . . I check myself when I grieve, by remembering how much reason I have to rejoice in the hope of passing my whole life with you.' Alas, for that hope! His business, parliamentary or other, keeps him much in London, she is left in that rural solitude she had early expressed such distaste for. Her little son, when he comes, is ailing, and a source of anxiety that she rightly or wrongly feels his father does not perfectly share: 'I am in abundance of pain about our dear child.' 'I hope you love the child as well as I do.' 'He is almost never out of my sight.' 'You never enquire after your child.' And she begs him consult a town doctor about certain symptoms. Her zeal for Mr. Wortley's public career is manifested with much sound sense and worldly wisdom, and perhaps largely owing to the influence she brings to bear upon certain relations of her own, in high places, and her constant spurring up of her less ambitious lord, he is--four years after that queer clandestine marriage--appointed Ambassador to Turkey.
Lady Mary's letters from Turkey being better known than the others should perhaps not detain the remembrancer long. But surely those who would advise the reader to lay down the volumes at the end of the Turkish mission are open to the reproach of diminishing the public stock of harmless pleasure.
It is not difficult for most women to realise how Lady Mary's sister, the unhappy Countess of Mar, must have loved getting those letters with all the news from London--who had a legacy, who had eloped; how Mrs. Lowther, who was no chicken, was to be 'seen in
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pale pink every night in the parks;' how Lady Lechmere had 'lost such furious sums at Bath,' &c., '--another demonstration of the latent fire that underlies cold countenances. We wild girls always make your prudent wives and mothers.' Again referring to Lady Lechmere, 'after having played away her reputation and fortune, she has poisoned herself. This is the effect of prudence!'
'Lady Darlington and Lady Mohun are packing up for the next world, and the rest of our acquaintance playing the fool in this à l' ordinaire.' Lord Finch is stabbed in a fray, and Lady Jane Wharton about to be married: 'to see a young woman that I really think one of the agreeablest girls upon earth so vilely misplaced--but where are people matched?--I suppose we shall all come right in heaven; as in a country dance, the hands are strangely given and taken while they are in motion, at last all meet their partners when the jig is done.' She sends one of her 'lutestring' letters by the hand of the Count of Caÿlus, thus commending him: 'He is a Frenchman and no fop, which besides the curiosity of it, is one of the prettiest things in the world.' But surely not for Lady Mar alone these letters, as a picture of the times, carried an abiding interest and a growing value. To those who have no pretence to the broad historic survey, these records have the merit of giving a vivid portrait of a single human being of extraordinary fascination. Some of us would be misguided, enough to give up the much-vaunted and carefully re-written descriptions of the Turk, for the unconscious descriptions of Lady Mary herself, sent off hot and hot to her sister in Paris.
I pass many hours on horseback, and, I'll assure you, ride stag-hunting, which I know you'll stare to hear of. I have arrived to vast courage and skill that way, and am as well pleased with it as with the acquisition of a new sense. [We were using this exact phrase about bicycling two years ago!] His Royal Highness hunts in Richmond Park, and I make one of the beau monde in his train. I desire you after this account not to name the word old woman to me any more: I approach to fifteen nearer than I did ten years ago and am in hopes to improve every year in health and vivacity.
In the next year: 'There are but three pretty men in England, and they are all in love with me at this present writing.'
The way she takes (or no, I beg her pardon, the way she writes of) the death of her father is a significant comment upon that gentleman's behaviour to his daughters. 'I don't know why filial piety should exceed fatherly fondness.' This, as we constantly find with Lady Mary, was so far from being a piece of facile phrase-making, that she was prepared a quarter of a century later to abide by the judgment therin delivered. She wrote to her married daughter from Italy: 'You are no more obliged to me for bringing you into the world than I am to you for coming into it, and I never made use of that commonplace (and, like most commonplaces, false) argument as exacting any return of affection . . . ' and the letter
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closes, 'Absence and distance have not the power to lessen any part of my tenderness for you.'
However, to go back a moment. It was possibly more with reference to her sister's proneness to melancholy than to her own lack of emotion at the death of even so indifferent a father that she wrote: 'Of all sorrows, those we pay to the dead are most vain; and, as I have no good opinion of sorrow in general, I think no sort of it worth cherishing.' She urged on Lady Mar for lowness of spirits, 'not the drinking of nasty water, but galloping all day and a moderate glass of champagne at night in good company; and I believe this regimen, closely followed, is one of the most wholesome that can be prescribed, and may save one a world of filthy doses and more filthy doctors' fees at the year's end.' It is but fair to say, too, that although this was written in 1727, we find Lady Mary herself following her own advice twenty-two years after at the age of sixty.
As to the famous quarrel with Pope: growing political differences and his libel on the Wortleys' old and dear friend Addison were perhaps sufficient to account for the estrangement. But a closer acquaintance with the character of Lady Mary, and review of her relation to Pope, makes it difficult to understand how a candid reader can be in any grave doubt as to the grounds of Pope's venomous animosity. His letters to Lady Mary were fulsome and frequently scandalous (even making allowance for the licence of the age). Her letters to him were discreet and even lightly satirical at the time when he was most 'her slave,' 1 when in the midst of much that was grotesque and repulsive, he was paying her the noble compliment of finding in her an inspiration for his work. Her literary appreciation could not have suffered her to remain untouched by that, and by the lines he wrote on Sir Godfrey Kneller's portrait of her; but the vanity of one of the vainest of men could not be expected to tolerate her laughter.
