Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Women’s Coffee-House
March 27, 2011 14 Comments
Women’s History Month can’t end before we talk about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, one of the consummate writers and letter-writers of the world who would, I like to think, have been delighted to correspond with us. I’m writing this as part of the Women’s History Carnival, an ongoing set of posts on noteworthy womenfolk.
Lady Mary was the first woman to document Muslim customs like the Turkish bagnio and the first European to write with comparative accuracy about the Muslim women’s world, including her visits to various harems. She was also responsible for bringing the smallpox vaccine (which was used in the Turkish Empire) to England after trying it out (successfully) on her baby son, not that anyone took much notice. Edward Jenner would receive full credit for the “discovery” much later.
Those are the relevant bullet points, and while I’m including them here, she was, as I think the letters below will show, so much more. A tremendously gifted writer, for one thing. Also—and this is key to understanding her, I think—a famous beauty, at least until she was scarred by a near-lethal battle with smallpox. After that her face was badly marked, her eyelashes, which had fallen out, never grew back, and her face–important currency at court, and impossible to hide—became, not precisely a liability, but certainly an occasion for gossip and lost status. Her remarks both on the nudity in the bathhouse and the “ferigee,” her name for the Muslim head-covering, evince a real longing for the anonymity they offer. In particular, she seems to see both as relief from the persistent tyranny of the face. What with the Beauty Myth and the current debates over the veil in the West, it’s a good moment to remember what history has to tell us.
Much of what follows comes courtesy of Isobel Grundy’s fantastic biography of Lady Mary, which I’ve been reading for fun in the bath.
Mary Pierrepont was born in April or May 1689 to wealthy parents. She was their first-born. Her mother died when she was very young. Her father, delighted by her beauty, recommended her as a toast to the Kit Kat Club, the Whig center of power. They refused to toast her until they’d seen her. So she was dolled up and presented at the club “from the lap of one poet, or patriot, or statesman, to the arms of another,” until her health was drunk by everyone present. By the by, she was eight. Unlike other women (who were toasted but kept outside), she had actually entered the male center of artistic and political power; she would spend the rest of her life trying to do it again.
She secretly taught herself Latin. I know it’s common to read over a sentence like that without letting it sink in, so may I just repeat: She SECRETLY taught herself LATIN. And apparently pretended to know less of it than she did to give her future husband, Edward Montagu, an excuse to tutor her. Playing stupid is an old, old game, and Montagu, being the twisted root of insecurity he was, required that kind of reassurance.
Montagu was a puzzle. He courted Lady Mary by means of his sister, a good friend of hers. Totally and grudgingly smitten, he dictated letters to his sister and made her send them as if they were her own. Sort of a reverse Cyrano de Bergerac that broke down when his sister-mouthpiece died and he was forced, awkwardly and grouchily, into the open.
In the meantime, Mary and her sisters and friends got crushes, fell in love, and wrote to each other in code, in case the letters were intercepted. (If they were, the women were whisked away to another part of the country and the romance was unceremoniously squashed.) The code worked as follows: A “Paradise” was someone you wanted to marry for love, a “Limbo” was someone you could deal with, if forced to marry them. “Hell” is self-explanatory. By not naming the people concerned, the women ensured that the letters would do minimal damage if found.
Even so, nobody married their Paradise.
Lady Mary’s father was more or less forcing her to marry a Hell, the aptly named Clotworthy Skeffington. Edward Montagu (her Limbo) had been in marriage talks with her father, but they’d broken down. Desperate as her wedding to Clotworthy approached, Lady Mary more or less asked Edward, her Limbo, to elope with her.
Edward hemmed and hawed, but in the end, elope they did, in what might be the least romantic elopement ever.
He became the Ambassador to Turkey, and it’s in the course of her travels with him that we get the incredible Embassy letters, some of which I’m going to reprint here.
