1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Isaac D'Israeli, in Review of Spence's Anecdotes, Quarterly Review 23 (July 1820) 414-19.



Mr. Bowles has unsparingly attacked Pope on the score of his quarrel with Lady Mary Wortley Montague: as we have something to contribute to the little that is known of this extraordinary woman, we shall take this opportunity to communicate it.

Lady Mary's was an eccentric path through life, and, from family motives, it was considered proper that it should remain a secret one; but in all such cases the family gains nothing, while the public loses a great deal: — What is matter of history is matter of instruction; and it is not a Lady Mary that we have lost, but a woman of genius, whose principles and conduct must provoke the inquiries, and receive the judgment of a tribunal that no author can elude.

Notwithstanding Mr. Dallaway's prefatory Memoirs, Lady Mary will only be known to posterity by a chance publication, (for such were her famous Turkish Letters, — the manuscript of which her family purchased with the intention to suppress,) and the more recent letters, which were reluctantly given up as an exchange for other family documents that had fallen into the hands of a bookseller. Had it depended on her relations, the name of Lady Mary had only reached us in the satires of Pope, and our literature could not have balanced the genius of a Madame de Sevigne with something more than her fascination. The greater part of her Epistolary Correspondence was destroyed by her mother; and what that good and gothic lady spared was suppressed by that hereditary austerity of rank of which her family was too susceptible. It was no deficiency in application which prevented Lady Mary from ranking among the first of our female writers. Early in life she had translated the Enchiridion of Epictetus; and even to her latest days literature formed her solitary enjoyment; for in truth the gay, the witty, and if it must be, the intriguing Lady Mary, was, by taste and habit, a learned woman, a literary recluse. It required a philosophical spirit to meditate on the Turkish villagers' "engrafting"; a patriotic ardour to appropriate the discovery for her own country, and a heroism which

—the little terrors of her sex
Despising, by maternal fondness swayed,
Yet bold, where confidence had stable ground,

realized one of the most splendid triumphs in medical science, and proved it on her only son!

There is a veil over the life of this extraordinary woman, and who now can lift it, or decide whether this expatriated female was a criminal driven from home, or withdrew herself indignantly? The passions of Lady Mary were probably never vehement; but she was, unhappily, "that dangerous thing, a female wit;" and there was a deadly bitterness in her honey, as if, like the bees of Xenophon, she had fed solely on lupine flowers. Her very admirers ceased to be her friends. She separated herself from her husband, her daughter, and her country; — yet in that distant seclusion, the domestic ties were at no time entirely broken between any of the parties.

It was probably for herself, as much as for her country-women, that Lady Mary appears to have drawn up an extraordinary project, with which, if printed, we are unacquainted. We find this account of it in Spence, to whom Lady Mary speaks.

"It was from the customs of the Turks that I first thought of a septennial bill for the benefit of married persons, and of the advantages that might arise from our wives having no portions."

On this Spence observes "That Lady's little treatise upon these two subjects is very prettily written, and has very uncommon arguments in it. She is very strenuous for both these tenets. That every married person should have the liberty of declaring, every seventh year, whether they choose to continue to live together in that state for another seven years or not; and she also argues, that if women had nothing but their own good qualities and merit to recommend them, it would make them more virtuous, and their husbands more happy, than in the present marketing way among us. She seems very earnest and serious on the subject, and wishes the legislature would take it under their consideration, and regulate those two points by her system."

It seems that Lady Mary, in adopting from the Turks this "septennial bill for the relief of the married," imagined the gift might prove as universally salutary, as the national "grafting" she had so happily introduced; but it is not clear to us, that, where the constitutional habits are radically bad, a fresh inoculation of a new husband, or a new wife, will, improve the general system. In regard to herself, her union was not fortunate; and was made with the same contempt of discretion which she appears to have frequently carried into the affairs of life: she chose a husband one morning from a freak, and merely to put an end to a month's vacillations.

"I always desired,' says Spence, in a letter to his mother from Rome, "to be acquainted with Lady Mary, and could never bring it about, though we were often together in London; soon after we came to this place, her Ladyship came here, and in five days I was well acquainted with her. She is one of the most shining characters in the world, but shines like a comet. She is all irregularity and always wandering; the most vise, the most imprudent; loveliest, most disagreeable; best-natured, cruellest woman in the world, 'all things by turns and nothing long.' — She was married young, and she told me, with that freedom which travelling gives, that she was never in so great a hurry of thought, as the month before she was married; she never slept any one night that month. You know she was one of the most celebrated beauties of her day, and had a vast number of offers, and the thing that kept her awake was who to fix upon. She was determined as to two points from the first, that is to be married to somebody, and not to be married to the man her father advised her to have. The last night of the month she determined, and in the morning left the husband of her father's choice buying the wedding ring, and scuttled away to be married to Mr. Wortley."

Mr. Wortley Montague was a gentleman of moderate capacity, with a good deal of phlegm in his constitution. We once saw a manuscript speech which he delivered in the House, and which he must have held with his hat before it while he spoke; — and we recollect certain notable hints which the orator had carefully arranged along the margin; such as — "pause for a minute" — "cough" — "look round" — "slow" — "loud," &c. Of a genius so tame and mechanical we can form no very exalted notion either as a patriot, or as a husband for Lady Mary, and suspect that if "she had scuttled away to be married" to the man of her father's choice, she would have stood a better chance for happiness.