Her offence against the poet was the unpardonable one of open ridicule. Ridicule of such images as he fatuously thrust upon her, of a man of Pope's Wesen lying dreaming of her in moonshiny nights 'exactly in the posture of Endymion,' ridicule of his 'Lovers struck by Lightning,' and finally either involuntary, as she declared, or more probably deliberate, ridicule of his oppressive passion for her--when she had no longer the 'thick of the world' between them.
It was then he turned and stung her, and, in return for much vile abuse, received from her a laughing nickname, 'The Wicked Wasp of Twickenham.'
Horace Walpole took care that his inherited grudge against the Wortleys did not peak or pine in his possession. Mr. Wortley had not only been the political opponent of his father, but when Sir
1 He says himself: 'I write as if I were drunk.' And again: 'This letter is a piece of madness that throws me after you in a distracted manner.'
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Robert Walpole's waning reputation was on the verge of ruin, Mr. Wortley it was who 'assailed the falling minister in an invective which could never have been forgiven.' Lady Mary's early concern about, and influence in, politics gave her a conspicuous share in her husband's aims and enmities. Horace Walpole's mother and she had been antagonists before Horace Walpole was born. His susceptibilities, much wounded during his mother's lifetime, were further wrought upon by his father's speedy marriage to the dead wife's rival, Miss Skerritt, whose chief friend and protectress was . . . Lady Mary! An example of Horace Walpole's malicious falsification of documentary evidence (to which he had private access) is strikingly shown in his untruthful account of Lady Mary's dealings with the Frenchman who had persuaded her to help him to an investment in the South Sea scheme. Walpole wrote after Pope's unscrupulous attacks, and Mr. Moy Thomas assures us that on careful investigation not one of the charges brought against her will be found to rest on any evidence.
What constantly impresses one in Lady Mary is her modernity. How like an echo of last night's dinner-party is the legend that credits her with the laughing advocacy of putting the marriage contract on the same basis as the property contract, for 'seven, fourteen, or twenty-one years' lease, renewable at the option of the high contracting parties'! Very characteristic is her sly insitstence on the clause always included in leases, 'providing under pain of fine' that the property shall at the close of the tenure be left 'in the same good state of repair.'
If she were alive to-day, she would be applauding the Czar--perhaps with a difference--and joining the Peace Congress. 'Among the many palpable follies,' she says, 'I place that of war amongst the most glaring.' From Belgrade she writes of 'the fields of Carlowitz, where the last great victory was obtained by Prince Eugene over the Turks . . . I could not look without horror on such numbers of mangled human bodies, and reflect on the injustice of war, that makes murder not only necessary but meritorious. Nothing seems to me a plainer proof of the irrationality of mankind (whatever fine claims we pretend to reason) than the rage with which they contest for a small spot of ground, where such vast parts of fruitful earth lie quite uninhabited.'
Forty years later, writing from Padua:
I have often been complimented on the English heroism, who have thrown away so many millions, without any prospect of advantage to themselves, purely to succour a distressed princess. I never could hear these praises without some impatience. . . . Some late events will, I hope, open our eyes; we shall see we are an island, and endeavour to extend our commerce rather than the Quixotic reputation of redressing wrongs and placing diadems on heads that should be equally indifferent to us. When time has ripened mankind into common sense the name of conqueror will be an odious title.
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Then this significant comment upon the policy of Spain:
I could easily prove that had the Spaniards established a trade with the Americans, they would have enriched their country more than by the addition of twenty-two kingdoms, and all the mines they now work--I do not say possess; since, though they are the proprietors, others enjoy the profit.
After tasting the modorn flavour of such remarks, it is difficult to realise that they were the views of a woman who lived in the same century with Shakespeare. Miss Elizabeth Barrett, dwelling meekly under the iron rule of her father, paralysed with terror of the paternal ogre, having at the age of thirty-seven to smuggle into the house her surely eligible suitor--Mrs. Browning, in contrast with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, is already antiquated.
Small wonder if Lady Mary were not perfectly at home in her own time, when she would be so much so in ours. What strangers in the England of to-day would Swift and Addison be, Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, Dr. Johnson! Lady Mary, alone of that company, could walk into a modern London drawing-room, needing only to modify her dress and suppress somewhat of her raciness, to find herself in her element. She is the great original after whom are unconsciously patterned all the later lesser 'independent' women, those, at all events, who have not independence alone, but a spice of wit to boot, and a modicum of wisdom. It is to be remembered that in her time the education of women 'had reached its lowest ebb'; when 'the same studies which raise the character of a man' were held to 'hurt' the woman.
We are educated [says Lady Mary] in the grossest ignorance, and no art omitted to stifle our natural reason; if some few get above their nurse's instructions, our knowledge must rest concealed, and be as useless to the world as gold in the mine. I am now speaking according to our English notions, which may wear out, some ages hence, along with others equally absurd. It appears to me the strongest proof of a clear understanding in Longinus . . . when I find him so far superior to vulgar prejudices as to choose his two examples of fine writing from a Jew (at that time the most despised people upon earth) and a woman. Our modern wits would be so far from quoting, they would scarce own they had read, the works of such contemptible creatures, though perhaps they would condescend to steal from them, at the time they declared they were below their notice.
In the face of all this, we find Lady Mary insisting: 'Learning is necessary to the happiness of women, and ignorance the common foundation of their errors both in morals and in conduct.' ' . . . The first lady had so little experience that she hearkened to the persuasion of an impertinent dangler; and if you mind, he succeeded in persuading her she was not so wiser as she should be.'
