Mother and Daughter: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

I

SHE had parts, and had seen much.’ So wrote Horace Walpole as epitaph on the woman he had always disliked and maligned — the woman he refers to elsewhere as ‘ that old, foul, tawdry, painted, plastered personage’; the woman, nevertheless, whom he never missed a chance of meeting, and about whose personality he kept an inextinguishable curiosity to the end. And it is no wonder that the most inquisitive mind of the eighteenth century interested itself in that figure, for it is surely the figure of the most remarkable Englishwoman of that age — full of vitality, wit, and keenness of intelligence, rivaling Charles II in her capacity for never saying a foolish thing and never doing a wise one.

The motherless daughters of the Earl of Kingston spent their childhood more or less bringing themselves up in their father’s house in Nottinghamshire. The eldest, Lady Mary Pierrepont, born in 1689, had unusual tastes. She taught herself Latin, French, and Italian, and spent most of her time in the library, devouring everything from sentimental romances to the classical poets. Thirty miles away, at Wharncliffe Lodge, lived the Honorable Sidney Montagu (second son of that Earl of Sandwich who is familiar to all readers of Pepys), who had taken the name of Wortley on inheriting his wife’s money. His daughter Anne was one of Lady Mary’s girl friends, and his son Edward was to be her husband. Edward was a serious-minded young man, and he was a member of the best literary ‘set.’ He had traveled abroad with Addison, and Steele had dedicated the second volume of the Tatler to him. Altogether it was very natural that at the age of thirty-one he should find himself falling in love with a girl of twenty who could appeal not only by her beauty, but also by a mind interested in literature, and who could flatter him by obviously mistaking his very mediocre talents for genius. It was very natural that the girl of twenty, to whom reading was the most important thing in life, should fall in love with this older man, who treated her on terms of intellectual equality and at the same time fell a victim to her purely feminine charm. But the sequel was not natural. That the relationship ever reached marriage, or that either of them can have expected it to prove a happy marriage, seems astonishing to any reader of their courtship correspondence.

Mr. Wortley asked for her hand in 1710, but he and Lord Kingston could not agree on the terms of the settlement, and the match was broken off. Presumably it was the forbidden fruit of their relationship which made it sweet, for otherwise it is impossible to understand its continuance. Mr. Wortley had a very unattractive nature, combining the priggishness of Addison, Mr. Casaubon, and Sir Willoughby Patterne all rolled into one. As Lady Mary very justly remarks, he is always full of ‘scruples, suspicion, cross-questions and ill-nature.’ He accuses her of coldness, while he himself retreats instantly if she shows the slightest warmth; he makes her behave indiscreetly by meeting him in secret, and then blames her for her indiscretion. If she laughs at his suspicions it shows she does not care for him; while if she flames into indignation he replies maddeningly: ‘Your resenting what I said, is an argument of its being pretty near the truth.’

Eternal farewells are always being sent on both sides, but at the end of two years there has still been no final breach, and Mr. Wortley, albeit in a very grudging and chilling way, then suggests an elopement. He will provide the coach, he says, and adds: ‘If we should once get into the coach, let us not say one word before we come before the parson, lest we should engage in fresh disputes.’ However, she is evidently convinced by his taking her ‘with only a nightgown and petticoat’ that his feeling is sincere, whatever he may say, and at the very end he lowers his defenses and speaks in a way to warm any woman’s heart: ‘I can now no longer forbear laying my heart quite open and telling you the joy I am in for being so near the greatest happiness I am capable of enjoying.’

But, once married, it starts all over again. For two years we find poor Lady Mary either quartered on her husband’s relations or hunting for furnished houses cheap enough to please him, while he goes off on long visits to London. Even the birth of their little boy does not seem to interest him, and after pulling out the stops of wifely solicitude, maternal tenderness, and personal misery, at last she becomes exasperated, suffers her inclination to get the better of her reason, as she says, and sits down to write plainly. ‘I know very well that no one was ever teized into a liking . . . but I cannot forbear any longer telling you, I think you use me very unkindly,’ and she goes on to attack him roundly for his absence and the ‘nothingness’ of his letters, his indifference to his child, and his callous unconcern for her own illhealth.

The letter seems to have had some effect, and Lady Mary got the house in London which she wanted. But a year later came the opportunity for what was much dearer to her than fashionable town life — foreign travel. Mr. Wortley was appointed ambassador to Constantinople, and those letters of hers were written which are the only important result of her husband’s quite colorless and apparently quite incompetently handled embassy.

