1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 22:267-73.



LADY MARY WORTLEY MONTAGU, an English lady of distinguished talent, by marriage related to the Sandwich family, was the eldest daughter of Evelyn Pierrepoint, duke of Kingston, and the lady Mary Fielding, daughter of William earl of Denbigh. She was born about 1690, and lost her mother in 1694. Her capacity for literary attainments was such as induced her father to provide her with the same preceptors as viscount Newark, her brother; and under their tuition, she made great proficiency in the Greek, Latin, and French languages. Her studies were afterwards superintended by bishop Burnet, and that part of life which by females of her rank is usually devoted to trifling amusements, or more trifling "accomplishments" was spent by her in studious retirement, principally at Thoresby and at Acton, near London. Her society was confined to a few friends, among whom the most confidential appears to have been Mrs. Anne Wortley, wife of the Hon. Sidney Montagu, second son of the heroic earl of Sandwich, in this intimacy originated her connection with Edward Wortley Montagu, esq. the eldest son of this lady; and after a correspondence of about two years, they were privately married by special licence, which bears date August 12, 1712. Mr. Wortley was a man possessed of solid rather than of brilliant parts, but in parliaments where at different periods of his life he had represented the cities of Westminster and Peterborough, and the boroughs of Huntingdon and Bossiney, he acquired considerable distinction as a politician and a speaker. In 1714 he was appointed one of the lords commissioners of the treasury, and on this occasion his lady was introduced to the court of George I. where her beauty, wit, and spirit were universally admired. She lived also in habits of familiar acquaintance with two of the greatest geniuses of the age, Addison and Pope; but it did not require their discernment to discover that, even at this time, she was a woman of very superior talents.

In 1716, Mr. Wortley resigned his situation as a lord of the treasury, on being appointed ambassador to the Porte, in order to negociate peace between the Turks and Imperialists. Lady Mary determined to accompany him in this difficult and, during war, dangerous journey, and while travelling, and after her arrival in the Levant, amused herself and delighted her friends by a regular correspondence, chiefly directed to her sister the countess of Mar, lady Rich, and Mrs. Thistlethwaite, both ladies of the court, and to Mr. Pope. Previously to her arrival at the capital of the Ottoman empire, the embassy rested about two months at Adrianople, to which city the Sultan, Achmed the third, had removed his court. It was here that she first was enabled to become acquainted with the customs of the Turks, and to give so lively and so just a picture of their domestic manners and usages of ceremony. Her admission into the interior of the seraglio was one of her most remarkable adventures, and most singular privileges, and gave rise to many strange conjectures, which it is not now necessary to revive. It is more important to record that, during her residence at Constantinople, she was enabled to confer on Europe a benefit of the greatest consequence; namely, inoculation for the small-pox, which was at that time universal in the Turkish dominions. This practice she examined with such attention as to become perfectly satisfied with its efficacy, and gave the most intrepid and convincing proof of her belief, in 1717, by inoculating her son, who was then about three years old. Mr. Maitland, who had attended the embassy in a medical character, first endeavoured to establish the practice in London, and was encouraged by lady Mary's patronage. In 1721 the experiment was successfully tried on some criminals. With so much ardour did lady Mary, on her return, enforce this salutary innovation among mothers of her own rank; that, as we find in her letters, much of her time was necessarily dedicated to various consultations, and to the superintendence of the success of her plan. In 1722, she had a daughter of six years old, inoculated, who was afterwards countess of Bute; and in a short time the children of the royal family, that had not had the small-pox, underwent the same operation with success; then followed some of the nobility, and the practice gradually prevailed among all ranks, although it had to encounter very strong prejudices; and was soon extended, by Mr. Maitland to Scotland, and by other operators to most parts of Europe.

Mr. Wortley's negociations at the Porte having failed, owing to the high demands of the Imperialists, he received letters of recall, Oct. 28, 1717, but did not commence his journey till June 1718; in October of the same year he arrived in England. Soon after, lady Mary was solicited by Mr. Pope to fix her summer residence at Twickenham, with which she complied, and mutual admiration seemed to knit these kindred geniuses in indissoluble bonds. A short time, however, proved that their friendship was not superhuman. Jealousy of her talents, and a difference in political sentiments, appear to have been the primary causes of that dislike which soon manifested itself without ceremony and without delicacy. Lady Mary was attached to the Walpole administration and principles. Pope hated the whigs, and was at no pains to conceal his aversion in conversation or writing. What was worse, lady Mary had for some time omitted to consult him upon any new poetical production, and even when be had been formerly very free with his emendations, was wont to say, "Come, no touching, Pope, for what is good, the world will give to you, and leave the bad for me;" and she was well aware that he disingenuously encouraged that idea. But the more immediate cause of their implacability, was a satire in the form of a pastoral, entitled "Town Eclogues." These were some of lady Mary's earliest poetical attempts, and had been written previously to her leaving England. After her return, they were communicated to a favoured few, and no doubt highly relished from their supposed, or real personal allusions. Both Pope and Gay suggested many additions and alterations, which were certainly not adopted by lady Mary; and as copies, including their corrections, were found among the papers of these poets, their editors have attributed three out of six to them. "The Basset Table," and "The Drawing Room," are given to Pope; and the "Toilet" to Gay. The publication, however, of these poems, in the name of Pope, by Curl, a bookseller who hesitated at nothing mean or infamous, appears to have put a final stop to all intercourse between Pope and lady Mary. "Irritated," says her late biographer, "by Pope's ceaseless petulance, and disgusted by his subterfuge, she now retired totally from his society, and certainly did not abstain from sarcastic observations, which were always repeated to him." The angry bard retaliated in the most gross and public manlier against her and her friend lord Hervey. Of this controversy, which is admirably detailed by Mr. Dallaway, we shall only add, that Dr. Warton and Dr. Johnson agree in condemning the prevarication with which Pope evaded every direct charge of his ungrateful behaviour to those whose patronage he had once servilely solicited; and even his panegyrical commentator, Dr. Warburton, confesses that there were allegations against him, which "he was not quite clear of."