But before all that, two years after giving birth to her first child, she got smallpox. We don’t have a sense of what smallpox was like (here’s an extremely distressing modern-day image), so here’s Grundy’s description of the course it took:
The smallpox, which had killed her brother, which she had feared for her husband and baby, had got her at last. After a couple of weeks’ incubation period, the sudden onset of severe symptoms must have frightened her badly. Her two-and-a-half year old son (who, like his sister later, was probably in the habit of playing about the room while she dressed or wrote her letters) would have been sent hurriedly away, with his nurse, to someone else’s house. Her temperature soared to at least 103 degrees F. The sweat pouring from her did nothing to bring it down. For two whole days her pulse raced, her back ached, and her head ached even worse. She was constipated; she vomited; she had a dreadful thirst.
On the third day of her illness the spots appeared, confirming what she already knew about her case. Her fever diminished, but in other respects her condition deteriorated rapidly. First a perceptible redness appeared around the roots of her hair, and within hours the heat, and itching, and pustules spread to cover almost the whole surface of her head and face, her body, and then her limbs. The spots itched; they filled with clear liquid; they went on itching. They ran together over large areas of her body. The word went out that she was ‘exceedingly full’. Her whole skin, both where it was all spot and even where there was space between the spots, was so swollen that her face became literally unrecognizable. The mucous membranes of her mouth and throat, nostrils, eyes, and sexual parts, were also swollen, and terribly painful. Breathing became difficult as her nose and throat closed up; her voice was hoarse and she had to keep spitting up an unstaunchable flow of saliva.
Meanwhile, the talk in town was whether she would live and, more importantly, how she would look:
Those ‘Ladies who know every minute of ye day, what her distemper takes, say she… will be very severely markt.’ Some wit … said ‘she was full and yet not pitted [pitied]’. Her court career was assumed to be over, and Worltey said to be ‘inconsolable for ye disappointment this gives him in ye carrier [the career] he had chalked out of his fortunes’. (Any more intimate emotion that he may have felt went unreported.) Lady Loudoun thought that with a ‘pair of good eyes’ like Lady Mary’s ‘being markt is nothing’, but only because complexions could be bought. This sounds double edged….”
Lady Mary wrote a about the ordeal in her closing eclogue–“Satturday–the Small Pox,” where “Flavia” addresses the loss of her beauty. It’s sad, but also self-aware, self-deprecating and satirical, jumping in its evocations of pathos from the high culture of portraiture to an embarrassing and joking apostrophe to her vanity table:
“That picture which with pride I us’d to show,
‘The lost resemblance but upbraids me now.
‘And thou, my toilette! where I oft have sat… ”
When she arrived in Turkey, she found that they had what amounts in modern parlance to a smallpox vaccine: old women would take some scrapings from an infected person and “graft” them onto a health individual. Lady Montagu, watching this, was so impressed that she ordered that it be done to her little baby son. Here’s an excerpt from her letter to Mrs. S.C.:
A propos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing, that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her, with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much matter as can lie upon the head of her needle , and after that, binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the middle of the forehead, one in each arm, and one on the breast, to mark the sign of the Cross; but this has a very ill effect, all these wounds leaving little scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who chuse to have them in the legs, or that part of the arm that is concealed. The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark, and in eight days time they are as well as before their illness. Where they are wounded, there remains running sores during the distemper, which I don’t doubt is a great relief to it. Every year, thousands undergo this operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue, for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment, the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them. Upon this occasion, admire the heroism in the heart of
Your friend, etc. etc.
Vienna, Where Every Woman is Old, and Has a Husband and a Lover
Before getting to the Turkish bath letters, I want to pause in Vienna, where she marvels at the court convention, wherein older women are considered more beautiful and powerful than younger ones: “I can assure you that wrinkles, or a small stoop in the shoulders, nay, grey hair itself, is no objection to the making of new conquests.” She observes that “a woman, till five-and-thirty, is only look upon as a raw girl, and can possibly make no noise about the world till about forty. I don’t know what your ladyship may think of this matter; but ’tis a considerable comfort to me, to know there is upon earth such a paradise for old women; and I am content to be insignificant at present, in the design of returning when I am fit to appear nowhere else.”
