Tuesday 21 August 2012

Extraordinary Lives - Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu

Lady Mary in Turkish dress
In a year stuffed full of anniversaries two are celebrated this week, and both concern Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu.

Lady Mary has been mentioned before in my blog, most significantly as the inspiration behind my Flower Power series.

The anniversaries which we commemorate this week are:
1) the 250th anniversary of her death today, and
2) the 300th anniversary of her marriage in two days time.
Because of these two anniversaries I’m going to post one article on each day.

Lady Mary was born in 1689 in London, the daughter of the 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. After her mother’s death in 1692 Mary was raised by her grandmother, partly at the family mansion in Nottingham and partly at the family’s country estate in Sherwood Forest. In her father’s libraries Lady Mary absorbed information and started writing and gathering a wide-ranging circle of contacts.

The background to Lady Mary’s romantic attachment to Anne Wortley and her marriage to Edward Wortley Montagu is given here. The marriage was not particularly successful, even though it produced two children (the daughter becoming wife to a future British Prime Minister). At first the couple were huge socialites moving in royal circles. Mary befriended many of the literary greats of the day, including Alexander Pope and John Gay.

In 1715 Mary caught, and surprisingly survived, smallpox, though it left her face scarred for life. A year later Edward was appointed Ambassador to the Porte (Constantinople) and he and Lady Mary set off on the overland journey to Turkey.

Along the way there were many perils. On the narrow mountain tracks along the River Elbe their carriage travelled non-stop through the night. As the horses galloped along the ledge the carriage drivers fell asleep. Alarmed by the speed and closeness to the edge of the ravine, Lady Mary shouted to awaken the drivers and they narrowly escaped the fate of many previous travellers who had plummeted to their deaths.

Having then crossed the frozen Danube, Lady Mary and Edward carried on through deep snow, often fitting crude skis to their carriage wheels.  They sought overnight hospitality from remote peasant families to whom a bed and bath were virtually unknown. Dense woods surrounded the route, and packs of wolves shadowed the travellers.

But worse was to come as the travellers passed through the site of the Battle of Carlowitz. The battlefield was strewn with rotting corpses of men and horses.

Their arrival in Constantinople couldn’t have been more of a contrast – greeted by the Sultan’s emissaries and taken to opulent apartments. Lady Mary threw herself into Turkish culture as much as any western woman was allowed. Having survived smallpox she was fascinated by the method of inoculation she saw practiced by the Turks. When she came back to England in 1720 she suggested the technique to doctors to prevent the spread of the disease here.

It was a good move because a smallpox epidemic soon overcame England. To convince others of her trust in the technique Mary had her own children inoculated, and the children of the Prince of Wales. Lady Mary found herself on the receiving end of a lot of tabloid criticism, an attitude which spread quickly among society. They despised Mary for putting her own children at risk by using a new medical technique. Even clergy denounced her in sermons. Little did they realise that she was actually saving their lives and helping to lead to the eventual eradication of smallpox. Such was the power of the press.

On the subject of her children, it is true that they were a dysfunctional family. I’ll be returning to this subject in the next article of Lady Mary in two days time, when we’ll learn of the failed marriage, a troublesome son, and an unusual love triangle.

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