Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, 1981. ‘An Early Ethnographer of Middle Eastern Women: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)’. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 40, Issue 4, Arabic and Islamic Studies in Honour of Nabia Abbott: Part Two (Oct., 1981), 329-338. The University of Chicago Press.
“I am now got into a new world, where every thing I see appears to me a change of scene,” wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to her friend Lady Rich in London.1 The year was 1717. Lady Mary was the wife of Edward Wortley Montagu, British Ambassador Extraordinary to the Court of Turkey and representative of the Levant Company. They had left England in August 1716, and spent seven months en route.
Her reactions to the announcement of her husband's ambassadorial appointment were recorded by her friend Joseph Spence, in letters to his mother:
Lady Mary, who had always delighted in romances and books of travels, was charmed with the thoughts of going into the East, though those embassies are generally an affair of twenty years, and so 'twas a sort of dying to her friends and country. But 'twas travelling; 'twas going farther than most other people go, 'twas wandering; 'twas all whimsical, and charming; and so she set out with all the pleasure imaginable.2
Turkey was indeed far from London, where Lady Mary was a brilliant, witty figure in court circles, known for her private poetry and essays as well as for her public discussions of arts and letters. Her good friends included poet and essayist Alexander Pope, the playwright William Congreve; the poet John Gay; and the Abbé Antonio Conti, Italian philosopher, churchman, and poet. Lady Mary was determined to maintain her literary and court friendships even though she was far away and hence began the series of Turkish Embassy Letters., written to close friends and relatives, rewritten and polished, and finally published in 1763, the year after her death. For their wit, clarity, honesty, and descriptive power, they have brought her posthumous praise ever since from figures as great and varied as Voltaire, Dr. Johnson, the English feminist Mary Astell, Thomas Carlyle, and Lytton Strachey. Edward Gibbon is said to have exclaimed, when he finished reading them, "What fire, what ease, what knowledge of Europe and Asia."3
Robert Halsband, her most recent biographer, has pointed out that Lady Mary's writings are used by scholars in many disciplines for their comments on politics, diplomacy, music, health, art, medical history (she campaigned for smallpox inoculation in England), and social history ("for her analysis of religion, customs and morality in Ottoman Turkey"). 4 But her work has another important dimension; she
1 Robert Halsband, ed., The Complete Letters of' Lady Mary
Wortley Montagu (Oxford, 1965), vol. 1, p. 312.
2 Halsband, 7he Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Oxford, 1956), p. 56.
3 Ibid. p. 289.
4 Preface to Letters, vol. 1, p. vii.
can be justly called one of the earliest ethnographers of Middle Eastern women. Lady Mary, in 1717, was among the first to suggest that Muslim women were not benighted (.',others" bound by a cruel code of restriction and oppression, but might have values and customs that were worthy, if not of emulation, at least of study and respect.
“I went to the (Turkish) bagnio,” Lady Mary continued in her letter to Lady Rich, “about ten o'clock. It was already full of women…” She goes on to describe in detail the design and construction of the bath, the system of heating and cooling water, and the furniture, including sofas covered with cushions and carpets on which the ladies and their slaves could recline. The ladies were, she noted:
without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with .... 5
To make the scene and the people in the scene especially sympathetic and human to her English reader, Lady Mary here employs one of the basic techniques of a conscientious ethnographer trying to communicate the humanity of the peoples of another culture. She likens their appearance or behavior to a figure, an institution, or an object with which the audience is familiar. Using Milton's name and work in relation to a Turkish bath full of naked women immediately lends an air of virtue and artistry to what could otherwise be perceived rather differently. And, adding another familiar comparison to her account, she goes on. “In short, (the bath) is the women's coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, etc....” Finally, she involves herself in the encounter, which brings her audience even closer to the scene. And she is not afraid of the reactions.
