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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IX. Memoir-Writers, 1715–60

§ 3. Her Turkish Letters

The Turkish Letters (May, 1716–November, 1718), which are the most finished and the most original, were evidently prepared for publication. though they were not actually published until after Lady Mary’s death. They were, no doubt, handed round among the writer’s private friends. The prefaces are dated 1724–5 and are attributed to Mary Astell; and the early editions include a frontispiece, “Lady M-y W-r-t-l-y M-nt-g-e The Female Traveller, in the Turkish Dress.” Lady Mary, in this respect at all events, was a precursor of Lady Hester Stanhope. Besides assuming Turkish attire, she studied the Turkish language, and did her best to disabuse English minds of a vast accumulation of ludicrous prejudice on the score of Ottoman cruelty, luxury and sensuality. It may be added that she gave expression to the common English antipathy of her day (fully brought out by Smollett in the next generation) to Roman catholicism. Her letters still delight by their high power of communicativeness.

In 1739 (after her daughter’s elopement with Lord Bute), Lady Mary determined to go abroad for a lengthened residence. The letters of the next two and twenty years of her life, addressed, for the most part, to Lady Bute, are the most natural and, perhaps, the most charming that she ever wrote. She had seen a little of Italy on her return from Pera, by way of Tunis, Genoa and the Mont Cenis. After experiences in Venice, Chambéri and Avignon, she determined, in 1743, to settle at Lovere on Lago d’Iseo, forty miles from Brescia. There, she spent eighteen fairly serene, though solitary, years. Rising at six, after breakfast she worked with her weaving women till nine, inspected poultry, bees and silkworms and, at eleven, allowed herself the pleasure of an hour’s reading—all that her eyesight would permit. She dined at twelve, then slept till three, and woke to play whisk with three old priests at a penny a corner, till it was cool enough to set out upon those rides in the mountains which were as delightful as a romance, or to float under her lute-string awning on the river waiting for a fish to bite. “I confess I sometimes wish for a little conversation, but then,” she added gaily, “gardening is the next amusement to reading.” When the winter came, she found herself obliged to keep the house and wrote to thank Lady Bute for presuming her taste was still undivorced from the gay part of reading—by which she meant novels. These were sent out in cases from England (the beginning of British novel export) and aroused the utmost excitement upon their arrival, as they well might when one single box is reported to have contained Peregrine Pickle, Roderick Random, Clarissa Harlowe and Pompey the Little. She set to work at once to read them, and whole letters to her daughter are devoted to discussing the characters and the intrigues of the stories. With her strong and satirical, by this time almost sardonic, understanding, Lady Mary professed a solid Englishwoman’s good-natured contempt for the epistolary light wine of Mme. de Sévigné; nevertheless, as she grew older, her letters came more and more to resemble the epistles of that incomparable model, and the resemblance is strengthened by the fact that most of the letters are to her daughter Lady Bute. On 1 January, 1761, her curmudgeon of a husband died, leaving an immense fortune to Lady Bute; and the widow had to return home. She was sick of life. “I am preparing for my last and longest journey and stand on the threshold of this world, my several infirmities like post-horses ready to hurry me away.” Horace Walpole saw her again, and repeated his libellous saying about the “she meteor,” complaining of her dirtiness, avarice and eccentricity, her cheating “horse and foot,” her hideous style of dress. Mrs. (Elizabeth) Montagu refers to her as speaking, acting, dressing like nobody else. Society had unconsciously caught the tone of the venomous master detractor of Twickenham, whose vendetta against Lady Mary is completely explained only by the unhappy combination in him of bad heart and bad health. Everyone in London agreed as to her preserved liveliness and unimpaired faculties; but it soon became known that the intrepid “female traveller” was suffering from cancer; and of this disease she died, in her seventy-fourth year, at her house in Great George street, 21 August, 1762. She was buried in the Grosvenor chapel in South Audley street, where Lord Chesterfield was interred some ten years later. Her letters, collectively regarded and interpreted, form the autobiography of a warm-hearted, but disappointed, unloved and solitary woman.