Why You Should Read: The Turkish Embassy Letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
By Luke Frostick
Tis true, their law permits them four wives, but there is no instance of a man of quality that makes use of this liberty, or of a woman of rank who would suffer it.
The year is 1716 and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, accompanying her husband Sir Edward Wortley Montagu, a British diplomat, travels to Istanbul (Constantinople as she refers to it). During her journey she wrote letters to her friends and family back in England. Compiled, they are one of the most interesting travel logs of a journey to Istanbul and offer a unique perspective on the Ottoman world.
Mary Wortley Montagu didn’t have a dull life. She was the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, thus a member of the highest aristocratic circles. She was a poet, member of the court of George the First, friends with everyone from Alexander Pope to Car- oline, Princess of Wales. She was married to Sir Edward who was himself an important member of society and the government. She wrote, over the course of her life, a large number of poems and essays and , after fallings out, took part in a a poetic war with Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift1; the 1700s poetic equivalent of a twitter feud. Her most famous work, however, is un- doubtedly The Turkish Embassy Letters (originally published as Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e Written during Her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa to Persons of Distinc- tion, Men of Letters) in which she detailed her journey to the Ottoman Empire.
Her letters comprise descriptions of the places she went and the people she met and offer a description of the journey to Istanbul.She visits most of the important centres in northern and eastern Europe on her journey to the Ottoman Empire including, The Hague, Nuremberg, Vienna, Prague, Hanover, Belgrade, and more. This section of the book is, in some ways, the least inter- esting part of the collection as it consists of letters concerning the various courts that she attend- ed, the Royalty she spent time with and the cities of Europe all of which have been written about before. Despite this fact, her account never gets dull though as she is a very fun guide through the theatre of court life and has a bit of wryness about it all that gets close to but never dives into out- right sarcasm. You get the feeling that Lady Mary would have been a fun person to drink tea with and take the piss out of an Austrian aristocrat’s moustache.
The account gets more unique when she gets closer to the borders due to the fact that when she was traveling, the Ottomans and the Austrians were at war and were dealing with the aftermath of the battle of Petrovardin, a battle, which saw the turning of the war and ultimately the Ottoman loss of Timișoara. In fact, later in the book, when she is based in Pera, the sultan himself is away due to the conflict. This is the context of her journey. Sir Edward was sent to help mediate a peace between the Grand Duchy of Austria and the Ottoman Empire. In the letters Mary doesn’t write much about the actual diplomacy going on around her, choosing to focus on the the more intimated details of the places she visited and the people she met.
The collection is not called the Turkish Embassy Letters for nothing and it is when Lady Mary starts writing from within the Ottoman Empire that sets this collection of letters apart.
Western travel writers in the Middle East have a somewhat checked reputation when it comes to accuracy and perspective, but Lady Mary can not be listed alongside them. Throughout her letters, she is committed to discovering the truth about the places she visits and relaying it to her readers. “Perhaps it would be more entertaining to add a few surprising customs of my own invention, but nothing seems so agreeable to me as the truth,2” she writes. She takes great pains to tear down what she sees as the fabrications of other travel writers, cutting them down with her truth. Of course you can find orientalism in the work of Lady Mary if you hunt for it as you can find in the writing of anybody from so long ago. But I feel that this is missing the forest for the trees. She was a woman trying to describe the world as she saw it and correct the misconception of people in England who had been misinformed by other sensational travel writers.
Her honesty when it comes to what she observed of the Ottoman world also means that she is critical; she is upset by what she sees as the injustices committed by Ottoman soldiers in the Balkans. She correctly diagnoses that the central problem for the Ottoman system at the time was the overreach of the Janissary Corps, something that would take the Ottomans another hun- dred years to deal with. She, on the other hand, is also happy to praise the Ottoman system when she sees areas that she thinks superior to those in use in England or the rest of Europe. She seems to genuinely not have any interest in showing the superiority of the West, which is very re- freshing. She treats the Ottoman Empire in the same way that she does Austria or Holland, point- ing out what she likes and dislikes equally not changing her perspective when she arrives in ‘the East’.
