A Woman to Know: Mary Montagu

Life is too short for a long story. — Lady Mary Montagu

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

While still a young newlywed, Lady Mary's legendary beauty was destroyed by an attack of smallpox. She and her young husband drifted apart -- him, into his courtly society of polite pleasantries; her, into a world of books and poetry and, later, travel writing. She satirized London society in a series of long poems (Alexander Pope thought they were hilarious, especially her skewering of Jonathan Swift) and her travel letters described vivid scenes of people outside London. Pages circulated amongst her women friends back home, and soon enough, Mary had an audience for her wit and insight.

While living with a British ambassador in Turkey, she chronicled life within the Ottoman Empire in 52 letters of scenes and conversations as recorded from her own diaries. She was particularly impressed by the Turkish medical community's attentiveness to smallpox -- when she returned to London years later, she brought with her the Constantinople doctors' knowledge of inoculation, and she insisted that her own children be treated, and soon the royal family followed her lead.

Today, Lady Mary's letters are studied as examples of women's life outside Western society. She wrote of all-female spaces in the Ottoman Empire, the conversations the Turkish women would have there. While some contemporaries dismissed her work as "trite observations," scholars today regard her writing as some of the most important text written solely for a female audience.

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