(Full text): Lew, Joseph W., 1991. Lady Mary’s Portable Seraglio Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4. (Summer, 1991), pp. 432-450.

432

 

JOSEPH W. LEW

In 1717, the Whigs sent Edward Wortley to Holland, to Holland, the petty states of Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. His mission foreshadowed the goals of English foreign policy in the Levant until World War 1: he was to negotiate peace between Austria and a declining Ottoman Empire and to protect British naval and commercial interests in the Levant. He expected to remain in Istanbul as long as twenty years; in fact, his ineptitude combined with reshufflings in the English Cabinet led to his recall after only fifteen months.

With him travelled his beautiful and brilliant wife, Lady Mary Pierrepont, who claimed to have been the first upper-class English woman to make the arduous overland journey to the fabled East. Upon reaching Adrianople, she wrote to the Princess of Wales: "I have now, madam, finished a journey which has not been undertaken by any Christian since the time of the Greek emperors.”1 Her journey, unprecedented as it is, pales beside her other accomplishments: the letters she wrote during her journey to and residence in the Ottoman Empire; her study of Turkish language and literature; and, upon her return to England, the introduction of inoculation against smallpox.

In this article, I examine how, in the Letters Written during Mr. Wortley’s Embassy, Lady Mary drew upon, yet characteristically and self-consciously distanced herself from, an already flourishing Orientalist discourse. After discussing the generic instability of the Letters using Barbara Herrnstein Smith's distinctions between "natural" and "fictive” discourse, I focus upon a single letter, addressed to Lady

I Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 228.

433

Rich. Dated from Adrianople, April 1, 0. S. 1717, this letter describes a journey by coach to the local baths and Lady Mary's reception by and conversations with Ottoman noblewoman there. I juxtapose this letter, which Lady Mary wrote to another woman, with a "Persian letter" written by Montesquieu and published in 1721. By contrasting Lady Mary's eyewitness account with Montesquieu's fantasy of harem life, I hope to show that the discourse described by Said in Orientalism was by no means monolithic; rather, as Bakhtin argues for all discourse, it achieved cultural hegemony only in the face of counterdiscourses.3 I use Patricia Meyer Spack’s theoretical discussion of the bonds created by gossiping in order to distinguish letters Lady Mary wrote to women of her own social rank from male Orientalist discourse, but also from her own epistolary practice towards men or towards social superiors such as the Princess of Wales. Lady Mary turned her female-addressed letters into powerful critiques of both Ottoman and British culture; her description of how Oriental women subverted order anticipated, by two hundred fifty years, the work of feminists such as Mernissi and Abu-Lughod.

The Letters, published only after Lady Mary's death in 1762 and in the face of the expressed opposition of her daughter and son-in-law (Bute, then Prime Minister), are not the original letters sent to various correspondents during Wortley's embassy. Lady Mary polished copies of these original letters after her return, perhaps revising (in the senses both of re-writing and re-seeing) them extensively in the course of her long life. The published Letters then (like so many other works conceived during the 1710s and 1720s) evade generic classification. They refuse to be "Purely" epistolary; rather, they form a re-presentation, a re-thinking and re-imaging of Lady Mary's original epistles, themselves a re-presentation of her journey, the Orient, and contemporary Orientalist discourse. Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s distinction between natural and fictive discourse is useful here: if the original letters Lady Mary actually sent to her correspondents in England were natural utterances, then by reserving copies of these utterances and re-vising them for a larger, indeterminate audience, Lady Mary transforms them into fictive utterances. In Smith’s terms, Lady Mary "reauthors" her own text; "in taking a verbal structure as some-

2 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
3 Mikhail Bakhtin, 7he Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 198 1).

434

thing other than what it was given as, in some way other than its original constructor intended or expected it to be taken, we have in effect regiven it to ourselves.”4 Like the inscrutable Mrs. Saville, the presumed collector/editor of the letters which make up Frankenstein, an older Lady Mary inserts herself silently between us and the original

“natural utterances” self-consciously revising, re-seeing, these letters into art. The letters, fascinating and witty by themselves, are an invaluable source of information about early eighteenth-century Ottoman society, providing eyewitness accounts of the women’s baths at Adrianople and of the interiors of several seraglios. In one of the latter, she met the Sultana Valide (the Ottoman equivalent of an Empress Dowager), who described life in the Royal Harem5 Yet Lady Mary's work has been largely ignored by Orientalists. In his already classic critique of Orientalism, Said fails to mention her.

