1902 Encyclopedia > Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
English letter writer

MONTAGU, LADY MARY WORTLEY (1690-1762), one of the most brilliant letter-writers of the 18th century, was the eldest daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, duke of Kingston, and Lady Mary Fielding, daughter of the earl of Denbigh. Her near relationship with Fielding the novelist is worth remarking. She was born at Thoresby in Nottinghamshire in 1690. Her mother died when she was a child, and by some chance she received or gave herself an unusually wide literary education, had the run of her father’s library, was encouraged in her studies by Bishop Burnet, and while still a girl translated the Enchiridion of Epictetus. After a courtship in which she showed a singular power of thinking of herself, she was married in 1712, against her father’s wish, to Mr. E. Wortley Montagu, an accomplished and scholarly friend of the Queen Anne wits. At the new court of George I. her beauty and wit brought her much homage; Pope was among her most devoted worshippers, and she even gained and kept the friendship of the great duchess of Marlborough. Her husband being appointed ambassador to the Porte in 1716, she accompanied him to Constantinople, and wrote to her friends at home brilliant descriptions of Eastern life and scenery. These letters were not published till 1763, the year after her death; but, copies being handed about in fashionable circles, their lively, witty style, graphic pictures of unfamiliar life, and shrewd and daring judgments gave the writer instant celebrity. In one of them she described the practice of inoculation for the smallpox, and announced her intention of trying it on her own son, and of introducing it in spite of the doctor into England. The most memorable incident in her return form the East was her quarrel with Pope, caused, according to her account, by her laughing at him when he made love to her in earnest. He satirized her under the name of Sappho, and she teased him superior ingenuity and hardly inferior wit. From 1739 to 1761 Lady Mary lived abroad, apart from her husband, maintaining an affectionate correspondence with her daughter Lady Bute, in which she set forth views of life largely coloured by the asceticism of her master Epictetus, and wearing an appearance of oddity and eccentricity from their contrast with conventional thought. The character of coldness and unwomanliness which Pope contrived to fasten on his enemy was far from being deserved; her letters show her to have been a very warm-hearted woman, though on principle she turned the hard side to the world. She died 21st August 1762. The best edition of her works is that of 1861, with a memoir by Moy Thomas.

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