Wednesday 18 May 2022

'The Turkish Embassy Letters' at Dr Johnson's Reading Circle

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle can be a far flung lot. Some of us are in Switzerland, some in Cumbria, some flit between the US and UK - some even live in Ealing. There were a fair amount of travels in the eighteenth-century but for all the young men going on the Grand Tour, there were few people travelling as far as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. We sat, five days before her 333rd birthday and discussed The Turkish Embassy Letters.

Travelling to Turkey, pregnant and with a young daughter, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu made the best of her situation. Not only did she travel with her bed, she travelled with an open mind and a smart, witty pen. 

The journey to Turkey exercised her snarky voice more than her open one. She laughs at a private collection for having nothing old in it and laughs harder when the curator protests that some of the exhibits have been on the shelf for almost forty years. She derides the overdecorated reliquaries as being a waste of jewels and describes a church full of statues as looking like a toy shop. What’s more, following a stay in Vienna, Montagu concludes that the people can’t dance, have been dancing the same old dances for too long and need to come up with something new. They’d get there eventually. There was also a page on the Tuscan practise of the cicisbeo, which would have been handy during our reading of Elizabeth Griffith’s The Times.

However, the letters really open up when she starts to mix with Turkish culture. Her first encounter is with an effendi called Achmed Bey (but not the famous one). First, he surprises her by having a well-stocked wine cellar. He argues that seeing as God made grapes and grape make wine, a little tipple is quite acceptable but that alcohol causes problems in bulk and so the laws against it protects the average person. She’s very taken with this argument and repeats it a number of times, it seems to indicate to her that things aren’t all haram or halal, there is room for rational discussion and decision. If anything, it shows an openness on the part of the scholars of Islam. He also shows her Arabic poetry and tries to explain it to her. She’s immediately entranced by it, enjoying the different qualities it has to the poetry she is used to and attempting her own translations of it to send to Alexander Pope. 

When she arrived in Turkey, she delighted in the differences, correcting many of the assumptions her correspondents wrote to her with. She very curtly informs a well-to-do lady that she will not be bringing back a slave in her duty-free for her, though she’s happy to bring back colourful outfits and the mysterious ‘Balm of Mecca’, a skin cream which may have been very effective once the swelling went down. She also buys a mummy at one point.

Montagu was very aware of the travel and fictional literature that dealt with the Islamic world and she repeatedly informs her correspondents that she will have to disappoint their romantic notions by writing nothing but the truth. However, when she does come across something incredible, like the Sultana’s outfit (the gems of which she tots up in her head), she can’t help but be reminded of the Arabian Nights.

Other than her openness to Islamic culture and her rigid preference for the truth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu stands out for her gender. Being a woman she was able to go into the women’s spaces, the baths and harems, and report on them. First, she is taken with the looks of the women she sees, almost all of them are described as beautiful and she takes particular notice of their flawless skin (having suffered heavily from the smallpox herself). She finds the bath-houses places of beauty and luxury, where women are naked together, something which dampens class differences and brings them together. She doesn’t get naked herself, and the women in the bath mistake her stays to be some sort of chastity cage she has been put in by her husband.

She revels in women only spaces, feeling a freedom from men that she finds impossible in her English life. What’s more, women were given a financial independence that meant a rich Turkish wife could live in luxury and could even slip out with the handy anonymity of the veil. This independence made the rich wives of Turkey “the only free people in the Empire” as she saw it, and possibly the freest people alive. 

Unfortunately, her time in Turkey didn’t last very long. Her husband was relieved of his position as ambassador and they had to travel back to Britain’s “scanty allowance of daylight.” As well as her silks, her mummy, copies of Arabic poetry and a new daughter - she also brought back a common Turkish medical practice. The practice of inoculation against smallpox. Not only had she been disfigured by the disease, her brother had died and so her son was the first English person to undergo inoculation, where a little smallpox was introduced to a patient to build their immunity. Her young daughter was the first to have the procedure done inside the UK and, after an experiment with condemned prisoners, she managed to get the Princess of Wales on board. Although Edward Jenner would later create vaccination from cowpox, her own push for inoculation started the process that lead to smallpox being the only disease eradicated through human action and she is remembered for it in a plaque in Johnson’s own hometown of Lichfield.

We enjoyed these letters. They showed a wide open curiosity with a dedication to true reportage, they opened doors locked to most travellers at the time and they were quick and fun to read. They show a genuine letter writer ‘writing to the moment’ and really crafting those letters for different audiences. She’s cultural writing to Pope, warm to her sister and utterly businesslike and cold to her husband. He was hardly mentioned in the letters but he does not come off very well at all. One of our earlier forays into the eighteenth century, I think we’d all be happy to recommend The Turkish Embassy Letters.

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