Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Anna McClure Sholl (1868–1956)
THE GLAMOUR which to this day is about the enigmatic character of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu seems born of the contradictions of her nature. Her letters show her capable of greatness of thought and feeling, and yet she produced little but enigmas. She is brilliant but not convincing. The present generation, like her own, is of two minds about her. It cannot take her with over-seriousness; yet it is forced to pay tribute to her precocity of mind and character.  1
  Had Lady Mary Montagu lived in an age friendly to the intellectual sincerity of women, she might have put her powers of mind to great advantage; but the world would probably have lost that unique personality which might be the eighteenth century masquerading as a woman. Of the weakness and strength of that age of light without sweetness, Lady Mary is representative. She possesses its cleverness, its clear head, its brittle wit. She exhibits also its lack of strong natural feeling, its indifference to the primal truths of existence, its tendency to sacrifice the Ten Commandments to an epigram. She was as much a product of her time as her acid friend and enemy, Pope; as the rocking-horse metre of the contemporary poetry; as the patched and powdered ladies of the court; as the Whig and Tory parties; as the polite infidelities of the fashionable. Yet in her good sense and intellectual fearlessness she belonged to a later day. The woman who introduced inoculation into England would not have been out of place in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  2
  She was born in 1689, at a time when English society and English literature had lost the last gleam of a great dead age, and existed for the most part in the candle-light of drawing-rooms. Her father, the Marquis of Dorchester, did little for her but introduce her to the Kit-Kat Club, where she made her first bow to the world of the new century, in which she was afterwards to become a central figure. Having no mother, she grew up as she could. Her irregular education in her father’s library, where she read what she chose, probably heightened that spontaneity of thought which gives to her letters their peculiar charm. Her neglected childhood served doubtless to increase her originality and her independence. The latter quality, at least, was exhibited in her precipitate marriage with Edward Wortley. Tradition has it that her scholarly husband had been drawn to her by her knowledge of classical Latin; but in all probability Lady Mary herself was the greater magnet. Shortly after his marriage, Edward Wortley was appointed ambassador to Turkey. His wife gave evidence of her adventurous spirit and of her intellectual thirst by accompanying him thither. In her letters from Turkey, Lady Mary exhibits her disposition to regard all life as a pageant. The spectacular element in human existence, whether in Constantinople or in London, made strong appeal to her. Like her age, she was absorbed in the shows of things. Her intellectual comprehension of them was complete. Beyond the domain of the intellect she never ventured. The letters from Turkey give evidence of having been written for publication. They are studied in manner, but this does not deprive them of the charm of individuality. Lady Mary, on her return, took her place at once in London society as a remarkable woman—with varying effects upon the world before which she lived. Opinions of her touched extremes. No one within the circle of her influence could trim between adoration and detestation. If she was not a hag she was a goddess. It required the versatility and peculiar sensitiveness of Pope himself to find her both. Their famous friendship and their famous quarrel are food for the reflection of posterity.  3
  The savage attacks of the poet may have been one cause for the departure of Lady Mary from London to the sylvan life abroad, of which she writes in such fine detail to her daughter, Lady Bute. Through her letters she held her power at home during many years of her self-imposed exile. She remained abroad from 1739 to 1762, the year of her death; although she writes to her daughter that the very hay in which some china was packed is dear to her, because it came from England.  4
  She returned to her native land sick, homely, and old, but with power still to turn her mean tenement into a court. The last picture of her is of a decrepit woman in an abominable wig and greasy petticoat, and an old great-coat with tarnished brass buttons, receiving the homage of English wit and English culture, drawn to her by an irresistible fascination. She was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu under all disguises. She retains her power to this day.  5

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.