When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu arrived in Constantinople in 1716 as wife of the British Ambassador, she had herself lost a fine set of eyelashes from smallpox, but her eyesight remained more than usually keen and observant. She at once noticed that the faces she saw in the streets of the Turkish capital were not disfigured by the ravages of smallpox, as were those in England, and before many days had passed she had discovered the reason.
"The smallpox," she wrote home, "so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation every autumn, in the month of September when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family have the mind to have the smallpox. They make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) an old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts in to the vein as much venom as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after binds lip the wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins. The children of young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health till the eighth. Every year thousands undergo this operation; and the French ambassador says pleasantly that they take the smallpox here by way of diversion, as they take wagers in other countries. There is no example of anyone that has died of it, and you may believe that I am very well satisfied with the safety of the experiment, since I intend to try it on my little son. I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful fashion into England, and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. Perhaps if I live to return I may have courage to make war with them."
Courage Lady Mary never lacked, and she needed it all. Turkey was regarded in England as semi-barbarous, and a custom practised by the old wives of that nation naturally met with much professional opposition and popular prejudice. But she gaily waived aside timorous scruples, denounced medical conservatism, and went on her way. Yet she took no rash risks in her campaign, and the first experiments in vaccination in this country were made in her house, where she watched personally over the treatment of the patients.
Her introduction of this great preventive of disease in the face of opposition was not the first proof that she, had independence of mind and determination. Her father, the Duke of Kingston, was so proud of his little daughter that he introduced her one day, when she was eight years old, to the Kit Kat Club to be toasted by its famous members, but he refused to have her educated as he disapproved of educating girls. But Lady Mary broke the chains he tried to bind round her. She read every English book she could lay her hands on, she persuaded a friendly Bishop to teach her Latin, and when she met a man of culture in Mr. Wortley Montagu, who was willing to direct her studies still farther, she pursued them still more eagerly.
Mr. Wortley Montague was a great deal older than she, he was slow where she was quick, and hesitating where she was impulsive, but it was not long before Lady Mary had determined that they should marry, and when she had made up her mind, there was little more to be said. The Duke of Kingston objected on the score of marriage settlements, so Lady Mary with great promptitude proposed an elopement, and arranged its details in the most business-like way.
If it be asked how a marriage with such unusual features turned out, it may be answered that for twenty years they lived in mutual respect and affection together, and for twenty years more in still greater respect and affection apart. It could hardly be otherwise, for it was a union of fire and water. Her letters trying to spur him on to a public career positively tingle with impatience. "I wish you would remember the common useful maxim that whatever is to be done at all ought to be done as soon as possible." This slowness on his part was the reason for their final parting. In 1739 they were about to set out for the Continent, and when the time came Lady Mary was ready but he was not. Off she set on the understanding that he was to follow six weeks later. He never did. He preferred England and she, for various reasons, preferred the Continent.
Truth to tell, Lady Mary found the air of England rather too electric before she left its shores. Her defence of vaccination had not been her only battlefield. As long as her caustic tongue dealt with victims less ready than herself she could afford to laugh at care, but when her temper clashed with that of Alexander Pope the tables were turned. She had lived for some time near him at Twickenham, and for a while they were the best of friends. Why they quarrelled is not now clear, as Pope's stories when he was angry need careful sifting, but the quarrel was fierce. When Lady Mary put down her firm foot on the" wicked wasp of Twickenham" as she called him, he stung back venomously, and London chuckled and shivered alternately at the wordy warfare which followed. The story is mainly worth recalling because it was a main reason why Lady Mary remained abroad for the rest of her days, a circumstance to which we owe her travel letters.
She was well equipped to be a good traveller. Doors usually closed were open to a leader in London society, she visited Eastern Europe at a time when it was practically unknown to England, and nearer lands when their customs were still strictly national. Tireless, good humoured, daring in danger, observant and unprejudiced, she was interested in everything. In a Greek island she seized chisel and hammer to search for antiquities, in a Turkish seraglio she copied typical love letters and prescriptions for love philtres. In Vienna she studied the fashions, and in Avignon the politics of the Papal Courts with equal interest. As soon as her fingers had had time to thaw from a drive over the Alps in mid-winter she was ready to describe the scenery, and she had no sooner settled in Venice than she had the various gallantries of the surrounding nobility at her finger ends. She copied every ancient inscription she came across for Mr. Wortley Montagu, with whom she never ceased to carry on a cordial correspondence. "I have no greater pleasure than to amuse and interest you," she often wrote, and he probably found her amusing letters a less agitating pleasure than the too stimulating society of the writer.
Although nothing in scenery, art, or antiquities escaped her sharp eye, her chief interest lay in manners and customs, in national habits, health and hygiene, in fashions in love and in dress, in the position of women, in the state of the drama, in cookery and in domestic architecture, in short in the human side of travel. She made friends quickly, and very soon after arriving in any place she had gathered around her a little court. Evidently her unsuccessful attempt to burn out the wasp's nest at Twickenham had taught her prudence, for no quarrels worth noticing electrified her later years.
As time passed she grew more and more of a recluse. One of her great pleasures was to buy a piece of waste land and to transform it. Gardening became to her a delightful pastime, and a description of her life at Brescia must have read strangely in the eyes of those who remembered her a brilliant ornament of the court of George I. "I generally rise at six," she wrote, " and as soon as I have breakfasted, put myself at the head of my weeder women, and work with them till nine. I then inspect my dairy and take a time among my poultry, which is a very large enquiry. I have at present two hundred chickens beside turkeys, ducks and cocks. All things have prospered under my care; my bees and silkworms have doubled, and I am told that without accidents my capital will do so in two years' time. Gardening is certainly the next amusement to reading."
Of that she never tired, being as she expressed it a "rake in reading". Her enjoyment of the classics and her criticism of the literature of her own time show her no mean scholar, and we remember with pleasure that she was a cousin of Fielding the novelist. The arrival of a box of books from England was the great excitement of her later years, and she writes that on one such occasion she found it awaiting her on her return from a long ride by moonlight, and sat up all night to enjoy its contents.
But, for all her unconventionality, she shared the prejudice of her time about the education of girls. She thus expressed it in a letter to her daughter:
"I wish your daughters to resemble me in nothing but my love of reading, knowing by experience how it is capable of softening the cruelest accidents of life. There is no remedy so easy as books, which if they do not give cheerfulness, restore quiet to the most troubled mind. The second caution to be given is to conceal whatever learning she attains, with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness; the parade of it will only serve to draw on her the envy and the most inveterate hatred of all."
There is plenty of evidence that her raillery often hid a heavy heart.
"One should pluck up a spirit and live upon cordials," she wrote to her sister, "when one can have no other kind of nourishment. These are my present endeavours, and I run about though I have five thousand pins and needles running into my heart."
The days came when, in her own phrase,
"my health is so often disordered that I begin to be as weary of it as of mending old lace, when it is patched in one place, it breaks in another."
Life had led her far afield but death drew her home. When, in 1761, she returned to England, it was apparent that she would have need of all her courage. It did not desert her. Through months of pain she held her head high in the scene of her former strifes and triumphs, this woman so versatile and resolute who has set her seal on all our arms, as a reminder of the gratitude we owe her for deliverance from a deadly scourge.
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