The only lessons we know of having been offered, nay thrust upon, Lady Mary were those thrice weekly from a 'professed carving master,' that she might preside at her father's table after the fashion of the age. Yet, as we have seen, she not only put herself to school, but seems never to have been blinded by the easy compli-
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ments, paid by the good-natured of the opposite sex, to a pretty woman who dabbles in the classics. She never allowed herself to forget that there is no Royal road to learning, and she has little of the amateur's cheap satisfaction in making a small achievement go a great way. She quotes certain women who 'are ridiculous, not because they think they have learning, but because they have it not. One thinks herself a complete historian after reading Echard's Roman History,' &c. 'Thus you hear them screaming politics and controversy. It is saying of Thucydides,' she goes on, 'ignorance is bold and knowledge reserved. Indeed, it is impossible to be far advanced in it without being more humbled by a conviction of human ignorance than elated by learning.' Again she remarks: ' . . . every girl that can read a French novel, and boy that can construe a scene in Terrence, fancies they have attained to the French and Latin languages, when, God knows, it requires the study of a whole life to acquire a perfect knowledge of either of them.' She is far too wise to advocate the pursuit of real scholarship for the average woman, and this is to be borne in mind when she recommends a certain amount of education:
'Learning, if my granddaughter has a real taste for it, will not only make her contented but happy [in retirement]. No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting. . . . To render this amusement' [how wisely she chooses the word!] 'extensive, she should be permitted to learn the languages. . . . There are two cautions to be given on this subject: First, not to think herself learned when she can read Latin, or even Greek. Languages are more properly to be called vehicles of learning than learning itself, as may be observed in many schoolmasters, who, though perhaps critics in grammar, are the most ignorant fellows upon earth. True knowledge consists in knowing things, not words. I should wish her no further a linguist than to enable her to read books in their originals, that are often corrupted and always injured by translations. . . . The second caution to be given her (and which is most absolutely necessary) is to conceal whatever learning she attains with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness; the parade of it can only serve to draw on her the envy, and consequently the most inveterate hatred, of all he and she fools, which will certainly be at least three parts in four of all her acquaintance. The use of knowledge in our sex, besides the amusement of solitude, is to moderate the passions, and learn to be contented,' and the result, she adds, 'may be preferable even to that fame which men have engrossed to themselves, and will not suffer us to share.'
Although Lady Mary permits herself now and then a little gibe at the arrogance of man, it is curious to remark, by the way, that the women, who have done the best work in art or in science, do not swell the chorus of complaint against the theory of man's superiority
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in the domain of pure intellect. The English Mme. de Sévigné, and the first of women poets, as well as others who have left good work behind, have also left on record their conviction of the superiority, for the great ends of scholarship, art, or science, of the masculine mind. Perhaps, if one were a man, this fact would not clinch the argument, but it might be supposed to give pause to those of Lady Mary's own sex who are proclaimers of equality--and who are little else.
She ends her caution to girls against giving the subsidiary, however important, matter of book-learning a conspicuous place in life: 'You will tell me I have not observed this rule myself; but you are mistaken: it is only inevitable accident that has given me any reputation that way. I have always carefully avoided it, and ever thought it a misfortune.'
In this attributing to inevitable accident what she elsewhere admits was 'an inborn passion' (fostered, moreover, by 'indefatigable labour'), one is reminded how, in common with many persons of exceptional initiative and wilfulness, she was all her life possessed by a belief in fatality. 'The poor efforts of our utmost prudence . . . appear, I fancy . . . like the pecking of a young linnet to break a wire cage, or the climbing of a squirrel in a hoop; . . . let us sing as cheerfully as we can in our impenetrable confinement, and crack our nuts with pleasure from the little store that is allowed us.' 'The things that we would do, those do we not, and the things we would not do, those do we daily.' 'Nobody makes their own marriage or their own will.'
To the Countess of Pomfret: 'Say what you please, madam, we are pushed about by a superior hand, and there is some predestination, as well as a great deal of free will, in my being. Faithfully yours, &c.'
Thirty years before, she was writing to Mrs. Hewet:
But destiny must be followed, and I own, was I to choose mine, it should never be to stay perpetually in the same place. I should even prefer little storms to an eternal calm.
And, with all due respect to Destiny, Lady Mary seems to have had her way, and to the end of her two and seventy years no lack of travel, nor yet of 'little storms.'
Although, as a result of her introduction of inoculation into England, Steele (celebrating her in the Plain-Dealer) congratulated her upon her 'God-like delight in saving every year many thousand British souls,' the clergy nevertheless denounced her in unmeasured terms, 'the medical faculty rose unanimously against the innovation,' and the populace hooted Lady Mary in the streets as an unnatural mother. It was known she had 'engrafted,' as it was called, her only son and her infant daughter. When the boy (who was said to be the first European to undergo inoculation) ran away from
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school his mother identified him in an advertisement as having a scar on each of his forearms the size of a silver penny. It is recorded of this young gentleman that he 'was with difficulty reduced to the humble condition of schoolboy.' He seems to have passed a good deal of his time in running away. After being 'lost' for nearly a year, he is discovered by some one who recognised his voice crying fish at Blackwall, and is very loth to leave off that apparently fascinating occupation. He was no sooner carried home than he decamped again, working his passage out to Oporto. His mother writes to her sister in 1727: 'I am vexed to the blood by my young rogue of a son, who has contrived at his age  to make himself the talk of the whole nation. He is gone knight-erranting God knows where; and hitherto 'tis impossible to find him. You may judge of my uneasiness by what your own would be if dear Lady Fanny was lost. Nothing that ever happened to me has troubled me so much; I can hardly speak or write of it. . . . I have a mind,' she says, framing an unconscious excuse for the errantry of her son, 'I have a mind to cross the water to try what effect a new heaven and a new earth will have upon my spirit.'
