Travel and Health

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, from The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763)

The personal or familiar letter is a letter that is directed at a select, private audience; it is frequently conversational in style and relatively unstructured in form; and its contents are not usually calculated to interest anyone but the intended recipient. However, the collection now known as The Turkish Embassy Letters is not just a casual compilation of personal correspondence; rather, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu carefully edited and polished the collection with a view to its publication after her death.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) had a keen sense of the literary value of her letters. In a letter to her sister, Lady Mar, Montagu writes of her pleasure in reading the letters of another celebrated letter-writer, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné: "very pretty they are, but I assert without the least vanity that mine will be full as entertaining 40 years hence. I advise you therefore to put none of 'em to the use of Wast[e] paper" (June 1726). Indeed, Montagu's epistles were held up as models of lively letter-writing for much of the eighteenth century, and our modern sense of what constitutes an effective, entertaining personal letter has been guided by her epistolary style. She entrusted the letters to the Reverend Benjamin Sowden, and despite the protests of her family, who purchased the manuscript from Sowden in an attempt to prevent its publication, the letters were published from a rogue copy of the manuscript, under the title Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M[ar]y W[ortle]y M[ontagu]e, written, during her travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa to persons of distinction (1763).

The Turkish Embassy Letters were written while Montagu traveled with her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, who had been appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to the Court of Turkey. Edward Montagu was also a representative of the London-based Levant Company, which traded in this region for items such as tulips, coffee, and silk. Edward Montagu's double appointment (which might represent a conflict of interest today) was made at a time when the Ottoman Empire's influence on trade and the movement of goods was extremely powerful. The task of Edward Montagu's diplomatic appointment was, in part, to keep trade functioning smoothly. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in effecting a truce between the warring nations of Austria and Turkey, and he was quickly replaced. The Montagus left England in 1716, and returned in 1718.

The Turkish Embassy Letters chronicle the encounters of a curious mind with numerous aspects of a foreign culture in frank and witty language. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote enthusiastically to her friend, Alexander Pope, about the beauties of Turkish poetry, and set herself the task of learning Turkish grammar so that she could translate poems. To other correspondents, she wrote that she was impressed by the liberties given to women by Turkish cultural institutions, such as the veils that rendered a woman incognita in the street (the better, she thought, to conduct secret love affairs). She was struck by the unpretentious behavior of women in the Turkish baths, which she compared to English coffeehouses because of the freedom of conversation they promoted. Likewise, as a small-pox survivor — she had succumbed to the disease in 1715, and hid her smallpox scars under makeup, or paint, as it was called — Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was intrigued by the Turkish method of inoculation against this disease, and later introduced these methods into England with the help of the physician Charles Maitland. Her letters concerning inoculation and the Turkish baths appear below.

[The Turkish Method of Inoculation for the Small Pox]

Letter to [Sarah Chiswell], dated at Adrianople, 1 April 1717 >> note 1

* * *

A propos of Distempers, I am going to tell you a thing that I am sure will make you wish your selfe here. The Small Pox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting (which is the term they give it). There is a set of old Women who make it their business to perform the Operation. Every Autumn in the month of September, when the great Heat is abated, people send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small pox. They make partys for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly 15 or 16 together) the old Woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox and asks what veins you please to have open'd. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens 4 or 5 veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the Middle of the forehead, in each arm and on the breast to mark the sign of the cross, but this has a very ill Effect, all these wounds leaving little Scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who chuse to have them in the legs or that part of the arm that is conceal'd. The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day and are in perfect health till the 8th. Then the fever begins to seize 'em and they keep their beds 2 days, very seldom 3. They have very rarely above 20 or 30 in their faces, which never mark, and in 8 days time they are as well as before their illness. Where they are wounded there remains running sores during the Distemper, which I don't doubt is a great releife to it. Every year thousands undergo this Operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasantly that they take the Small Pox here by way of diversion as they take the Waters in other Countrys. There is no example of any one that has dy'd in it, and you may beleive I am very well satisfy'd of the safety of the Experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little Son. I am Patriot enough to take pains to bring this usefull invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our Doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of 'em that I thought had Virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their Revenue for the good of Mankind, but that Distemper is too beneficial to them not to expose to all their Resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps if I live to return I may, however, have courrage to war with 'em. Upon this Occasion, admire the Heroism in the Heart of your Freind, etc.