Lady Mary's rank6 enabled her to master normally masculine preserves of knowledge; but her descriptions were made possible by her position as the British ambassador's wife. Their interest for us, even their very existence, is owing to the combination of her social standing and gender. Her most recent biographer, Robert Halsband, notes that "her sex and social rank allowed her a great privilege not given to most travel writers -that of visiting Turkish court ladies in their harems.”7 Because she was a woman, she was able to “penetrate” the Orient in ways no European male could.8 Jane Miller's concept of "bi-lingualism” most clearly defines Lady Mary's epistolary vision and the difference between her position as Englishwoman vis-à-vis eighteenth-century English patriarchal culture, and Turkish women’s position vis-à-vis eighteenth-century Ottoman patriarchal culture. Women, according to Miller, grow up speaking two languages

4 Barbara Herrnstein Smith, On the Margins of Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 59-60.

5 Alain Grosrichard, Structures du Serail (Paris: Seuil, 1979), provides a provocative Lacanian reading of the seraglio as imagined in the West by seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century travelwriters, as well as Montesquieu. The Phallic Mother, whom Grosrichard sees as embodied in the Sultana Valide at the heart of the seraglio, contrasts markedly with the urbane and sensitive woman Montagu describes.

6 As daughter of the Earl of Kingston, the title "Lady" was inalienable, even though her husband Wortley remained a commoner all his life.

7 Robert Halsband, Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 70.

8 For an account of Montesquieu’s daring in his representation of harem life, see Charles Dedeyan, Montesquieu, ou l’Alibi Persan (Paris: Sedes,.1988), pp. 149-165.

435

or, more properly, two distinct dialects. Recent research in linguistics suggests these differences exist on lexical and even sub-lexical levels?

Lady Mary adjusts her discourse to the interests and gender of her addressee. Not only do the contents of letters addressed to women differ from those addressed to men (the embedded narrative I examine, Lady Mary's visit to the baths of Adrianople, takes place in the former; disquisitions on religions, poetry, and Oriental history primarily in the latter), but also the languages used: lengthy Latin quotes occur only in letters addressed to men. Lady Mary's assumption that her female readers will be interested in stories about contemporary women, while male readers prefer reading about the distant past -or the present Orient only as it illuminates (makes it possible for the Western male better to read) the distant past-has immense ramifications for theorizations of Orientalist discourse. Her practice illustrates, not a monolithic, Saidian Orientalism, but a number of discourses competing for hegemony.

The ease with which Lady Mary speaks the dialect of her addressee produces a curious bifurcation in the Letters, a kind of bi-focal vision. The narrative I discuss not only subverts both Orientalist discourse and eighteenth-century patriarchy itself, but is embedded in a letter addressed to a woman. Like so many other aspects of the Letters, embedding of the subversive within writing addressed to women anticipates later criticism of novels; in this case, particularly writers such as Samuel Johnson and Hannah More who feared the moral influence of novels upon young women. Lady Mary's letters addressed to men, although often organized by a loosely picaresque relation to her own movements, are primarily discursive in nature. In these letters, the events of her journey seem important only because they provide a frame upon which to hang disquisitions on religion, dress (the near-identity of modem costume with Classical descriptions), architecture, or Latin inscriptions on monuments. While her letters to women are peppered with literary allusions, her letters to men are often pedantic. Ideally, the multiple discourses and perspectives in the Letters could produce a more truly three-dimensional view; actually, the total effect is disturbing, out-of-focus. This blurring indicates the power male Orientalist discourse had already attained, but also the untranslatability (in both the mathematical and linguistic senses) of Lady Mary's female vision into the inter-textual space of male Orientalism. The contradictions within the Letters help

436

to explain why Montagu’s voice was necessarily drowned out by, and not absorbed into, Orientalism.

But the Letters are "bilingual" in other senses as well. They utilize lengthy Latin quotations (demanding bilingual readers), and some were originally written in French (those addressed to the Abbe' Conti). But her letters make sense to her English readers precisely because translations from Arabic, Turkish, or Persian have already occurred. Like Halsband's generic "travel writers" Lady Mary writes letters which both demand and elude translation. The typical seventeenth or early eighteenth-century European traveller to the Orient arrived ignorant of the Orient's languages. Until the traveller "masters" this language, communication is mediated by another person, a translator: a person interposes between the traveller and the native language; a person mediates the Orient for the European traveller. Because Oriental speech is characteristically re-presented to the reader as already translated, the actual translator is pushed to, and occasionally even beyond, the framework of the narrative: the person disappears from view. Mastery brings with it the usurpation of the role of the translator by the traveller/narrator, radically changing the economies of both the journey and its representation. As the traveller dismisses a now-useless servant from his entourage, the newly bilingual narrator dismisses the act of translation from the text, which ceases to draw attention to unintelligibility and represents Orientals as if they were speaking English.