Yet in spite of her love of travel she would have had every right to apply to herself the words of one of her correspondents: 'I have an ungenteel happiness in my temper that gives me a propensity to being pleased with the people I happen to be with, and the things I happen to be doing.'
This is the woman of whom a critical countryman of hers just a hundred years after her death writes: 'It now seems clear that Lady Mary was that most miserable of human beings, an ambitious and wasted woman'!!! With Lady Mary's gaiety of heart, and half her philosophy, no woman makes a failure of her life. 'Folly, you see, is the lot of humanity . . . ' she bids you observe. . . . 'But of the two sorts of fools, I shall always think that the merry one has the most eligible fate.'
Too full of resource to settle down dully with any disappointment ('I am still of opinion that it is extremely silly to submit to ill-fortune'), she had too profound a knowledge of life to lose that sense of proportion which has been likened to the saving grace of humour. 'All things in this world,' she says, 'are almost equally trifling.' Another time: 'Strictly speaking, there is but one real evil--I mean acute pain.'
'We see so darkly into futurity, we never know when we have a real cause to rejoice or lament. The worst appearances have often happy consequences, as the best lead many times into the greatest misfortunes.'
'Fig-leaves are as necessary for our minds as our bodies, and 'tis as indecent to show all we think as all we have.'
' . . . nothing is beautiful that is displaced.'
'Whoever is under my power is under my protection.'
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'I own I enjoy vast delight in the folly of mankind; and God be praised, that is an inexhaustible source of entertainment.'
But for all the plain things she tells us of herself, and despite her consistent iteration of them at long intervals, 'the character of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,' say another of her critics early in this century, 'is about as little known to the generality of readers as the source of the Nile or the precise position of the North Pole.'
C. W. Dilke wrote many years afterwards: 'For more than a century the character of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has been a subject of discussion--a mystery which neither time nor literary research has been able satisfactorily to clean up.'
The question that seems to have occupied most those who concerned themselves with her story, is why she left her family and her country, and lived uninterruptedly for twenty odd years in foreign lands.
One of her latter-day biographers, after giving up the hopeless task of trying to convict her of some scandalous armour, believes 'Lady Mary was annoyed and left England because the men of genius' she met were 'choked with intellectual frivolities.' Oh! that any son of woman should so mistake a being feminine to her finger-tips! He fancies this critical, humorous, creature kicking so blindly against the pricks as to insist that those poor dear 'men of genius' within her reach should tell her 'Whence come I? Whither do I go?' And because the conundrum found them silent, does Lady Mary pack her boxes and shake the English dust from off her feet! Not so! Women do not go pounding about the world on a purely metaphysical quest. Even while remembering that Lady Mary was a noted wit and a famous beauty, a conspicuous favourite at the Court, distinguished by the friendship (or the enmity) of the first men of the age, and celebrated in their pages and their pictures--with all this freshly in mind, one cannot get away from the impression that at heart she was and she remained incurably a child. She is sixty-six when she says, 'I thank God I can find playthings for my age.' It is because life diverted her so enormously that her mere reflection of it diverts us. For myself, I believe that her enchanting experience of foreign travel had left her not satisfied, but more eager, as it has done the born traveller since the world began. It was all very well to have once posted down the Rhine and across Europe, to have ascended Mont Cenis 'carried in little seats of twisted osiers fixed upon poles upon men's shoulders,' all very well to have observed strange manners at the gloomy, fantastic Court of Vienna, to have lived at Constantinople and written from thence 'imperishable letters'; but Lady Mary cared less about astonishing other people with her accounts, than she did about amusing herself. The woman who had written with such gusto to the Princess of Wales from Adrianople: 'I have now, madam, past a journey that has not been undertaken by any Christian since the time of the Greek emperors'--that was not the woman to settle down
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in England for the rest of her days, if she could help herself--and Lady Mary could always help herself. In spite of being well entertained by the London of her time, she must have longed, in those years after the return from Constantinople, for something fresher and more exciting than the little round of Court intrigue, gossip about Pope's grotto, and stringing verses with Lord Hervey. Besides, she had done all that, just as she had done the unspeakable Turk; and if Mr. Wortley had only bestirred himself and got an Embassy to China or the moon, Lady Mary, like the dutiful spouse she had shown herself in the Turkish emergency, would have faced every peril in order never to have deserted Mr. Wortley. But there was no love of adventure in him. He occupied, with circumspection and with credit, a comfortable niche from whence no fair, disquieting dreams lured him forth. And for that very reason, his patience with his wife, and his generosity to her, make us think as kindly of him as it is evident Lady Mary did.
She had in her somewhat of the stuff of which the way-breakers are made. It is idle to tell such folk, that there is a path prepared, leading of a certainty to comfort and consideration. Just as strongly as this appeals to most people, at least as strongly does it repel those, fortunately few, who go the rougher road. The guide-posts set up by the prudent are there to tell such travellers: this is the way not to go. And yet (it is one of the contradictions which make her so interesting) Lady Mary was not only saturated with the worldly wisdom of her class, but by natural instinct she all her days looked at life and art, as well as government, from the standpoint of the aristocrat. She writes to her daughter from Lovere:
The confounding of all ranks, and making a jest of order, has long been growing in England; and I perceive by the books you sent me, has made a very considerable progress. The heroes and heroines of the age are cobblers and kitchen wenches. Perhaps you will say, I should not take my ideas of the manners of the times from such trifling authors; but it is more truly to be found among them, than from any historian: as they write merely to get money [Oh, Lady Mary!] they always fall into the notions that are most acceptable to the present taste. It has long been the endeavor of English writers to represent people of quality as the vilest and silliest part of the nation, being (generally) very low born themselves. I am not surprised at their propagating this doctrine; but I am much mistaken if this levelling principle does not, only day or other, break out in fatal consequences to the public, as it has already done in many private families. You will think I am influenced by living under an aristocratic government, where distinction of rank is carried to a very great height [she speaks without turning a hair of a neighbour who 'racked' her cook in the course of in inquiry into the soup]; but I can assure you my opinion is founded on reflection and experience, and I wish to God I had always thought in the same manner; though I had ever the utmost contempt for misalliances, yet the silly prejudices of my education had taught me to believe I was to treat nobody as an inferior, and that poverty was a degree of merit: this imaginary humility has made me admit many familiar acquaintances of which I have heartily repented every one, and the greatest examples I have known of honour and integrity have been among those of the highest birth and fortunes.