Lady Mary, however, preserved her envied rank in the world of fashion and of literature until 1739, when her health declining, she took the resolution to pass the remainder of her days on the continent. Having obtained Mr. Wortley's consent, she left England in the month of July, and hastened to Venice, where she formed many connexions with the noble inhabitants, and determined to establish herself in the north of Italy. Having been gratified by a short tour to Rome and Naples, she returned to Brescia, one of the palaces of which city she inhabited, and also spent some months at Avignon and Chamberry. Her summer residence she fixed at Louverre, on the shores of the lake of Isco, in the Venetian territory, whither she had been first invited on account of the mineral waters, which she found greatly beneficial to her health. There she took possession of a deserted palace, she planned her garden, applied herself to the business of a country life, and was happy in the superintendance of her vineyards and silk-worms. Books, and those chiefly English, sent by her daughter lady Bute, supplied the want of society. Her visits to Genoa and Padua were not unfrequent, but about 1758, she quitted her solitude, and settled entirely at Venice, where she remained till the death of Mr. Wortley in 1761. She then yielded to the solicitations of her daughter, and after an absence of twenty-two years, she began her journey to England, where she arrived in October. But her health had suffered much, and a gradual decline terminated in death, on the 21st of August, 1762, and in the seventy-third year of her age.

The year following her death, appeared "Letters of Lady M—y W—y M—," in 3 vols. 12mo, of which publication Mr. Dallaway has given a very curious history. By this it appears that after lady Mary had collected copies of the letters which she had written during Mr. Wortley's embassy, she transcribed them in two small quarto volumes, and upon her return to England in 1761, gave them to Mr. Sowden, a clergyman at Rotterdam, to be disposed of as he thought proper. After her death, the late earl of Bute purchased them of Mr. Sowden, but they were scarcely landed in England when the above mentioned edition was published. On farther application to Mr. Sowden, it could only be gathered that two English gentlemen once called on him to see the letters, and contrived, during his being called away, to go off with them, although they returned them next morning with many apologies. Whoever will look at the three 12mo volumes, may perceive that with the help of a few amanuenses, there was sufficient time to transcribe them during this interval. Cleland was the editor of the publication, and probably one of the "gentlemen" concerned in the trick of obtaining the copies.

The appearance of these letters, however, excited universal attention, nor on a re-perusal of them at this improved period of female literature, can any thing be deducted from Dr. Smollett's opinion in the "Critical Review," of which he was then conductor. "The publication of these letters will be an immortal monument to the memory of lady M. W. M. and will shew, as long as the English language endures, the sprightliness of her wit, the solidity of her judgment, the elegance of her taste, and the excellence of her real character. These letters are so bewitchingly entertaining, that we defy the most phlegmatic man on earth to read one without going through with them, or after finishing the third volume, not to wish there were twenty more of them." Other critics were not so enraptured, and seemed to doubt their authenticity, which, however, is now placed beyond all question by the following publication, "The Works of the right hon. lady M. W. M. including her correspondence, poems, and essays, published by permission (of the Earl of Bute) from her genuine papers," London, 1803, 5 vols. 12mo, with Memoirs of her Life by Mr. Dallaway, drawn up with much taste and delicacy, and to which we are indebted for the preceding sketch. This edition, besides her poems, and a few miscellaneous essays, contains a great number of letters never before printed, perhaps of equal importance with those which have long been before the world, as they appear not to have been intended for publication, which the others certainly were, and we have in these new letters a more exact delineation of her character in advanced life. This if it be not always pleasing, will afford many instructive lessons. Her poetry, without being of the superior kind, is yet entitled to high praise, and had she cultivated the acquaintance of the muses with more earnestness, and had not disdained the scrupulous labour by which some of her contemporaries acquired fame, it is probable she might have attained a higher rank. She certainly was a woman of extraordinary, talents, and acquired the honours of literary reputation at a time when they were not bestowed on the undeserving. It is, however, incumbent upon us to add, that the moral tendency of her letters may be justly questioned; many of the descriptions of Eastern luxuries and beauty are such as cannot be tolerated in an age of decency, and a prudent guardian will hesitate long before he can admit the letters from Constantinople among books fit for the perusal of the young. Her amiable relative, the late Mrs. Montague, represents Lady Mary as one who "neither thinks, speaks, acts, or dresses like any body;" and many traits of her moral conduct were also, it is to be hoped, exclusively her own.