All too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation, but Lady Mary’s observation is acute and picturesque, her humor lively, and her relish for writing wholehearted. She has an insatiable appetite not only for seeing new places, but for profiting by new experiences and knowledge. England owed the Turkish practice of inoculation against smallpox to her, and if she could have had her way the London streets would have been as neat and clean as those of Rotterdam, its houses would have been warmed by German stoves, and its theatre refined by French ideals of acting. She copies Latin inscriptions and Oriental love poems for her friend Mr. Pope, discusses the merits and demerits of Eastern and Western civilization with educated Turks, collects Greek coins, and ‘bespeaks’ a mummy. She is enthusiastic about the beauty of a scene in a Turkish bath, though (characteristically, I fear) to take a bath herself is one of the few experiences she refuses to face.

I excused myself with some difficulty. They being 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 power to open it; which contrivance they attributed to my husband.

II

Mr. Wortley was recalled from his post, as ambassador six months after his arrival, and he and his wife and their two children had to return home. Lady Mary dreaded the return to England, and, in a mood of disillusionment, feared that her travels would only have the effect of making her thoroughly discontented with her own country, and thoroughly critical of its limitations. But it was not natural with her for moods of disillusionment to last long. Very soon she was back again in the thick of social and literary life, in the fastest and most fashionable circles in town, and writing all about it to her sister Lady Mar, the wife of an exiled Jacobite living in Paris.

Gossip is the greatest excitement of the sophisticated community, just as war is the greatest excitement of the barbarous community, and Lady Mary is the perfect gossip. Mr. Wortley’s early doubts of her discretion were only too well founded. She is a born tattler, and she knows everyone. She ladles out scandal with the most generous pen and has the longest and sharpest nose imaginable for ‘news.’ All the reputable and disreputable births, deaths, marriages, miscarriages, and intrigues are served up piping hot.

We hear that it has been suggested that a bill should be presented to Parliament, ‘to have not taken out of the commandments and clapped into the creed,’ and that ‘gallantry has reached such a pitch that the appellation of rake is as genteel in a woman as a man of quality.’ We are told all about what relations ‘border on the tender’; who is kept by whom, and how much she gets; who is going to have a child, and whose child it is; which ladies quarrel ‘in very Billingsgate’ and which ‘hate with civility.’ All the ‘he and she fools’ and all the he and she rakes in London have their portraits painted. We see old Lady Portland at the coronation of George II, ‘representing very finely an Egyptian mummy embroidered over with hieroglyphics’; we hear of the doings at Bath, where Lady Lechmere has lost fabulous sums at cards, and has tried to poison herself in consequence; and that the Countess of Bristol flaunts two lovers, which is, says Lady Mary, a great compliment to her lord, ‘since it is plain that when she will be false to him, she is forced to take two men in his stead.’

It was very natural that anyone who was so ruthless with the reputations of others should have equally pitiless attacks made on her own. We pick up many hints of her own tarnishing name. There is a series of cloudy amateur dabblings in finance, by which she lost not only her own money, but that of acquaintances, who were not disposed to be charitable about it. We see her as Sappho in Pope’s Satires, besmirched as a cheat, a slattern, a skinflint, and a whore. Her son, always in some scrape or other, made a disreputable marriage and disappeared; her daughter undutifully eloped with Lord Bute. Finally her husband, goaded by her notoriety, appears to have insisted on her leaving the country and never returning during his lifetime.

Anyhow, she left England in 1738, when she was forty-nine, and spent the next twenty-three years in exile. Her letters to her husband always emphasize how well she is received everywhere, but it is to be feared, as Mr. Wortley was probably well aware, that Lady Mary was not always very sensitive to the impression she was really making. ‘I was very well acquainted with Mr. Walpole in Florence,’ she writes, ‘and indeed he was particularly civil to me.’ This is Horace Walpole’s own account: —

Did I tell you Lady Mary Wortley is here? She is laughed at by the whole town. Her dress, her avarice and her impudence must amaze anyone that never heard her name. She wears a foul mob, that does not cover her greasy black locks, that hang loose, never combed or curled: an old mazzarine blue wrapper, that gapes open, and discovers a canvas petticoat. Her face swelled violently on one side . . . partly covered with plaster, and partly with white paint, which for cheapness she has bought so coarse, that you would not use it to wash a chimney.

He continues with an account of her looseness of manners and morals, and her habit of cheating at cards.