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She writes to her husband from Italy that she durst not indulge in Lady Orford's society, which would have amused her very much since her character is held in universal horror. . . . 'She had a collection of freethinkers that met weekly at her house to the scandal of all good Christians.' Lady Mary refuses to lend her countenance to these assemblies, 'not thinking it right to make a jest of ordinances that are (at least) so far sacred, as they are absolutely necessary in all civilised governments; and it is being in every sense an enemy to mankind to endeavor to overthrow them.'
Although one is convinced that Lady Mary was at heart a pagan, she is always ready in her later days to break a lance in defence of the English Church. Hot and long were her encounters with Roman prelates, who regarded her as fanatically an Anglican. Was it to soothe some wound she had dealt their faith that she sent to England for those 'Pinchbec's watches, shagrine cases, and enamel dial-plates, price 5 guineas each,' as presents for 'two priests'? It is probable that none of those proselytising gentlemen ever heard of that poem of hers, in the course of which she says:
I see in Tully what the ancients thought,
And read unprejudiced what moderns taught;
But no conviction from my reading springs--
Most dubious on the important things.
Those argumentative Monsignori would not have expected that the doughty theologian Lady Mary had shown herself would await the approach of death, so innocent of any orthodox vision of the spiritual glories she was about to inherit, that when she says 'I am preparing for my last and longest journey, and stand on the threshold of this dirty world, my several infirmities like post-horses ready to hurry me away,' her forward gaze is fixed on the temporal prosperity of her own country and that of 'my Lord Bute and my daughter.'
But for all her desire that other people should bow meekly before the Powers that Be and obey all the laws, from those parental to those accounted divine, she herself, it will be remembered, could elope with a commoner, without settlements or other assurance than she had in the just and steadfast nature of the man--she could please herself (turning a deaf ear to the gossip and disapproval of her own circles) by wandering about France and Italy for nearly a quarter of a century, when by all the canons of her class she should have been boring herself with the cares of great establishments in England, and helping to bring up her grandchildren--although she could do the contrary of all this and perhaps even more unconventional things, she was very earnest that the members of her family should behave in an exemplary manner, get preferment at Court, and marry fortunes. Whenever, in cruising about Italy, she encounters a young gentleman of birth and great wealth, she writes
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off post haste to England, commending him to the notice of Lady Bute 'for one of my granddaughters.' Lady Mary would beyond a doubt have been the first to be down upon those blameless ladies had they discovered any of their grandmother's independence.
It is, however, my humble opinion that when Lady Mary left England she had no fixed project of remaining abroad indefinitely or of abandoning Mr. Wortley. I take her letter to Lady Pomfret, in the first year of her absence, to have been written in absolute good faith. She had long been persuading Mr. Wortley to go with her to the Continent, 'and at last, tired of delay, had set out alone, he promising to follow her; which as yet parliamentary attendance and other business had prevented his doing; but till she knew whether to expect him or not, she could not proceed to meet her [Lady Pomfret] at Rome.' A writer in the Gentleman's Magazine thinks she was 'banished her husband's hearth,' Mrs. Jameson, that her marriage ended 'in disgust and aversion.' But there is no evidence of such a state of things in any authoritative memoir, and much in her own and Mr. Wortley's letters to contradict the notion. The truth is, Lady Mary has obliged the world with so many good stories, people have been unwilling to think there was not some lurid and sensational reason for her 'exile.' A sad and terrible reason for its continuance I do believe there was, but not of the kind to make the scandal-loving rejoice.