The lady that seemed the most considerable among them, entreated me to sit by her, and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty. They being however all so earnest in persuading me, I was at last forced to open my shirt, and show them my stays; which satisfied them very well; for, I saw, they believed I was so locked up in that machine, that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband....6
The description was copied out of the 1805 French translation
of the Embassy letters by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the French painter,
and is found in Ingres' notebooks. As a result, his famous painting Le Bain
Turc (1862) now in the Louvre, is said to reflect some of Lady Mary's observations.
It is not only Lady Mary's considerable wit and descriptive powers that concern us here, but also her interest in her surroundings and her remarkable openness to the values and ideas of another culture, an openness rare in any century, including our own. In short, Lady Mary seems remarkably free of ethnocentrism. Her comment about the beautiful Fatima, wife of the Kahya, or Second Officer after the Grand Vizier of the Sultan, might well apply to herself. "She is very curious after the manners of countrys [sic] and has not that partiality for her own, so common to little minds."7 Certainly the atmosphere of the period in which she lived influenced and informed Lady Mary's work. She came, after all, from a London where John Locke's philosophical ideas about empiricism were still being discussed, where equality of peoples was
5 Ibid., p. 313. 71bid., p. 386.
61bid., p. 314.
proclaimed as a possibility, where "natural religion" or Deism was the topic on many a churchman's reading list, to say nothing of the lay public and the intellectuals. Reports of travel to other countries had increased the average person's knowledge of the then unknown world, whether it be America, India, Turkey, or the South Seas. The French historian Paul Hazard terms this period, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, as a period between one century of belief in dogma and hierarchical principles (the seventeenth century) and another (the nineteenth century). Hazard sees the eighteenth century as a time of exploration and discovery, in thought as well as action. This was accordingly a time when the customs and manners of other peoples seemed suddenly less strange and more worthy of analysis.8 If all men were equal, were not their manners of worshipping God also equally valid? This revolutionary idea led to a reassessment of Islam as well as of Hinduism and Buddhism. The European attitude toward the Koran, for example, almost totally changed during Lady Mary’s lifetime.
The first English edition of the Koran, done from an inaccurate French translation, appeared in London in 1649; the title page promised the reader "an introduction to the Turkish vanities."9 Yet within less than a hundred years English and French scholars had begun to examine the original Arabic texts themselves, had ridiculed the idea that Islam was a sweetmeat of vain licentious infidels, and had declared that Muhammad was a great prophet and reformer. A new translation of the Koran, from the original Arabic into English, was soon undertaken and was completed in 1734 by George Sale. In France, Antoine Galland, of the College Royal, finished the first translation of the Arabian Nights into a European language. (Lady Mary owned all ten volumes in 1739). By 1708 Simon Ockley, professor of Arabic at Cambridge, stated that the West could not be considered superior to the East!'10
Lady Mary's work appears appropriate in such an intellectual climate. She was obviously writing of subjects that interested her friends in England and France; their letters to her were full of questions about the "new world" of the Ottoman Empire. Many travel accounts of the exotic life of the East had appeared, and Lady Mary's friends wanted to hear more. Lady Mary tries to answer the questions of her friends, but the answers she gives are often very different from those of the ordinary European travelers. Thus the Turkish Embassy Letters are valuable documents, not only as evidence of an open, inquiring mind observing another culture and trying to see it “empirically” and without preconceptions, but as data with which other accounts can be compared.
Lady Mary's ethnographic contributions are limited in time and space, but they are important in three areas: religious belief and ritual, the recording of material culture and "vie quotidienne" of early eighteenth century Turkish court life, and the status of women. Another contribution is her sense of the relationship between cultures, the common elements in Islamic Turkey and the Christian West, which she welcomes. She also is careful to identify areas of difference and does not let her "enlightenment" views lead her to overlook problems in the two societies.
8 Paul Hazard, The European Mind (1680 -1725) (London, 1953);
see chap. 1, pp. 3-28.
