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.
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).
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)?
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