The Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (born 26 May 1689 in Thoresby Hall, died 21 August 1762), was an English aristocrat and writer, chiefly remembered today for her letters.
She was the eldest daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, who succeeded his brother as 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull when she was aged one and was later created Marquess of Dorchester and then Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, and was baptized at Covent Garden. Her mother, who died while Mary was still a child, was a daughter of the 3rd Earl of Denbigh. Her father was proud of her beauty and wit, and when she was eight years old she is said to have been the toast of the Kit-Kat Club. He took small pains with the education of his children, but Lady Mary was encouraged in her self-imposed studies by Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury.
She formed a close friendship with Mary Astell, a champion of women's rights, and with Anne Wortley Montagu, granddaughter of the 1st Earl of Sandwich. With Anne, she carried on an animated correspondence. Anne's letters, however, were often copied from drafts written by her brother, Edward Wortley Montagu, and after Anne's death in 1709 the correspondence between Edward and Lady Mary continued without an intermediary. Lady Mary's father, now Marquess of Dorchester, rejected Wortley Montagu as a son-in-law because he refused to entail his estate on a possible heir. Negotiations were broken off, and when Lord Dorchester insisted on another marriage for his daughter, Edward and Mary eloped (1712). The early years of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's married life were spent in seclusion in the country. Her husband was Member of Parliament for Westminster in 1715, and shortly afterwards was made a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. When Lady Mary joined him in London her wit and beauty soon made her a prominent figure at court.
Early in 1716 Wortley Montagu was appointed Ambassador at Constantinople. Lady Mary accompanied him to Vienna, and thence to Adrianople and Constantinople. He was recalled in 1717, but they remained at Constantinople until 1718. The story of this voyage and of her observations of Eastern life is told in the Turkish Embassy Letters, a series of lively letters full of graphic description; Letters is often credited as being an inspiration for subsequent female traveller/writers, as well as for much Orientalist art.
From the Ottoman Empire, Lady Mary (who herself bore the scars of smallpox, and had lost her brother to it) brought back the practice of inoculation against the disease. She had her own children inoculated, and encountered a vast amount of prejudice in bringing the matter forward. Before starting for the East she had met Alexander Pope, and during her absence he wrote her a series of extravagant letters, which appear to have been chiefly exercises in the art of writing gallant epistles.
Very few letters passed between them after Lady Mary's return, and various reasons have been suggested for the subsequent estrangement and violent quarrel. The last of the Letters during the embassy to Constantinople is addressed to Pope and purports to be written from Dover on 1 November 1718. It contains a parody on Pope's Epitaph on the Lovers struck by Lightning. The manuscript collection of these letters was passed round a considerable circle, and Pope may have been offended at the circulation of this piece of satire. Jealousy of her friendship with Lord Hervey has also been alleged, but Lady Louisa Stuart says Pope had made Lady Mary a declaration of love, which she had received with an outburst of laughter. In any case Lady Mary always professed complete innocence of all cause of offence in public. She is alluded to in the Dunciad in a passage to which Pope affixed one of his insulting notes. A Pop upon Pope was generally thought to be her work, and Pope thought she was part author of One Epistle to Mr A. Pope (1730).
Pope attacked her again and again, but with especial virulence in a gross couplet in the Imitation of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, as Sappho. She asked a third person. to remonstrate, and received the obvious answer that Pope could not have foreseen that she or any one else would apply so base an insult to herself. Verses addressed to an Imitator of Horace by a Lady (1733), a scurrilous reply to these attacks, is generally attributed to the joint efforts of Lady Mary and her sworn ally, Lord Hervey. She had a romantic correspondence with a Frenchman named Rémond, who addressed to her a series of excessively gallant letters before ever seeing her. She invested money for him in South Sea stock at his desire, and as was expressly stated, at his own risk. The value fell to half the price, and he tried to extort the original sum as a debt by a threat of exposing the correspondence to her husband. She seems to have been really alarmed, not at the imputation of gallantry, but lest her husband should discover the extent of her own speculations. This disposes of the second half of Pope's line "Who starves a sister, or forswears a debt" (Epilogue to the Satires, 113), and the first charge is quite devoid of foundation. She did in fact try to rescue her favorite sister, the countess of Mar, who was mentally deranged, from the custody of her brother-in-law, Lord Grange, who had treated his own wife with notorious cruelty, and the slander originated with him.
In 1739 she left her husband and went abroad, and although they continued to write to each other in affectionate and respectful terms, they never met again. At Florence in 1740 she visited Horace Walpole, who cherished a great spite against her, and exaggerated her eccentricities into a revolting slovenliness (see Letters, ed. Cunningham, i. 59). She lived at Avignon, at Brescia, and at Lovere, on the Lago d'Iseo. She was disfigured by a painful skin disease, and her sufferings were so acute that she hints at the possibility of madness. She was struck with a terrible fit of sickness while visiting the countess Palazzo and her son, and perhaps her mental condition made restraint necessary. As Lady Mary was then in her sixty-third year, the scandalous interpretation put on the matter by Horace Walpole may safely be discarded.
Her husband spent his last years in hoarding money, and at his death in 1761 is said to have been a millionaire. His extreme parsimony is satirized in Pope's Imitations of Horace (2nd satire of the 2nd book) in the portrait of Avidieu and his wife. Her daughter Mary, Countess of Bute, whose husband was now Prime Minister, begged her to return to England. She came to London, and died in the year of her return, on the 21st of August 1762. Her son, Edward, was also an author and traveller.
Scholarly editions of her works only appear during the late 20th century.
She is mentioned in the Doctor Who novel Only Human by Gareth Roberts as an example of why marrying for love is "overrated".
In 2003, Jennifer Lee Carrell published The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox, which recounts the tale of Lady Mary's struggle to bring inoculation to London, drawing heavily on her diaries and personal correspondance.
Lady Mary avoided publication, partly to avoid the personal attacks that inevitably followed, and much of her work has not survived. Her current status as author and feminist icon is due largely to the literary renewal associated with the feminist movement. However her life and work defy easy categorisation.
In 1901, her letters were edited and published as The Best Letters of Mary Wortley Montagu by Octave Thanet.