9 I am Indebted to Dr. Willard Oxtoby of McGill University for a copy of this title page.
10 Hazard, European Mind, p. 17.
Lady Mary did not collect data in the sense that the modern ethnographer is instructed to do. But she listened and looked carefully, and she offers pointed observations and uses specific incidents to illustrate general trends she sees in Turkish society. Her comparisons, as in -the Turkish bath description above, lead the reader into the strange culture by offering familiar signposts. She tries to correct stereotypes currently in existence. Her anecdotes are chosen with care to both entertain and subtly instruct the reader.
In the beginning, however, she felt she had to deal with the information her readers already possessed. To an unidentified Lady -, she wrote in June 1717:
Your whole letter is full of mistakes from one end to 'tother, I see you have taken your Ideas of Turkey from that worthy author Dumont, who has writ with equal ignorance and confidence. 'Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removd from Truth and so full of Absurditys I am very well diverted with 'em. They never fall giving you an Account of the Women, which 'tis certain they never saw, and talking very wisely of the Genius of the Men, into whose Company they are never admitted, and very often describe Mosques, which they dare not peep into.11
As a woman, and as a member of the upper class and the diplomatic community, Lady Mary was luckier than the unfortunate M. Jean Dumont, whose book Nouveau Voyage au Levant had been translated and published in England in 1696. She was not subject to the same restrictions as Dumont, for she had access to many areas of society that were closed to him. Not only was she invited to dine by the widow of the Sultan Mustafa and other great ladies of the Ottoman Empire, she was also entertained by the French ambassador and his wife, and by other Europeans living in the city.
Not content with set and formal glimpses of social life in Constantinople she pushed further, donning native dress to travel about the city, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. "The asmak, or Turkish veil, is become not only very easy but agreeable to me, and if it was not, I would be content to endure some inconveniency to content a passion so powerful with me as curiosity," she wrote Lady Bristol in April 1718. In May 1718 she wrote the Countess of -, "I ramble every day, wrap’d up in my ferige and asmak, about Constantinople, and amuse my selfe with seeing all that is curious in it."13 Garbed in her veils, she visited the Bosphorus, the Seraglio and its gardens, the mosques, the Church of Santa Sophia, and also made some forays into the markets. These she described by again using an English analogy, as holding "365 shops furnish’d with all sort of rich goods expos’d to sale in the same Manner as the New Exchange in London." 14 She also goes out to view the camps of the Ottoman army, preparing for a move to the frontiers, and describes the tents of the Sultan and his court.15
The complicated social schedule of a diplomatic wife and the organization of a household of servants seemed able to accommodate these anonymous wanderings as well as the care of her young son, the beginning of her second pregnancy, her journal-keeping and letter-writing, and her study of Turkish. She wrote Alexander Pope that she spends Wednesdays "studying the Turkish language (in which, by the way, I am already very learned).”16 She sent Pope samples of her translations of Turkish poetry
11 Letters, vol. 1, p. 368. 14 Ibid., p. 354.
12 1bid., p. 397. 15 1bid., p. 356.
13 bid., p. 405. 16 Halsband, Life of Lady Mary, p. 75.
and described to him and other readers some of the particular
technical problems of Turkish verse.
From translating and learning the language; from describing the sights, sounds, and scenes around the Golden Horn, the mosques, the fountains, the markets, cloisters, and monasteries, "'the fine painted meadows by the side of the sea of Marmora";17 she turns next to subjects which she knows will interest not only her intellectual and literary friends, but every lady (and gentleman) of the English court. The furniture, houses, music, dance, the clothes, jewels, food, the customs of hospitality of the Turkish upper-class household-the material culture of a vanished class and epoch are lovingly delineated here for future generations to enjoy and to learn from. Not only do we see the Turkish bath, but the house of the Sultana Hafife, widow (and former favorite) of Sultan Mustafa II.
