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