Thursday, 23 August 2012

Extraordinary Lives - Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu: Part 2

Two days ago I commemorated the 250th anniversary of the death of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Today is the 300th anniversary of her marriage and we take a look at her extraordinarily complicated love life.

After a romantic attachment to Anne Wortley, something which was common in her time for young ladies of her age, Lady Mary escaped marrying her father’s choice of husband by eloping with Anne’s brother Edward Wortley Montagu. Their actual marriage is not recorded, but letters written on their anniversary suggest hey were married on 23rd August 1712. Some biographers have said that the love letters Mary wrote to Anne were really aimed at Edward, ignoring the possibility that a woman could have any romantic affection for another.

On their return from the British embassy in Constantinople in 1718, after 6 years of marriage and 2 children, the couple lived mostly apart. They would spend less and less time with each other though they corresponded regularly. Lady Mary oversaw her daughter’s education and edited the many letters she wrote on her travels, which were later published.

Mary made new friendships, including the Duchess of Marlborough (confidante and rumoured lover of Queen Anne), and the Prime Minister’s family. Another friend was John, Lord Hervey. Hervey was a politician and court dandy, and someone whose effeminacy was a constant source of satire in the press and theatre.

Hervey fathered 8 children yet appears to have been openly bisexual and had affairs with a few aristocrats of both sexes. Just as today’s idea of homosexuality was different in the 18th century, so too was bisexuality. In fact, the word bisexuality hadn’t been invented (except for use in botany) so neither he nor Lady Mary would have used that word to describe their sexuality. High society in their time certainly didn’t see anything wrong in having a wife and boyfriend or, to a lesser degree, a husband and girlfriend – as long as it was celibate.

Lord Hervey’s ambiguous sexuality led Lady Mary to write that there were 3 kinds of people – men, women and Herveys. Their friendship became complicated with the arrival in London of Count Francesco Algarotti. Lady Mary and Lord Hervey immediately fell head over heels in love with him, and Algarotti encouraged them both. It was an unusual love triangle. When Algarotti returned home to Venice the lovelorn couple sent constant letters to him expressing undying devotion, and urging him to send more letters back. You can imagine the hours they would have spent on Twitter if they’d had it! Algarotti did his best to reply regularly, but he had other affairs to deal with, most notably that with a young man from Milan!

In the end Lord Hervey gave up. Lady Mary, however, decided the best course of action was to go to Venice and marry the count, hoping to get as much distance between herself and her current husband and their troublesome son as possible. Count Algarotti in the meantime had visited Berlin and fell under the spell of the man who was to become King Frederick the Great. After visiting Hervey in England, Algarotti moved to Germany to become Frederick’s court chamberlain.

Lady Mary realised nothing may come of her plans to marry Algarotti. The next few years of her life were spent travelling around Europe. In 1741 she and Algarotti became reacquainted and were able to draw a line under their affair. Mary was now largely living alone, apart from a female servant. She moved from one new home to the next, and kept in touch with her daughter, her estranged husband and friends through many letters.

Mary was now in her 70s and becoming ill with cancer. Her husband died in 1761 leaving a will which was contested by their disinherited son. This was the reason for Lady Mary’s last visit to England.

One her arrival in London Lady Mary was treated like a celebrity. Very few women of her time enjoyed such a status as she did. People wanted to visit Lady Mary Wortley Montagu because of who she was and what she had done and not because of her husband’s achievements. Lady Mary was too ill to enjoy the attention and hoped to return to the continent. She died in London on 21st August 1762.

What Lady Mary left as a legacy was her introduction of inoculation which led to the development of vaccination and the eradication of smallpox, and her letters and travel writings (including her “language of the flowers” writings). She also left a reputation, dating from the time when she went against her father’s marriage plans, as a woman with an independent and adventurous spirit. Despite her desertion of England in pursuit of Count Algarotti and several small upsets at court Lady Mary retained the affection of the London social scene that lasted long after her death.

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