She writes that most women, once married, go about acquiring a lover as part of their “equipage,” and that unlike England, “getting a lover is so far from losing, that ’tis properly getting a reputation; ladies being much more respected in regard to the rank of their lovers, than that of their husbands.” So much is this the case that it would be rude “and publicly resented if you invited a woman of quality to dinner, without at the same time inviting her two attendants of lover and husband, between whom she always sits in state with great gravity.”
Lady Montagu was herself offered a choice of lovers:
But one of the pleasantest adventures I ever met in my life was last night, and which will give you a just idea after what delicate manner the belles passions are managed in this country. I was at the assembly of the Countess of ___, and the young Count of ___ led me down stairs, and he asked me how long I intended to stay here? I made answer that my stay depended on the emperor, and it was not in my power to determine it. Well, madam, (said he,) whether your time here is to be long or short, I think you ought to pass it agreeably, and to that end you must engage in a little affair of the heart. –My heart (answered I gravely enough) does not engage very easily, and I have no design of parting with it. I see, madam, (said he sighing,) by the ill nature of that answer, that I am not to hope for it, which is a great mortification to me that am charmed with you. But, however, I am still devoted to your service; and since I am not worthy of entertaining you myself, do me the honour of letting me know whom you like best among us, and I’ll engage to manage the affair entirely to your satisfaction.
As she made her way, she took every opportunity to find out as much as could about different customs and world views. Many of her impressions of th Turkish Empire seem to have been shaped by her early conversations with Achmet Beg, her host in Belgrade:
I pass for a great scholar with him, by relating to him some of the Persian tales, [Arabian nights], which I find are genuine. At first he believed I understood Persian. I have frequent disputes with him concerning the difference of our custom, particularly the confinement of women. He assures me, there is nothing at all in it; only, says he, we have the advantage, that when our wives cheat us, nobody knows it. He has wit, and is more polite than many Christian men of quality.
And finally, here is the bath letter, wherein the first recorded encounter between these Western and Muslim women results not, as you might expect, in the former seeing the latter as an oppressed figure of veiled mystery, threatening and unknowable, nor in the latter regarding the former as a perverse or liberated creature.
I am now got into a new world, where every thing I see appears to me a change of scene; and I write to your ladyship with some content of mind, hoping at least that you will find the charm of novelty in my letters, and no longer reproach me, that I tell you nothing extraordinary.
I won’t trouble you with a relation of our tedious journey; but I must not omit what I saw remarkable at Sophia, one of the most beautiful towns in the Turksih empire, and famous for its hot baths, that are resorted to both for diversion and health. I stopped here one day on purpose to see them. Designing to go incognita, I hired a Turkish coach. These voitures are not at all like ours, but much more convenient for the country, the heat being so great that glasses would be very troublesome. They are made a good deal in the manner of the Dutch coaches, having wooden lattices painted and gilded; the inside being painted with baskets and nosegays of flowers, intermixed commonly with little poetical mottoes. They are covered all over with scarlet cloth, lined with silk, and very often richly embroidered and fringed. This covering entirely hides the person in them, but may be thrown back at pleasure, and the ladies peep through the lattices. They hold four people very conveniently, seated on cushions, but not raised.
In one of these covered waggons, I went to the bagnio about ten o’clock. It was already full of women. It is built of stone, in the shape of a dome, with no windows but in the roof, which gives light enough. There were five of these domes joined together, the outmost being less thant the rest, and serving only as a hall, where the portress stood at the door. Ladies of quality generally give this woman the value of a crown or ten shillings; and I did not forget that ceremony. The next room is a very large one paved with marble, and all round it, raised, two sofas of marble, one above another. There were four fountains of cold water in this room, falling first into marble basins, and then running on the floor in little channels made for that purpose, which carried the streams into the next room, something less than this, with the same sort of marble sofas, but so hot with steams of sulphur proceeding from the baths joining to it, it was impossible to stay there with one’s clothes on. The two other domes were the hot baths, one of which had cocks of cold water turning into it, to temper it to what degree of warmth the bathers have a mind to.