I was led into a large room, with a Sofa the whole length of it, adorn’d with white Marble Pillars like a ruelle, cover’d with pale bleu figur'd velvet on a silver Ground....
The Sultana’s magnificent clothes, accented by diamonds, pearls and a "fine-colour’d Emerald as big as a Turkey Egg" are pictured for her sister, Lady Mar, as is the table setting:
The Knives were of Gold, the hafts set with di'monds, but the piece of Luxury that griev’d my eyes was the Table cloth and napkins, which were all Tiffany embrodier’d with silks and Gold in the finest manner in natural flowers. It was with the utmost regret that I made use of these costly Napkins, as finely wrought as the finest handkercheifs that ever came out of this Country. You may be sure that they were entirely spoilt before Dinner was over (a dinner of 50 dishes of meat which, after their fashion was placed on the table but one at a time).
Conversations with the Sultana are employed by Lady Mary to dispose of various questions concerning the harem and the seraglio.
The Emperor precedes his visit by a Royal present and then comes into her (the chosen lady's) apartment. Neither is there any such thing as her creeping in at the bed's feet. Sometimes the Sultan diverts him selfe in the Company of all his Ladies, who stand in a circle round him, and she confess'd they were ready to dye with Jealousie and envy of the happy She that he distinguished by any appearance of preference. But this seem’d to me neither better nor worse than the Circles in most Courts where the Glance of the Monarch watch’d and every Smile waited for with impatience and envy'd by those that cannot obtain it.18
Again the comparison with a known, familiar cultural pattern.
Lady Mary was clever enough to forestall criticisms of her detailed descriptions. After all, many of her correspondents had read the tales of the Arabian Nights by this time. She wrote her sister, Lady Mar:
Now do I fancy that you imagine I have entertaind you all this while with a relation that has (at least) recelv'd many Embellishments from my hand.... This is but too like (says you) the Arabian Night tales; these embrodierd Napkins, and a 'ewel as large as a Turkey's egg!-You forget, dear Sister, those very tales were writ by an Author of this Country and (excepting the Enchantments) are a real representation of the manners here.'19
17 Letters, p. 361.
18 Ibid., p. 381-84.
19 Ibid., p. 385.
In the apartments of Fatima, the lady of the Kahya, or Second Officer in the Empire after the grand Vizier, she witnesses a sensuous performance of music and dance by Fatima's "20 Maids" which she does not hesitate to describe in a very matter-of-fact fashion. The Maids "put me in Mind of the pictures of ancient Nymphs," she says, but "this Dance was very different from what I had seen before."
Nothing could be more artfull or more proper to raise certain Ideas, the Tunes so soft, the motions so Languishing, accompany'd with pauses and dying Eyes, half falling back and then recovering themselves in so artfull a Manner that I am very possitive the coldest and most rigid Prude upon Earth could not have look’d upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.20
Lady Mary was impressed with what she observed of the status of Turkish women in contrast to the observations made by others. Her analysis was of course confined to the upper class, and she found the fact that women owned property in their own right particularly striking, given the situation of English women in the eighteenth century. She confided to her sister in April 1717:
Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their Husbands, those Ladys that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with 'em upon a divorce with an addition which he is oblig’d to give 'em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire…'Tis true their Law permits (the men) four (4) wives, but there is no Instance of a Man of Quality that makes use of this Liberty, or a woman of Rank that would suffer it.21
The confining of women is also considered in a letter to Alexander Pope:
I have frequent disputes with (Echmet Bey) concerning the differences of our Customs, particularly the confinements of Women. He assures me there is nothing at all in it; only, says he, we have the advantage that when our Wives cheat us, no body knows it.22
The all-enveloping ferigee and veil, seen as a disadvantage by most observers, was viewed in quite a different light by Lady Mary. After her own freedom of wandering in veiled garb, she wrote her sister,
'Tis very easy to see that they have more liberty than we have, no Woman of what rank so ever being permitted to go in the streets (without the veil and the ferigee) . . . you may guess how effectively this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great Lady from the slave, and 'tis impossible for the most jealous Husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no Man dare either touch or follow a Woman in the Street. . . . This perpetual Masquerade gives them entire Liberty of following their Inclinations without danger of Discovery.23
Women's place in Islam is considered in several letters, most notably in two written to Abbe Conti, who was at that time in Paris. In February 1718, she answered some questions he had posed:
Quant a votre seconde demande, je vous diray que cest une chose certainement fausse, quoique communement crue parmi nous, que Mahomet exclut les femmes de toute participation 'a une vie future & bienheureuse. Il etoit trop galant homme & aimoit trop le beau Sexe, pour le traiter
