This article examines Mary Wortley Montagu's self-representation in her letters in the context of literature, history, and culture, especially her literal and metaphorical translations of a Turkish love lyric in a letter to Alexander Pope in the spring of 1717. Beginning with a survey of recent feminist and postcolonial criticism in Montagu studies, including the fraught term of "orientalism" as it has sometimes been applied recursively to understand the discourse of Montagu's era, I emphasize Montagu's own words as she presents herself and her purpose in the letter and as she makes use of tropes of foreignness, literary tradition, and artistic merit. Along with a consideration of critical interpretations of Montagu, this article provides a historical and cultural analysis of Montagu's understanding of a poet's role and explores the political resonance of her choice to translate a Turkish lyric for Pope, an icon of British poetry.
Critical and Historical Survey
Mary Wortley Montagu was an influential figure in the literary, social, and political circles of Britain in the eighteenth century. She was a prolific author of poems, novels, and plays, including the frequently anthologized poem "The Lover: A Ballad," as well as more serious critiques of women's place in society, and even before the age of fourteen, she had produced an impressive volume of writing.
A woman with a lively curiosity and wide social circle, she produced the Turkish Embassy Letters, a milestone in travel literature, literature by women, [End Page 244] and British-Muslim interaction. Montagu is mostly remembered today for her travel writings. She is also known to medicine for having popularized in Britain the Turkish practice of inoculation against smallpox, decades before Edward Jenner developed vaccination.
Montagu corresponded frequently with her friends while in Turkey, including the poet Alexander Pope, although her friendship with Pope appears to have ended after her return to England. She is frequently rumored to have insulted him by refusing his offer of love. They traded insults in verse: she is thought to be an author of "A Pop upon Pope," and he castigated her in his Dunciad and his First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated.
Montagu was doubly an outsider in Turkish society when she traveled there with her diplomat husband. As a woman, and therefore the appendage to her diplomat husband, she was a privileged observer of life in the countryside, at the Turkish court, and especially among the "princesses and great ladies," as she described court women in the terms of European aristocracy.1 Although she was a British woman accompanying an early diplomatic mission to a civilization much more ancient than and at least as powerful as England's, Montagu's observations are mundane and domestic, rather than tinged with the male world of political intrigue, as she reports on life in this rival empire.
These multiple layers of her presence also impart a certain authority, however. In her travel letters, she claimed to be presenting to her friends at firsthand the authentic nature of life among the Ottoman Turks. Her correspondent, Alexander Pope, is significant; Montagu's biographer Isobel Grundy suggests that "Pope, struggling against the restrictions imposed on his own life by his ill-health and by his religion, more than once expressed his sympathy with those of the other sex 'by their Forms confin'd . . . Womankind.'"2 Grundy has demonstrated Montagu's involvement in women's issues; she was friends with poet and reformer Mary Astell and gave voice to feminist sentiments in works such as "Epistle from Mrs. Yonge." Pope was still Montagu's close friend in 1717, although they would later part, apparently after their own Pan-Syrinx episode.
Montagu's cultural and historical context informed her literal and metaphorical translation of lyric poetry. Assessing attitudes and views toward the Turkish culture she was visiting, whether of her compatriots, herself, or Turks, Montagu linguistically presents herself as an edified observer who has been transported to a land reminiscent of ancient Greece, with a literature reminiscent of ancient Israel as well. Montagu sidesteps the medieval conflict between Europe and Western...