Lady Wortley Montague owed nothing to the elementary aid of any tutor, which is contrary to Mr. Dallaway's assertion, that she had the same preceptors as her brother. She appears, with all her knowledge of languages, self-educated; and what is still more singular, she contrived to conceal from common observers the knowledge she was so sedulous to acquire; and, while she was daily labouring for five or six hours in her father's library, had the art of disseminating the notion, that she "was reading nothing but novels and romances." We smile at finding Lady Oxford reprobating the wretched taste of Lady Mary in these things: "I wonder," she said, "how any body can find pleasure in reading the books which are that lady's chief favourites. There is no imitation of nature in the characters, and without that how is it possible for any thing to please?" Lady Oxford alluded to the Princess of Cleves, and the sentimental-heroic romances of that school; but she was not in her friend's secret.

"When I was young (says Lady Mary) I was a great admirer of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and that was one of the chief reasons that set me upon the thoughts of 'stealing' the Latin language. Mr. Wortley was the only person to whom I communicated my design, and he encouraged me in it. I studied five or six hours a day, for two years, in my father's library, and so got that language, whilst every body else thought I was reading nothing but novels and romances?"

We once had the pleasure of perusing several unpublished letters of Lady Mary, which gave us some insight into her habits of life in Italy. She admitted the occasional visits of a few Marchesas and Contessas, whose follies she unsparingly lashed: they looked upon her, amidst her studies, as a sort of Sybil, to whom they confided their secrets, for the sake of her prophesyings; and it was always in her power to disturb the jealous, to mortify the envious, and to chastise the malignant. She has painted the group to the life. In one of those letters she declares that she had been in the habit of reading seven hours a day for many years: there are men of great learning who have not studied more. Some of the documents perplexed us; we could not decide whether they related to the secrets of the cabinet or the boudoir; whether they described a conference with a minister of state, or the adventures of a minister of love. Her printed letters shew that she offered Sir Robert Walpole her services, in the way of political intelligence. "I believe," she says, "he imagined I wanted some gratification, and only sent me cold thanks." Her diplomatic capacity was assisted by the charms of her person and conversation; — "having always had the good fortune," she writes to her husband, "of a sort of intimacy with the first persons in the governments where I resided, and they not guarding themselves against the observations of a woman, as they would have done from those of a man." It happened sometimes (we suspect) that in cutting her knots her ladyship cut her fingers; a circumstance of this nature is no doubt alluded to in a manuscript letter now before us, from General Graham to Count Algarotti, dated from Venice, Dec. 1756. She seems to have been under some confinement. — "Lady Mary is at liberty, lives at Padua, and I fancy intends to call Count Palazzi to account. I do not know the tenth part of her history there, but she began to hint it to me when last here. She is more ashamed, I believe, for passing for a dupe in the eye of the public, than she is for passing for a woman of gallantry."

One circumstance Lady Mary never touched on without some tenderness, though it usually closed with suppressed indignation; — the irregularities of that solecism in human nature, her son, Edward Wortley Montague. Among her printed letters is one addressed to Mr. Wortley, dated Brescia, May 24, 1748, where the reader will find a blank name, which he may confidently fill up with that of her son. One remarkable fact we recollect in the manuscript letters to which we alluded. At Vevay, going different roads, she crossed her son. They had not seen each other for many years, and now they met at a small town in a foreign country: they put up at opposite inns; they passed a day there; and they drove out of the town in opposite directions — without an interview! for which the mother was anxiously watching. The character she gave of him was impressive — "a miserable compound of levity and villainy."

We must not dismiss Lady Mary without a word on her quarrel with Pope.

There is a distich on "Sappho," too indelicate to transcribe, but as well known as any lines in Pope, which Mr. Bowles has decidedly applied to Lady Mary; and Mr. Dallaway, to prove the unity of Mr. Pope's Sapphos, (for he mentions this name several times,) has pressed his statements into a formidable syllogism. But since we can prove that Pope had appropriately applied the name of Sappho to Mrs. Thomas, the mistress of the antiquated beau Cromwell, it is by no means certain, that the distich in question relates to Lady Mary. We do not believe in "the unity" of all Pope's Sapphos, and must resist the conclusion, however logical, of Mr. Dallaway; for a fictitious name may be resumed, which originally had been applied to another person; and, "the Sappho who read Locke," &c. (which certainly describes Lady Mary, who, by more accounts than one, was not very delicate in her habits) may have no connexion with the "Sappho," whose "love and hate" are so remarkably noticed in the offensive distich. This point is not important to us; but the history of Lady Mary and Pope would form a memorable illustration of the whole art of coquetry.

Once, and but once, his heedless youth was bit,
And liked that dangerous thing a female wit.

In his letters to her ladyship, the stages of his erotic fever may be noted by the statements of the patient himself; perhaps it was at its height when, in speaking of "the congeniality of their minds," the tormented poet put his case to her hypothetically, "if she can overlook a wretched body." — We conjecture that this was the precise moment when a rude burst of laughter awoke him from the "Paradise of fools;" Pope, who was not made for love, had the weakness to imagine that love was made for him; the case is not rare among the "imaginative" race, who are credulous of the omnipotence of genius over the sex; and his early domestic life was embittered by the tantalizing partiality of Lady Mary, as it was afterwards by the heartless indifference of Martha Blount, Mr. Bowles ingeniously conjectures that the desolated feelings of Eloisa were the echo of his own, from his unhappy attachment to the "too witty" Lady Mary; and indeed, some of the most tender and elegant verses Pope ever composed were addressed to her; such, however, was his vindictive anger, that he preferred suppressing to publishing them with her name: — they are only to be found correct in Mr. Bowles's edition; and we advise the curious reader to compare them with the fragment in Warton, that he may observe the delicacy of correction which Pope so skilfully practised. Their close is exquisite.

What are the gay parterre, the chequered shade,
The morning bower, the evening colonnade,
But soft recesses of uneasy minds
To sigh unheard in to the passing winds?
So the struck deer, in some sequestered part,
Lies down to die, the arrow at his heart,
And stretched, unseen, in coverts hid from day,
Bleeds drop by drop, and pants his life away.