Yet Halsband’s statement, Lady Mary's "sex and social rank allowed her a great privilege not given to most travel writers," in its simple addition (accretion) of gender ("sex") to "social rank" obscures a crucial difference between Lady Mary and "most travel writers”- usually both male and non-noble.10 A Chardin or an Aaron Hill translates his experiences from a foreign tongue into this native language, but Lady Mary translates experiences from one foreign tongue into another foreign tongue because she is a woman. According to Miller, all women in patriarchal cultures grow up bilingual because of the discrepancy between the way any particular woman might see herself, other women, and men, and the ways in which men have defined,

9 One of the best discussions of this research occurs in Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman’s Place (New York: Octagon Books, 1975).
10 Sir John Chardin was knighted in England after his return from Persia.

437

described, prescribed, and written about themselves and about women.11

Lady Mary's first report of contact with Middle-Eastern women occurs in her letter to Lady Rich, the bulk of which describes a visit to "the bagnio " Lady Mary's description of her trip to the baths must be read within its larger context: a woman describing non-domestic female space to another woman, using metaphors which familiarize the "exotic" Halsband sensed the empathy behind this technique: Lady Mary "often used such comparisons during her journey, not out of any narrow insularity, but rather to convert the strange into the familiar for the readers of both her actual and compiled letters” (p. 60). Her letter can conveniently be divided into three parts: descriptions of the journey to the baths, of the baths themselves, and an abbreviated, yet significant, account of her departure.

To get to the baths, Lady Mary hires a Turkish coach which, though 66 not at all like ours" is very much like "the Dutch stage-coaches Lady Mary insists not upon the ineradicable "otherness” of the Orient, its Saidian "strangeness" but upon the gossipy things shared. Admittedly, the English have no stagecoaches like Turkish ones -but their friends and allies the Dutch (who had, only a generation earlier, generously provided the English with a king, thus saving the Protestant Succession) do. If what Shklovsky calls "defamiliarizing"12 is, as Said implies, essential to male Orientalist discourse, Lady Mary's female addressed discourse (but not her male-addressed discourse) opposes this mode of writing. Lady Mary describes comfortable, even luxurious, coaches which "hold four people very conveniently," and are "painted with baskets and nosegays of flowers ... covered all over with scarlet cloth, lined with silk." This cloth provides both shade and concealment. It "entirely hides the persons in them, but may be thrown back at pleasure, and thus permits the ladies to peep through the lattices.”

In order fully to grasp the audacity of this description, one must first compare her account to Montesquieu's brief description of another female journey occurring early in Lettres persanes (Letter

11 Jane Miller, Women Writing About Men (London: Virago Press, 1986).
12 Lee T. Lemon, and Marion J. Reis, Russian Formalist Critics (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 12ff.

438

Three). 13 Unlike Lady Mary's, Montesquieu's is not an eyewitness account, but drawn from texts by male authors, who because of their gender, could not have been eyewitnesses themselves. The role of gender and power dynamics in this other work (which like Montagu's work, appears as letters) is remarkable. Letter III is from a female to a male, but also from a slave to a master: these are literally his (Usbek’s) women. In actuality, this letter is written by a male (Montesquieu) masquerading as a female who conforms to male fantasies. The only true community is established between Montesquieu and his implied reader who, like the fictive addressee of Letter III, is also male, and who experiences the pleasures of Usbek’s fantasy vicariously.

Letters I-III themselves reproduce this play of power and gender dynamics. The first is from Usbek to an equal, "son ami Rustan. " The second is to an unnamed male slave, "le premier eunuque noir" to whom, as Esprit des lois makes explicit, Usbek delegates absolute power, resigning it himself. By titillating stages, we approach the erotic heart of Montesquieu's vision: the serail. Letter III, literally and metaphorically from the serail, opens with a terse account of an outing by Usbek’s women:

Nous avons ordonné au chef des eunuques de nous mener a la campagne; il te dira qu’aucun accident ne nous est arrivé. Quand il fallut traverser la riviere et quitter nos litieres, nous nous mimes, selon la coutume dans des boites: deux esclaves nous porterent sur leurs épaules, et nous échappames a tous les regards.14

"Nous," the first word, dominates the paragraph, occurring eight times in only two sentences. This "nous" fluctuates disturbingly between a true plural ("carried us”) and a corporate noun, in which even the individual will-to-power is submerged: we ordered. But the verb "to order" is a privilege granted to the serail by the despot (Usbek) himself; indeed, he suggests the journey which "nous" obediently undergo. "Nous" are ruled, not by law in any western sense, but by the despot's flat and, where he is silent, by custom. Starobinski glosses the novel's must claustrophobic phrase, "nous nous mimes dans des boites by referring to a text by another male, Chardin, who described "des grandes cuves en maniéres de berceaux couverts ou fermés.”

I3 Montesquieu, Lettres persanes, ed. Jean Starobinski (Paris: Gallimard, 1973).
14 Ibid., p. 53.

