Mary Wortley Montagu the poet is better known today for her letters from the Near East. She also introduced the Turkish custom of smallpox vaccination to England. Montagu was cousin Henry Fielding the novelist and worked with Joseph Addison and John Gay. Even when Mary was 60 years old, she is said to have stayed up all night reading Fielding.

Alexander Pope regarded her highly; he copied out her poems and kept a portrait of her in his home until his death. When some of her work was published without permission, Pope, to avenge her, invited the publisher to his home, offered him an emetic-spiked tea, and published the results in a poem. He became Montagu's bitter enemy when she laughed at his declaration of love and she became the object of several caustic verse satires in which she was caricatured as the characters Sappho and Lesbia, the latter based on her questionable relationship with Maria Skerrett, later to become Horace Walpole's stepmother. She is also the model for the abrasive lesbian-like character of Miss Barnevelt in Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison and is likely the model for the duel-fighting Mrs. Delacour in Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. Mrs. Delacour acts the part of a world-weary socialite while hiding what she believes to be a life-threatening cancer in her breast caused by a blow received in the duel. It turns out to be a false alarm. Montagu really did have breast cancer which she concealed as long as she could.

Montagu's private life was marked with scandal; she was a member of Philip Wharton's Hellfire Club and his mistress. Her daughter married Lord Bute, briefly prime minister, and a member of Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club. Bute was widely reputed to be the lover of Princess Augusta, wife of the Prince of Wales and mother of George III.

Montagu's family wanted to suppress her writings and bought her Embassy Letters from the publisher for this purpose; fortunately, another copy had been made and the letters were published to the critical acclaim of Samuel Johnson and Edward Gibbon, among others.

John Hervey, the memoirist was a close friend (vilified by Pope as Sporus). Hervey's son Augustus married Elizabeth Chudleigh whose sensational trial for bigamy was one of the highlights of a age known for scandal (see Collins). His brother Carr Hervey was more than likely Horace Walpole's father.

 

 

Gothic Labyrinth
Gothic Labyrinth