Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society-Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Written by Jess Burchett

Mary led an interesting life full of travels, exploring other cultures and her own identity, whilst also being the first person to bring back the predecessor of today’s vaccines.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756
Picture credit: Instagram

Born Mary Pierrepont in 1689, she was immediately well-loved by many around her. The Kit-Cat Club, a group of fashionable men, nominated her as the subject of their toast to the beauty of the season when she was only seven. Her mother, she believed, would have supported her ambitions throughout her life but she sadly died when Mary was quite young. She was then raised by her grandmother, who also died when Mary was only eight. She was finally put in the care of her father, who had no interest in his daughter’s education. Mary wasn’t satisfied with the education given to her by her superstitious and despised governess, so took it upon herself to hide in the family library at Thoresby Hall daily and teach herself.

Unbothered by expectations of her gender, she taught herself Latin and could keep up with the men around her by the age of 13. She also had two collections of written work by the age of 15, including poetry, a brief epistolary novel and a prose-and-verse romance. By this, her father was impressed.

Mary had two possible suitors: Edward Wortley Montagu, a friend’s brother whom she corresponded with frequently and affectionately after her friend passed, and Clotworthy Skeffington, the man her father tried to convince her to marry after disapproving of Edward on numerous occasions. Despite her reservations about the financial implications of marrying Edward, Mary decided to elope with him in defiance against her father’s attempts to marry her to another man. 

They married in 1712 and spent the first few years of their marriage in both Yorkshire and London. Mary’s wit and beauty – a very valuable asset for aristocratic women – at court made her very popular, counting many prominent figures of the time amongst her social circle; she even managed to coexist between the hostile courts of King George I and future George II. She thus juggled respect and influence with a certain degree of hostility for her success. It was also known and accepted that she and her close female friends had intimate relationships beyond mere friendship and she had many lovers, men and women, alongside her husband.

Mary’s brother died of smallpox in 1713, and she herself contracted it in 1715. Friends around her also caught and died from the terrible illness that left her with a scarred face and further health issues. Whilst ill, her satirical poetry was published without her permission, leading to some important people taking offence. The combination of these things brought her impact at court to a halt. In 1716 Edward was appointed Ambassador for the British Embassy at Constantinople to negotiate an end to the Austro-Turkish war – Mary took the opportunity to travel with her husband. Whilst travelling they had a daughter and a son. 

Mary’s travels through the East were well documented in her letters and later inspired many other female travellers. She was charmed by the beauty and hospitality of the Ottoman women. She recorded her experiences in a Turkish bath, where women went once a week and stayed for at least 4 hours – she insisted that this was ‘the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc,’. She had one incident there where the Turkish women perceived her stays as impossible to remove herself, blaming her husband for the entrapment. 

Mary corrected a lot of previous male misconceptions of women’s spaces, turning bathhouses from a site for unnatural sexual practices to a place of political and social freedom for women of the Ottoman Empire. She was honest to the sexual fluidity and sensuality of the women she met and associated with – although her Britishness is obvious in her exoticism of the Orient. Yet to Mary, Turkey was free of the sexual and patriarchal constraints imposed upon English women. Women had spaces like the bathhouses and significantly more rights. She wrote about how different their fashion was, outdoing the British – male and female dress in Turkey was extremely similar, the veils worn by women perceived by Mary as liberating from the male gaze.

She also witnessed and wrote extensively about slavery within Turkey, which was rather positive descriptions. Of those she saw within the elite circles of Istanbul, eunuchs and large collections of serving and dancing girls dressed in expensive outfits, they were treated no worse than servants in her opinion.

During her travels, Mary also witnessed that smallpox could be prevented. The practice of inoculation, purposely infecting an uninfected with a milder version of smallpox which left them with lasting immunity after healing, was practised by many. It was well known that people only contracted smallpox once in their life, but this was not practised in Britain. Mary inoculated her son with the help of the Embassy surgeon and attempted to persuade those in London to follow suit. Unfortunately, the practice was received as oriental, irreligious and mere folk remedies. 

In 1721, a smallpox epidemic struck England. Mary had her daughter inoculated and took her to infected homes to prove the success of the inoculation to others. The procedure was still seen as risky, however, and not many were convinced it was worth the risk. An experiment was run on prisoners at Newgate Prison awaiting execution, who were offered to be inoculated instead, with the promise of release if they survived. After the success of this, some important figures did follow Mary’s example, including Caroline the Princess of Wales, who inoculated her own children, setting a fashion that spread amongst those who could afford the procedure. This was the first time in Western medicine that antibodies were purposefully used to secure immunity from disease. Mary’s contribution was later advanced by Edward Jenner, who invented a safer technique which we now recognise as vaccination.

Throughout her later life, Mary continued to write – some of her work was published, often under a pseudonym. She commented on religion, philosophy, and the social and political roles of women. In 1739, following a strained relationship with Edward, she left her husband and England behind to travel through Europe, starting a love affair with another man. She exchanged letters with her daughter throughout this time, sharing stories of her travels and discussing many topics that appeared amongst her other published and unpublished writing. In 1761, she received word of her husband’s death, and after a perilous and long journey, she finally made it back to London.

Her weak health at this point was apparent, and she passed away only a year later, surrounded by her children and grandchildren whom she hadn’t seen whilst travelling. Although not published during her lifetime, the Turkish Embassy Letters were clearly intended for print, as she spent many years revising and transcribing them. They were finally published officially in 1837. Time and many hands have altered what writing we have of Lady Mary, and despite the availability of her work now and the revival efforts of feminist scholars, the complexity and extent of her work has not yet been discovered.

Written by Jess Burchett

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Previous articles of the series Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society:

Henrietta Howard

Anne Seymour Damer

Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

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Fruzsina Vida

Fruzsina Vida is the Arts & Culture Editor at The Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at arts@theyorker.co.uk.