Penguins on Parade: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu!
Some Penguin Classics – in fact many of them – leave you badly wanting more. The world, the writers they show us seem to breathe the living air, and the little wedges of exposure we get between Penguin covers tingle the mental skin, make a taste, create an itinerary to the nearest library to find out more.
Certainly if you were to ask the great Canadian scholar Professor Isobel Grundy to name one such world, one such writer, she’d nominate Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose sparkling epistles fill Penguin’s 1997 volume of Selected Letters, a volume she so masterfully edited that it succeeds in the first and most essential Penguin task: it rounds off its subject so embracingly that a reader coming to it with no knowledge of Lady Mary will keep reading and feel little sense of exclusion. Grundy’s Introduction and footnotes are so thorough and spirited that the whole book reads like an act of pure joy.
Joy is a recurrent note in the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who began life in 1689 as Lady Mary Pierrepont, the daughter of the Duke of Kingston, taught herself Latin at a young age, and secretly married Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712. The two of them went to Constantinople, where Edward was appointed ambassador, and they stayed there for seventeen months, from 1717-18. Upon her return to England, Lady Mary continued her literary endeavors and kept up a flow of letters, only some of which, of course, survive to the present day, and that flow of letters continued during her subsequent years abroad. Even in its partial form, it’s a wealth of amusement and interest, as Grundy points out:
But by the general reader, as well as by those interested in human nature, in women, or in the process of letter-writing, her virtue is her exquisite epistolarity: the way she enmeshes her letters in the events, the moods, and the ideas of the changing moment. Her vivid attention focuses on personal idiosyncrasies, on daily trivia, on the specks and bubbles on the surface of the stream of life.
“Specks and bubbles on the surface of the stream of life” would have pleased Lady Mary immensely, of course; she had an acute ear for quick, felicitous phrases, and as Grundy notices, she found such felicities everywhere:
As a letter-writer she resembles Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf in the urgency and the skill with which she extracts imaginative sustenance from matters at hand. The view from her window (whether it is a wintry English tree or the exotically early spring flowers of Turkey), her little daughter playing about the room, or the latest gossip, either marital or political, all are grist for her mill; but she selects and angles all these details to forward an exchange of minds and hearts with each particular correspondent.
You can get a very good idea of that exchange of minds and hearts even from Lady Mary’s letters alone, which are as alive with chat and insight as they were when they were written three hundred years ago. A dispatch from Venice to a friend back in England is half purse-minded and half broad-minded in a combination that feels entirely modern:
Here are foreign ministers from all parts of the world, who, as they have no court to employ their hours, are overjoyed to enter into commerce with any stranger of distinction. As I am the only lady here at present, I can assure you I am courted, as if I was the only one in the world. As to all the conveniences of life, they are to be had at very easy rates; and for those that love publick places, here are two playhouses and two operas constantly performed every night, at exceeding low prices. But you will have no reason to examine that article, no more than myself; all the ambassadors having boxes appointed them, and I have every one of their keys at my service, not only for my own person, but whoever I please to carry or send. I do not make much use of this privilege, to their great astonishment. It is the fashion for the greatest ladies to walk the streets, which are admirably paved; and a mask, price sixpence, with a little cloak, and the head of a domino, the genteel dress to carry you everywhere. The greatest equipage is a gondola, that holds eight persons, and is the price of an English chair. And it is so much the established fashion for every body to live their own way, that nothing is more ridiculous than censuring the actions of another. This would be terrible in London, where we have little other diversion; but for me, who never found any pleasure in malice, I bless my destiny that has conducted me to a part where people are better employed than in talking of the affairs of their acquaintance.
Isobel Grundy wrote an entire biography of Lady Mary (and also an absolutely brilliant book on the life and mind of Samuel Johnson), and it’s delightful. But for those readers not quite prepared to take on the life, these letters make a very enticing world.