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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

§ 4. Her other writings in Verse and Prose

When Lady Mary died, Walpole reports, in a letter to Mann, that she left twenty-one large MS. volumes, in prose and verse, to her daughter Lady Bute. At least nineteen volumes were actually left to Lady Bute; two, containing the letters during her husband’s embassy at Constantinople, had been given to Mr. Sowden of Rotterdam. There were duplicates of these—and they form the basis of the Letters given to the world in two volumes in 1763. The miscellaneous correspondence in Lady Bute’s hands, or portions of it, were first edited by James Dallaway (1803). The voluminous diary was always kept under lock and key, and, although Lady Bute often read passages aloud to her daughters and friends, she never trusted it out of her hands, with the exception of the first five or six copybooks, which she once permitted Lady Louisa to peruse alone, on condition that nothing should be transcribed. When she felt her end drawing near, Lady Bute burned the diary (1794), and the eighteenth century lost a document which might have proved of unique interest.

Apart from Lady Mary’s Letters, her other writings are insignificant and unattractive. They include a translation of the Enchiridion of Epictetus, written in 1710, at the time when her marriage was in debate, and submitted to the taste and judgment of her old friend and adviser Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Sarum. Her Town Eclogues were written during the period of her friendly intimacy with Pope and owe something to his inspiration, if not to his “correction.” They fell by some “mischance” into the hands of Edmund Curll, who published them in 1716 (through his colleague James Roberts), under the title Court Poems by a Lady of Quality. Only three, “The Basset-table, An Eclogue,” “The Drawing-Room” and “The Toilet,” were included in this thin quarto (misdated 1706), “publish’d faithfully, as they were found in a Pocket-Book taken up in Westminster-Hall, the Last Day of the Lord Winton’s Tryal,” and, upon a perusal at St. James’s coffee-house, “attributed by the General Voice to be the Production of a Lady of Quality.” The eclogues numbered six, one for each week-day (1747). Their delicacy and refinement is not conspicuous, and their metrical sprightliness in no way remarkable; their only value, to-day, consists in the little intimate touches that describe the social arcana of the period.

Lady Mary was certainly no poet. Her mind was the reverse of poetical. All that can be said of her heroic verse is that it is generally fluent, often lively and sometimes forcible. She is at the best when, like Gay, she paints the manners of the times in Town Eclogues. Her serious satires are far-away echoes of Pope. The prose essays published with her other remains are trite and show that her talent did not easily work in that form. It is to the Letters, and to these alone, that she owes her niche in the house of fame. Without being sympathetic or humorous, and with no great store of wit or fancy, she is rich in descriptive faculty, keen perception, good spirits and glorified common-sense. Her style, though correct and perspicuous, is unstudied, natural, flowing, spirited; she never uses an unnecessary word, or a phrase savouring of affectation. At the same time, she meant to write well and was conscious of having succeeded. Before the Bible society letters of George Borrow appeared, it is doubtful if any traveller’s letters have proved so generally entertaining, unless we make exception of Smollett’s Letters from France and Italy, published in 1766. Lady Mary was almost the first to enter the rich mine of eastern manners and colouring. The travellers of the early seventeenth century wrote in an obsolete fashion and employed an antiquated prose. The historians of Turkey, such as Knolles and Rycaut, are full of fabulous detail. She was one of the earliest (long before Pierre Loti) to make a plain tale of the treatment of women in the east (Turkey was far more remote then than Turkestan or Korea are now), and she did not waste her opportunities. Entertaining, however, as Lady Mary was, whether as a discerning traveller or as a writer with a relatively modern style, her fame for a hundred years depended largely, if not mainly, upon the supposed mystery of her life. That the daughter of a duke, the wife of a millionaire and the mother of a man so much talked of as Edward Wortley should be unhappy and should seek refuge abroad in eccentric solitude and isolation from her quality was, to the early eighteenth century, a thing incredible. The malignity of Walpole and the vindictive line of Pope about the lady who “starved a sister” and “denied a debt” stimulated fresh curiosity concerning the cleverest woman of the day.

With the gradual decline of her notoriety and the eclipse, at least in not a few ostensible ways, of her achievement, Lady Mary’s writings have received less and less attention, and are now, perhaps, in danger of being as much undervalued as they are generally admitted to have been at one time overrated. Fragments of her criticism have survived the general wreck of her descriptive writings, such as the well-known division of the human race into men, women and Herveys, her comparison of Fielding and Steele, with her diagnosis of the happy temperament which forgot everything over a venison pasty and a flask of champagne, and her hearty contempt for Richardson, over whose novels she confessed to sobbing in a most scandalous manner. Her Constantinople Letters (of 1763) soon became popular and classical all over Europe. They were reprinted in the successive editions of Lady Mary’s Letters and Works, of which her great-grand son Lord Wharncliffe’s (1837) remained the standard edition till its contents were considerably enriched, but not substantially altered, in that of Moy Thomas (1861). His canon includes twelve letters to Mrs. Hewett, twelve in correspondence with Anne Wortley, thirty-nine with Wortley Montagu, sixty dealing with the embassy of 1716–18, twenty from Pope to Lady Mary, dated 1716–21, fifty-two letters to the countess of Mar 1721–7, twenty-four items of miscellaneous correspondence, and two hundred and seventy-five letters written between 1738 and 1762 to the countesses of Pomfret, Oxford, Bute, Wortley Montagu and others. There are, also, some sixty-four occasional poems and versions besides Town Eclogues, the Enchiridion, four essays, two of them in French, the second of which, “On a maxim of La Rochefoucauld about marriage,” is as humorous as anything Lady Mary ever wrote, besides a rather interesting fragment upon the court of George I at the time of his accession.