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The Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (26 May 168921 August 1762) was an English aristocrat and writer. Montagu is today chiefly remembered for her letters, particularly her letters from Turkey, which have been described by Billie Melman as “the very first example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient”.


Lady Mary was born in London either in April or May of 1689; her christening is recorded for 26 May 1689 at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden. She was a daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull. Family holdings were extensive, including Thoresby Hallmarker and Holme Pierrepont in Nottinghamshire, and a house in West Dean in Wiltshire. Thoresby Hall had one of the finest private libraries in England, which Montagu loved, but the library was lost when Thoresby Hall burned in 1744.

Lady Mary's close friendships included Mary Astell, a champion of women's rights, and Anne Wortley Montagu, granddaughter of the 1st Earl of Sandwich. With Anne, she carried on an animated correspondence. Anne's letters, however, were often copied from drafts written by her brother, Edward Wortley Montagu, and after Anne's death in 1709 the correspondence between Edward and Lady Mary continued without an intermediary. Lady Mary's father, now Marquess of Dorchester, rejected Wortley Montagu as a son-in-law because he refused to entail his estate on a possible heir. Negotiations were broken off, and when Lord Dorchester insisted on another marriage for his daughter, Edward and Mary eloped in 1712. The early years of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's married life were spent in seclusion in the country. Her husband became Member of Parliament for Westminster in 1715, and shortly afterwards was made a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. When Lady Mary joined him in London her wit and beauty soon made her a prominent figure at court.

Early in 1716, Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed Ambassador at Istanbulmarker. Lady Mary accompanied him to Viennamarker, and thence to Adrianoplemarker and Istanbul. He was recalled in 1717, but they remained at Istanbul until 1718. The story of this voyage and of her observations of Eastern life is told in the Turkish Embassy Letters, a series of lively letters full of graphic description; Letters is often credited as being an inspiration for subsequent female traveller/writers, as well as for much Orientalist art. Lady Mary returned to the West with knowledge of the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox, known as variolation. In the 1790s, Edward Jenner developed a safer method, vaccination.

Before starting for the East she had met Alexander Pope, and during her absence he wrote her a series of extravagant letters, which appear to have been chiefly exercises in the art of writing gallant epistles. Very few letters passed between them after Lady Mary's return, and various reasons have been suggested for the subsequent estrangement and violent quarrel. The last of the Letters during the embassy to Istanbul is addressed to Pope and purports to be written from Dovermarker on 1 November 1718. It contains a parody on Pope's Epitaph on the Lovers struck by Lightning. The manuscript collection of these letters was passed round a considerable circle, and Pope may have been offended at the circulation of this piece of satire. Jealousy of her friendship with Lord Hervey has also been alleged, but Lady Louisa Stuart says Pope had made Lady Mary a declaration of love, which she had received with an outburst of laughter. In any case Lady Mary always professed complete innocence of all cause of offence in public. She is alluded to in the Dunciad in a passage to which Pope affixed one of his insulting notes. A Pop upon Pope was generally thought to be her work, and Pope thought she was part author of One Epistle to Mr A. Pope (1730).

Pope attacked her again and again, but with especial virulence in a gross couplet in the Imitation of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, as Sappho. Verses addressed to an Imitator of Horace by a Lady (1733), a scurrilous reply to these attacks, is generally attributed to the joint efforts of Lady Mary and her sworn ally, Lord Hervey. She had a romantic correspondence with a Frenchman named Rémond, who addressed to her a series of excessively gallant letters before ever seeing her. She invested money for him in South Sea stock at his desire, and as was expressly stated, at his own risk. The value fell to half the price, and he tried to extort the original sum as a debt by a threat of exposing the correspondence to her husband. She seems to have been really alarmed, not at the imputation of gallantry, but lest her husband should discover the extent of her own speculations. This disposes of the second half of Pope's line "Who starves a sister, or forswears a debt" (Epilogue to the Satires, 113), and the first charge is quite devoid of foundation. She did in fact try to rescue her favourite sister, the countess of Mar, who was mentally deranged, from the custody of her brother-in-law, Lord Grange, who had treated his own wife with notorious cruelty, and the slander originated with him.

In 1739 she left her husband and went abroad, and although they continued to write to each other in affectionate and respectful terms, they never met again. At Florencemarker in 1740 she visited Horace Walpole, who cherished a great spite against her, and exaggerated her eccentricities into a revolting slovenliness (see Letters, ed. Cunningham, i. 59). As Lady Mary was then in her sixty-third year, the scandalous interpretation put on the matter by Horace Walpole may safely be discarded.She lived at Avignonmarker, at Bresciamarker, at Gottolengomarker and at Loveremarker on the Lago d'Iseomarker. She was disfigured by a painful skin disease, (smallpox), and her sufferings were so acute that she hints at the possibility of madness. She was struck with a terrible fit of sickness while visiting the countess Palazzo and her son, and perhaps her mental condition made restraint necessary.

Her husband spent his last years in hoarding money, and at his death in 1761 is said to have been a millionaire. His extreme parsimony is satirized in Pope's Imitations of Horace (2nd satire of the 2nd book) in the portrait of Avidieu and his wife. Her daughter Mary, Countess of Bute, whose husband was now Prime Minister, begged her to return to England. She came to London, and died in the year of her return, on 21 August 1762. Her son, Edward, was also an author and traveller.


