So England familiarly called the most brilliant Englishwoman of her generation, who entered into the history of manners by striking at the conventions that imprisoned her sex, and who entered into the history of literature by writing letters that rival Mme. de Sévigné’s.

She had a good start; she was granddaughter of Sir John Evelyn, and daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, who, in the year of her birth (1689), was elected to Parliament, and soon thereafter succeeded to a rich estate as Earl of Kingston; hence his daughter was Lady Mary from her infancy. Her mother, Lady Mary Feilding (so she spelled it), had an earl for her father, and the novelist for her cousin. She died when our present heroine was only four. The father sent his children to be reared by his mother; when she passed away they returned to his luxurious country seat, Thoresby Park, in Nottinghamshire; and sometimes they lived in his town house in Piccadilly. He was especially fond of Mary, whom he nominated, aged eight, as toast of the year at the Kit-Cat Club; there she moved from lap to lap, and impishly displayed her wit. Helped by a governess, she educated herself in her father’s library, spending there sometimes eight hours a day, absorbing French romances and English plays. She gathered some French and Italian, and taught herself Latin with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Addison, Steele, and Congreve frequented the house, encouraged her studies, and stirred her eager mind. We are told, on no authority but her own, that it was her knowledge of the Latin classics that won her the attention of Edward Wortley.

He was a grandson of Edward Montagu, first Earl of Sandwich; his father, Sidney Montagu, had taken the name Wortley on marrying an heiress of that name. Edward, when he met Mary (1708), was already, at thirty, a man of mark and great expectations; he had a university education, had been called to the bar at twenty-one, had won a seat in Parliament at twenty-seven. We do not know how her courtship of him began, but it made some progress, for on March 28, 1710, she wrote to him:

Give me leave to say it (I know it sounds vain), I know how to make a man of sense happy; but then that man … must contribute something towards it himself.… This letter … is the first I ever writ to one of your sex, and shall be the last. You must never expect another. 117

Her Fabian strategy prospered. When she fell ill of measles he sent her a note warmer than his wont: “I should be overjoyed to hear your Beauty is very much impaired, could I be pleased with anything that would give you displeasure, for it would lessen the number of Admirers.” 118 Her reply carried the campaign a step onward: “You think, if you married me, I should be passionately fond of you for one month, and of somebody else the next; neither would happen. I can esteem, I can be a friend, but I don’t know whether I can love.” 119 This candor may have given him pause, for in November she wrote: “You say you are not yet determined; let me determine for you, and save you the trouble of writing again. Adieu forever! Make no answer!” 120 She wrote again in February, 1711, to tell him, “This is the last letter I shall send.” 121 He resumed his advances, she retreated, and lured him into precipitate pursuit. Financial considerations intervened, and parental opposition. They planned elopement, though this meant that she could expect no dowry from her father. She gave Wortley an honest warning: “Reflect now for the last time in what manner you must take me. I shall come to you with only a nightgown and petticoat, and that is all you will get with me.” 122 They met at an inn, and were married in August, 1712; henceforth she was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. This last name she took as that of her husband’s family line; but as he was the son of a second son, he continued to be called simply Edward Wortley.

Business and politics soon carried him to Durham and London, while he left her with very modest means in divers country houses to await the coming of her child. In April she joined Wortley in London, and there, in May, her first child was born. Her happiness was brief, for her husband went off to seek re-election, and soon she was complaining of her loneliness; she had looked for a romantic honeymoon, he looked for a seat in the new Parliament. His costly campaign failed, but he was appointed a junior commissioner. He rented a house near St. James’s Palace, and there, in January, 1715, Lady Mary began her conquest of London.

She sampled the social whirl. She entertained on Mondays, went to the opera on Wednesdays, to the theater on Thursdays. She visited and was visited, fluttered about the court of George I, and nevertheless won favor with Princess Caroline. She cultivated the poets, and bandied wit with Pope and Gay. Pope was fascinated by her alert intelligence; he forgot for a moment his scorn of the subtler sex, applauded her efforts for the education of girls, and dedicated to her some hurried rhymes:

In beauty or wit

No mortal as yet

To question your empire has dared;

But men of discerning

Have thought that in learning,

To yield to a lady was hard.

Impertinent schools

With musty dull rules

Have reading to females denied;

So Papists refuse

The Bible to use,

Lest flocks be as wise as their guide

’Twas a woman at first

(Indeed she was curs’d)

In knowledge that tasted delight;

And sages agree

The laws should decree

To the first possessor the right.

Then bravely, fair dame,

Resume the old claim,

Which to your whole sex does belong;

And let men receive

From a second bright Eve

The knowledge of right and of wrong.