This lady, not yet, at all events, 'banished her husband's hearth,' writes to the Countess of Pomfret, on the 2nd of May, 1739, 'I can give you no greater proof of the impression it [Lady Pomfret's letter] made on me, than letting you know that you have given me so great an inclination to see Italy once more, that I have serious thoughts of setting out,' &c. This from a woman of the ripe age of fifty, with her only daughter safely and happily married, does not strike one as entirely reckless or 'mysterious.' Three months later, she set forth on that journey, whence she returned, twenty-two years after, only to 'die among her kindred.' But she wrote to her husband from Dartford, her very first stage from Dover, and the moment she reached Calais, wifely details about servants, carriages, prices, and her desire to know how Mr. Wortley fared; and 'I am very impatient to hear from you.' She did hear--of his anxiety as to the road she took to Dijon, and what would best minister to her health and pleasure. 'If you mention a few of the great towns you have passed, I shall see the whole journey,' he says, and 'I wish (if it be easy) you would be exact and clear in your facts, because I shall lay by carefully what you write of your travels.' 'Though you are surprised,' he says, 'I am not at all, that your health is so much mended. I have hitherto found travelling a never-failing remedy,' &c. His sympathy and solicitude do not look much as if there had been a rupture. As for her, she goes on uninterruptedly
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through the years, writing him not only her adventures and little or great social triumphs, but troubling him to send her trifles packed away among her effects in England--a tolerably good sign of an easy and confident relation. As if that old compliment to her Latinity still lay warm at her heart, she quotes Horace to him, and 'I am very glad of your good fortune at London. You may remember I have always told you that it is your power to make the first figure in the House of Commons.' Would that all husbands and wives, after the wear and tear of nearly thirty years, stood in no less kindly and solicitous relations! When she misses a single post it is only 'hoping to have been able to have given you an account of everything I had observed at Portici.' She expects in a few days to get permission to visit Herculaneum, and 'will then give you the exactest description I am capable of.' When she does not hear from him as soon as she expected: 'though I hope your silence is occasioned by your being in the country, yet I cannot help being very uneasy, and in some apprehension that you are indisposed.' Although she had before written that the allowance he makes her is quite sufficient for her presumably not over-modest expenditure, Mr. Wortley, for all his reputation for avarice, augments her income. Later, after having written of the cheapness of things, she says: 'I desire not to have the money you intend for me till I ask for it." In a letter from Geneva: 'I have wrote to you three times without hearing from you, and cannot help being uneasy at your silence. I think this air does not agree with my health. I have had a return of many complaints from which I had an entire cessation during my stay in Italy, which makes me incline to return thither, though a winter journey over the Alps,' &c.. . . . 'I am very impatient to hear from you.' In the letter next sent: 'Yours of October 26 has taken me out of the uneasiness of fearing for your health.' Three weeks after she is again 'very impatient to hear from you, and hope your business does not injure your health.' After this we find Mr. Wortley writing her at great length his perplexities about their son, admitting his own incompetence to deal with the case, entreating her to see the scapegrace and write Mr. Wortley her impressions for his guidance. He depends upon her judgment absolutely--whatever she advises shall be done. He leaves it to her even to decide what allowance shall be made to the young man, now no longer so young. The account of the meeting is one of the most curious things in the letters; but she writes too of more cheerful things, and still of Mr. Wortley's health. 'I hope you will take care not to return to London,' she says to him in 1743, 'while it is in this unhealthy state.'
Before this she has told him of the young Englishmen of birth who in their travels came to Rome: 'They really paid a regular court to me, as if I had been their queen; and their governors told me that the desire of my approbation had a very great influence on
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their conduct. While I stayed, there was neither gaming or any sort of extravagance. I used to preach to them very freely and they all thanked me for it.' No wonder she adds, 'I shall stay some time in this town.'
But we know her old and ineradicable love of change. It would have taken more than the court of young Englishmen, and the satisfaction of influencing their conduct for the good, to keep Lady Mary long even in the Eternal City. She is presently writing to Mr. Wortley from Leghorn, Turin, Genoa, and from various towns in France, and on December 20, 1743: 'On one side of it [Avignon], within the walls, was formerly a fortress built on a very high rock; they say it was destroyed by lightning. . . . Last summer, in the hot evenings, I walked often thither, where I always found a fresh breeze, and the most beautiful land-prospect I ever saw except Wharncliffe.'
She is reported in Avignon to have said, were the ruin hers she would 'turn it into a Belvedere.' The town, for the honour of having her resident among them, makes her a present of the 'ancient round tower' and the land about it. 'I have added a dome,' she writes her husband, 'and put up a Latin inscription,' the sixteen lines of which she copies for his edification.
Writing to him the next time, half an hour after getting a letter from him:
I always answer your letters the same post I receive them, if they come early enough to permit it; if not, the post following.
I am sorry you have given yourself so much trouble about the inscription. I find I expressed myself ill, if you understood by my letter that it was placed; I never intended it without your approbation.
May 6, 1744:
I am extremely glad my account of Avignon had anything in it entertaining to you . . . if there are any particulars you would have explained to you, I will do it to the best of my power. I can never be so agreeably employed as in amusing you. [Notwithstanding her eyesight at this time is very bad.]
October 29, she writes to Mr. Wortley, on the subject of poor Lady Oxford's ill-health: 'She is the only friend I can depend on in this world (except yourself).'
From Brescia she writes to him, after all kinds of vivacious news of many civilities from Count Wackerbath, Governor to the Prince of Saxony, and favourite of the King of Poland, of being visited by the Prince of Badin Dourlach, and the Prince Löwestein, and how 'the Doge is our old friend Grimani, and I do not doubt meeting with all sort of civility'--adding quite casually 'when I set out I had so bad a fluxion on my eyes, I was really afraid of losing them: they are now quite recovered.' But in her next to him: 'I bragged
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too soon of my good health, which lasted but two days after my last letter. I was then seized with so violent a fever I am surprised a woman of my age could be capable of it.' However, she goes promptly to her favourite Italian resort, Lovere, and as promptly to the Opera, which she describes with delight.
January 10, 1746: she writes to Mr. Wortley: 'I return you many thanks for the trouble you have taken in sending me Miss Fielding's books: they would have been much welcomer had they been accompanied with a letter from yourself.' She complains of the miscarriage of letters: 'the last I enclosed to my daughter, I have never heard from her since, nor from any other person in England, which gives me the greatest uneasiness; but the most sensible part of it is in regard of your health, which is truly and sincerely the dearest concern I have in this world. . . . I beg you to write though it is but two lines.'
April 24, 1748: she acknowledges 'a copy of verses' which he has sent her quite in the old way of lovers.
December 25: 'I think you seemed to desire me to lengthen my letters, and I can have no greater pleasure than endeavouring to amuse you.'