20 Ibid., p. 351. 22 Ibid., p. 308.
21 Ibid., p. 329. 23 Ibid., p. 328.
d'une maniere si barbare. Au contraire, il promet un tres-beau Paradis aux femmes Turques. Il dit, a la verite, que ce sera un Paradis separe de deluy de leurs Maris; mais je crois que la pluspart nent seront pas moins contentes pour cela; & que le regret de cette separation, ne leur rendra pas ce Paradis moins agreable.24
Despite the accommodation of women in paradise, Lady Mary had no doubt about the role which the Prophet had designated for woman on earth, they were to live, she explained, so that they will be useful; in other words, they should occupy themselves as far as possible "'a faire des petits Musulmans.”25 The key importance of motherhood as giving role and status is mentioned several times in the letters, and the Turkish woman's fear of being barren is seen as so great that
they do not content themselves with using the natural means, but fly to all sort of Quackerys to avoid the Scandal of being past Child bearing and often kill themselves by 'em . . . when I have ask'd them sometimes how they expected to provide for such a Flock as they desire, They answer that the Plague will certainly kill half of 'em; which, indeed generally happens . . . . 26
During these months, Lady Mary herself was pregnant. She wrote to Anne Thistlethwayte on 4 January 1718 that she was getting ready to call for the midwife.
I am at this present writing not very much turn’d for the recollection of what is diverting, my head being wholly fill'd with the preparations necessary for the Encrease of my family, which I expect every day. You may easily guess at my uneasle Situation; but I am, however, in some degree comforted by the glory that accrues to me from it, and a reflection to the contempt I shou'd otherswise fall under.... You won't know what to make of this Speech, but in this country 'tis more despicable to be marry'd and not fruitfull, than 'tis with us to be fruitfull before Marriage.27
And although she admires the "liberty" of the Turkish ladies, she is not so blinded by romanticism that she is not aware of the many problems. The news of the death of a young woman by an unknown hand prompts a discussion of crimes of "honor."
'Tis true the same customs that give them so many opportunitys of gratifying their evil Inclinations (if they have any) also puts it very fully in the power of their Husbands to revenge them if they are discover’d and I don't doubt but that they suffer sometimes for their Indiscretions in a very severe manner.28
Lady Mary provides descriptions of pre-nuptial baths, of marriage processions and gift giving, of childbirth, of slavery, of enchantments, sorceries, and the so-called balm of Mecca. Accounts of the performances of the Whirling Dervishes had already reached Europe, so Lady Mary took it upon herself to witness a session of their devotions. She described it carefully, concluding "The whole is perform’d with the most solemn gravity. Nothing can be more austere than the form of these people”29
She also takes up the subject of comparative religion. While in Belgrade, en route to Constantinople, she and her husband had been housed with a religious judge, the Cadi Effendi Achmet-Beg. To Abbe Conti, she related the substance of some of their conversations:
