She was born in 1689 in Thoresby in Nottinghamshire, the eldest daughter of Evelyn, Duke of Kingston, and Lady Mary Fielding. When she was only four years old, her mother died, and this event became a defining one in her life; for she was raised in a decidedly male environment, a fact that imparted her personality with a bluntness and daring that distinguished her from other aristocratic women of her era. As seems to be the case for many great travelers, she had to win her education through her own efforts. She developed an interest in the classical languages at an early age; but as good instruction was impossible to come by, she taught herself Latin, French, and the basics of Greek through her own unrelenting exertions. By her teenage years, she was composing verses.
In time she befriended a woman named Anne Wortley, who lived near London; and this introduction led to an acquaintance with Wortley’s son, whom Lady Montagu married in a private ceremony in August 1712. Yet she was indifferent to marriage, seeing it as little more than conformity to social dictates; and her husband was one of those mediocrities for whom contemporaries have left few recorded impressions. She was consumed by literary and travel ambitions. Her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed one of the lords of the treasury in 1714, and this gave her the opportunity to circulate at court, and mix with the notable minds of the age; it was here that she met the poet Alexander Pope, who would later become both admirer and implacable enemy.
In 1716 her husband was appointed ambassador at Constantinople, and for the first time a chance at foreign travel beckoned. Like many travelers, she longed to escape the rigid social strictures of her era, and explore what beckoned on the horizon. The couple began their journey in August of that year, leaving from Holland; they paid visits to German cities along the way, but Vienna disappointed her. It was around this time that she first received a letter of affection from Alexander Pope; but she kept him at arm’s length, and let him smolder at a distance. She had become an astute observer of human nature, possessed of an acidic wit. Noticing that the nobles of Germany and Scandinavia seemed to enjoy keeping dwarfs at court as a form of amusement, she wrote:
I can assign no reason for their fondness for these pieces of deformity, but the opinion all the absolute princes have that it is below them to converse with the rest of mankind; and not to be quite alone, they are forced to seek their companions among the refuse of human nature, these creatures being the only part of their court privileged to talk freely with them.
They crossed the Danube in 1717 and stayed for a time in Belgrade. As she moved through the Balkans, they entered Ottoman domains; and it was here that she first made the acquaintance of a Turkish effendi (scholar) named Achmet Bey, who introduced her to the subtleties of Arabic and Persian poetry. In Bulgaria she first encountered a Turkish bath, an event that registered a strong impression on her. She notes that the skins of the bathers observed there were “shiningly white, only adorned with their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces… 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.” For their part, the ladies of the Turkish baths were shocked at her rigid Western ways, especially the physically restrictive clothing she was in the habit of wearing. Her Letters from Turkey provide a unique glimpse into Oriental life in that era, and should be required reading for the serious traveler or antiquarian. After meeting the sultan, Achmet III, she found it useful to adopt Ottoman dress, which she describes somewhat amusingly as follows:
The first part of my dress is a pair of drawers, very full, that reach to my shoes, and conceal the legs more modestly than your petticoats. They are of a thin rose-coloured dam ask, brocaded with silver flowers. My shoes are of white kid leather, embroidered with gold. Over this hangs my smock, of a fine white silk gauze, edged with embroidery. This smock has wide sleeves, hanging halfway down the arm, and is closed at the neck with a diamond button; but the shape and colour of the bosom are very well to be distinguished through it. The antery is a waist coat, made close to the shape, of white and gold damask, with very long sleeves falling back, and fringed with deep gold fringe, and should have diamond or pearl buttons.
My caftan, of the same stuff with my drawers, is a robe exactly fitted to my shape, and reaching to my feet, with very long, straight falling sleeves. Over this is my girdle, of about four fingers broad, which all that can afford it have entirely of diamonds or other precious stones; those who will not be at that expense have it of exquisite embroidery or satin; but it must be fastened before with a clasp of diamonds. The curdee is a loose robe they throw off or put on according to the weather, being of a rich brocade (mine is green and gold), either lined with ermine or sables; the sleeves reach very little below the shoulders. The headdress is composed of a cap, called talpack, which is in winter of fine velvet, embroidered with pearl or diamonds, and in summer of a light shining silver stuff. This is fixed on one side of the head, hanging a little way down, with a gold tassel, and bound on, either with a circle of diamonds (as I have seen several), or a rich embroidered handkerchief.