439

Chardin’s eyewitness account of travel by women in Persia indicates that women were, in some ways, less free than Lady Mary's Turkish women, imprisoned as the Persians are like infants in vast cribs ("berceaux”). Montesquieu chooses to depict this greater constriction, while both Montesquieu's and Starobonski's prose confines these unfortunate women into even smaller spaces. Starobinski adds, "les femmes, dans leurs boite (sic), sont traitees commes des objets que l’on enferme ... Elles sont condamne'es 'a l'immobilite."15 The syntax employed by both male writers confuses, with plurals and singulars employed almost interchangeably. In Letter III, "des boftes" (plural) are carried by two slaves; Starobinski places "les femmes" (plural) in leurs bofte (sic)"" (singular). The serail can be perceived as a collectivity and an individual member (like Zachi) can speak for the collectivity (“ nous"'). Male writers transform this collective noun into an easily contained object which can be carried by two slaves, or placed in a (singular) box.

The serail's journey is concluded by "nous echappames a tous les regards." "Nous" passively escape being seen, but also the activity of seeing itself. Entirely absent are those lattices Montagu's ladies peep through. The prose of Letter III takes "nous" nowhere, except into increasingly confined spaces (seraglio building?litters?cradlelike boxes). The unnamed river presents itself not visually but functionally, necessitating the only true move of the journey: into the boxes. For Montesquieu's Persian woman, re-entering the seraglio means escaping from the boxes: liberation.

Lady Mary, however, arrives at the Adrianople baths after a pleasant journey in her spacious and luxurious "Dutch stage-coach " At "about ten o’clock" she says, the baths were "already full of women ... about two hundred of them." She is struck by their quality: although Lady Mary appears in an English travelling habit, there were "none of those disdainful smiles and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion" Instead of acting the condescendingly superior Westerner, Lady Mary implies Western women should use Turkish women as models -her first hint that Oriental women "have” something Englishwomen lack. The women at the baths are divided into two classes: "ladies, who sit on the first sofas" and "their slaves behind them," Only then do

15 Ibid. p. 423.

440

we learn these women are "in the state of nature” - Lady Mary plays upon the metaphorical sense of the phrase, comparing their modest movements to "the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with.” She waxes rhapsodic momentarily, before fantasizing the presence of a masculine eye: "I had wickedness enough to wish secretly, that Mr. Jervasl6 could have been there invisible," Coyly disclaiming such "wickedness" as she and Lady Rich share a ribald laugh at the expense of the frustrated voyeur, she comments, "it would have improved his art,"

The image of Mr. Jervas invisibly confronting all of these women without any "beauty or defect concealed" has a striking parallel in Letter III, whose opening I have already discussed. In an immensely flattering flashback, Zachi depicts Usbek (the addressee) as a Solomon or Paris sitting in judgment as his female possessions pass naked before him. In male Orientalist discourse, effusions like this characteristically represent women as "the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing."17 Montesquieu's female mask, Zachi, even describes the pleasures “she” imagines Usbek to have felt before this visual banquet (and the tell-tale "nous” returns):

Heureux Usbek! Que des charmes furent e'tale's 'a tes yeux! Nous te vi'mes longtemps errer denchantements en enchantements: ton ame incertaine demeurs longtemps sans se fixer: chaque grace nouvelle te demandait un tribut ....

In this passage (considerably longer than the section reproduced above), normal sentence length and construction recreate the experience. Both subordination and coordination are lost in a build-up of clauses, in which colons mark only breathless pauses before the next titillating member of the series (of women) is articulated.
When searching for a metaphor to summarize the total effect of the women’s baths, Lady Mary is almost at a loss; it is like a thing non-existent in England: a "women’s coffee house." Again, she resorts to familiarization. Said describes how this process also occurs in the male Orientalist discourse he examines.

16 A fashionable portrait-painter.
17 Said, Orientalism, p. 207.

441

Something patently foreign and distant acquires, for one reason or another, the status more rather than less familiar. One tends to stop judging things either as completely novel or as completely well-known; a new median category emerges, a category that allows one to see new things, things seen for the first time as versions of a previously known thing.18

Lady Mary's simile does create a median category-coffee houses were indeed "more rather than less familiar" at the time. But in order to understand precisely how Said's description is inadequate to both Lady Mary's vision and this specific comparison, we must first remember that Lady Mary's true median term, a women’s coffee house, did not exist. English coffee-houses were male enclaves; this suggests a "haremization”' of English men. Second, Lady Mary believes her median concept should exist. She perceives the baths as a public area of unconstrained female space, performing the same social functions as its British (but male) counterpart, the coffee house: "all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, etc," (With as well-developed a social network as this, one wonders how "discrete" the drownings of women suspected of adultery -made so much of by Byron -could really have been.) Yet this leisurely social experience (Lady Mary reports "they generally take this diversion once a week, and stay there at least four or five hours) is also therapeutic: Lady Mary comments on "their skins shiningly white," and is surprised that changes in temperature don’t cause them to take cold.