But after eight years of wandering about France and Italy she at last found an ideal spot in which ‘to while away an idle life in great tranquillity,’ in Gottolengo, near Brescia. There she lived in an old palace, with a garden and a ‘dairy house,’ where she could pass the most delicious of secluded lives. The garden was on the banks of a river and was adjoined by a wood, carpeted in successive seasons by violets and strawberries, and in which she built bowers of wild vines. One, near the river bank, served as a camp kitchen, where she could eat fish, freshly caught and broiled, and watch the ships go up and down the river. She spent her time actively engaged in her garden and dairy, or tending her poultry and silkworms; she taught the country people around to make English butter and French bread, and custards, minced pies, and plum pudding; and, as her eyes only allowed of her reading a few hours a day, she spent the evenings playing whist and piquet with the old priests from the village.

Her descriptions of these doings are written to her daughter, Lady Bute. What blotted out the misunderstanding which had kept them apart since the runaway marriage ten years before we do not know, but no memory of the quarrel ever appears during the last fifteen years of Lady Mary’s life. There seems to be an unclouded intimacy between mother and daughter, which sweetens and softens the later letters. It was natural that this relationship, and her retirement in such exquisite surroundings, should bring a quietness and mellowness of spirit which she has not known before.

There is quiet after the abandoning of pursuits something like the rest that follows a laborious day. ... It was formerly a terrifying view to me that I should one day be an old woman. I now find that nature has provided pleasures for every state. Those only are unhappy who will not be contented with what she gives, and strive to break her laws by affecting a perpetuity of youth.

As for herself, since she finds ugliness and wrinkles ‘mortifying,’ she adopts the very logical solace of never using a mirror, and when she is sixty-eight declares that she hasn’t looked at her face for eleven years. She never has ‘the vapours,’ does not suffer from the delusion that the world was better in her youth than it is in her old age, has a good appetite, sound sleep, perfect hearing, and a clear memory; and, on finding a box of books arrived when she comes in from a twenty-mile ride at ten o’clock in the evening, she opens it, and sits up all night reading Fielding’s Joseph Andrews.

It is little wonder that her philosophy should be that ripe and vigorous rationalism which sees the art of living in making the most of the present, in not regretting the past, and in not fearing the future. A true daughter of the eighteenth century, she sees the greatest need of the world to be the growth of reason, that quality of mature sanity whose lack creates all the human weaknesses she particularly deplores. These we find to be what she calls ‘the quackery of Churches’; ‘the palpable folly of warfare, fully as senseless as the boxing of schoolboys’; political hypocrisy; the credulous use of ‘universal medicines’; and the foolishness of parents, who generally look upon their children first as playthings, then educate them as they build their houses, according to some plan they think beautiful without considering the purpose for which it is designed, and then tyrannize over their future. She can even find comfort in her separation from her daughter, as they would be sure to disagree about the upbringing of the children, and ‘the affection of a grandmother has generally a tincture of dotage.’

There is little sign of dotage, however, in the advice she gives Lady Bute over and over again — to try to bring up her children free from prejudice, and to encourage in them a love of reading. ‘There is no entertainment so cheap, nor any pleasure so lasting’; and she declares that if relays of eyes could be hired like relays of post horses, she would never herself admit any but silent companions.

III

Lady Mary’s criticism of the books of her day are perhaps the best-known things in her letters. From her early youth her passion for active adventure had been balanced by an equally passionate love of reading. But as she grows older she loses her palate for serious literature and is not ashamed to confess it: ‘I thank God my taste still continues for the gay part of reading. Wiser people may think it trifling, but it serves to sweeten life to me, and is at worst better than the generality of conversation.’

In the drawing room at Sandon Hall, in Staffordshire (the home of Lady Bute’s great-great-grandson), there still stands a bookcase full of the volumes Lady Mary accumulated during the last years of her life. They are a motley and disreputable crew, proving beyond question that the low tastes of the mid-eighteenth-century reading public were much the same as the low tastes of the midtwentieth-century reading public. Scandalous memoirs, semi-fictitious autobiographies, and sentimental novels crowd the shelves. Lady Mary’s appetite for them was prodigious, and she had them sent out by the boxful from England. Lady Bute, who was fond of the pleasures of disapproval, evidently remonstrated with her mother, but Lady Mary’s defense is spirited.