The area that she is most keen to attack other travel writers is with regards to women. She has a particular interest in challenging the ideas foreign writers had about women. Her perspec- tive is better than theirs for the obvious reason that she,, actually had access to those hammamsand harems that men wouldn’t have had at all, but wrote about non-the-less. As Lady Mary says herself: “You will perhaps be surprised to read an account so different from what you have been entertained with by the common voyage writers, who are very fond of speaking of what they do not know. It must be under a very particular character, or on some extraordinary occasion when a Christian is admitted into the house of a man of quality, and their harems are are always forbid- den.3” But Lady Mary did visit; she is able to describe the real lives of the sultans and wealth heiress of Pera because she saw them and took part in them, something that the male writers of the same time could only make up, presumably late at night...
Her perspective on the lives of these women and subjects like the veil challenges the paradoxical perception of the simultaneously oppressed sexualised muslim woman one which, unfortunately, still drives a lot of the discussion of women in Islam today. In Lady Mary’s opinion, the seclusion of the harem and the anonymity granted by the veil allowed Ottoman women much greater freedom than that of women in Europe. She is particularly impressed by how, thanks to their veil, Ottoman women were able to move around and, importantly for her, have affairs much more freely than they would have been able to in England. “There is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street.”
Lady Mary’s letters, it could be argued, represent the first in a tradition of western women using “the status of Ottoman women to criticise the state of married women in their own societ- ies.4” It is important to note that the world she was coming from was not even remotely one in which women had what we would now call freedom.As a very early feminist, her thoughts are still relevant reading. She writes about sexual liberation and quite openly and humorously about the affairs taking place in the courts she visited. Moreover, although she is traveling with her husband, she clearly does not think him important enough to mention in her letters often. Again it is clear is that she was always trying to be honest about what she saw and doesn’t shy away from the prob- lems of the Ottoman system describing the murder of a woman that doesn’t get investigated by the authorities5. Of course the hole in her writing about Ottoman women is that she is only inter- ested in the lives of the mega-wealthy. She spent her time with the wives and children of sultans, viziers and diplomats, she seems to have had very little interest in people of a lower rank than her. Except a few passing mentions of servants and slaves, she does not write about them. But, des- pite this shortcoming, the book is full of accounts of the women she met and represents a unique source on Ottoman women in this period.
One of the other aspects of Lady Mary’s letters is her interest in vaccination. As a child, she had developed small-pox, a disease that was often fatal at that time. She survived but was scared by the small-pox. She went as far as addressing the ordeal and the social stigma attached to the disfigurement it caused in her poem The Smallpox6. When she was in the Ottoman Empire, a few of her letters describe the practice of engrafting,7 a very early form of inoculation that meant that small-pox wasn’t the mass killer that it was in Europe. She had the procedure done on her children and after she returned to England she and the doctor that performed the procedure for her repeated it on a number of prisoners to prove its effectiveness. This technique would be su- perseded by the work done by Dr. Edward Jenner on Cowpox8. However, it still remains a unique insight into one of the most important scientific developments in the world and the way that Ot- toman knowledge influenced the development of science. This development is unfortunately one that even usually impeccably factual publications overlook9.
The letters of Lady Mary are a great travel log; she’s witty and insightful. If you have an in- terest in Istanbul or Ottoman history and want a truly unique account, written by somebody de- termined to break through the usually tropes, lies and preconceptions about the Ottoman world, I can’t recommend this book more.
2 letter XXX to lady Mar, 01/04/1717
3 Letter XXXIII, to Anne Thistlethwayte 01/04/1718
4 Akman, F. (2018) Ottoman Women in the Eyes of Western Travellers. Istanbul: Kopernik, 56.5 Letter XLVIII to the Countess of-, May 1718
7 Letter XXXII to Sarah Chiswell 01/04/1718
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