But if the first Eve

Hard doom did receive

When only one apple had she,

What a punishment new

Shall be found out for you,

Who, tasting, have robbed the whole tree? 123

Gay now composed an eclogue, “The Toilet,” in which some London celebrities were satirized under transparent pseudonyms. Lady Mary took a hand in the game. With help from Gay and Pope, she wrote two eclogues whose cutting couplets rivaled theirs in elegance and pricking point. She did not publish these poems, but she allowed manuscript copies to pass among her friends. She now acquired the reputation of a female Pope, adept with pen and rhyme and wounds.

In December, 1715, she suffered a blow sharper than her darts. Smallpox, which had killed her brother, attacked her so severely that gossip talked of her death. She survived, but her face was pockmarked, her lashes had fallen out; only her brilliant black eyes remained of the beauty on which she had counted as a help to her husband’s advancement. Wortley got his plum nevertheless; in April, 1716, he was appointed “ambassador extraordinary” to the court of Turkey. Lady Mary was delighted; she had dreamed of the East as the land of romance, and even with her husband along she might find romance in Constantinople or on the way. Pope, also touched with fantasy, wrote to her on July 1 a letter that elegantly skirted the precipice of love:

If I thought I should not see you again, I would say some things here which I could not to your Person. For I would not have you die deceived in me, that is, go to Constantinople without knowing that I am, to some degree of Extravagance, as well as with the utmost Reason, Madam—

and then signed with the usual flourish of humble and obedient servitude. 124

On August 1 Wortley, Mary, their three-year-old son, and a large retinue crossed to Holland. They passed down through Cologne to Regensburg, where they embarked on a houseboat which twelve oarsmen rowed past castled mountaintops. At Vienna she found a letter from Pope offering her his heart and assuring her

not that I think everybody naked altogether so fine a sight as yourself and a few more would be.… You may easily imagine how desirous I must be of a correspondence with a person who had taught me, long ago, that it was as impossible to esteem at first sight as to love; and who has since ruined me for all the conversation of one sex, and almost all the friendship of the other. Books have lost their effect upon me, and I was convinced, since I saw you, that there is something more powerful than philosophy, and, since I heard you, that there is one alive wiser than all the sages. 125

But he added the hope that she would be happy with her husband. She replied:

Perhaps you’ll laugh at me for thanking you very gravely for all the obliging concern you express for me. ’Tis certain that I may, if I please, take the fine things you say to me for wit and raillery, and, it may be, it would be taking them right. But I never in my life was half so well disposed to believe you in earnest. 126

On February 3, 1717, Pope dispatched another declaration of profound affection, protesting against being considered “only her friend.” These letters Mary kept to herself, happy to have stirred the ruins of the greatest living poet.

The party reached Constantinople in May. There Mary set about resolutely to learn Turkish; she progressed to the understanding and admiration of Turkish poetry; she adopted Turkish dress, visited harem ladies, and found them more civilized than the mistresses of George I. She observed the regular and successful practice of inoculation in Turkey as a preventive of smallpox; and she had her son inoculated by the English surgeon Dr. Maitland in Constantinople. Her letters from that city are as fascinating as any letters this side of Mme. de Sévigné, Horace Walpole, or Melchior Grimm. She did not wait to be told that they were literature; she wrote with that aspiration, and told her friends: “The last pleasure that fell my way was Mme. de Sévigné’s letters; very pretty they are, but I assert, without the least vanity, that mine will be full as entertaining forty years hence. I advise you, therefore, to put none of them to the use of waste paper.” 127

Her correspondence with Pope continued. He begged her to take his protestations seriously, but his tone was a baffling mixture of playfulness and love. In his rakish imagination he conceived Turkey as a “land of jealousy, where the unhappy women converse with none but eunuchs, and where the very cucumbers are brought to them cut.” And then, thinking sadly of his misshapenness, he added: “I am capable myself of following one I loved, not only to Constantinople, but to those parts of India where, they tell us, the women best like the ugliest fellows, … and look upon deformities as the signatures of divine favor.” He will become a Mohammedan if she will, and will accompany her to Mecca; if sufficiently encouraged he will meet her in Lombardy, “the scene of those celebrated amours between the fairy princess and her dwarf.” 128 When he learned that she was coming home he mounted to the semblance of ecstasy: “I write as if I were drunk; the pleasure I take in thinking of your return transports me beyond the bounds of common sense and decency.… Come, for God’s sake, come, Lady Mary, come quickly!” 129

Wortley’s mission failed, and he was recalled to London. We get a sample of eighteenth-century travel in their departure from Constantinople on June 25, 1718, and their arrival in London on October 2. There Lady Mary resumed her life at court and with the wits, but Pope, now marching through Homer, was busy at Stanton Harcourt. In March, 1719, however, he moved to Twickenham, and in June, with his help, Wortley and Lady Mary found a home there, too, sold them by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Soon afterward Pope paid Kneller twenty guineas to paint her portrait for him. 130 It was well done, though Kneller was seventy-four. The hands were exquisite, the face almost as Oriental as the Turkish headdress; the lips sensually full, the eyes large, dark, and still entrancing—Gay celebrated them in verses at this time. Pope hung the picture in his bedroom, and commemorated it in a poem which he sent to her:

The playful smiles around the dimpled mouth,

The happy air of majesty and truth; …

The equal luster of the heavenly mind,

Where every grace with every virtue’s joined;

Learning not vain, and wisdom not severe,

With greatness easy, and with wit sincere … 131

That year was her meridian, and the beginning of calamities. A French visitor, Toussaint Rémond, left two thousand pounds with her to invest at her discretion; on Pope’s advice she bought South Sea Company stock; it fell disastrously, reducing the two thousand to five hundred; when she so reported to Rémond he accused her of stealing his funds (1721). In that same year a smallpox epidemic threatened the life of the daughter born to her in 1718; she sent for Dr. Maitland, who had returned from Constantinople, and had him inoculate the girl. We shall see later the effect of this example on British medicine before Jenner.

Suddenly, in 1722, her friendship with Pope collapsed. As late as July they saw each other so frequently that gossip flared in Twickenham. But in September he began to write gallant epistles to Judith Cowper, in which, for her comfort, he mentioned an obvious decline in “the brightest wit in the world.” Lady Mary claimed that Pope had made her a passionate declaration of love, and that he had never forgiven the levity with which she had greeted this brave enterprise. 132 He held his peace for a while, but now and then he pointed his occasional verse with barbs only transparently disguised. When she wrote to a friend naming Swift, Pope, and Gay as joint authors of a ballad that he thought was hers, he sent her a sharp reproof; and in the Miscellanies that he published in 1728 he printed this reproof with flagrant clarity:

Such, Lady Mary, are your tricks;

But since you hatch, pray own your chicks;

You should be better skilled in nocks,

Nor, like your capons, serve your cocks. 133

In a poem called “Imitation” (1733) he referred to “furious Sappho … p—x’d by her love”—i.e., infected with syphilis by a paramour. 134 According to Horace Walpole she threatened to have him whipped.

This obscene quarrel was added to the wreck of her marriage. Wortley, resuming his place in Parliament, left her conspicuously neglected in Twickenham. His father’s death (1727) made him a very rich man; he supplied her material wants, but left her to her own resources for love. Her son was proving himself a shiftless rascal. Her daughter, growing into an intelligent and well-mannered woman, was her only consolation. Lord Hervey tried to take the place of Pope in her life, but he was so constituted that he could not forgive her, or his wife, for being a woman. He must have known of Lady Mary’s division of the human race into men, women, and Herveys. 135

In 1736 an Italian meteor entered and altered her orbit. Francesco Algarotti, born in Venice in 1712, had already made some noise in science and belles-lettres. In 1735 he had been the house guest of Voltaire and Mme. du Chátelet at Cirey, where all three studied Newton. He came to London with letters of introduction from Voltaire, was received at court, met Hervey, and through him Lady Mary. She fell in love with him as never with Wortley, for her heart was empty, and he was handsome, brilliant, young; she trembled at the thought that she was forty-seven and he twenty-four. Her road to romance seemed cleared by the marriage of her daughter to the Earl of Bute (August, 1736). When she heard that Algarotti was returning to Italy she dispatched to him a letter of girlish passion:

I no longer know in what manner to write you. My feelings are too lively; I should not be able either to explain or hide them. To bear with my letters you would have to be touched with an enthusiasm like mine. I see all its folly, without any possibility of correcting myself. The mere idea of seeing you has given me a transport to the point of melting away. What has become of that philosophic indifference which made the glory and tranquillity of my earlier days? I have lost it never to find it again; and should this passion be cured, I foresee nothing but a deadly ennui. Forgive the extravagance which you have caused, and come to see me. 136

He came, and supped with her on the eve of his departure. Hervey had also invited him, and had been refused. Furious with jealousy, he wrote to Algarotti a bitter diatribe against Lady Mary, warning him that she was proclaiming to all London her Italian conquest with the boast “Veni, vidi, vici” Possibly, but her letters to Algarotti were not those of a conqueror.

