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There’s nothing like a few weeks away from a project on the scale of a master’s-possibly-PhD dissertation to allow for ideas to ferment and foment, but also to make you feel that you…

Source: Serendipity

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There’s nothing like a few weeks away from a project on the scale of a master’s-possibly-PhD dissertation to allow for ideas to ferment and foment, but also to make you feel that you’ve entirely lost the plot!

So it was that I returned from a wonderful few weeks, after traipsing around Sri Lanka (without my own bed, I hasten to add) doing some experiential research into transculturation (of course), and sat down to a laptop with folders of notes and essay fragments to face that horror of almost complete mind-wipe. What IS this text I’ve been obsessing over for the last few months? WHAT am I wanting to say about it that has never been said before? Ideas froth and bubble but are impossible to capture. And a quiet panic starts to rise, like gorge. Do I even WANT to write about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her Turkish Embassy Letters? 

From the outset, its paradoxical form – an epistolary text of letters written to multiple correspondents (some real, some imagined) constructed from rewritten and reformulated letters and journal writings dating from the trip itself (1716-18) until close to Montagu’s death in 1762 – along with the reputation of its author as a woman both celebrated by writers and thinkers of the time, yet vilified as intelligent, outspoken women continue to be, have preoccupied me. Loathe to get caught up in the biographical intrigues that dominate much of the focus on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, I couldn’t help feel that this text, that she clearly intended to be her legacy, has a literary value beyond that of social or orientalist history, or of proto-feminism, or as travel literature. The closer I read, the more emerges, and, palimpsest-like, it appears more and more like a text that is scratched over with a plurality of literary forms that jostle together, often intersecting and fabricating a prose text in the era of the nascent novel that seems closely to resemble the postmodernist, ‘death-of-the-novel’ prose forms of today. If we’ve come full circle over these three hundred years or so, what will come next?

As I wandered around the house, questioning the nebulousness of these ideas, the researcher’s need for tangible evidence took hold. But this is the problem. There is only one extant letter, the one she wrote to Frances Hewitt from Adrianople in 1717. Would that be part of the private Harrowby MS collection I’ve heard about at Sandon, I wondered? Do I need to contact its owner, the 7th earl, some Tory Lord, and beg permission to go burrowing? These were my thoughts when I sat down at the kitchen table, browsed through the copy of ‘The Guardian’ that had been left there since breakfast, only to find Lady Mary smiling back at me from page 5 and a story about the prospective auction of this very letter. A digital image of the first page illustrates the article and my skin prickled with goose-bumps as I perused her handwriting more as artwork than words on the page, the sloping handwriting sketched out in black ink on yellowed paper, a black stain in the corner reminding me of every other letter that was either burned or has just been lost in the annals of time.  And then the words started to take shape and that shock of familiarity coupled with the sensation, for the first time, of authenticity.

If anyone has a spare £5000 and would like to ensure the letter goes to a very good home, I would be happy to recommend one!

Guardian Article

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‘This Orient Isle’

I have very much enjoyed listening to Radio 4’s abridged version of Jerry Brotton’s fascinating survey of the relationship between Elizabethan England and the Islamic world, particularly Morocco and Turkey – ‘This Orient Isle’

this orient isle
‘This Orient Isle’ by Jerry Brotton, R4 Book of the Week, Omnibus 3/4/16

It would seem that Lady Mary’s fascination with Turkey had quite a hinterland, and one that was similarly favourable and cordial. Henry VIII had clothes made in the ‘Turkish’ style, and there were regular visits made by travellers and merchants between the two countries. Words like ‘turquoise’ and ‘sugar’ entered the English language, and Englishmen found themselves being offered concubines from the Sultan’s harem. The Islamic ‘other’ featured regularly in writing, with sixty books produced during the period recounting journeys and adventures in the ‘East’, and references to Turks and Turkey or the Levant in drama became commonplace, often shorthand either for sensuality or heathenism, or a racy combination of the two.