I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprize or impertininet curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to a stranger. I believe in the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, or satiric whispers, that never fail in our assemblies when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me, “Uzelle, pek uzelle,” which nothing but Charming, very charming. –The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace which Milton describes of our general mother. There were many amongst them as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian,—and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.
I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I had often made, that if it was the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed. I perceived that the ladies with the finest skins and most delicate shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough to wish secretly that Mr. Jervas [her painter friend, a pupil of Sir Godfrey Kneller] could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improved his art, to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions, while their slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty fancies. In short, it is the women’s coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, etc. –They generally take the diversion once a-week, and stay there at least four or five hours, without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cold room, which was very surprising to me. The lady that seemed the most considerable among them, entreated me to sit by her, and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty. They being all so earnest in persuading me, I was at last forced to open my shirt, and shew them my stays; which satisfied them very well for, I saw, they believed I was so locked up in that machine, that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband. –I was charmed with their civility and beauty, and should have been very glad to pass more time with them; but Mr W [Wortley] resolving to pursue his journey the next morning early, I was in haste to see the ruins of Justinian’s church, which did not afford me so agreeable a prospect as I had left, being little more than a heap of stones.
Adieu, madam: I am sure I have now entertained you with an account of such a sight as you never saw in your life, and what no book of travels could inform you of. ‘Tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places.
Eyeliner, Nail Polish, Fashion, Freedom and the Ferigee
The ladies in the bathhouse may have thought Lady Mary was imprisoned in her stays by her husband, but she would soon start adapting to Turkish dress. In another 1717 letter, this time to her sister, she describes her own outfit and all the strange Turkish makeup practices (eyebrow-shaping! eyeliner! she doesn’t think much of nail polish). Even more interesting: how she explains the veil as an intensely liberating garment, so much so that she thinks of Turkish women “as the only free people in the empire.”
The first piece of my dress is a pair of drawers, very full, that reach to my shoes, and conceal the legs more modestly than your petticoats. They are of a thin rose-coloured damask, brocaded with silver flowers, my shoes of white kid leather, embroidered with gold. Over this hangs my smock, of a fine white silk gauze, edged with embroidery. This smock has wide sleeves, hanging half way down the arm, and is closed at the neck with a diamond button; but the shape and colour of the bosom very well to be distinguished through it. The antery is a waistcoat, made close to the shape, of white and gold damask, with very long sleeves falling back, and fringed with deep gold fringe, and should have diamond or pearl buttons. My caftan, of the same stuff with my drawers, is a robe exactly fitted to my shape, and reaching to my feet, with very long strait falling sleeves. Over this is the girdle of about four fingers broad, which all that can afford have entirely of diamonds or other precious stones; those who will not be at that expense, have it of exquisite embroidery on satin; but it must be fastened before with a clasp of diamonds. The curdee is a loose robe they throw off or put on according to the weather, being of a rich brocade (mine is green and gold), either lined with ermine or sables; the sleeves reach very little below the shoulders. The head-dress is composed of a cap, called talpock, which is in winter of fine velvet embroidered with pearls or diamonds, and in summer of a light shining silver stuff. This is fixed on one side of the head, hanging a little way down with a gold tassel, and bound on, either with a circle of diamonds (as I have seen several) or a rich embroidered handkerchief. On the other side of the head, the hair is laid flat; and here the ladies are at liberty to show their fancies; some putting flowers, others a plume of heron’s feathers, and, in short, what they please; but the most general fashion is a large bouquet of jewels, made like natural flowers; that is, the buds of pearl; the roses, of different coloured rubies; the jessamines, of diamonds; jonquils, of topazes, etc., so well set and enamelled, ’tis hard to imagine any thing of that kind so beautiful. The hair hangs at its full length behind, divided into tresses braided with pearl or ribbon, which is always in great quantity.
