The Englishwoman Who Joined a Harem (sort of): Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Letters (1763)

Joshua Grasso
Sep 3, 2018 · 9 min read

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763) occupies a uniquely eighteenth-century cul de sac between travel writing, memoir, and satire. In keeping with the great works of fictional travel writing of her day (Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels), Montagu took her actual impressions of Turkish culture and added a subtle veneer of fiction, much of it “reflected in tranquility,” to borrow Wordsworth’s phrase. For unlike Defoe or Swift, Montagu actually traveled to Turkey in 1716 to accompany her husband, Edward, who had been newly appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to the Court of Turkey.

A prolific letter-writer, Montagu documented every stage of her trip, from a brief stay in Vienna to the torturous journey through Hungary, and finally, the sights and sounds of Constantinople itself. She addressed these letters to her inner circle of confidants, which included her sister, Lady Mar, Alexander Pope, Abbé Conti, her husband, and a collection of “Ladies” of the court. While the Ambassadorship only lasted until 1718, Montagu kept copies of the letters her entire life, which she refused to publish (though the letters were shared among her close friends). In later life, she polished and expanded these letters, adding in impressions from her journals (and omitting some names), to craft a slim volume that reads like the best eighteenth-century fiction.

Fearing the scandal that such letters might bring, her daughter, Lady Bute, had all her letters and diaries burned shortly after Montagu’s death in 1762. Montagu seems to have anticipated this posthumous censorship: before returning to England in 1762, she gifted a copy to Reverend Benjamin Snowden in Rotterdam. Lady Bute quickly tracked these down and purchased them for ₤500, lest they surreptitiously find their way into print. And so they did, as a pair of Englishmen visited Snowden and convinced him to let them borrow the letters for an evening, during which they furiously had them copied and parceled off for publication.

The Turkish Embassy Letters appeared in print in 1763 to wide acclaim, with even Voltaire himself (a friend of Montagu) declaring them superior to the celebrated letters of Madame de Sévigné’. Montagu’s letters afford a rare glimpse at a female traveler without chaperone or censorship; her unique position, and her husband’s absence on official duties, allowed her to go where she liked and indulge in the most unbridled satire of English values. One imagines that these observations were sharpened in later life, when scandal and disappointment had made her even less keen to play the dutiful wife.

Observing the world outside England must have been a liberating experience for a young woman of high society, accustomed as she was to being put on display throughout her life. Indeed, the genre of travel writing (and travel letter writing) allows her to step off the pedestal, since she is the active observer. Montagu, in effect, becomes the male gaze that had been previously directed upon her. We see this particularly in her letters to male correspondents, which allows her not only to speak with them on an equal footing, but to offer them instruction. The majority of these letters are to Alexander Pope, which is interesting considering their bitter and well-publicized falling out upon her return to England.

One letter of note is prefaced April 1, 1717: here she discusses Pope’s recent translation of The Iliad, which allows her to ‘read’ the Turkish character: “I can assure you that the princesses and great ladies pass their time at their looms embroidering veils and robes, surrounded by their maids, and are always very numerous, in the same manner as we find Andromache and Helen described” (Virago 75). This reads as singularly uninformed flattery, as if informing Pope that he knows more about Turkey than she, the traveler, ever could. It also reduces an entire culture to a literary classification, an all-too common stereotype of Enlightenment thought.

However, this attitude jars sharply with the content of the Turkish Embassy Letters as a whole. After all, Montagu was a masterful satirist, and this appropriation of a ‘male’ mask seems calculated at his expense (all the more so, since these letters were compiled after their celebrated literary squabble). The true freedom of the letters emerges a few lines down, when she offers a translation of verses written by Sultan Achmed III. Again, she frames this by saying that the verses “most wonderfully [resemble] The Song of Solomon,” as if assuring Pope of their aesthetic worth.

Yet a paragraph later, she suddenly re-translates the verses into her own poetry; that is, into English poetry that erases the expected conventions. She concludes this performance with the remark, “I have taken the liberty in the second verse of following what I suppose is the true sense of the author, though not literally expressed” (Virago 79). The verses are no longer a blind ‘translation’ of Turkish culture, but an imaginative, artistic sense of what it sounded like to her, rather than filtered through Pope’s expertise.

Of course, the majority of her letters are addressed to female correspondents, and her tone in these letters undergoes a remarkable transformation. Writing to her sister, Lady Mar, she describes the veils and hoods that cover most women in the street, noting, “You may guess then how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street” (Virago, 71).

This is a remarkable confession between sisters, and it was meant for all her English sisters, women like her confined to seek freedom between the pages of a book. Only in Turkey could Montagu glimpse a world utterly without performance; or rather, a performance that allowed a slave to be a lady and both to be sexually anonymous. For Montagu, a woman dogged by scurrilous lampoons her entire life, the idea of never being looked at again — even by one’s husband — must have seemed a romantic fiction. And yet here it was, an impossible ideal transported to England through the prose of her innocuous letters.