24 Ibid., p. 375-76. 27 Ibid.
25 Ibid. 28 Ibid., p. 407.
26 Ibid., p. 372. 291bid., p. 403,
Mahometism is divided into as many Sects as Christianity, and the first institution as much neglected and obsdur’d by the interpretations. I cannot here forebear reflecting on the natural Inclination of Mankind to make Mysterys and Noveltys. The Zeidi, Kadara, Jabari, etc., put me in mind of the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, etc., and are equally zealous against one another. But the most prevailing Opinion, if you search into the Secret of the Effendis, is plain Deism. . . ." (The Cadi) "assur’d me that if I understood Arabic I should be very well pleas’d with reading the Alcoran, which is far from the nonsense we charge it with, tis the purest morality deliver'd in the very best Language. I have since heard impartial Christians speak of it in the same manner, and I don't doubt but all our translations are from Copys got from the Greek Preists, who would not fail to falsify it with the extremity of Malice.30
She ended the letter by adding:
I don't ask your pardon for the Liberty I have taken in speaking of the Roman. I know you equally condemn the Quackery of all Churches as much as you revere the sacred Truths in which we both agree.31
Her belief in Deism is enunciated in many letters, a Deism which she saw as a bridge between East and West, between Islam and Christianity, between rational beings in both worlds.
The Turkish Embassy sojourn did not last twenty years for the Montagus. A combination of national and international problems and Wortley's own fumbling led to his recall. Wortley, Lady Mary, and their two children came home to London in 1718.
Educating her children and managing her household once more occupied only part of Lady Mary's prodigious energies. She continued to write poems, essays, fairy tales, and letters. She worked vigorously for the introduction of smallpox vaccination in England. She resumed her social life at court, but her marriage was failing, and eventually she and her husband drifted apart. In her papers several allusions are found to the ease of divorce in Turkey, and at one point apparently Lady Mary considered campaigning for a liberalization of English laws concerning divorce and women's dowry. But although she held some feminist views, she was too attached to the prescribed roles of her status and class to pursue them actively.
By 1739 the Wortley Montagu children were grown. Lady Mary left England, purportedly to travel, with Wortley to follow afterward. But they both knew she was going abroad to meet a certain Count Algarotti. Though never formally dissolved, the marriage effectively ended at this point, and Lady Mary lived abroad for most of the rest of her life, writing to her children and her friends, from Italy and France, writing, always writing, wherever she was. In January 1762, tired and ill, she returned to England and all of London rushed to see "that extraordinary Phenomenon" whose reputation had preceded her. Ravaged by an advanced breast cancer, and living in somewhat straitened circumstances, "'her face,"' Horace Walpole told her, had not changed in twenty years, and she was so delighted that she boxed his ears! Walpole
30 Ibid., p. 318. 31 Ibid., p. 320.
told friends Lady Mary was indeed still very lively.32 Her last months were spent in receiving friends and admirers-, she died in August 1762.After her death, the Turkish Embassy Letters were published (in May 1763) and met with instant success. Her daughter, Lady Bute, whose husband had been by this time appointed to the Privy Council of George III, was furious and also terrified at the effect this unauthorized publication might have on the family's position.
All the public acclaim (and the private praise she must have heard), did not alter Lady Bute's belief that it was unseemly for Lady Mary to be an author, an idea which remained in her family until the middle of the next century.33
To avoid any further possibility of scandal, Lady Bute burned all the diaries that her mother had kept faithfully from the time of her marriage, through her stay in Turkey, and until the very end of her life. The letters remained, in addition to other letters and a number of private papers, but the loss of the diaries can hardly be overestimated! It was not until 1835 that her own great-grandson Lord Wharncliffe agreed to a corrected edition of these letters. Since then, many critics have worked over the papers, and several biographies have appeared; the most complete and recent account is that of Robert Halsband.
