Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)
 
[Mary Pierrepont was born in Covent Garden, London, in the spring of the year 1689. Her parents were the Hon. Evelyn Pierrepont, who in 1690 succeeded as Earl of Kingston, and afterwards became Marquis of Dorchester and Duke of Kingston, and his first wife, Lady Mary, a daughter of William, third Earl of Denbigh. Though practically self-educated, she was at an early age celebrated for her acquirements and love of learning. When fourteen years old she attracted the attention of Mr. Edward Wortley, the eldest son of a gentleman of fortune, Mr. Sidney Wortley Montagu. A correspondence long carried on between them led to an offer of marriage and, differences as to settlements having arisen, to a clandestine marriage (in the latter part of August 1712), followed shortly afterwards by an elopement. Early in 1716 Mr. Wortley was appointed ambassador to the Porte, and started for Constantinople from Vienna in January 1717 accompanied by his wife and infant son. They returned to England in August of the following year.  1
  In 1739 Lady Mary left England for the Continent, and never returned to England during her husband’s lifetime; nor did he visit her on either of the two occasions of his going abroad. As they continued to correspond in terms of mutual confidence and regard, her reasons for going and remaining abroad are matter of conjecture only. She resided chiefly at Lovere, but also stayed much at Venice, where, in 1761, she received the news of her husband’s death. She at once left for England, where she arrived in January 1762, and where she died on the 21st August following, at her house in George Street, Hanover Square.]  2
 
“I NEVER studied anything in my life, and have always (at least from fifteen) thought the reputation of learning a misfortune to a woman.” Thus wrote, when seventy years of age and beyond a temptation against which even the cleverest women are not always proof,—the temptation of saying a thing for the sake of saying it,—the “Lady Mary” whom now as then it is impossible to designate by any longer assortment of names. The remark was true in the main, but at the same time (if it is permissible to use one of those French phrases, to which she so much objected in the style of Lord Bolingbroke) tant soit peu rash. As for the depth of her studies, that is of course a relative affair; in her young days blue stockings proper had not yet been invented; and, with all her effervescence, she was far too much of a lady (indeed, of a grand lady) to give herself airs. But she certainly was at the pains of corroborating the report that as a child she had laboriously taught herself Latin during a long succession of solitary days spent in her father’s library, where she was supposed to have merely gratified an early love for novels and romances which grew into a lifelong passion. To be sure, she never attained to a real command over any language but her own; although that is something, and a something not always achieved by a strictly vernacular discipline. But she at all events entered into the spirit of more than one foreign tongue; she understood Italian, and wrote it as well as Horace Walpole; she composed very passably in French, although she may have been perhaps a trifle bold in essaying a commentary in his own idiom on one of the maxims of La Rochefoucauld; she showed something more than the mere traveller’s enthusiasm when gazing upon the Troad and the ruins of Carthage; and who, except Sir William Jones, ever attempted to control her translations from Turkish erotic poetry? These literary excursions in point of fact gave a sort of catholicity to her taste in verse, which was facile in itself and flexible to the liberal notions of an age less rigorous in its canons than we are sometimes given to understand in literary handbooks. If she could imitate, as well as parody Pope, she was even more successful in the vein of Gay, and had, I fear, some inclination towards the style of Sir Charles Hanbury Williams. In prose, which she mostly wrote with the object of pleasing others and always with that of amusing herself, she is hardly ever anything but original and delightful.  3
  It is, I fear, matter of fact that Lady Mary suffered through life from her reputation for learning and letters; however much she might protest against the impeachment. It was not her fault that as a young girl she attracted by her talents as well as by her charms the admiration of Mr. Edward Wortley, whose methods of conduct whether as a lover or as a husband need not here be discussed. After her marriage she might possibly have acquiesced in the inevitable, and have contented herself with the rather trying lot of remaining the sympathetic wife of a very superior man. Her excellent sketch entitled an Account of the Court of George the First at his Accession is thought to have been put together at a later date than her husband’s companion notes On the State of affairs when the King entered; if so, there was obviously a time when she could refrain from the use of her standish even when her powers of observation were as keen as ever. But to persons born for prose composition self-restraint is one thing, and a heaven-sent opportunity is another. Such an opportunity was to Lady Mary her husband’s mission to Constantinople, which enabled him to render himself useful, and her to make herself famous.  4
  It is true that the Travels of an English Lady in Europe, Asia, and Africa, were not published till after Lady Mary’s death (in 1763), under circumstances in some measure mysterious, and that an additional volume published four years later was in all probability spurious. It has, moreover, been demonstrated with tolerable certainty that the letters comprised in the Travels were not those originally written by Lady Mary from the East, but portions of her Diary afterwards distributed by her among her former actual or probable correspondents. Yet there cannot be any doubt but that during the embassy she wrote many letters in a vein entirely her own to divers private friends, and that these were, like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, handed about among them with a curiosity of which it is difficult to conceive in days when social as well as political celebrities convey their first impressions of distant countries through the medium of the daily press. Lady Mary’s Turkish letters (for we may fairly designate the whole series by the most novel and most characteristic portion of it) unmistakeably possess the irresistible charm of first impressions; nor are their merits exhausted by this particular kind of directness. She compared manners, and that which lies at the root of manners, with a pointed simplicity such as philosophers and historians frequently neglect to their cost, and after which mere masters of style, including Prosper Mérimée himself, sometimes toil in vain. She furthermore possessed the power of telling a short story, introduced in the way of illustration with a terse distinctness worthy of the highest praise; while, within the limits of the range of her imagination, her descriptions were invariably both lively and lucid. I have attempted, in the extracts given below from this famous series of Letters, to furnish an example of the use which she made of her gifts in both directions.  5
  What has more recently been published of her correspondence during her later years, comprises a large variety of letters written by her at home or abroad, chiefly addressed to her daughter Lady Bute, and referring partly to the fashionable gossip of her day (which she liked high in more senses than one); partly to the foreign scenes in town and country amidst which she spent the last twenty years of her life, and partly to literature—in the main no doubt, to the literature of contemporary prose fiction, for which she could not be expected to have a more than half-deprecatory sympathy. But with whatever subjects her letters deal, they must be allowed to be equal to the reputation which the most famous series of them had achieved for her as a traveller, a woman of the world and a woman of letters, and a writer of most pungent and exhilarating prose. It is not difficult to understand why she should have been so successful as a diarist and letter-writer, for her few set essays are of small account. She was, to begin with, a woman of genuine wit, in any of the two-score or so of senses in which that term has been defined or understood. How this wit was capable of taking a personal turn, hardly requires exemplification, even if it be a mere tradition that has credited her with dividing mankind, in a moment of candour towards the most faithful of her friends, into “men, women, and Herveys.” The suggestion which she threw out to Spence of a septennial bill for married couples was a signally felicitous application of a topic of the times. Her casual apophthegm, in one of her juvenile letters to her philosophical suitor, that “general notions are generally wrong,” is to my mind not less apposite and equally irresistible. But her wit (when she was not writing fashionable ballads) was under the restraint of good breeding, and even, though this may not seem proved by an admirable passage in which she stigmatises the smartness of irreverence, under the influence of good feeling. Her critical powers were excellent, although in her youth they may have been affected by her (Whig) political bias, and in her later days by her personal resentment of the “horrible malice,” with which she had been stung by the “wicked wasp of Twickenham,” and of the persistence with which she had been assaulted by other assailants only less cruel than her ci-devant pretended adorer. She saw through literary shams, such as Bolingbroke; she was wide awake to the weaknesses of Richardson, though as ready as any of his own female friends to cry over his Clarissa; and she appreciated the genius of such unfashionable candidates for literary fame as her kinsman Fielding and his rival Smollett. No doubt, she would have been more perfect as a critic, had her natural sympathies been less restricted; had she understood the force of emotion, as represented by poor Madame de Guyon, and the strength of absolute naturalness, as exhibited by her own counterpart, Madame de Sévigné. Yet the last, and crowning element in her own genius, and therefore in her own style, was her truthfulness to herself, to her foibles and to her convictions. She was one of those born to talk, with tongue or with pen; and never did her self-knowledge boil over so uncontrollably as when accident led her to study, and of course to comment on, the system of La Trappe. She had seen too much, and knew too much, to be naïve; but though she could philosophise very reasonably and very effectively on the training and disciplining of the mind, she was not afraid of betraying the contradictions in her own nature. This frankness of feeling, to which her gay but not dishevelled spontaneity of utterance corresponded, makes her always good company; it is only in her earliest letters that there linger traces of the affectation rarely absent altogether from the writings of the young. The humour of her Turkish and later letters has a true ring. And, although few women (whether literary or other) have suffered more than she suffered, in part, may be, through the vivacity of her own temper and the freedom of her own pen,—she had a brave heart; and her high spirit, like all qualities which are of rarer growth, faithfully reflects itself in the current of her style.  6
  Unlucky as she was in many things, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is at least to be deemed fortunate in the editor of her literary remains, her great-grandson Lord Wharncliffe, whose original edition of her letters and works appeared in 1837. The introductory anecdotes contributed by her granddaughter Lady Louisa Stuart are excellent reading; and nothing could be more discriminating or fair than the memoir by W. May Thomas, added to the third edition in 1861, together with many fresh notes.  7
 
 
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