Only at this point does Lady Mary remind us that she is still fully dressed! Her travelling habit becomes the objective correlative of her detachment, even a tool making detachment possible. It allows her, in her own eyes, in the eyes of the women, and in the eyes of the reader, to escape the levelling effects of nudity; one cannot make any "distinction of rank by . . . dress!' between "ladies" and "slaves" although, in an important sense, all women, and all men except the despot himself, are "slaves!' in a despotic state. Lady Mary seems disturbed by this absence of customary signifiers, the clothes which normally demonstrate the wearer's social position. In the baths, social status is marked by physical position: slaves are "behind Strikingly parallel is the world of Bedouin women described by Lila AbuLughod: "within the community of women, hierarchy is not pro-

18 Said, Orientalism, p. 58.

442

nounced."19 In Lady Mary's scene, hierarchy is neither pronounced (in the sense "clearly marked”) nor articulated, except by Lady Mary. In an excess of condescension mimicking servitude, "the most considerable lady there would fain have undressed me for the bath."

Retaining her habit does not merely allow Lady Mary to maintain the physical signs of her rank; it also reminds her and the bathing women of her Englishness. The English male has at least his uncircumcised penis to distinguish him from Islamic or Jewish males - as the jokes about circumcision and castration in the Istanbul Cantos of Don Juan indicate. Freud would use the same imagery: "Circumcision is the symbolic substitute for the castration which the primal father once inflicted upon his sons in the plenitude of his power.”20 Lady Mary, however, belongs to what Freud and Lacan call the “castrated” and powerless portion of humanity which does not have even this negative distinctions' At this point in her many-layered journey, she refrains from "going Turkish 4 " She has painted a tableau for her reader, who can mentally see her among the two hundred women. As the only clothed figure, she draws attention to herself, but preserves her opacity. The invisible Mr. Jervas, the English man observing this tableau (invisible precisely because he is outside the work of art -it would literally be death for him to enter it) may improve his art through analyzing this erotic tableau, through studying the Turkish women’s postures. But his eyes are continually drawn toward the central, beautiful, clothed figure, who obstinately refuses to allow anyone to take stock of her "beauty" or "defects" Both inside and outside her description of herself, Lady Mary is like Brownstein’s description of Elizabeth Bennett: "In a world where women are assessed by their appearance, [she] seizes power by taking the observers role; she frees herself [from] judgments by making them.”22 Yet the women (like the imagined male

19 Lila Abu-Lughod, "A Community of Secrets: The Separate World of Bedouin Women" Signs 10:643.
20 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, vol. 23 of Standard Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1981), p. 122.
21 Freud writes: "The castration complex of girls is also started by the sight of genitals of the other sex. They at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance.... The discovery that she is castrated is a turning point in a girl's growth * " Freud, New Introductory Lectures, vol. 22 of Standard Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1981), 125-6. Lacan, however, warns that the Phallus should not be naively identified with an actual penis, but should be read "symbolically." Jacques Lacan, Ecrits/A Selection (New York: Norton, 1979).
22 Rachel M. Brownstein, Becoming a Heroine (New York: Viking Press, 1982), p. 124.

443

observer) are insistent; their verbal "earnestness" amounts almost to violation. The last action we “see” Lady Mary perform has overtones of an involuntary strip-tease: "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 locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband. " (Emphasis mine.)

With this act, and with these words, the thematic strands of my inquiry (gossip, the erotic, the voyeurism inherent in Orientalism) intertwine. Spacks claims that "gossip, even when it avoids the sexual, bears about it a faint flavor of the erotic . . . [and] the atmosphere of erotic titillation suggests gossip’s implicit voyeurism.”23 If the interchange between Lady Mary and the Turkish women is at least "faintly erotic and the two hundred women actually examining Lady Mary's stays "voyeuristic” (terms the insistence upon their "force” and “satisfaction” justifies), clearly the series of artistic frames provided by the letter foregrounds both qualities. The reader of the letter sees not merely the spectacle of the two hundred and one women (Lady Mary as the “one”) but also the fantasized male artist watching the spectacle, learning from it, and later reproducing it -as Ingres actually did. Lady Mary simultaneously produces a verbal equivalent to eighteenth-century painting of corseted women and attempts to critique, to enframe, and thus to control, discourse which reifies women. By placing herself inside the central frame with the Oriental women, yet also insistently remaining outside the larger frame as artist, producer, and letter writer, she foregrounds her solidarity with the Turkish women as subject/subjected: all women become objets d’art for the Western male. But Lady Mary's strategy for escaping being objectified by male art and male discourse remains problematic. She turns discourse and art back upon themselves: she escapes being framed by framing the framer (Mr. Jervas). By drawing attention away from the static object (the Orient, the woman) and towards the action of framing, the letter prefigures the self-conscious discourse Said calls for in the conclusion to Orientalism. Lady Mary's victory, however, remains purely personal: the one may escape representation by presenting herself; the two hundred cannot.

