1716-1718: Politics, Gender, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Travels

Britain: 1716-1718
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote the letters that would later become The Turkish Embassy Letters during a diplomatic trip to the Orient. Britain during this time was wealthy and therefore powerful, able to fund war. The War of the Spanish Secession had concluded in 1713, opening new possibilities for trade and bringing in several new colonies. Agriculture was still Britain’s economic bedrock, but trade was increasing, and more men and women were employed in industry than in any other country in Europe. While Britain was experiencing increased wealth, it remained unevenly distributed as 5% of the population claimed nearly a third of the national income.

This season was marked by political unrest as new lands were acquired and controversy arose as to who should acquire the throne, causing bitter conflict between Whigs and Tories. While the British mainland held strictly Protestant beliefs, the Irish were Roman Catholic. Additionally, the recently acquired Scotland retained its unique religious and cultural practices. These differences in religious belief led to internal conflict. Furthermore, James Stuart, the Catholic son of the late James II, claimed right to the throne. Tories were supportive of Stuart, as they wanted to retain the religious power of the church. They also desired England to be less militarily involved in other European countries. The Whig party, supported by Lady Mary, was sympathetic to the new king, a German Lutheran who supported further religious tolerance and British involvement in European affairs.
Along with the arrival of George I, Whigs gained a majority presence in the government. A few Tory landowners participated in an armed rebellion in Scotland in December of 1715, leading the Whigs to remove Tories from state office, high ranks in the army and navy, diplomatic service, and the judicial system. In 1716, the Whigs passed the Septennial Act, allowing elections to take place every seven years, rather than every three years, further ensuring their power.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
While Lady Mary is chiefly remembered for her Turkish Embassy Letters, she was also known as a poet, essayist, and feminist. She was the daughter
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of the 5th Earl of Kingston and Lady Mary Fielding. Disapproving of the man her father wanted her to marry, she chose instead to elope with Edward Wortley Montagu. Montagu was a Whig member of Parliament, and was appointed ambassador to Turkey shortly after the Whigs came to power. Lady Mary chose to accompany her husband, living in Constantinople from 1716 to 1718 and penning the letters that would become famous following her death.

Montagu was known in high society for her wit, so much so that she was mentioned in an essay because of a comment to she made to a Duchess. The author admired Lady Mary’s witty response to the “insolent asperity” displayed by Lady Sundon, the beautiful daughter of the Duchess of Marlborough. Lady Sundon accepted a bribe, a pair of diamond earrings, in return for procuring an important post in Queen Caroline’s family for a friend. After Lady Sudon left a visit with the Duchess, the Duchess commented, “What an impudent creature, to come hither with her bribe in her ear!” Lady Mary replied, “Madam, how should people know where wine is sold, unless a bush is hung out?”

Montagu continued to write upon her return to London, including a play entitled Simplicity, and a number of essays addressing politics and feminism. Her relationship with her husband was impersonal, and she went to Italy in 1739 in a covert attempt to live with Italian writer Francesco Algarotti. While Algarotti chose not to join her, she settled apart from her husband in Avignon, France from 1742 to 1746. Lady Mary returned to Italy and lived with a young Count for ten years. She did not return to England until the death of her husband. She was unhappy there, but her desire to return to Italy was disappointed a fatal case of cancer. She died in 1762 and her letters were published shortly after.

Summary of the 1716-1717 London Stage Theater Season
No major changes occurred in the London theater during this season. There were two major theaters: Drury Lane, under the actor-managers and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, run by John Rich. The two competed in the presentation of plays, while the King’s theater abstained from competition by performing only Italian Operas. Both playhouses had summer seasons, and both held exhibitions at Bartholomew Fair and Southwark Fair. Lincoln’s Inn Fields showed so much variation in profits during this season that it was rumored it might close. In addition to more recent plays, the playhouses frequently performed Shakespeare, including King Henry the Fourth, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Mackbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and King Henry the Eighth.
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Theater in The Turkish Embassy Letters
While Lady Mary was in Vienna in 1716, she wrote to Alexander Pope about her experience with the theatre. Vienna lacked Britain’s theatrical competition, having only one playhouse. In spite of the uncomfortable and dark nature of the theater, Lady Mary expressed delight over its operas, and was especially impressed by its comedies. The Venetian playhouse took more liberties with their plays than the British playhouses would have, shocking Lady Mary with “not only indecent expressions, but such gross words and I don’t think our mob would suffer from a mountebank.” She further described the difference between her reaction and that of Venetians of similar rank: “the two Sosias very fairly let down their breeches in the direct view of the boxes, which were full of people of the first rank, that seemed very well pleased which their entertainment and they assured me that this was a celebrated piece.”

