‘Prudent people are very happy; ’tis an exceeding fine thing, that’s certain, but I was born without it, and shall retain to my day of Death the Humour of saying what I think.’
Child-Rebel: Born into high society (the eldest child of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, and his first wife, Mary) at a time when daughters (she had 2 sisters too) were the subjects of their fathers and very much expected to be dutiful, Lady Mary was a radical from the start. ‘Schooled’ at home by a despised governess, Lady Mary used the library at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire, to “steal” her education, teaching herself Latin (she later learnt other languages including Turkish). By 1705, at the age of fourteen Mary had written two albums filled with poetry, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modelled after Aphra Behn’s Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684). She was also in correspondence with two Bishops, Thomas Tenison and Gilbert Burnet.
‘I prefer liberty to chains of diamonds’
Runaway-Bride: When she came of age, and as was customary at the time, Lady Mary’s father began to look for a suitable husband (on the basis of the financial, social and political advantages he would bring to the family). He decided upon Clotworthy Skeffington. Lady Mary was horrified (he was ‘Hell’ in her view). Headstrong as ever she took the marital matter into her own hands, courting Edward Wortley Montagu (whose sister Anne was a dear friend before her early death in 1710). With marriage to Clotworthy looming in the background, Mary most daringly planned to elope with Edward. In a nail-bitingly close flurry of letters and mishaps, Lady Mary and Edward married in secret in Salisbury in August 1712.
‘A face is to slight a foundation for happiness’
Scathing-Beauty: The early years of their marriage were spent in London (here she had their first child, a son, Edward) where her wit and beauty got her noticed. She was soon a prominent figure at court of George I and the Prince of Wales, and counted amongst her friends Molly Skerritt, Lady Walpole, John, Lord Hervey, Mary Astell, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Abbé Antonio Schinella Conti. A prolific note-taker and letter-writer Lady Mary entertained many with her literary satirical ‘poems’ and essays about the society around her (including a notorious one about Caroline, Princess of Wales). In 1715, at just 27, she was struck by smallpox and, though lucky to survive (her brother died, there was no cure) she suffered terrible life-long scarring to her face.
‘Thus you see, my Dear, Galantry and good breeding are as different in different Climates as Morality and Religion. Who have the rightest notions of both we shall never know till the Day of judgement…’
Harem-Observer: In 1716, Edward was appointed Ambassador at Istanbul where the couple ventured via a gruelling overland journey. They stayed for 2 years and Mary had their second child, Mary, Countess of Bute. Mostly her time was occupied recording her experiences and observations of Eastern life is told in Letters from Turkey, a series of lively letters full of graphic descriptions. She was enchanted by the beauty and hospitality of the Turkish women she encountered. Her gender and class status gave her unknown before access to female places, particularly the Harem or Turkish bath. Here her experience led her to challenge the (male made) assumptions about the Ottoman Empire, she specifically wrote of the freedoms enjoyed by Muslim women who enjoyed a freedom rarely permitted in aristocratic Britain.
Here she also discovered ‘selam’ – a mysterious ‘language of love and gallantry’ which could only be decoded by attaching rhyming words to particular flowers and other objects thought to have begun as a game among the women in Turkish harems, “…I can assure you there is as much fancy shown in the choice of [flowers] as in the most studied expressions of our letters…” “There is no color, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble or feather that has not a verse belonging to it; and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or even news, without ever inking your fingers.”
Her writings became are now credited as authoritative and informative (and founded the great Victorian interest in the language of flowers).
‘Every year thousands undergo this Operation…There is no example of any one that has dy’d in it, and you may beleive I am very well satisfy’d of the safety of the Experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little Son.’
Healthcare-Disrupter: It was whilst in Turkey Lady Mary learnt of the practice of inoculation against smallpox, known as variolation. (Variolation used live smallpox virus in the pus taken from a smallpox blister in a mild case of the disease and introduced it into scratched skin of a previously uninfected person to promote immunity to the disease). After her own terrible experience she wanted to spare her children, and had her young son, Edward inoculated with the help of Embassy surgeon, Charles Maitland. Back in London and knowing she would likely face much opprobrium she enthusiastically promoted the procedure. The resistance from the establishment was fierce – racist (Orientalist) and misogynistic (a female practice). Mary later said, she “never would have attempted it, could she have foreseen the vexation, and even persecution, it was to bring on her.”
In April 1721, when a smallpox epidemic struck England, she had her daughter inoculated, again by Maitland. This was the first such operation done in Britain. She continued to campaign through her influential friends – successfully persuading Princess Caroline to inoculate her daughters in 1722. This was a turning point – the practice now became acceptable and tens of thousands of lives were saved.
‘Tis a strange thing that Women can’t converse with a Lawyer, a parson, nor a man midwife without putting them all to the same use, as if one could not sign a deed, say one’s prayers, or take physic without doing you know what after it. This Instinct is so odd, I am sometimes apt to think we were made to no other end.’
‘Entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting’
Feminist-Educator: Today interpretations of her work like to look to her as an early feminist and a pioneer of girls education (Dale Spender, Women of Ideas (1983) saw in her critiques of women’s education, sexual double-standards, and women’s lack of rights clearly paving the way for Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women at the end of the eighteenth century). But how far she would have put her neck on the line for women’s causes is can not truly be known (many of her letters were burned by either her daughter or herself – to save the family’s honour).
However she certainly impressed upon her daughter the need to educate her granddaughter (a good way to spend idle time) but she cautioned her to hide her learning so as not to bring opprobrium on herself – no doubt a comment on her own public humiliations. She also warned about mingling with the lower classes for the shame it may bring.
Her views on equality were very far from views today too; for all her approval of women’s ability to reason she didn’t sway from the ‘natural’ domination of men in society.