Friday, January 16, 2009

Tart of the Week: Mary Wortley Montagu



Some women are difficult to sum up in their honourary Friday mention. Lady Mary is one of those women. It almost makes me feel bad for calling her a tart...but then again, I never said being a tart was a bad thing!

The daughter of the Earl of Kingston, Mary was born in 1689. Mary's intelligence was apparent early on in a time when educating women was considered a waste of time. She later talked of how she would "steal" her education by secretly studying Latin while her family thought she was reading romances. She made friendships with early feminists such as Mary Astell and Anne Wortley Montagu. After Anne's death's in 1709 Mary continued corresponding with her similarly-minded brother, Edward Wortley Montagu. Soon love bloomed, but Edward was not Mary's father's choice

Instead, Mary was betrothed to Clotworthy Skeffington; I'll just give you a moment to visualize what someone with that name might look like (hint). As the day of the wedding drew closer Mary became more agitated at her future prospects, describing the wedding preparations as "daily preparation for my journey to hell." But just as with her education, Mary was not about to accept what others' intended for her. Days before the wedding, Mary caused a scandal by eloping with Edward, much in the style of the romance novels she always pretended to read.

The early years of her marriage were spent in seclusion while Edward climbed the political ladder. Four years after their marriage, Edward was appointed ambassador in Istanbul. Mary, instead of being fearful of the foreign customs of the Ottoman Empire, dove into the culture head first, even learning the language. When she returned to England she did so in Turkish dress, which began trends in Europe. She also, and very importantly, introduced the Turkish practice of inoculation against Smallpox to Europe, saving the lives of many daring Europeans who were willing to take the risk of exposing themselves to the deadly disease.

By now Mary was a celebrity. She also had a famous group of friends which included Horace Walpole and Sara Churchill. She also had a very famous spat with Alexander Pope. He probably had a crush on her! Mary, herself, was rumoured to have had an affair or two.

In 1739 Mary kissed her husband goodbye for what would be the last time, and went abroad. They didn't leave on bad terms and she continued writing affectionately to him. She traveled around France and Italy, visiting friends. Edward died in 1761, leaving Mary a very wealthy widow. She was not to enjoy the money, however, because she died the following year. After her husband's death, her daughter begged her to return to England, which she did, only to die shortly thereafter. Her last words were reportedly, "It has all been most interesting." Having never published any of her writings during her lifetime to avoid public scandal, her letters of her Turkish Embassy Letters and other works were published after her death and received with great interest.

14 comments:

Mythosidhe said...

I found a facsimile edition of a 19th century biography of Lady Mary in a used bookstore last summer, but it is thick as a brick and I have not had time to attack it yet (the typically dense Victorian literary style is beyond my patience at the moment...). Thanks for the summary!

Mythosidhe said...

Also--Clotworthy Skeffington?

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Best. Name. Ever. Whenever I get around to writing historical romances (it's only a matter of time, yes?), I am absolutely using that...

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've never really thought of Mary as a tart. Have you read one of her plays, Heather. She adapted one of Marivaux's plays, the name escapes me, but I saw a production many years ago in London and it was quite good.

Ms. Lucy said...

I think she actually was quite daring and lived an interesting life. Thanks for another interesting one!

Jessica said...

She is one of my favorite writers from the 18th century. I love her poem,the Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a Poem called The Lady's Dressing Room, which was a response to Swifts poem, the ladies dressing room.

ren said...

i'm naming my first born clotworthy. boy or girl, doesn't matter. clotworthy.

Polonaise said...

Ha Ren! I loooove Clotworthy!! I was thinking the same thing for a cat. I'm not sure if a cat would forgive me for that, though.You know how they are. Maybe when I get a Pug.

Heather Carroll said...

She was a fantastic woman, and her name is mentioned in just about every (late) 18th century biography or book because her many societal contributions made such an impact. I like how she took charge with her love life, and how in the end, society was forgiving of her for it. She's a very small tart compared to the others, just an affair here or there and a runaway marriage, but obviously those aren't the more interesting aspects of her life. Like I said before, there is so much to her, so it was difficult to summarize her!

Elizabeth- I haven't read her play, but I can only imagine it being fabulous. I want to get my hands on her letters next!

Mythosidhe I better see that name in your future book and Ren, I want to baby pictures...Our darling little Clotworthy That goes for pugs too!

Aquaria said...

She was rather plain, but she had great taste in clothes. I love her dress in the first portrait!

Okay, so I'm shallow...

Anyone know where to get patterns for dresses of that era? The lines of that gold number are right for modern evening wear, and it wouldn't be that difficult to make an updated version. Finding the fabric might be tough, though, but not insurmountable.

Bearded Lady said...

great post! Her face was scarred by smallpox too so it must have made her all the more determined to eradicate it.

Anonymous said...

So why exactly is this proto-feminist, poet, wit, and intrepid traveller a tart? (Not that I have anything against tarts, being an admirer of such shockers as Frances Anne, Lady Vane and Teresia Constantia Phillips!) I know MWM had a sort of crush of the Italian bisexual Algarotti but know nothing of any specific affair - enlighten me with the gossip! (It this something Isabel Grundy references in her biography of MWM, _Comet of the Enlightentment_?) Love your site!

Heather Carroll said...

Thank you so much, I hope to see you around more!

Well, when I originally started this series, I gave the affectionate title of "tart" in terms of the lady in question being a babe. A male friend blogger would have a bikini-clad hottie on his Friday round-up so I wanted to do the Georgian version of that as an exploration of how Georgian lady-celebs could put our contemporary ones to shame! So, the very loose definition of my "tarts" (of the week) is a woman who is attractive in terms of going against the grain, causing a little scandal by doing things outside the social norm. It is entirely a title of affection here. Plus Mary did allegedly have a few scandalous rendez-vous's on the continent; Algarotti being one!

Anonymous said...

May I say I nearly choked on my morning cup of chocolate when I clicked on the link to Clotworthy Skeffington! Bravo!

Heather Carroll said...

Then I succeeded in my shock factor for the week! Hahaha