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  • Feminism Against the East/West Divide: Lady Mary’s Turkish Embassy Letters
  • Teresa Heffernan (bio)

In 1717, Lady Mary Pierrepont journeyed to the Ottoman Empire with her husband, Edward Wortley, who had been appointed British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte but had failed miserably as a diplomat and was recalled after only fifteen months. During their brief sojourn, he attempted to negotiate peace between the Ottomans and Austrians and to safeguard British commercial and naval interests in the Levant; she kept a journal and wrote letters on Turkish culture and habits. Lady Mary upon returning to England produced an edited and polished epistolary account of her travels based on these records. Although her daughter Lady Bute burnt the journal and tried to prevent the publication of the letters, the travel narrative was finally published in 1763, a year after Lady Mary’s death. The Embassy Letters were immediately popular and reprinted often to meet the demand; they also received glowing reviews from figures such as Dr. Johnson, Voltaire, and Gibbon.

Recent analysis of the letters has focused largely on the question of whether Lady Mary’s letters participated in or resisted the orientalism of her day and the related issue of whether or to what extent her narrative can be read as feminist. Lisa Lowe, arguing that Edward Said’s theory of orientalism does not take into account the heterogeneity of works on the East, reads Lady Mary’s work as a specifically gendered text which makes use of an emergent feminist discourse to resist the standard orientalist tropes about Eastern women found in many of the works of male travel writers such as Robert Withers, George Sandy, John Covel, Jean Dumont, and Aaron Hill. Despite her own lapses into the orientalist “rhetoric of difference” that characterizes male travel writing and that produces the Occident/Orient divide, Lady Mary, Lowe argues, dissents from this dominant discourse by deploying a “rhetoric of likeness” that [End Page 201] encourages an identification with Turkish women. She concludes: “Lady Mary employs the rhetoric of identification between women of Turkish and English courts as a means of intervening in the differentiating rhetoric of orientalism.” 1

Meyda Yegenoglu, however, takes issue with Lowe’s reading, suggesting that Lady Mary’s work, rather than disrupting the monolithic narrative of orientalism, instead foregrounds the complicity between orientalism and Western feminism. In her travels, Yegenoglu argues, Lady Mary assumes a masculine role (a role unavailable to her in the “masculine” West), “attaches a penis to herself,” and penetrates a “feminized” East, thus complementing rather than challenging the work of the male colonist. While many of the male travelers to the Orient were frustrated by their lack of access to the space of the Eastern woman, the metonymic heart of the Orient, Lady Mary, in good colonial fashion, exposes its inner workings, thus satisfying the desire for the “truth” of the other and solidifying the position of the West as the knowing subject. 2

Srinivas Aravamudan suggests that Lady Mary is far too conscious of the performative nature of writing to invest unquestioningly in such an empirical model in her travel account. It is the very model of the masquerade that Lady Mary valorizes that offers the female subject “a kind freedom that suspends truth.” Interested neither in “capturing” and possessing the Turkish woman nor in indulging the other colonialist narrative of “going native,” Lady Mary maintains a “partial identification” with aristocratic Turkish women, which allows for the possibility of a “positive orientalist ideal” that is both “progressive and inclusionary.” 3

As these debates in the scholarship suggest, it would be reductive either to dismiss Lady Mary’s text as irredeemably orientalist or to herald it as unquestionably feminist. The complicated nexus of her personal life, her role as a public figure, her blue-blood allegiances, the intellectual circle she traveled in, and her race and class biases certainly complicate any attempts to endorse her as a perfect cultural ambassador, bridging the divide between Eastern and Western women. For instance, in several letters, she celebrates the superior beauty of Turkish women, a description that leads Anita Desai to comment enthusiastically on her “extraordinary” attitude to an alien culture, and yet...

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pp. 201-215
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