Lady Mary herself might have had mixed feelings about the burning of her diaries. For in her later years, restless, bored, and unhappy, she became increasingly conservative and agreed with many of her daughter's views, especially those about the position of superiority and the duties of the upper classes. She had become more and more disillusioned with the Enlightenment ideals of equality and natural religion. Perhaps the lack of congruency between the ideals of the Enlightenment she had so passionately advocated in her youth and the events of her own life helped create the later reaction and eventual bitterness. While living abroad, she had been alternately maligned and praised at home on moral as well as literary grounds. Her travels throughout Europe in the company of various gentlemen naturally aroused gossip, but the unauthorized publication of her poems in 1745 stimulated new interest in her literary achievement.34
She continually expressed vexation and annoyance at these numerous unauthorized publications of her work, but her words often contradict her actions. For although she stated that "one of the most distinguished prerogatives of mankind, writing, was contemptible if done for money"35 and in fact smacked of "trade" rather than art, she nevertheless wrote, rewrote and published her work, especially the Embassy Letters, which she showed privately to many friends. Mary Astell, an early English feminist, read the letters in 1724, urged that they be published, and wrote an enthusiastic preface to them.
I confess I am malicious enough to desire that the World shou'd see to how much better purpose the Ladys Travel than their Lords, and that whilst it is surfeited with Male Travels, all in the same Tone and stuft with the same Trifles, a Lady has the skill to strike out a New Path and to embellish a worn-out Subject with a variety of fresh and elegant Entertainment.36
32 Halsband. Life of Lady Mary, p. 281.
33 Ibid.. p. 289.
34 Ibid., p. 255.
36 Ibid., p. 467.
The Letters, of course, did not appear then, but Lady Mary hoped they would be published after her death. This is indicated by the fact that the last thing she did before departing for England in 1762 was to leave her autograph copy of the Embassy Letters with the Reverend Benjamin Sowden, minister of the English Church in Rotterdam, with a note that he was to do with them as he saw fit.
Lady Mary would no doubt be surprised at being termed an ethnographer, since the word hardly existed at the time, and anthropology as the study of other cultures was not to appear as a serious discipline for another hundred years. We might speculate, however, that she would have been pleased to be praised for the qualities of the ethnographer: the openness to new ideas, the non-judgmental attitude; the eye for the important details that illuminate the broader picture, the ability to see oneself and one's culture from another point of view; the talent to convey these perceptions so vividly that an ordinary audience not only learns, but is cheered and entertained. For these are literary as well as ethnographic accomplishments.
Lady Mary is often characterized as a figure of the Enlightenment salons: a brilliant, witty personality, always attractive and well-dressed, a dilettante of letters. Her name crops up in the memoirs of Addison, Horace Walpole, Alexander Pope, Lord Byron, and countless others. This assessment ignores the discipline of her work and demeans her achievements. As a woman and a member of the aristocracy, she was expected to live up to the duties of her role, and she did so. But despite the setbacks, troubles, and pleasures of her long life, she continued to write, experimenting with poetic forms, writing plays, fairy tales, essays, and letters. Like the Turkish ladies she so vividly describes in the Embassy Letters, her private life was her own, and she involved herself in serious pursuits, as an artist and intellectual. Her dying wish, as reported by Horace Walpole, reflects the basic conflict of her life. “She expressed 'great anxiety' that the two volumes of letters she given the clergyman in Holland should be published, and her family were in terror lest they should be."37 The words seem truer to her spirit than the death-bed remark frequently attributed to her: "it has all been very interesting."38
After two hundred and fifty years, the freshness of the Turkish Embassy Letters reminds us what ethnography could and should be. Middle Eastern women and we who admire, write, and study about Middle Eastern women are indebted to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu for the warm-hearted, clever, and faithful portrait of Turkish court life she left behind for later generations.
37 Ibid., P. 287.
38 Iris Barry, Portrait of Lady Mary Montagu (Indianapolis, 1928), p. 294.
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, 1981. ‘An Early Ethnographer of Middle Eastern Women: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)’. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 40, Issue 4, Arabic and Islamic Studies in Honour of Nabia Abbott: Part Two (Oct., 1981), 329-338. The University of Chicago Press.