Lady Mary's gesture of exposure, and the women’s commentary upon it, effectively conclude her visit to the bath. The sentence closes

2I Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: Knopf, 1985), p. 11

444

with a period, and her commentary is effaced by a dash. Her husband's exigencies curtail her visit: "Mr. Wortley resolving to pursue his journey next morning early, I was in haste to see the ruins of Justiniain’s church, which did not afford me so agreeable a prospect as I had left, being little more than a heap of stones." Lady Mary generally uses a dash to mark a break in the logical continuity of a paragraph, a continuity the reader is expected to supply. What commentary should the reader supply here? Amusement at the transformation of stays into a chastity belt? The letter suggests this response, but has already condemned it; the amused reader suddenly realizes that s/he is responding in precisely the way of European courts, where "disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers” greet anyone unaware of the fashion. The letter associates laughter at the Turkish women’s ignorance of European fashion with a type of breeding (or lack of it) to which these women are themselves superior. By discrediting the reader's own sense of superiority vis-a-vis Oriental women, by making the reader aware of the dangers inherent in the detached and smug stance prized by Westerners, Lady Mary gives subtle credence to the women’s viewpoint. In a gossipy concern with things shared, the stays become, at least metaphorically, a seraglio wall that Lady Mary, as a European woman, carries around with her. Where Oriental women are guarded by physical walls (and in the popular view, by guards as well - Montesquieu's Fatmé claims never to have seen a male other than Usbek or his eunuchs), and where the superfluous daughters of Catholic aristocrats are deposited in convents, Lady Mary laces herself into a more efficient, because internalized, restraint.

This letter also illustrates how the physically powerless use the trappings and devices of their subjection to subvert systems of power. For the Oriental woman, adultery becomes a consciously subversive act. Lady Mary remains aware of the invisible, internalized, male observer, the patriarchal super-ego, Mr. Jervas or the "husband " Like George Murdoch, she senses that

societies fall into two groups with respect to the manner in which they regulate the sexual instinct. One group enforces respect of sexual rules by a "strong internalization of sexual prohibitions during the socialization process," the other enforces that respect by "external precautionary safeguards such as avoidance rules," because these societies fail to internalize sexual prohibitions in their members.24

24 Fatima Memissi, Beyond the Veil (London: Al Saqi Books, 1985), p. 30.

445

The term "husband" leads to the proper name, to "Mr. Wortley" himself, in a remarkable, rare intrusion into the letters. His name suffices to destroy the sanctity of feminine space; it cuts short both Lady Mary's visit and this letter, sending her off to a symbol of patriarchal power, art, and knowledge: Justiniarfs church, cold and sterile, a "heap of stones." Although Justinian's church belongs to the itinerary of this day's journeys, it cannot be described in this letter, because it belongs to and involves Lady Mary in the male discourse she desperately attempts to keep separated from her "women’s coffeehouse” (the community of her female correspondents), but which lurks always at the edge of her "feminine” discourse, waiting to break in.

In order to understand why the word "'husband” should burst the illusion of Lady Mary's "women’s coffee house" why she so idealized the unconstrained female space she saw in the Ottoman Empire, we must understand the nature of gendered space in eighteenth-century aristocratic England. The English aristocracy made primary distinctions not between men’s space and women’s space, but between men’s space and shared space (there are no women’s coffeehouses). These areas are not always fixed, but may fluctuate. In the novelistic world, women adjourn after dinner, converting the shared dining room into unconstrained male space, where men collectively participate in the male privilege of imbibing alcohol. Women retreat after the meal; men “advance” to join them at the time of the men’s choosing: the cultural prerequisites for Freud's view in the operation of the sex cells are already operative. In fact, Freud's description fits eighteenth century life and novels:

The male sex cell is actively mobile and searches out the female and the latter, the ovum, is immobile and waits passively... This behaviour of the elementary sexual organism is indeed a model for the conduct of sexual individuals during intercourse. The male pursues the female for the purpose of sex union, seizes hold of her and penetrates into her.25

Lady Mary's view of the need for such space is reflected in the claustrophobic trajectory of female space in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels. At balls, Burney's and Austen’s heroines stand at a room’s periphery while the men roam freely. Increasingly, the shared space allowed to women is constricted to the home:

25 Freud, New Introductory Letters on Psychoanalysis, p. 114.

446

Clarissa’s voluntary journeys (to the Dairy) all "take place” before the novel begins; like the later Gothic heroine, her movements outside the home are patterns of duty, abduction, or flight. Female space in England was "encompassed and penetrated" by men in ways female space in Adrianople or Istanbul was not.26 Lady Mary writes of the wealthier Turkish women: "they are the queens of their slaves, whom the husband has no permission so much to look upon, except it be an old woman or two that his lady chooses."' Because women in the Ottoman Empire retained control over their property even after marriage (a right Englishwomen were not to attain until passage of the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1870), they may assert themselves against husbands in ways a Clarissa refuses to consider asserting herself against her father. A Turkish "woman of rank” may refuse to see her husband while still living the same house with him!

