Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of my favourite historical figures. I first read a book about her in high school, and then I probably wrote four or five essays on her in university. Last week, I was listening to the Sawbones (a medical history podcast) vaccines episode while on the plane coming back from Montana, and I was so happy to hear her name come up.
If you want to know more about smallpox and how important preventing, and eventually eradicating it was, listen to the Sawbones episode on vaccines, #151 on iTunes. It’s a really good episode, even by Sawbones’ standard, and Dr. Sydnee McElroy can give you a much better understanding of smallpox than I can. I can only tell you about Lady Mary.
First, if you’ve listened to the Sawbones episode, and like Sydnee and Justin, you’re wondering why Lady Mary has gone down in history as a “famous letter-writer,” and not as a “famous everything-else-she-did,” I can tell you: her personal letters, which were eventually published, are her most well-known accomplishment.
(Publishing letters was common at the time – and even when not published, they would be read aloud to a family or friend group. They weren’t necessarily private. The social history of letter-writing is really interesting, but not something that needs getting into here.)
That does not at all mean that this woman wasn’t accomplished. She was mostly self-taught; although she had a governess, apparently they didn’t like each other very much, and little Lady Mary learned on her own from her father’s library, which also meant that she learned things that women wouldn’t be taught at the time. She wrote beautiful poetry and prose. She was friends with the intellectual luminaries of the time (male and female). When her husband was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, she went with him, and eventually spear-headed the campaign for bringing the Turkish practice of smallpox variolation to Europe. Eventually she separated from her husband and went to live with her lover in Venice, and when that relationship ended, she continued to live in Europe until her eventual death in 1762.
The most famous letter Lady Mary wrote is part of the collection of Embassy Letters, which can be read online. The letter in question is XXVI, the account of her trip to a Turkish bathhouse in Sophia. There’s a description of the building – the different rooms with different water temperatures and areas for lounging. She writes a bit about the reaction of the Turkish women to seeing her in her European travelling habit, pointing out that they were far more accommodating of her unusual appearance than their counterparts in England would have been.
To me, the most important sentence in the letter is this:
“I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I have often made, That if it were the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed. I perceived, that the ladies of the most delicate skins and finest shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions.”
Throughout her letters and writings, Lady Mary speaks almost obsessively about the complexions of the people around her. I’m not trying to knock her: it’s an important look into how she interacted with the world, and it brings us back to her involvement with smallpox.
Her brother died of the disease in 1713. A few years later, Lady Mary herself survived a bout with it, but she was left scarred, and smallpox scars (pockmarks) are no small thing. They’re literal pits left behind from the swollen, pus-filled spots that covered her body. Before her illness, she was renowned for her beauty as well as her intelligence. Afterwards, anyone who saw her would have recognised the scars on her face; she was permanently marked by this terrifying disease.
It’s important to know, in Europe at the time, they didn’t understand smallpox. Lady Mary was now immune to the disease, a small comfort, but this isn’t something they were necessarily sure of. As always there’s a gap between what the doctors know and what the laypeople know, and there the question or superstition may have become, not just about her immunity, but whether or not she could still pass on the disease, even after her recovery. It wasn’t until many years later, when Lady Mary herself brought the idea of variolation back to England from Turkey that they began to do experiments to test that those who survived exposure to the disease via variolation were actually immune, and from there Europe was set on the path of a better understanding of smallpox, eventually leading to Jenner’s vaccine. (I know, I said you should listen to the Sawbones episode, but I had to explain a little bit.)
You may have noticed that in every portrait above, and in fact in every extant portrait of Lady Mary, she doesn’t have any scars. I can’t tell you why. It may be that an idealised portrait of the sitter was just the fashion of the time (which it certainly was) and it may be that she requested to be painted this way. It’s hard to tell.
I don’t want to make the connection that Lady Mary’s interest in variolation was more due to her own suffering than the potential suffering of her children, or that her descriptions of other people’s complexions was in some way superficial. In fact, I would argue the opposite, that her interest in preventing smallpox was an interest in preventing more people, including her children, from dealing with what she’d had to deal with.
I find Lady Mary to be a fascinating character, with or without her connection to smallpox, or even her writings on gender and her descriptions of her travels through the Ottoman Empire. Her writing, and if you have the time, go read a bit of it, is funny and personal. She’s an immensely complex character, with a engaging and unusual view of the world she lived in. There’s so much more to say about her, but it might be better to leave you with her own words: “Life’s too short for a long story.”
If you want to read more about Lady Mary, I’d absolutely suggest Isobel Grundy’s biography, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment, and Jennifer Lee Carroll’s The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox, which I should say is part history and part historical fiction.
Featured Image: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants. Attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour. Oil on canvas, circa 1717. National Portrait Gallery, Primary Collection NPG 3924
Third Image: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, by Achille Devéria, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Christian Friedrich Zincke, hand-coloured lithograph, 1830s. NPG D34619