The infinitely rebellious writer known as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) would have been one of those real life people who show up as disguised as fictional characters in works by others if she hadn’t been a a writer herself. In an age which produced more letter-writers whose collected missives were deemed fit for publication than any other, Montagu managed to stand out. In fact, her reputation as one of the literary lights of the 18th century rests primarily upon those letters, especially those written while from Turkey while her husband was working as a diplomat working on behalf of England in attempting to negotiate a settlement of hostilities between Turkey and Austria.
An indication of just how far outside the realm of convention Lady Mary stood is demonstrated by the first goal she set for herself upon the couple’s return to England: getting the people of her native country to accept a radical idea she had seen put into practice during her time abroad. Because of her efforts to spread the gospel of inoculation against smallpox, the long road to reducing the incidence of the ravaging disease got a head start that may have taken years or even decades without her efforts.
The rebellion of Montagu began not too long after the tragic loss of her mother when she was still a young child. She started out by secretly teaching herself to read Latin at a time in a time when such a thing was highly frowned upon in upper echelons of British society. Her last rebellious act as a single young woman within that society was to not only marry for love rather money, but to wed Edward Worley Montagu in secret.
Her poetry reveals the passionate firebrand behind the snooty Downton Abbey name. Montagu may been a Lady, but she was no shrinking violet. After a falling out with Alexander Pope, the two engaged in a series of bitter public quarrels and Montagu’s most personal assault came in the form of a poem titled “Verses Addressed to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace.” Into the wound of the poem, Montagu poured the salt of taking sides with the perspective m of Pope’s most detested critic.
Montagu did reserve her poetic outrage for those with whom she had merely personal disagreement. Finding something about Jonathan Swift to dislike in nearly every aspect of his personality, she was moved to compose “The Reasons That Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing Room” and in the process produce a parody that manages to turn the tables on one of the greatest satirists in the English language.
Pope’s attribution of the nickname “Sappho” for Lady Mary in one of his poems may indicate the level to which she was willing to rise to answer back to the patriarchal privilege. Sappho was the ancient Greek poet whose name is now synonymous with lesbian literature, but at the time the criticism Pope was leveling had less to with sexual proclivities and more to do with the both female writers seeming to prefer the company and character of women over men. This view seems to be confirmed on both scores—that Pope was right and that Montagu had good reason—from the multiple examples in her verse in which she calls men to account for their hypocrisy or in which she comes to the defense of women see deems unfairly victimized by a society in which women had little to no rights. The most famous example of this recurring theme being perhaps “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband” in which the titular real-life character lost her dowry and much of her inheritance in a divorce suit filed by her husband on grounds of infidelity despite admission of own lack of fidelity.
A testament to just what a rebel Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is exhibited by the fact that this poem which ferociously assault not just the legal system, but the very institution of marriage in terms comparing it to bondage was too hot for publication until the feminist movement was in full swing…in the 1970’s, some 250 years after the court case which inspired it actually took place.