One may extrapolate from these differing cultural conventions about gendered space to "controlling" attitudes towards female sexuality itself. Although Lovelace, Pope, and other misogynists may claim that "every woman is at heart a rake the fictional paradigm (and even Freud's "scientific” description) indicates that female sexual desire is, at most, dormant until awakened by the potent, male rake. Mernissi claims that in all such societies, "in which there are no . . . methods of surveillance and coercion of woman’s behavior, the concept of female sexuality is passive. '1927 The purpose of sexual segregation, exemplified in Lady Mary's earlier description of the Viennese convent of St. Lawrence, is to protect young women, to keep the slender young man out of the garden of virgins (Lovelace, of course, abducts Clarissa from a garden). In the novelistic tradition, women (the Clarissas, Emily St. Auberts, Catherine Morlands, and Evelinas) enter the sexual arena as prey when they leave the shelter of the Father's House. But in the Muslim East, as first reported by Lady Mary and recently verified by feminist scholars such as Mernissi and AbuLughod, the superficial similarity of the immurement of females performs a precisely opposite function: it protects men. This opposite function indicates an alternative view of female sexuality: "in societies in which seclusion and surveillance of women prevail, the im-

26 Abu-Lughod, "A Community of Secrets" p. 642.
27 Memissi, Beyond the Veil, p. 31.

447

plicit concept of female sexuality is active."28 The double veils (murlins) which hide all but the eyes, and the ferigee, which transforms feminine curves into shapelessness, are designed to protect men from the women’s contagious sexuality. Women in this (to return to Lady Mary's phrase) "perpetual masquerade” dress, which resembles the European masquerade domino, are shunned by men, given a wide berth, as if they were in fact victims of a contagious disease like leprosy: "No man dare touch or follow a woman in the street.” Yet these quite real aspects of Muslim life and thought were so entirely submerged by the popular myth (itself in accord with male Orientalist discourse) that, by 1809, Owenson found it necessary to provide elaborate, scholarly notes for her unorthodox view of aristocratic families in contemporary Athens. As this example hints, later writers (and especially women writers, themselves more confined to domestic space), faced with an increasingly powerful and unified patriarchal myth which implicitly yet paradoxically proclaimed the relative liberty of Englishwomen, found it ever more difficult to articulate dissonant views. With increasing frequency, they chose the inarticulate: symbols, chaotic disturbances of narrative structure, and silently subversive displacements of literary conventions.

Lady Mary's phrase "perpetual Masquerade” oxymoronically foregrounds the idealization at the heart of her vision. Structurally, it parallels the paradox of apparent freedom for English women (which masks actual slavery) as opposed to apparent slavery of Turkish women (which disguises real freedoms). As Terry Castle writes of the English masquerade, “‘for a brief moment’ perhaps no longer than its duration, the masquerade effected an ecstatic liberation from the burdens of structure and hierarchy."29 Lady Mary, the representative Englishwoman, feels the physical restraint of the seraglio she carries with her, and the emotional weight of an increasingly Puritanical and bourgeois morality: she would live to write that a woman with her own intellectual capacity and accomplishment would be undesirable on the marriage market: a "girl must conceal whatever learning she attains with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness."30 From the vantage of her own awareness of the unfreedoms

21 Ibid., p. 30.
29 Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), p. 88, emphasis mine.
30 Cited in Robert Halsband, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as Letter Writer," in 77ze

448

of Englishwomen, having spent her girlhood "evad[ing] her governess "secretly [getting] hold of" books, and "hid[ing] in the library,”31 I the prospect of spaces perpetually free of male intrusion and veiled women’s enforced anonymity promise greater liberty. But what kind of liberty, and with what implications?

