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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Georgian Feminism, sexual-fluidity and disease

Date: 21 February 2020

Author: Holly Marsden

To celebrate LGBT History Month, we are exploring some of the lives and loves of LGBT+ people at the palaces throughout history. This week we learn from Holly Marsden, Queer History placement student, about the life of one of Georgian society's most fascinating women: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Let me introduce you to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762): the travel writer and aristocrat who wrote about her own non-normative body and non-heteronormative desires and experiences. Lady Mary was determined almost from the start not to conform to gender stereotypes, exploiting her father's considerable library to give herself an unusually good grounding in literature, letters and even Latin.

Portrait of a woman in turkish dress and coat, with a tall hat

Lady Mary at court

In 1714 her husband, Sir Edward Wortley Montagu, gained position in the Treasury which brought her to London and into the court of the recently ascended King George I. Her strong wit, renowned beauty and affable personality helped Lady Mary to establish herself at the Georgian Court and she soon gathered powerful friends like Maria, Lady Walpole and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.

Image: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish dress 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 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Lady Mary, Sexuality and Gender

Much of what we know about Montagu was written by her own pen. A keen essayist, diarist, and poet the compilation of letters now known as her Turkish Embassy Letters document her world travels with her husband, a British ambassador.

The collection of Montagu's letters written to an unnamed woman describe sensual encounters with Turkish women. Montagu describes a Turkish bathhouse, or hammam, saying it is like a British ladies' coffeehouse: a place of liberation from patriarchal structures and being subject to their husbands. Montagu wrote that 'I perceiv'd that the Ladys with the finest skins and most delicate shapes had the greatest share of my admiration'. She compared them to works of art by great painters saying they were 'exactly proportion'd as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido [Reni] or Titian'. 

She also showed them her undergarments, writing: 'I was at last forc'd to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfy'd 'em very well, for I saw they beleiv'd I was so lock'd up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband'.

Montagu describes that she had been tempted, or 'forced' to remove the riding habit and constraining underwear she had been wearing by the women at the hammam, suggesting an interplay of desire, seduction and rebellion; they believed her gendered clothing was restrictive. The riding habit was an expression of her Englishness and disruptive gender play, being a masculine-style garment infused with British notions of masculine power.

To Montagu, Turkey was free of the sexual and patriarchal constraints imposed upon English women. Not only did spaces such as the female hammam exist but women had significantly more rights. Male and female dress in Turkey was extremely similar and Montagu saw the veils worn by women as liberating from the male gaze. Though she saw Turkey though through an orientalist lens, her Britishness expressed itself through her sexualisation of the exotic.

Lady Mary and Smallpox

Mary's letters document her suffering with smallpox, which she caught aged 26 in 1715. Montagu recovered from the disease, but it left her face scarred and disfigured. She often covered her disfigurements in make-up or 'paint,' and mourned the loss of her 'beauty' in her writing.

As a Queer History work placement student in the curator's department I am surrounded by historic stories of lust, love and relationships. Stories of LGBT+ love and desire are essential to the history of our palaces and uncovering them helps us to better understand the past. However, the history of desire is normally told through able-bodied figures, suggesting that desire is only for those whose bodies are deemed as 'normal'. Looking at histories such as Montagu's are important as they challenge us to question how we are conditioned to see love and desire, and who society constructs it for.

Montagu's experience of smallpox pushed her to inoculate her son, Edward, while travelling in Turkey, where it was an established practice for healthy children. In 1717 she wrote she was 'patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it.' That she did, having her daughter publicly vaccinated at the court of George I, Kensington Palace, to popularize the procedure. Until Edward Jenner's later experiments, vaccination did not catch on as it was dangerous so early in its development.

Although we don't know whether Montagu's prominent smallpox scars provoked mockery and oppression, it must not have been easy living in a society which ostracised people with disabilities and which focussed on perfection. As beliefs in order and rationality increased in Early Modern England, disorderliness was viewed as wrong. Physical deformity was moral deformity. Beauty standards were harsher than they are even today, rendering maybe half of the population who failed to meet the standard as allegedly morally depraved. The 21st century seems like a breeze all of a sudden.

Portrait of a man wearing a grey wig and wearing a blue jacket

Lady Mary Whortley Montagu

Montagu, though, was an aristocratic woman. Her class and wealth provided her with a privilege and status unknown to most British citizens. We can see this in the multiple portraits of her in which her skin is painted to be flawless. This may have also come to play in attitudes towards her sexuality, as it was known and accepted that she and her close female friends had intimate relationships that transgressed the boundaries of friendship. She had many lovers alongside her husband, sharing art connoisseur and philosopher extraordinaire Count Francesco Algarotti with her close friend at the Georgian court Lord Hervey. Many scholars now label Algarotti and Hervey's sexualities as bisexual, but it is important to note that this label and many others that we impose on sexuality and gender today did not exist at this time. Sexuality was defined by what you did, rather than who you were.

In looking at a queer figure with a body marked by disease, we have looked outside of the usual historical canon. Montagu's letters provide us with great insights into her existence and explorations. It is important to remember, though, that she edited these publications herself, tailoring her writing to her audience. This writing is her legacy, leaving us with a trace of her remarkable independence and curious nature. To me, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu expressed a feminist sentiment before the feminist movement was even conceptualised. She disrupted societal norms of gender, sexuality, beauty and occupation, and will continue to inspire me to be unapologetic and fiercely independent.

Image: Polymath stud Algarotti wooed many Georgian courtiers, including Lady Montagu and Lord Hervey. Bequeathed by Miss Marie-Anne Liotard, Amsterdam.

Holly Marsden
Queer History Placement Student, Historic Royal Palaces

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