["The Ladys Coffeehouse"; or, the Turkish Baths]

To Lady — — — , Adrianople, 1 April 1717

I am now got into a new World where every thing I see appears to me a change of Scene, and I write to your Ladyship with some content of mind, hoping at least that you will find the charm of Novelty in my Letters and no longer reproach me that I tell you nothing extrordinary. I won't trouble you with a Relation of our tedious Journey, but I must not omit what I saw remarkable at Sophia, one of the most beautifull Towns in the Turkish Empire and famous for its Hot Baths that are resorted to both for diversion and health. I stop'd here one day on purpose to see them. Designing to go incognito, I hir'd a Turkish Coach. These Voitures are not at all like ours, but much more convenient for the Country, the heat being so great that Glasses would be very troublesome. They are made a good deal in the manner of the Dutch Coaches, haveing wooden Lattices painted and gilded, the inside being painted with baskets and nosegays of Flowers, entermix'd commonly with little poetical mottos. They are cover'd all over with scarlet cloth, lin'd with silk and very often richly embrodier'd and fring'd. This covering entirely hides the persons in them, but may be thrown back at pleasure and the Ladys peep through the Lattices. They hold 4 people very conveniently, seated on cushions, but not rais'd.

In one of these cover'd Waggons I went to the Bagnio about 10 a clock. It was allready full of Women. It is built of Stone in the shape of a Dome with no Windows but in the Roofe, which gives Light enough. There was 5 of these domes joyn'd together, the outmost being less than the rest and serving only as a hall where the portress stood at the door. Ladys of Quality gennerally give this Woman the value of a crown or 10 shillings, and I did not forget that ceremony. The next room is a very large one, pav'd with Marble, and all round it rais'd 2 Sofas of marble, one above another. There were 4 fountains of cold Water in this room, falling first into marble Basins and then running on the floor in little channels made for that purpose, which carry'd the streams into the next room, something less than this, with the same sort of marble sofas, but so hot with steams of sulphur proceeding from the baths joyning to it, twas impossible to stay there with one's Cloths on. The 2 other domes were the hot baths, one of which had cocks of cold Water turning into it to temper it to what degree of warmth the bathers have a mind to.

I was in my travelling Habit, which is a rideing dress, and certainly appear'd very extrordinary to them, yet there was not one of 'em that shew'd the least surprize or impertinent Curiosity, but receiv'd me with all the obliging civillity possible. I know no European Court where the Ladys would have behav'd them selves in so polite a manner to a stranger. I beleive in the whole there were 200 Women and yet none of those disdainfull smiles or satyric whispers that never fail in our assemblys when any body appears that is not dress'd exactly in fashion. They repeated over and over to me, Uzelle, pek uzelle, which is nothing but, charming, very charming. The first sofas were cover'd with Cushions and rich Carpets, on which sat the Ladys, and on the 2nd their slaves behind 'em, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any Beauty or deffect conceal'd, yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest Gesture amongst 'em. They Walk'd and mov'd with the same majestic Grace which Milton describes of our General Mother. There were many amongst them as exactly proportion'd as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shineingly white, only adorn'd by their Beautifull Hair divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces. I was here convinc'd of the Truth of a Refflexion that I had often made, that if twas the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observ'd. I perceiv'd that the Ladys with the finest skins and most delicate shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, thô their faces were sometimes less beautifull than those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough to wish secretly that Mr Gervase could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improv'd his art to see so many fine Women naked in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking Coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their Cushions while their slaves (generally pritty Girls of 17 or 18) were employ'd in braiding their hair in several pritty manners. In short, tis the Women's coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc. They gennerally take this Diversion once a week, and stay there at least 4 or 5 hours without geting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cool room, which was very surprizing to me. The Lady that seem'd the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undress'd me for the bath. I excus'd my selfe with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in perswading me. I was at last forc'd to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfy'd 'em very well, for I saw they beleiv'd I was so lock'd up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband. I was charm'd with their Civillity and Beauty and should have been very glad to pass more time with them, but Mr W[ortley] resolving to persue his Journey the next morning early, I was in haste to see the ruins of Justinian's church, which did not afford me so agreeable a prospect as I had left, being little more than a heap of stones.

Adeiu, Madam. I am sure I have now entertaind you with an Account of such a sight as you never saw in your Life and what no book of travells could inform you of. 'Tis no less than Death for a Man to be found in one of these places.


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