On the other side of the head the hair is laid flat; and here the ladies are at liberty to show their fancies, some putting flowers, others a plume of herons, feathers, and, in short, what they please; but the most general fashion is a large bouquet of jewels, made like natural flowers; that is, the buds of pearl, the roses of different coloured rubies, the jessamines of diamonds, the jonquils of topazes, &c, so well set and enamelled, ’tis hard to imagine anything of that kind so beautiful. The hair hangs at its full length behind, divided into tresses braided with pearl or riband, which is always in great quantity. I never saw in my life so many fine heads of hair.
It was her contribution to medical science that history owes her its debt of gratitude. Smallpox was in her era a very serious disease; although its precise origins are not entirely clear, it had been a scourge of Europe for centuries. The practice of inoculation as a preventative for disease was discovered, probably by accident, in the Near East, but its use had not become accepted in Western Europe during her era. Lady Montagu’s brother had died of smallpox, and she herself had contracted the disease in 1715. She recovered, but was left with a face marred by pock-marks. These experiences undoubtedly prompted her penetrating mind to seek new ways to control the spread of the disease.
In 1717 she first observed the practice of “variolation”: the rubbing of pus from a smallpox blister of an infected patient onto the body of a healthy patient. The idea is that the healthy person would develop a mild case of the disease, and thereby form an immune defense to a more serious infection. Montagu was convinced; she had her son Edward inoculated through variolation in 1718. This operation was apparently the first such procedure carried out on an English patient. Like many new medical procedures, variolation was not perfect; it carried with it the risk that the inoculated patient could pass on the disease to others, or could develop a fatal case of smallpox instead of a mild one. But the validity of the procedure eventually began to be accepted. A further revolution would come later with Dr. Edward Jenner, who greatly improved the safety of vaccination by using cowpox, instead of smallpox, as the disease vaccine.
Alexander Pope had neither forgotten nor forgiven her rebuffs of his advances; in 1728 appeared the first of his many attacks against her in print. These tantrums show a pettiness and meanness of spirit that mar Pope’s literary legacy and expose his more unsavory qualities. In 1736 she met the Venetian scholar Francesco Algarotti, with whom she was much smitten; three years later she moved to Venice to live with him. The relationship with Algarotti later collapsed, and she spent additional years living in the south of France. When her husband died in 1761 she returned to England to reconcile with her children. But the Reaper refused her additional time; she would succumb to cancer in the following year. Love of life and travel are in her forever and inextricably bound. She endorsed the daring, adventurous life, refusing to allow fear or worry to dampen her zest for all of life’s myriad experiences, however harsh they could be. Her healthy philosophy of life is best expressed, I think, in the following letter of consolation she wrote in July 1727 to the Countess of Mar:
You see, dear sister, that I answer your letters as soon as I receive them, and if mine can give you any consolation or amusement, you need never want them. I desire you would not continue grieving yourself. Of all sorrows, those we pay to the dead are most vain; and, as I have no good opinion of sorrow in general, I think no sort of it worth cherishing…
You see no one is quite happy, though ’tis pretty much in my nature to console upon all occasions. I advise you to do the same, as the only remedy against the vexations of life; which in my con science I think affords disagreeable things to the highest ranks, and comforts to the very lowest; so that upon the whole things are more equally disposed among the sons of Adam than they are generally thought to be. You see my philosophy is not so lugubre as yours. I am so far from avoiding company that I seek it on all occasions; and when I am no longer an actor upon this stage (by the way, I talk of twenty years hence at the soonest), as a spectator I shall laugh at the farcical actions which may then be represented, nature being exceedingly bountiful in all ages in providing coxcombs, who are the greatest preservatives against the spleen that I ever could find out. I say all these things for your edification, and shall conclude my consolatory epistle with one rule that I have found very conducing to health of body and mind.
As soon as you wake in the morning, lift up your eyes and consider seriously what will best divert you that day. Your imagination, being then refreshed by sleep, will certainly put in your mind some party of pleasure, which, if you execute with prudence, will disperse those melancholy vapors which are the foundation of all distempers.
Read more in the complete collection of essays, Digest: