1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:650-51.



Few persons, and especially ladies, have united so much solid sense and learning to wit, fancy, and lively powers of description, as LADY MARY WORTLEY MONTAGU. In epistolary composition she has very few equals, and scarcely a superior. Horace Walpole may be more witty and sarcastic, and Cowper more unaffectedly natural, pure, and delightful; yet if we consider the variety and novelty of the objects described in Lady Mary's letters, the fund of anecdote and observation they display, the just reflections that spring out of them, and the happy clearness and idiomatic grave of her style, we shall hesitate in placing her below any letter-writer that England has yet produced. This accomplished lady was the eldest daughter of the Duke of Kingston, and was born in 1690. She was educated, like her brothers, in the Latin, Greek, and French languages. In 1712 she married Mr. Edward Wortley Montagu, and on her husband being appointed a commissioner of the treasury, she was introduced to the courtly and polished circles, and made the friendship of Addison, Pope, Gay, and the other distinguished literati of that period. Her person beauty and the charms of her conversation were then unrivalled. In 1716, her husband was appointed ambassador to the Porte, and Lady Mary accompanied him to Constantinople. During her journey and her residence in the Levant, she corresponded with her sister the Countess of Mar, Lady Rich, Mr. Pope, &c. delineating European and Turkish scenery and manners with accuracy and minuteness. On observing among the villagers in Turkey the practice of inoculating for the small-pox, she became convinced of its utility and efficacy, and applied it to her own son, at that time about three years old. By great exertions, Lady Mary afterwards established the practice of inoculation in England, and conferred a lasting benefit on her native country and on mankind. In 1718, her husband being recalled from his embassy, she returned to England, and, by the advice of Pope, settled at Twickenham. The rival wits did not long continue friends. Pope seems to have entertained for Lady Mary a passion warmer than friendship. He wrote high-flown panegyrics and half-concealed love-letters to her, and she treated them with silent contempt or ridicule. On one occasion, he is said to have made a tender declaration, which threw the lady into an immoderate fit of laughter, and made the sensitive poet ever afterwards her implacable enemy. Lady Mary also wrote verses, town eclogues, and epigrams, and Pope confessed that she had too much wit for him. The cool self-possession of the lady of rank and fashion, joined to her sarcastic powers, proved an overmatch for the jealous retired author, tremblingly alive to the shafts of ridicule. In 1739, her health having declined, Lady Mary again left England to reside abroad. Her husband (who seems to have been little more than a decent appendage to his accomplished wife) remained at home. She visited Rome, Naples, &c., and settled at Louverre, in the Venetian territory, where she corresponded freely and fully with her female friends and relatives. Mr. Montagu died in 1761, and Lady Mary was prevailed upon by her daughter, the Countess of Bute, to return to England. She arrived in October 1761, but died the following year. Her letters were first printed surreptitiously in 1763. A more complete edition of her works was published in five volumes in 1803; and another, edited by her great-grandson, Lord Wharncliffe, with additional letters and information, in 1837. The letters from Constantinople and France have been printed in various shapes. The wit and talent of Lady Mary are visible throughout the whole of her correspondence, but there is often a want of feminine softness and delicacy. Her desire to convey scandal, or to paint graphically, leads her into offensive details, which the more decorous taste of the present age can hardly tolerate. She described what she saw and heard without being scrupulous; and her strong masculine understanding, and carelessness as to refinement in habits or expressions, render her sometimes apparently unamiable and unfeeling. As models of the epistolary style, easy, familiar, and elegant, no less than as pictures of foreign scenery and manners, and fashionable gossip, the letters of Lady Mary must, however, maintain a high place in our national literature. They are truly "letters," not critical or delicate essays, enlivened by formal compliment and elaborate wit, like the correspondence of Pope.