Scholarly editions of her works only appeared during the late 20th century.

In Post Captain, volume II of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian (published 1972), Mrs Williams refers to Lady Montagu as a great traveler.

She is mentioned in the Doctor Who novel Only Human by Gareth Roberts as an example of why marrying for love is "overrated".

In 2003, Jennifer Lee Carrell published The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox, which recounts the tale of Lady Mary's struggle to bring inoculation to London, drawing heavily on her diaries and personal correspondence.

Ottoman smallpox inoculation

When Lady Mary was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of inoculation against smallpox – variolation. Unlike Jenner's later vaccination, which used cowpox, variolation used a small measure of smallpox itself. Lady Mary's own brother had died of the disease, and her own famous beauty had been marred by a bout with the disease, prior to her visit to Turkey. She was eager to spare her children similar suffering, and had them inoculated while in Turkey. On her return to London, she enthusiastically promoted the procedure, but encountered a great deal of resistance from the medical establishment both because it was an "Oriental" process and because of her gender. However, the British royal family had their own children inoculated.

Literary place

Lady Mary avoided publication during her lifetime, partly to avoid the personal attacks that inevitably followed, and much of her work has not survived. However, her letters from Turkey were clearly intended for circulation among members of her own social circle, and she revised them extensively after her return.

Montagu's Turkish letters were to prove an inspiration to later generations of European women travellers to the Orient. In particular, Montagu staked a claim to the particular authority of women's writing, due to their ability to access private homes and female-only spaces where men were not permitted. The title of her published letters refers to "Sources that Have Been Inaccessible to Other Travellers". The letters themselves frequently draw attention to the fact that they present a different (and, Montagu asserts, more accurate) description than that provided by previous (male) travellers: "You will perhaps be surpriz'd at an Account sodifferent from what you have been entertaind with by the common Voyage-writers who are very fond of speaking of what they don't know." Montagu provides an intimate description of the women's bathhouse, in which she derides male descriptions of the bathhouse as a site for unnatural sexual practices, instead insisting that it was “the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc”. However, Montagu's detailed descriptions of nude Oriental beauties provided inspiration for male artists such as Ingres, who restored the explicitly erotic content that Montagu had denied. In general, Montagu consistently derides the quality of European travel literature of the 18th century as nothing more than "trite observations...superficial...[of] boys who only remember the best wine or the prettyest women."

Montagu's Turkish letters were frequently cited by imperial women travellers, more than a century after her journey. Such writers cited Montagu's assertion that women travellers could gain an intimate view of Turkish life that was not available to their male counterparts. However, they also added corrections or elaborations to her observations. Julia Pardoe, in describing her own visit to a bathhouse, wrote "I should be unjust if I did not declare that I saw none of that unnecessary and wanton exposure described by Lady Mary Montagu. Either the fair Ambassadress was present at a peculiar ceremony, or the Turkish ladies have become more delicate and fastidious in the ideas of propriety." Emmeline Lott, who wrote a book about her experience working as a governess for the son of Ishamel Pasha, claimed that Montagu's aristocratic rank meant that she had seen only the most attractive elements of Oriental life: "...her handsome train, Lady Ambassadress as she was, swept but across the splendid carpeted floors of these noble Saloons of Audience, all of which had been, as is invariably the custom, well “swept and garnished” for her reception."

Her Letters and Works were published in 1837. Wortley Montagu's octogenarian granddaughter Lady Louisa Stuart contributed to this, anonymously, an introductory essay called Biographical Anecdotes of Lady M. W. Montagu, from which it was clear that Stuart was troubled by her grandmother's focus on sexual intrigues and did not see Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Account of the Court of George I at his Accession as history.

In 1901, her letters were edited and published as The Best Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu by Octave Thanet.


On a recent episode of the British TV show "Antiques Roadshow", several paintings attributed to Lady Mary were brought in for valuation. Remarkable for their sensitive portrayals of royal courtiers of the Turkish empire, the paintings show lively and genuine artistic talent. The colours are still vibrant, and it is interesting to note that she was allowed to paint male members of the royal family. These valuable works are currently in the hands of a private owner, who plans to bequeath them to a museum.



  • The complete letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 3 vols, edited by Robert Halsband, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-67.
  • Romance Writings, edited by Isobel Grundy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy, edited by Isobel Grundy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, revised 2nd 1993.
  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment, Isobel Grundy, Oxford University Press, USA; New edition 2001 714 pp ISBN 0-19-818765-3
  • The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lord Wharncliffe and W. Moy Thomas, editors. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1861.

Book reviews

  • Prescott, Sarah. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment, Isobel Grundy 1999. Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 202 (May, 2000), pp. 300-303


  1. Melman 1992
  2. Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 5. Oxford UP (1999).
  3. Montagu and Halsband 1965-1976: 343
  4. Montagu and Halsband 1965-1976: 314
  5. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu , Selected Letters, Penguin: 359
  6. Pardoe, J. (1837). The city of the sultan. London,, H. Colburn.
  7. Lott 1866: vi-vii
  8. Looser, Devoney, British Women Writers and the Writing of History 1670-1820 (JHU Press, 2000, ISBN 0801879051) pp. 64-67

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