After ten years' residence abroad, she writes to her husband: I received yours of January 23 this morning with more satisfaction than I can express, having been long in pain for your silence. I never had that you mention of December 12,' &c., and she gives him a banker's address. His letters will then, she says, 'come a few days later and with a little more expense; but I hope to receive them more punctually, and there is nothing I would not pay for that pleasure.'
In 1749, when she is sixty, she returns, at ten o'clock at night, 'from a party on horseback, having rode twenty miles, part of it by moonshine,' to welcome one of those boxes that her daughter was in the habit of sending out from England with the newest books and all kinds of odds and ends that Lady Mary might take it into her head would add to the joys of life abroad. In spite of her sixty years, her twenty-mile ride, and the lateness of the hour, Lady Mary could not deny herself the pleasure of having the box opened; 'and falling upon Fielding's works, was fool enough to sit up all night reading.'
I was such and old fool as to weep over Clarissa Harlowe like any milkmaid of sixteen over the ballad of the Lady's Fall.'
This Richardson is a strange fellow. I heartily despise him, and eagerly read him, nay sob over his works in a most scandalous manner. . . . I believe this author was never admitted into higher company [than of the lowest class] and should confine his pen to the amours of housemaids, and the conversation at the steward's table, where I imagine he has sometimes intruded, though oftener in the servants' hall. . . . Richardson never had probably money enough to purchase any [old china] or even a ticket for a masquerade, which gives him such an aversion to them; though his intended satire against them is very absurd on
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account of his Harriet, since she might have been carried off in the same manner if she had been going from supper with her grandmamma. Her whole behaviour, which he designs to be exemplary, is equally blameable and ridiculous. . . . He has no idea of the manners of high life: his old Lord M. talks in the style of a country justice, and his virtuous young ladies romp like the wenches round a maypole. Such liberties as pass between Mr. Lovelace and his cousins are not to be excused by the relation. I should have been much astonished if Lord Denbigh should have offered to kiss me; and I dare swear Lord Trentham never attempted such as impertinence to you.
In return for all the new books, she sends home delightful accounts of the society of the various places she stays in, and the people of consequence who come to see her, of opera and carnival of her vineyards and her gardens, her dairy, her cultivation of silkworms ('I beg you would inquire of the price raw silk bears'), and how the good people of Brescia, where she had fitted up an old shell of a palace, had to be forcibly prevented from setting up a statue in her honour. 'Some ladies in the neighbourhood,' she writes, 'favoured me last week with a visit in masquerade. They were all dressed in white, like vestal virgins, with garlands, in their hands. They came at night with violins and flambeaux, but did not stay more than one dance: pursuing their way to another castle some miles from hence.'
Some hint of Lady Mary's fondness for plays must have gone abroad, for she is petitioned to allow a theatre to be erected in her saloon. The entertainment lasted the last three days of the carnival. She hears 'the fame of paper-hangings, and had some thoughts of sending for a suit, but was informed that they are as dear as damask here, which put an end to my curiosity.'
She writes to her daughter from Padua: 'I have sometimes an inclination to desire your father to send me the two large jars that stood in the windows in Cavendish Square.' Even that hint of a request is granted. Three months afterwards we find her saying to Lady Bute, in a letter from Venice ('no city so proper for the retreat of old age'): 'I am very fond of the jars, which I look upon as a present from your father.'
From time to time, all through the latter half of her life, Lady Mary suffered from eye troubles. Out of a number of references, this: "Brescia, 1747: To say the truth, the decay of my sight will no longer suffer me to read by candle-light, and the evenings are now long and dark that I am forced to stay at home.' But failing sight, which, by the way, she denies the moment she is a little better, does not prevent her writing constantly and voluminously to Lady Bute and to Mr. Wortley, until, in 1750, she refers her husband to a letter written to their daughter, adding: 'I do not write so copiously to you, fearing it should be troublesome to your eyes. . . . The continuation of your health is my most fervent desire, and the news of it my greatest pleasure.'
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To Lady Bute: 'I am extremely pleased with the account you give me of your father's health: his life is the greatest blessing that can happen to his family.' Again to her husband, in 1751: 'I do not give you the trouble of long letters, fearing that reading of them might be uneasy to your sight,' and tells him the letters to their daughter are also for him. But despite her consideration for his eyes, she goes on writing him epistles of considerable length. There is something rather pathetic in the idea of these two (Lady Mary now sixty-two and Mr. Wortley seventy odd) persevering, albeit with difficulty, in writing long and cheerful letters to each other that with equal difficulty are read. 'I return you many thanks,' she says, 'for the length of your entertaining letter, but am very sorry it was troublesome to you. I wish the reading of this may not be so.'
In 1754 she acknowledges his 'received yesterday, which gave me great pleasure; I am flattered by finding that our sentiments are the same in regard to Lord Bolinbroke's writings,' and she quotes again her husband's favourite Horace. 'I am very glad your health is so good. May that and every other blessing be yours!'
I, at all events, am not inclined to quarrel with that judgment of herself delivered to her daughter, when Lady Mary (now sixty-six and still cruising about), writes 'To say truth, I think myself an uncommon kind of creature, being an old woman without superstition, peevishness, or censoriousness. I am so far from thinking my youth was passed in an age of more virtue and sense than the present, I am of opinion this world improves every day.'
In 1755 she tells Lady Bute: 'I am much pleased (but not at all surprised) at his [Mr. Wortley's] kindness to you; I know him to be more capable of a generous action than any man I ever knew.'