Daughter! daughter! don’t call names; you are always abusing my pleasures, which is what no mortal will bear. Trash, lumber, sad stuff, are the titles you give to my favorite amusement. . . . I think my time better employed in reading the adventures of imaginary people than the Duchess of Marlborough’s, who passed the latter years of her life in paddling with her will, and contriving schemes of plaguing some, and extracting praise from others, to no purpose; eternally disappointed and eternally fretting. The active scenes are over at my age. I indulge, with all the art I can, my taste for reading. If I would confine it to valuable books, they are almost as rare as valuable men. I must be content with what I can find. As I approach a second childhood, I endeavour to enter into the pleasures of it. Your youngest son is, perhaps, at this very moment riding on a poker with great delight, not at all regretting that it is not a gold one, and much less wishing it an Arab horse, which he would not know how to manage. I am reading an idle tale, not expecting wit or truth in it, and am very glad it is not metaphysics to puzzle my judgment, or history to mislead my opinion. He fortifies his health by exercise; I calm my cares by oblivion. The methods may appear low to busy people; but if he improves his strength, and I forget my infirmities, we attain very desirable ends.

Lady Mary gives up discussing her reading matter after this, but her tastes did not change, and when she finally returned to England she brought her collection of frivolous reading with her.

That was in 1761. In that year Mr. Wortley died, and Lady Mary at once made plans for her return. Her health was now bad. With her usual capacity for a telling image, she says that caring for it has become ‘like mending old lace — when it is patched in one place, it breaks in another.’ But with her usual spirit she set out, at the age of seventytwo, on the toilsome journey. Her reputation was still very much alive in London, and everybody flocked to visit her. Horace Walpole was one of the first, of course, and tells his usual tale of her absorption in the question of money, the squalor in which she lived, and the dirtiness and untidiness of her person. He probably echoes the general opinion when he declares that he pities Lady Bute, but the idea that she would certainly interfere in both the public and private affairs of her daughter and sonin-law apparently proved mistaken. She may have taken a bribe or two to introduce place-hunters to Lord Bute, but Horace Walpole confesses a couple of months later ‘she is much more discreet than I expected, and meddles with nothing — but she is wofully tedious in her narrations.’

No doubt she was — but what a host of memories her return to London must have stirred up in her old heart. Perhaps a dim recollection of the ecstasy when, at eight years old, her father had presented her as a toast to the famous Kiteat Club; memories of her girlhood when she had been all agog to read Mrs. Manley’s New Atalantis, and had been so enthusiastic over Miss Astell’s idea for a woman’s college; of seeing Betterton and Booth, Mrs. Bracegirdle and Mrs. Oldfield, act at Drury Lane or Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and heard the Italian tenor Nicolini (the eighteenth-century Valentino) sing at the new theatre in the Haymarket; of the days when her heart beat faster every time she saw Edward Wortley, and her one aim in life had been to charm and capture him; and then of her fears for the health of that baby boy, who had seemed so ‘ pritty ‘ and so intelligent, and who had turned out ‘that knavish fool,’ so that she could only lament ‘ the misfortune of being mother to such an animal’; of her full-blossomed womanhood when the poets had sung of ‘Wortley’s eyes,’ and Richardson and Kneller had painted her in all her grace and beauty, and that miniature had been done of her in her dashing Turkish costume; of the time before her quarrel with Pope, when he had written that she had spoiled him for the company of men, women, and books; of her struggle with the medical profession over inoculation for smallpox; of dead lovers . . . of dead friends . . . of dead enemies. . . .

No doubt she was tedious in her narrations. No doubt she boasted of her travels and her acquaintance, and declared openly that her letters would be more interesting to future generations than those of Madame de Sévigné. No doubt she bored her grandchildren by telling them that they would find in the world ‘ but two sorts of people and those very like one another: men and women, who always have been and ever will be, the same’; that we all give ourselves admirable advice, but are incapable of taking it, and had better accept wryly that ’we are little better than straws upon the water; we flatter ourselves we swim, when the current carries us along’; that meanwhile the world goes round, and at one time brag is the ‘genteel amusement,’ and then basset and hazard and commerce and quadrille and whist, and so back to brag again; that Locker’s Universal Pill gives way to Ward’s Drop, and Ward’s Drop to Tar Water, as the panacea for all ills; that through it all human nature scrambles unceasingly after happiness, and its endeavors are as childish as running after sparrows to lay salt on their tails . . . the poor efforts of our utmost prudence appearing, I fancy, in the eyes of some superior being, like the pecking of a young linnet to break a wire cage, or the climbing of a squirrel in a hoop: the moral needs no explanation: let us sing as cheerfully as we can in our impenetrable confinement, and crack our nuts with pleasure from the little store that is allowed us.

As long as she could, she hid from everyone that she was dying of cancer of the breast. Her last letter is dated July 2, and she died in August 1762. She left a diary of seventeen manuscript volumes which she had kept since her marriage. Lady Bute considered it too inaccurate, indecent, and indiscreet to be in existence, and destroyed it just before her own death in 1794. Its loss is, perhaps, the most tantalizing of all deprivations to lovers of the literature of gossip.