The Woman Who Couldn’t Stop Writing—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Eighteenth century women were expected to lead quiet lives within their family circle. But Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would not accept that life. She was tormented by the need to express herself and be recognized as the brilliant, successful writer that she was. Throughout her life, she wrote and published articles, sent travel letters to a wide circle of friends, kept a journal, and even publicized new medical treatments. How could she help but yearn for acknowledgement and fame, unwomanly though that idea was?

Lady Mary was born Mary Pierpont on May 15, 1689, into a wealthy British family. Even as a child she showed an avid interest in books and she learned to read at an early age. Mary’s mother and her grandmother encouraged Mary’s interests and the girl spent hours in the family’s large library where she taught herself Latin and read widely. Unfortunately, both her mother and her grandmother died while Mary was still a child and her father did not believe that women should be too highly educated. However, Mary was a stubborn girl and she continued to pursue her literary interests. At the age of 14, she collected her early poems together and produced a booklet that she proudly showed to her family and some of her friends.

Like all wealthy women of the time, Mary was expected to marry young and in 1712, she married Edward Wortley Montagu despite some opposition from her father. She soon produced a son, but continued her writing, especially after she and her husband moved to London. Living in the city, where Lady Mary met most of the leading intellectuals of the day, was delightful. Among her friends were Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope two of the most important cultural leaders in the city. Addison encouraged her to write for the Spectator, the leading journal of the time, and she became the only woman whose articles appeared there. Like all of the articles, hers were unsigned, but at least her friends knew that she had written them.

Life in London was not free of trouble. When she was 25 years old, Mary got smallpox, a constant danger in London. Friends and family were afraid she might die, but she recovered well and soon gave birth to a healthy daughter. Nonetheless, her face was permanently scarred—a bitter trial for a young woman. The many portraits of Lady Mary which still exist do not show the scars, but no doubt they were visible to her as well as to the people around her.  

The biggest event of Lady Mary’s early years of marriage occurred when her husband was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and the family moved to Istanbul.  After a long and difficult journal the family settled into their new quarters. Through all of their adventures, Lady Mary continued to write long letters to her friends and family. Her descriptions of life in Istanbul introduced Londoners to the exotic life she and her family were living. Lady Mary had an advantage over many other travelers because, she could mingle with Turkish women and learn how they lived, raised their children, and lived their lives. She was impressed by the social baths where women gathered every week  and shared stories, news, and ideas.  

One discovery Lady Mary made was that the dreaded smallpox was not feared as much in Turkey as it was in England and other European countries. “I am going to tell you a thing which I am sure will make you wish yourself here,” she wrote in one of her letters. And she described the process of variolation, during which Turkish doctors injected a small amount of smallpox germs into an individual to prevent their catching smallpox. “This method,” she continued, makes the disease – “so fatal, and so general amongst us” – all but “harmless” amongst the Turks.”

Lady Mary had her son and other family members inoculated. When she returned to England, she brought variolation back home, introducing the practice to the aristocracy and their physicians.

After Lady Mary and her family returned to England, she continued to live an active, intellectual life. She never stopped writing, turning to poetry in her later years, but she continued to be reluctant to sign her name to her work. Although some of Lady Mary’s works continue to be available, especially her travel letters and her poems, she has never received the attention she deserves as a writer. A fascinating account of Lady Mary’s work and her ambitions is told in a recent book by Anna Beer, Eve Bites Back: An Alternative History of English Literature (2022

“The body says what words cannot.” –Martha Graham and the Art of Dance

Dance is one of humanity’s oldest art forms. Tomb paintings in India dating from 8000 BCE show pictures of people dancing. Throughout history people have danced to celebrate happy events such as births, marriages, and victories as well as to commemorate deaths and defeats. But dance is an art that has not been easy to record, so we know very little of what ancient dancing was like or how the performances looked. And so, it seems that every generation must reinvent the art of dancing.

Fortunately for us, the twentieth century brought us new ways of recording visual arts and movement. At the same time, many artists were turning to dance as a way to express their feelings and ideas. Martha Graham is remembered as a woman who revolutionized the way dance was taught and performed in America. She was born in 1894, and lived through most of the twentieth century, dying in 1991. During her long life she transformed the art of dance.

Martha Graham

Graham was born in Pennsylvania but moved with her family to Santa Barbara, California when she was 14 years old. It was in California that she first saw professional dance performances and decided to study dance. She enrolled in the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles and soon became one of their star dancers. In 1923, she left the school and moved east where she started her own studio and school in New York City in 1926. The school which she started has been an important part of the modern dance world ever since its founding and it is now the oldest active dance school in America.

Most dance performances staged in New York before the twentieth century had been based on the European tradition of ballet dancing. Dancers wore gauzy tutus and ballet shoes that allowed them to dance “en pointe” and move about the stage as if they were floating.  Graham’s approach was very different. She developed the concept of “contraction and release” as the major style of movement. Some fans of the more familiar European style of dance considered Graham’s work a betrayal of the traditional culture of ballet. Graham herself felt that she was expressing the spirt of her time. She wrote: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that the others are behind the times.”

Graham had strong feelings about social and political issues. In 1936, she refused to dance at the Olympics in Germany saying, “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time” because of Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Many of the dances she created were based on American traditions, or on ancient Greek drama. Through her work she celebrated democracy and freedom. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to perform in the White House, making her the first dancer to appear in a performance there. Years later, in 1976, President Gerald Ford presented Graham with a Medal of Freedom in a further acknowledgement of her work.

During her long career, Graham created 181 dances. One of the most popular and influential was “Appalachian Spring” which was first staged in 1944 with music by Aaron Copeland. It was welcomed as a major achievement in American dance and music. As her work became more widely acclaimed, and filming techniques improved, Graham gave up he early objections to having her work photographed. A number of films of Graham’s dances have been preserved at the Library of Congress. In recent years, many have also been made available on YouTube.

Graham continued to create dances and to perform in them during the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s. The records aren’t clear on when she gave her last performance, but in her unfinished memoir, she said that she last appeared on stage in 1970.

During the years after her retirement from the stage, Graham had a period of depression that lasted for almost two years. Her health declined and she spent some time in a hospital, but in 1972, she returned to her studio and to choreography. She created new dances and coached young dancers in performing them. Her death in 1991 led to an outpouring of honors to celebrate her contributions to the arts.

Several biographies of Martha Graham have been published, most recently, Neil Baldwin’s Martha Graham: When Dancing Became Modern (Knopf 2022). Baldwin’s bookhas been praised as the most complete account of Graham’s life and work.  It is widely available in bookstores and public libraries.