Women’s Roles and Freedoms as Discussed in The Free Holder and The Turkish Embassy Letters
The Free Holder, a newspaper based in London, was published from 1672 to 1719 and sold every Monday and Friday. It was written and edited by Joseph Addison, and contained mostly political essays. The newspaper was staunchly Whig—many of the essays published in 1716 verbally attacked Tories, and emphasized the importance of nationalism and the attractiveness of the politically active woman.

Many essays emphasized the importance of women’s involvement in politics through their influence over others. One article was addressed female readers, encouraging them to influence their lovers to subscribe to Whig views and ideals. The author wrote, “As the fair sex very much recommend the Cause they are engaged in, it would be no small Misfortune to a Sovereign, though he had all the male Part of the Nation on his Side, if he did not find himself King of the most beautiful Half of his Subjects.” The author emphasized what he perceives to be their role, not as active participants in the political process, but as influencers over men who were.

The author argued that the ideals of the Whig party were highly beneficial to English women. He strongly believed that, under the Whig King, British
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women had more freedom than women anywhere else in the world—a view contradicting Lady Mary’s conclusions during her visit to the Orient. The author stated that in the Orient, every woman was the slave to her tyrant husband, who “requires from her the same Vassalage which he pays his sultan.” He went on to detail the oppression of women in China, the East Indies, and Persia. He claimed that he had heard that women in Spain and Italy were often locked up. He continued to detail the oppression of women in a manner contradicting Lady Mary’s observations: “Through all the Dominions of the Great Turk, a Woman thinks her self happy if she can get but the twelfth share in a Husband, and is thought of no manner of use in the Creation, but to keep up a proper Number of slaves for the Commander of the Faithful.”

The author of the aforementioned article made the nationalistic statement, “The Freedom and Happiness of our British Ladies is so singular, that it is a common Saying in foreign Countries, If a Bridge were built cross the Seas, all the Women in Europe would flock into England.” Lady Mary’s letters paint a contradictory picture. She explained to her sister Lady Mar how rules placed on interactions between men and women allowed women more freedom and power over their marriages. She recognized that British perceptions of foreign cultures were often misinformed: “Now than I am a little acquainted with their ways I cannot forbear admiring either the exemplary discretion or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given account of them. `Tis very easy to see that they have more liberty than we have” (Montagu, 71). She described how women were required to cover their heads and faces with muslins and conceal their bodies with a ferace while they were in public. Lady Mary explained the freedom that resulted: “there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave and `tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery” (Montagu, 71). Women rarely let their husbands know where they were, and were easily able to meet with lovers without fear of discovery. Contradicting the newspaper author’s statement that women were “slaves to their tyrant husbands,” they had freedom to the point that few of them were faithful to their husbands.

Lady Mary’s Influence: Inoculation in England
Lady Mary experienced an extreme case of smallpox while she was a young woman, likely influencing her later work in bringing the practice of inoculation to England. In a review of Mr. de Voltaire’s studies of inoculation, Lady Mary’s importance in bringing it to England was emphasized. The review analyzed the history of inoculation, leading to its inclusion in English health practices. He explained that Circassian women were the first group known to practice inoculation. They infected their children small pox after they reached 6 months old by making an incision in the arm and using the pustule, a small inflamed area of skin filled with puss, of another infected child. The women were poor and had beautiful daughters, often trading them in order to support themselves. Both a Turkish Sultan and Persian Sophy acquired many of these girls, and their countries quickly adopted their practice of inoculation. Lady Mary learned the practice during her trip and successfully inoculated an infant in Constantinople. Upon returning to England, she communicated the process to the Queen (then the Princess of Whales). The Queen ordered it to be attempted on four condemned criminals. This being done successfully, she had her own children inoculated, proving the process to be credible in England. De Voltaire insisted that no one who had been inoculated in England or Turkey had died of inoculation, unless they would have already died or were infirm. He also claimed that no patient who had been correctly inoculated had been disfigured or infected a second time.

Lady Mary wrote about inoculation in her Turkish Embassy Letters. In a 1718 letter, she informed Sarah Chiswell that, “the smallpox, so fatal and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it” (Montagu, 81). She explained the process by which the Turkish conducted inoculations. Every autumn, they formed parties of fifteen or sixteen children or young people to be inoculated together: “the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins” (81). The patients remained healthy until the eighth day, when they became feverish and generally spent two days in bed. Lady Mary explained that the process was so effective that no one had died of it. “I am well satisfied of the safety of the experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take pains to b ring this useful invention into fashion in England and I should not fail to write some of our doctors very particularly about it if I knew anyone of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind” (82). Lady Mary’s open mindedness towards foreign cultural practices led her to initiate an important improvement in British healthcare, minimizing the fatal effects of smallpox.
Lady Mary was a progressive, taking political action through her essays and showing an uncommon level of open mindedness in her letters. While she was dedicated to her country, she respected other cultures and recognized that many of their practices, while different than those of her own culture, were not inferior.

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