One must begin with Lady Mary's own metaphor, "perpetual masquerade." Among the liberties she enumerates in order to refute the "miserable confinement" insisted upon by male travellers such as Aaron Hill, she includes the aristocratic and uninterrupted pleasure of being "exempt from cares . " Turkish women devote themselves to 46 visiting, bathing ... , spending money, and inventing new fashions" while in their segregated areas. Yet when they enter (as, according to Lady Mary, they often do) the encompassing male world, the possibility of positive liberty is automatically reduced to sexual transgression. Merely entering male spaces, according to Mernissi, threatens the social order:

A woman is always trespassing in a male space because she is, by definition, a foe. A woman has no right to use male spaces. If she enters them, she is upsetting the male’s order and his peace of mind. She is actually committing an act of aggression against him merely by being present where she should not be. A woman in a traditionally male space upsets ... order by inciting men to commit [illicit sex].32

Although not consciously aware of this Muslim ideology, Lady Mary insists upon the possibilities of greater freedom; Turkish women can and do take sexual advantage of enforced public anonymity.

Whereas the English mask could, and often did, cover only enough of the face to create functional anonymity, the Turkish streets present, to the European observer, the unsettling image of an eruption of the carnivalesque into everyday life. Men walk about and do business in conventional (if, to the European observer, exotic or picturesque) dress, scrupulously avoiding the silent dominos in their midst. For the public uniform (in the senses of both official or distinctive clothing and of invariability) Lady Mary describes effaces all personal attributes.

Familiar Letter in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Howard Anderson (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1966), pp. 63-64.
31 Halsband, Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 7.
32 Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, p. 144.

449

except the wearer's eyes and height -including her rank: "there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave." Female uniform both produces and engenders its own palindrome, the uniform female, reinscribing what Juliet Mitchell calls the "ideology of 'woman' [which] presents her as an undifferentiated whole - a woman, alike the world over, eternally the same "I' Public places in Adrianople are inhabited by men (“great men,” “old bashaws,” “effendis”) who are individuated by dress, and who recoil from even the touch of undifferentiated Woman.

Montagu underlines the paradox between the ideological function and the practical result of this uniformed/uniform woman. Officially, by transforming women into amorphous and silent beings whose "shapes are wholly concealed" - in other words, whose outward manifestations of sexuality are contained and controlled by convention Islamic men protect themselves from the contagion of female sexuality:

the whole [Islamic] system is based on the assumption that women are powerful and dangerous beings. All sexual institutions (polygamy, repudiation, sexual segregation, etc.) can be perceived as a strategy for containing their power.34

Women are converted into ciphers, conventional blank spaces, a symbolic system functioning like discourse: "The veil is an expression of the invisibility of women on the street.”35 Bruce Robbins describes the precisely analogous situation for eighteenth-century Englishwomen in his treatment of gender and class in fiction: "Women had to be induced to adopt the discourse that defined them, and that same discourse could thus be made to support their resistance."36 Turkish women can and do, Montagu insists, convert enforced anonymity, this system of subjugation, into a tool subversive of the established order it is meant to protect. Lady Mary herself may be corseted with custom; but Turkish women, she claims, do not even carry about with them the internalized moral censor she is so conscious of: "all the threatened punishments" of the afterlife are "never preached to

33 Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971), p. 100.
34 Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, p. 19.
35 Ibid., p. 97, my emphasis.
36 Bruce Robbins, The Servant’s Hand (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), P. 19.

450

Turkish damsels.” Turkish women, muffled by convention yet unhampered by Christian morality, have "perpetual" access to a license available to English women only "in the brief moment” of masquerade.

Lady Mary's Letters Written during Mr. Wortley’s Embassy have been practically ignored by literary history and Orientalist discourse. The process by which Pope and Horace Walpole "defaced" her by converting the small-pox she had actually suffered from into veneral disease, or 'the pox is too complicated to enter into here. Her counter Orientalism never successfully engaged with Saidian Orientalism because her Letters missed their historical moment. Lady Mary wrote during a privileged historical time: in 1717, the Austrians no longer really felt threatened by the Turks. They had turned back the Turks from Vienna in 1683; in 1699, they utterly defeated them at Karlowitz, and began to reclaim territories lost for more than a century. Karlowitz rudely awakened the Turks, who under an active young Sultan enjoyed a brief Renaissance, "The Tulip Age" When Lady Mary arrived in Istanbul, Turks were more open to Western ideas then they had ever been before, or than they would be for a century to come; significantly, the Porte sent its first ambassador to France in 172037 For an all too "brief moment the doors of both West and East were open for true exchange. When the Letters were published in 1762, this moment had been lost; the Turks again retreated into the past. Perhaps more importantly, the English looked to the future: with the Battle of Plassy in 1757, they began an empire in India. Lady Mary's ironic vision was rejected for one based on the new British power.

University of Hawaii


37 Fatima Muge Göcek, in East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), provides the best account of the ferment within the Ottoman Empire during this period. However, because Gocek concentrates on relations with France, the Wortley’s embassy is not discussed.


(Full text): Lew, Joseph W., 1991. Lady Mary’s Portable Seraglio Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4. (Summer, 1991), pp. 432-450.