Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mary Wortley Montagu

Selimiye Mosque, Edirne

In late 1716, Mary's husband was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The family travelled overland to Costantinople; en route they spent several weeks in Adrianopke (=Edirne).

Mary enthusiastically described an incognita visit to the magnificent Selimiye Mosque in her letter of May 17th (O.S.) 1717.

These letters were mostly, or wholly, a literary device. They were shaped, after the author's return to England, drawing on material from her diaries.

Nobility calls to nobility, landowner calls to landowner, so Mary presents a pretty favourable picture of the Ottoman nobility, despite the enclosure of women, the dominance of lawless janissaries etc. On the other hand, her account (in the same letter) of the Jews, who she says control all the city's finance,... is typical of its era. Antisemitism took its particular character from the diaspora, from the (enforced) landlessness of the Jews. They were citizens of nowhere.


In a letter from Pera (Constantinople), Mary expounds an object-letter; a coal means "May I die, and all my years be yours!"; a piece of paper means "I faint every hour!" But she laments: "I am in great danger of losing my English... I live in a place that very well represents the tower of Babel : in Pera they speak Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Sclavonian, Wallachian, German, Dutch, French, English, Italian, Hungarian ; and what is worse, there are ten of these languages spoken in my own family. My grooms are Arabs; my footmen, French, English, and Germans ; my nurse, an Armenian; my housemaids, Russians ; half a dozen other servants, Greeks ; my steward, an Italian ; my janissaries, Turks ; so that I live in the perpetual hearing of this medley of sounds, which produces a very extraordinary effect upon the people that are born here ; they learn all these languages at the same time, and without knowing any of them well enough to read and write in it. There are very few men, women, or even children, here, that have not the same compass of words  in five or six of them. ...."

"Sclavonian" probably means Serbo-Croat. "Wallachian' means Romanian.

Despite this lament the purity of her English style was much admired at the time. (It's difficult, now, to get a sense of just what this meant; it's an aesthetic or moral value that we rarely talk about now.)


The 52 letters were are referred to under various designations; Turkish Embassy Letters, Letters from Turkey, Turkish Letters, etc. All a bit misleading, since many of the letters describe the journey there and back. The letters can be read in full here:


The book I've read is a 1921 selection edited and annotated by Hilda Chatwin, entitled Letters from Constantinople. Methuen's English Classics were aiming this one at girls in private education.


Like other noblewomen, Mary was an ur-feminist more by  personal example than general precept. (Most famously, by adopting the Turkish practice of smallpox innoculation,  which western physicians had dismissed as folklore.)

That is a very sketchy link to Adrienne Rich, but I wanted to mention Mark Ford's fine article on Rich in the current NYRB:


I remember writing once about Adrienne Rich, but the post isn't online now... perhaps I already decided it wasn't up to much. If I ever get to a laptop again, I'll check it out.

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