Montagu increases the stakes in her most famous letter, fittingly written to an unnamed Lady, which describes the politics of the seraglio. Initially, she hedges her bets when describing this utopian space by seeing it as a man:

all [were] in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked…They walked and moved with the same majestic grace which Milton describes of our general mother. There were many amongst them as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian…perfectly representing the figures of the Graces. (Virago 59)

Milton, Guido, and Titian — exactly as a male would envision it. Yet this frame, far from confining her ‘painting,’ quickly becomes an object of satire that allows her to bar men from the space entirely. In the very next sentence, she remarks that “if it was the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed” (59). In this harem of two hundred women, there is no sense of being conspicuous or “naked”; they do not observe, they simply converse. Montagu is at great pains to show that no impropriety or sexual languor hangs over the room. On the contrary, the women are at leisure to ignore men entirely and simply be themselves (inviting the question, what would women be without men to look at them?).

With wicked delight, Montagu conjures up the specter of Charles Gervase, an Irish portrait painter and friend to Pope, who would have his own sordid ideas about Turkish brothels. Inviting him into the scene, she writes:

I fancy it would have very much improved his art to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions while their slaves…were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty manners. In short, ’tis the women’s coffee house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, etc.” (Virago 59)

The invocation of a “coffee house” is an important one, as these were important male spaces denied to women in England, where politics, commerce, science, and art were bandied about by the London elite. In the woman’s “coffee house,” sexuality — at least from the male perspective — is absent; the face (and body) is hardly observed, since women are only ‘naked’ in relation to a male who sees them as such. The only one naked, ironically, is Montagu herself, who spies on the women fully clothed, and feels all the more conspicuous as a result.

Montagu confronts the notion of nakedness and sensuality in another important letter from April 18, once again addressed to Lady Mar. On a visit to Fatima, the Kahya’s wife (the lieutenant to the vizier), she is confronted with a spectacle of female beauty that beggars description. She begins with hyperbole, remarking that “I have seen all that has been call’d lovely either in England or Germany, and must own that I never saw anything so gloriously Beautiful, nor can I recollect a face that would have been taken notice of near hers” (Virago 89). She goes on to rhapsodize on Fatima’s “surpriszing Harmony of features!” and “exact proportion of Body!” as if mocking a contemporary art critic; yet she quickly lowers the mask to conjure up another male intruder: Apelles, Alexander the Great’s legendary painter. As she writes, “Nature [has] done for her with more successe [sic] what Apelles is said to have essay’d, by a Collection of the most exact features to form a perfect Face…To say all in a Word, our most celebrated English Beautys would vanish near her” (Virago 89).

Apelles’s strategy is surprisingly like Pope’s poem, Epistle to a Lady (1743), where he constructs a perfect woman of composite parts. Montagu counters this with the image of a simple wife, of some status, to be sure, but hardly a remarkable woman. We get the sense that this could be any — perhaps every — wife in Turkey, whose freedom enhances her beauty. In this manner, she outshines so many English “beautys” since they are only composite views of men, cobbled together from this and that portrait. Fatima is stumbled upon unawares, without artifice, and certainly without male intervention. In a sense, she is taking the remarkable opportunity to teach men how to see a woman as she truly is, rather than male art would have her be.

A sense of indignation and vindication informs the entire work, but it is revenge tempered with a profound sense of humor. True, Montagu is settling old scores with Pope, her husband, and an entire nation of dullards, but she does so chiefly to entertain. Montagu’s good humor is evident even in her nastiest satire, as in this letter addressed to Anne Thistlehwayte in 1718: after a long explanation of Turkish customs, she concludes,

I am also charmed with many points of the Turkish law, [which is] better designed and better executed than ours, particularly the punishment of convicted liars (triumphant criminals in our country, God knows). They are burnt in the forehead with a hot iron, being proved the authors of any notorious falsehood. How many white foreheads should we see disfigured? How many fine gentlemen would be forced to wear wigs as low as their eyebrows were this law in practice with us? I should go on to tell you many other parts of justice, but I must send for my midwife. (Virago 108)

The image of many “fine gentlemen” with wigs kissing their eyebrows is fittingly perverse, since many of her male correspondents (we imagine) would be so coiffed. It’s important, too, that she only mentions “gentlemen,” clearly singling them out as the nation’s “triumphant criminals.” Yet before she can sharpen her ire, she suddenly breaks off, ending the letter with the necessity of summoning the midwife. Whether or not this is how the letter originally ended, it seems a perfect touch: a theatrical exit before the satire became unfit for polite society, while also reminding us that she is virtually alone in Turkey, raising her children with only a midwife for support. It was this satire her daughter wished to hide from posterity, knowing all-too-well how the gentlemen of her acquaintance would read it. And perhaps sensing — as we do — how these letters were meant for a future age, when women could write their own books without the artifice of feminine correspondence.

Joshua Grasso

Written by

English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books

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