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Lady Mary Wortley Montague Her Life and Letters (1689-1762)   By: (1874-1932)

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Her Life and Letters (1689 1762)






Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has her niche in the history of medicine as having introduced inoculation from the Near East into England; but her principal fame is as a letter writer.

Of her gifts as a correspondent she was proud, and with reason. It was in all sincerity that in June, 1726, she wrote to her sister, Lady Mar: "The last pleasures that fell in my way was Madame 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." And again, later in the year, she said half humorously to the same correspondent: "I writ to you some time ago a long letter, which I perceive never came to your hands: very provoking; it was certainly a chef d'oeuvre of a letter, and worthy any of the Sévigné's or Grignan's, crammed with news." That Lady Mary's belief in herself was well founded no one has disputed. Even Horace Walpole, who detested her and made attacks on her whenever possible, said that "in most of her letters the wit and style are superior to any letters I have ever read but Madame de Sévigné's." A very pleasant tribute from one who had a goodly conceit of himself as a letter writer.

Walpole, as a correspondent, was perhaps more sarcastic and more witty; Cowper undoubtedly more tender and more gentle; but Lady Mary had qualities all her own. She had powers of observation and the gift of description, which qualities are especially to be remarked in the letters she wrote when abroad with her husband on his Mission to the Porte. She had an ironic wit which gave point to the many society scandals she narrated, a happy knack of gossip, and a style so easy as to make reading a pleasure.

Some of the incidents which Lady Mary retails with so much humour may be accepted as not outraging the conventions of the early eighteenth century when it was customary to call a spade a spade; when gallantry was gallantry indeed, and the pursuit of it openly conducted. What is not mentioned by those who have written about her is that she was possessed of a particularly unsavoury strain of impropriety which outraged even the canons of her age. Some twenty years after her death, it was mentioned in the Gentleman's Magazine that Dr. Young, the author of Night Thoughts , had a little before his death destroyed a great number of her letters, assigning as a reason of his doing so that they were too indecent for public inspection. Only the other day I had confirmation of this from a distinguished man of letters who wrote to me: "I have somewhere hidden away a copy of a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, which was sent to me by a well known collector about thirty five years ago, because he couldn't destroy it and wouldn't for worlds be found dead with it in his possession so terrific is it in character. I'll tell you about it some day when we meet: I can't write it. In any case you couldn't use it or even refer to it.... I suppose that my friend quite felt that the document, however objectionable, should not, on literary grounds, be destroyed. What my executors will think of me for having it in my possession, the Devil only knows."

Whether this strain permeated the diary which Lady Mary left behind her when she eloped in 1712, and which was destroyed by one of her sisters, no one can say; but it is a curious fact that the diary she kept in later years was destroyed by her devoted daughter, Lady Bute. "Though Lady Bute always spoke of Lady Mary with great respect," wrote Lady Louisa Stuart, "yet it might be perceived that she knew it had been too much her custom to note down and enlarge upon all the scandalous rumours of the day, without weighing their truth or even their probability; to record as certain facts stories that perhaps sprang up like mushrooms from the dirt, and had as brief an existence, but tended to defame persons of the most spotless character... Continue reading book >>

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