Mary Pierrepont was born in 1689, the first child of the Earl of Kingston. Her mother died in 1694 and Mary was groomed to become hostess and housekeeper for her father, then a Whig MP. Her tasks included presiding over his dinner table and carving meats for his guests. However, when her father planned to marry her to a man she detested, she eloped with Edward Wortley Montague, also a Whig MP.

Her marriage was miserable, but her husband was a close friend of Joseph Addison and this brought her into contact with the leading writers of her generation. With Pope and John Gay she wrote a group of ‘town eclogues’,  lampooning, with sometimes Hogarthian viciousness, the social rituals of the court of George I. One of these, ‘Saturday’, draws on her own experience of contracting smallpox in 1715. This disease had already killed her brother and now nearly killed Lady Mary, instead leaving her face permanently marked and her sight impaired. The subject of the poem is the social disaster of losing her beauty: ‘There let me live in some deserted place / There hide in shades this lost inglorious face.’

In 1716, having failed in the jockeying for political power following the accession of George I, Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed Ambassador to Turkey and Lady Mary accompanied him to take up residence in Constantinople. Here she discovered the local practice of inoculation against smallpox, and on her return to England fought to have this then controversial practice introduced.  Also in Turkey she began to write her celebrated ‘Turkish Letters’, published after her death.

Lady Mary wrote verse quickly, spontaneously, and with little correction. ‘The Lady’s Resolve’, supposed to have been written on a window on the spur of the moment in 1713, just after her marriage, is a beautifully neat, witty exploration of unhappiness in marriage and how to behave to avoid adultery. While here Lady Mary seems to blame women for men’s sexual advances, later she often spoke out against the bondage of marriage. The tone of this poem, and that of ‘The Lover a Ballad’ is a reminder of the influence of Pope, with its sharp bite, and its shrewd common sense. The two poets worked together and were friends for a while, though they later became bitter enemies for reasons that are not clear. All the same, Pope had a picture of Lady Mary hanging in his ‘best room’ until the day he died.

The wonderfully cynical and world-weary ‘A Receipt to Cure the Vapours’ plays men at their own faithless game, while at the same time making fun of women who put on false shows of mourning. This is Lady Mary at her most glittering and dangerous, a feminist before the world knew what feminism was.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu abandoned her husband after a short marriage and spent most of her later life abroad. She returned to London a few months before her death in 1762.

Poems by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

A Receipt to Cure the Vapours - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu - Read by Denise Riley

The Resolve

Read by Denise Riley
The Resolve - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu - Read by Denise Riley
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Poetry Store

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