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!