I never saw in my life so many fine heads of hair. I have counted a hundred and ten of these tresses of one lady’s all natural; but it must be owned, that every beauty is more common here than with us. ‘Tis surprising to see a young woman that is not very handsome. They have naturally the most beautiful complexions in the world, and generally large black eyes. I can assure you with great truth, that the court of England (though I believe it the fairest in Christendom) cannot shew so many beauties as are under our protection here. They generally shape their eyebrows; and the Greeks and Turks have a custom of putting round their eyes (on the inside) a black tincture, that, at a distance, or by candle-light, adds very much to the blackness of them. I fancy many of our ladies would be overjoyed to know this secret; but ’tis too visible by day. They dye their nails a rose-colour. I own, I cannot enough accustom myself to this fashion to find any beauty in it.
As to their morality or good conduct, I can say, like Harlequin, that ’tis just as it is with you; and the Turkish ladies don’t commit one sin the less for not being Christians. [HA!] Now I am a little acquainted with their ways, I cannot forbear admiring either the exemplary discretion or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given accounts of them. ‘Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have. No woman, of what rank soever, being permitted to go into the streets without two muslins; one that covers her face all but her eyes, and another that hides the whole dress of her head, and hangs half way down her back, and their shapes are wholly concealed by a thing they call a ferigee, which no woman of any sort appears without; this has strait sleeves, that reach to their finger-ends, and it laps all round them, not unlike a riding-hood. In winter ’tis of cloth, and in summer plain stuff or silk. You may guess how effectually this disguises them, [so] that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave. ‘Tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her; and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street.
This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery. The most usual method of intrigue is, to send an appointment to the lover to meet the lady at a Jew’s shop, which are as notoriously convenient as our Indian-houses; and yet, even those who don’t make that use of them, do not scruple to go to buy pennyworths, and tumble over rich goods, which are chiefly to be found amongst that sort of people. The great ladies seldom let their gallants know who they are; and it is so difficult to find it out, that they can very seldom guess at her name they have corresponded with above half a year together. You may easily imagine the number of faithful wives very small in a country where they have nothing to fear from a lover’s indiscretion, since we see so many that have the courage to expose themselves to that in this world, and all the threatened punishment of the next, which is never preached to the Turkish damsels. Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their husbands; those ladies that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with them upon a divorce, with an addition which he is obliged to give them.
Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the empire: the very Divan pays a respect to them; and the Grand Signior himself, when a pasha is executed, never violates the privileges of the harem (or women’s apartment), which remains unsearched entire to the widow. They are queens of their slaves, whom the husband has no permission so much as to look upon, except it be an old woman or two that his lady chooses. ‘Tis true their law permits them four wives; but there is no instance of a man of quality that makes use of this liberty, or of a woman of rank that would suffer it. When a husband happens to be inconstant (as those things will happen), he keeps his mistress in a house apart, and visits her as privately as he can, just as it is with you. Amongst all the great men here, I only know the tefterdar (i.e. treasurer), that keeps a number of she slaves for his own use (that is, on his own side of the house; for a slave once given to serve a lady is entirely at her disposal), and he is spoken of as a libertine, or what we should call a rake, and his wife won’t see him, though she continues to live in his house.
Thus, you see, dear sister, the manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe. Perhaps it would be more entertaining to add a few surprising customs of my own invention; but nothing seems to me so agreeable as truth, and I believe nothing so acceptable to you. I conclude with repeating the great truth of my being,
Dear sister, etc.
There are so many more, but I’ll stop here for now. I’m touched by her observation that both the nakedness of the bathhouse and the extreme coverage of the ferigee eliminate class distinctions (in both cases, the slave can’t be distinguished from her mistress) and the tyranny of the face. There’s so much more—her crazy relationship with Alexander Pope, her eventual separation, her gradual isolation from England—but for now, let’s raise a cup to her, not as a one-time admittee to the gentleman’s Kit Kat Club, but as an institution in our women’s coffeehouse.