That Mr. Wortley was not, after long lapse of years, indifferent to Lady Mary's letters is shown by one from him in 1757, in which he is even a little severe with her becasue some of hers to him have miscarried. 'I bundle up all your letters,' he says, 'and keep a list of the dates of what I send you, so that I cannot mistake as to either. I do not recollect that any letter sent me from a foreign country besides yours ever miscarried. As to those I send abroad, I always send two servants with them to the post office, so that I do not trust to one servant's honesty, and the officer of the post sees there is evidence of the delivery, so that his neglect or fraud may easily appear.'
This is one of the last letters she writes him:
I received yours of October 15 yesterday. I was quite frightened at the relation of your indisposition, and am very glad I did not know till it was over. I hope you will no more suffer the physicians [Mr. Wortley is eighty odd] to try experiments with so good a constitution as yours. I am persuaded mineral waters, which are
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provided by nature, are the best, perhaps the only real remedies, particularly that of Tunbridge, of which I have a great opinion.
Now as to the reason which kept Lady Mary away from home all those years--a reason which most women will accept as adequate, and which will be to most men a mystery still.
Lady Mary's love of travel and of foreign life, combined with her husband's generosity, offered her a blessed escape from that exhausting round in London in which, at the age of fifty, harassed by the approach of a terrible and disfiguring disease, she could no longer play her old brilliant part.
From the first year of her marriage, when we hear of her face being 'prodigiously swelled' and having to be lanced, on through the next fifty years, we get glimpses of the enemy lurking in her blood. Her pains to hide its presence there have made a censorious world think she had something worse in her life to keep from public eyes. There is no doubt that it was Mr. Wortley's view that she went abroad for her health. A score of evidences might be quoted. Dilke tells us that, 'in 1737 or 1738, she became painfully disfigured by an eruption, which shut her out from all but very friendly society, which continued through life, and sent her to the grave with a cancer.' That she received her English visitors to Venice in a mask was put down in her day as another of Lady Mary's wild eccentricities; for us it has a tragic ring, remembering the beauty that had been the inspiration of poets and painters, and how not only had the glory departed, but left that in its place of which she wrote to her daughter [N.B.-- not to Mr. Wortley] in 1757:
It is eleven years since I have seen my face in a glass, the last reflection I saw there was so disagreeable, I resolved to spare myself such mortifications for the future, and shall continue that resolution to my life's end. To indulge all pleasing amusements and avoid all images that give disgust [she winds up in her Spartan way] is in my opinion the best method to attain or confirm health.
Now, long before a woman gets to the pass of being unable to look with composure upon the ravages of illness in her own face, she obeys blindly the not discreditable impulse to hide the sight from others--above all from those who would be most sympathetic and therefore most shocked, and in particular from the man who was the lover of her youth, and the best, most generous friend of her age. It was before ever she married him she wrote: 'I hope I shall always remember how much more miserable than anything else could make me, should I be, to live with you and to please you no longer.' She probably did 'remember.' It mattered less to go about among strangers--especially in a country where it was the custom to wear a mask (how often that mask is mentioned!)--and every day she lived abroad made it harder for her to go home. One wonders if Mr. Wortley's eyesight, instead of getting better, had got worse, whether she would not have gone back. As it was, she waited till
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the Great Blindness settled on him, and then, an old woman in her seventy-third year, she turned her marred face home.
It is hardly necessary to remind any one that Lady Mary was not likely to put it in any one's power to pity her. Her vague admissions of ill-health seem to be wrung out of her, and the moment she is better she is ready to deny that she has ever been ill. 'A physician should be the only confidant of bodily ills,' she said, and with what iron resolution she lived up to that view we have the involuntarily eloquent testimony of her worst enemy. Lady Mary 'played up' to the last moment. Her cousin, Miss Elizabeth Montagu, says of her after her return to London:
She does not look older than when she went abroad, has more than the vivacity of fifteen, and a memory which is perhaps unique. I was very graciously received by one who neither thinks, speaks, acts, nor dresses, like anybody else. Her domestick is made up of all nations, and when you get into her drawing-room you imagine you are in the first storey of the Tower of Babel. An Hungarian servant takes your name at the door; he gives it to an Italian, who delivers it to a Frenchman, the Frenchman to a Swiss, and the Swiss to a Polander; so that, by the time you get to her ladyship's presence, you have changed your name five times without the expense of an Act of Parliament.
A Quarterly Reviewer reminds us that Walpole 'thus announces the approach of the moment which was to bring--for the first time--this extraordinary woman to the mere level of other mortals: "Lady Mary is departing. She brought over a cancer in her breast which she concealed till about six weeks ago . . . there are no hopes for her. She behaves with great fortitude, and says she has lived long enough! Indomitable to the last!"' There are not many who could so well suffer their epitaphs to be written by an enemy. One fancies there is a savour in this that might have pleased Lady Mary herself--the notion that one of the inferior sex, one of those 'contemptible creatures,' one, moreover, whose greatest claim on Society had been held to be her delicate and flower-like beauty--that she, an old, old woman, with this fire at her breast, should be wringing the highest tribute every paid her, out of her bitterest, most unscrupulous, foe.
Where you are: http://www.jsu.edu/robinsweb/docshort/modrnwom.html
Citation for this document:
Robins, Elizabeth. "A Modern Woman Born 1869" (Biographical Essay on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu). The Anglo-Saxon Review. Edited by Lady Randolph Spencer Churchill. London and New York: John Lane, publisher. Vol. I (June 1899), 39-65. Hypertext editor: Joanne E. Gates. [DATE OF ACCESS] <http://www.jsu.edu/robinsweb/docshort/modrnwom.html>. Pagination marked to conform to original printing.
Available on the web since October 2000