Posted in Sappho, Uncategorized

A ‘Furious Sappho’


Bust of Sappho
It is not without a good degree of irony that even now many readers familiar with the name of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu are as likely to associate her with Alexander Pope’s caricature as ‘Sappho’ in several of his satirical poems than know, in any real detail, the works that he was so keen to ridicule. Pope certainly recognised and probably feared the talent of a redoubtable rival, one who he had fallen head-over-heels in love with – as several rather steamy letters he wrote to Lady Mary during her first trip abroad to Europe and Turkey (1716-1718) testify. Despite his earnest denials at the time, claiming that his ‘Sapphos’ were in fact not based on a single individual but in fact levelled at the whole genus of women writers whose ‘lewdness’ was patently expressed almost as if through the act of writing itself, the label kind of stuck. 


Alexander Pope, by Nellor
Recognised in her time as a supremely intelligent, witty, passionate writer of letters, poetry, essays and fiction, one might hope that Lady Mary could have worn the name of Plato’s Tenth Muse with pride but, sadly, this was not the case. The name of Lesbos’ famous poet became a negative moniker for almost any woman who dared to write in Europe from around the 16th century onwards, especially if she had the audacity to challenge the social and/or sexual mores of the day. Lady Mary’s near-contemporary, Aphra Behn, had been similarly pilloried by poets (whose fame we may now smugly note has not outlasted hers), mockingly  dubbed ‘the Sappho of the Age’ by William Wycherley, and starring as the subject of Robert Gould’s poem, ‘The Poetess, A Satyr’ (1691).  
Aphra Behn

We may think we can have last laugh at these misogynist men from the old days, as we note Behn’s presence on BA degrees, and even in the school curriculum, but the legacy of this critical reception runs deep, and it amazes me, as I embark on a dissertation on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, how MUCH has been written about her life and how LITTLE, comparatively, has been written about the large body of work she produced. For so long, her love life and risqué (for the times) attitudes have filled the biographers’ pages but, as Dale Spender demonstrated in her seminal Women of Ideas (1983) her powerful critiques of women’s education, of sexual double-standards, of women’s lack of rights all told, clearly anticipate Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women at the end of the eighteenth century, yet – if Montagu even is remembered positively – it is mostly for her colourful travels and stay in Turkey as the British Ambassador’s wife. Her ‘Turkish Embassy Letters’ are now rightly valued as significant contributions to the polyphonic genre of travel-writing in the eighteenth century, and post-colonialist perspectives have found a treasure-trove of material to reappraise. Yet who has heard of most of her poetry, any of her short stories or her powerful proto-feminist pamphlets which, in Spender’s words referring to Woman not Inferior to Man (1739), offer ‘a sustained, systematic and extendedthesis, a comprehensive overview of patriarchy.’ (p73)?           

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, portrait 1717

Pope may have been exhibiting ‘meanness’ – as Lady Mary’s defensive early biographer, Lord Wharncliffe, accused – when he fashioned her ‘Sappho’, but I’m going to try a little bit of re-fashioning of my own, and reclaim that name for a writer whose work has also come to us only in scraps and fragments, its publication history one that is characterised by pseudonyms, attributions, and ‘posthumousity’, and I hope that I might  show how her work expresses the power and intimacy, not so much of heterosexual passion – as I imagine Alexander Pope would rather like – but of homosociality, and the significance of female friendships.

A fragment from Sappho would seem to set me aptly on my way:

A ripe red apple grows, the highest of them all, 

Over the treetop, way up on a tapering spray,

But apple-gatherers never see it – no,

Rather, they do see it is far away,

Beyond their reach, impossible.

This matter stands just so.



Mendelsohn , D. (2015) ‘Girl, Interrupted ’, The New Yorker (16 March 2015)

Robinson, D. (2011) The Poetry of Mary Robinson – accessed via GoogleBooks 26/3/15

Spender, D. (1983) Women of ideas – and what men have done to them: From Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich. London: Ark Paperbacks.

Wharnecliffe, Lord, ed. (1837) The Life and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

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A first post, sent from a postgraduate research workshop…first baby steps into the public world of academia.

If you are engaged in research in women’s writing of the 17th/18th centuries, in travel writing, in post-colonialist and feminist perspectives of pre-1800 texts, do let me know who you are as I would love to follow your blog!

baby steps to marathon 460