How timid one is when one loves! I fear to offend you in sending you this note, even though my intention is to give you pleasure. Indeed, I am so mad in all that concerns you that I am not sure of my own thoughts.… All that is certain is that I shall love you all my life long, despite your caprice and my reason. 137

He did not answer this letter, nor a second, nor a third, though she spoke of suicide. A fourth letter drew a reply which came, she said, “in very good time to save the small remains of my understanding.” She offered to follow him to Italy; he discouraged the idea, and for three years she nursed her passion in solitude. But in 1739 she persuaded her husband that she needed a trip to Italy. Having lost his love for her, he could behave like a gentleman. He saw her off when she left London, and agreed to send her a quarterly allowance of £245 from his own income, and to transmit to her the £150 annual income bequeathed her by her father. She traveled as quickly as she could to Venice, hoping to find Algarotti there; instead he went to Berlin (1740) to live with new-crowned Frederick II, who liked him this side of sodomy. Disconsolate, Mary took a house on the Grand Canal, established a salon, entertained literati and dignitaries, and received pleasant attentions from the Venetian aristocracy and government.

After a year in Venice she moved to Florence, where she stayed for two months at the Palazzo Ridolfi as the guest of Lord and Lady Pomfret. There Horace Walpole saw her, and he sent to H. S. Conway a tender description:

Did I tell you Lady Mary Wortley is here? She laughs at my Lady Walpole [Horace’s sister-in-law], scolds Lady Pomfret, and is laughed at by the whole town. Her dress, her avarice, and her impudence must amaze anyone that never heard her name. She wears a foul mob [a cap fastened under the chin] that does not cover her greasy black locks, that hang loose, never combed or curled; an old … blue wrapper that gapes open and discloses a canvas petticoat. Her face swelled violently on one side with the remains of a—partly covered with a plaister, and partly with white paint.… She played pharaoh two or three times at Princess Craon’s where she cheats horse and foot. She is really entertaining; I have been reading her works, which she lends out in manuscript; but they are too womanish; I like few of her performances. 138

There was a basis in fact for this caricature: it was the custom in Italy for a woman in her own home to dress in loose and careless comfort; and doubtless Mary’s face was badly pocked, but not certainly with syphilis. 139 It was quite usual for authors to lend their manuscripts to friends. Lady Mary had earned young Walpole’s displeasure by befriending Molly Skerrett, who had earned his displeasure by becoming the second wife of his father. Probably Lady Mary was more than usually careless of her appearance now that Algarotti seemed hopelessly lost to her.

Then, learning that Algarotti was in Turin, she hurried thither, joined him (March, 1741), and lived with him for two months. But he treated her with coarseness and indifference; soon they quarreled and parted, he to Berlin, she to Genoa. There Walpole saw her again, enjoyed her hospitality, and addressed to her coach some venomous lines:

O chaise, who art condemned to carry

The rotten hide of Lady Mary,

To Italy’s last corner drive,

And prithee set her down alive;

Nor jumble off with jolts and blows

The half she yet retains of nose. 140

In 1760 she rejoiced to learn that her son-in-law had become a member of George Ill’s Privy Council. On January 21, 1761, her husband died, leaving the bulk of his estate to his daughter, and £1,200 a year to his widow. Whether because his death removed some mysterious obstacle to her return, or her son-in-law’s political prominence attracted her, Lady Mary, after twenty-one years of absence, returned to England (January, 1762).

She had only seven more months to live, and they were not happy. Her pursuit of Algarotti, and such reports as Horace Walpole’s, had given her a bad name; and her daughter, though solicitous for her mother’s health and comfort, did not enjoy her company. In June Lady Mary began to Suffer from a tumor on the breast. She took calmly her doctor’s confession that she had cancer; she said she had lived long enough. She died after months of pain (August 21, 1762).

One of her last requests was that her letters should be published to give her side of her story, and establish her title to remembrance. But she had entrusted her manuscripts to her daughter, and Lady Bute, now wife of the Prime Minister, did all she could to prevent their publication. However, the letters written from Turkey were clandestinely copied before being delivered to the daughter, and they were issued in 1763. Several editions were soon sold out. Johnson and Gibbon were among the delighted readers. The critics, who had been unmerciful to the author during her lifetime, were now extravagant in praising her correspondence. Smollett wrote that the letters were “never equaled by any letter-writer of any sex, age, or nation”; and Voltaire rated them as superior to Sévigné’s. 141 Lady Bute, before she died in 1794, burned her mother’s voluminous diary, but left the letters to the discretion of her eldest son. He allowed some of them to be printed in 1803; those to Algarotti remained secret until Byron persuaded John Murray to buy them from their Italian owner (1817). Not till 1861 was publication complete; and Lady Mary was recognized as sharing with Pope, Gray, Gay, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Hume in making the literature of England the most varied, vibrant and influential of that virile age.

I. This act, as modified in 1843, is still British law, but is very leniently enforced.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!