Stefan Borbély
                A Glimpse Behind the Hamman Doors: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Oriental Letters

"Babes-Bolyai" University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

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 15 months. On this brief sojourn, he attempted to negotiate peace between the Ottomans and Austrians, and to safeguard British commercial and naval interests in the Levant. The family left England, crossed the sea towards Holland, crisscrossed Germany, making a tiresome detour towards Saxony, and afterwards went South-East, reaching Vienna, crossing the frozen puszta of Hungary by the Danube, visiting Belgrade as a guest of a distinguished but free-spirited Turkish effendi, continued its way through Bulgaria, reaching finally Adrianople and Constantinople to feel so good that Lady Montagu gave birth to a daughter and learned earnestly Turkish, in order to penetrate the hidden glamour of the Ottoman society and of its customs covered by art and poetry.


Throughout her journey she kept a journal and wrote a huge amount of letters on European and Turkish culture and habits, sending them to relatives, like Lady Mar (her sister), or Lady Bute (her daughter), and to some distinguished acquaintances, like the famous poet Alexander Pope, whose friend and neighbor in Twickenham Lady Mary was to become after her return from Turkey, until they bitterly quarrel, and finish in snaky public satires and acid gossip. Upon returning to England Lady Mary produced a polished epistolary account of her travels based on these records, which she was reluctant to sign by her own name, presenting them as the diary of a nameless traveller. Her daughter, Lady Bute burnt the journal and tried to prevent the publication of the letters, in order to preserve the respectability of the family. The travel narrative was finally published in 1763, a year after Lady Mary's death, becoming immediately popular and reprinted often to meet the demand. The Embassy Letters received glowing reviews from Dr. Johnson, Voltaire, and Gibbon, and were frequently quoted by Byron, who praised them as the forerunner of the so-called “Byronic” English expatriate eccentricity. Nowadays they are read for their brilliant style – as true expressions of the 18th century woman writing and epistolary fervour -, and as well as for their genuine “feminism” and “orientalism”, as part of an incipient colonial discourse, practiced in England in order to forge a national and imperial identity.


The intention of this paper is to challenge the  “feminism” and “Orientalism” of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters, as forms of exclusive retrospective critical perceptions[1]. The first concept has been continuously forged by the harsh theoretical disputes of our contemporary, warrior, biased feminists, as a form of historical and personal gender emancipation. The second one was coined by the famous book of Edward Said, Orientalism, which defines the term as a generative and downsizing “discourse”, based on “the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, military, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period”[2]. Nevertheless, feminism as such cannot be denied as existing in Lady Mary's Letters, but this paper will deal with feminism as with only a subservient existential tool to achieve a harmonious philosophical attitude, based on the firm pillars of truth, pleasure and reason.


This paper advocates that John Locke's empiricism as a behavioural system offers a better way to approach the Letters, than the endless rhetoric on “Levantinization”[3] or the pretended colonial and cultural superiority discourse, allegedly hidden in the Letters. This essay intends to show that leaving England in order to penetrate a Muslim society and a different habitual and religious system in our continent, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu embodies the concept of “rational enthusiasm and pleasure”, theorised by Locke in his famous Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (? 1690). The pre-conditions of this embodiment lie in three peculiar dimensions of the Letters, which I intend to analyse complementarily:

a.       An inter-textual, sound literary skepticism, which challenges the previous descriptions and discourses of similar Oriental journeys, opposing true sensual empiricism to wild fantasy and imagination;

b.       A typically feminine lust towards gender emancipation, based on societal role escapism: leaving the frosty England and its hierarchical, but rigid upper-class customs, the author discovers a different – although not entirely true – form of feminine life, rooted in the transition from a society of hypocritical masks towards a society of the masquerade;

c.       A prudent abstention from any form of transcendentalism, be it religion, sacred books or political doctrine. Lady Mary acts during her Turkish journey as if she doesn't want to penetrate the deepest spiritual treasures of her hosts – the Koran, for instance, or the religious beliefs -, except societal poetry. I consider this abstention as being the hidden key to her empiricist background, expressed by the will to see only the surfaces of the society she enters. This is not a spiritual infirmity, to be equated with the lack of speculative understanding – obviously, Lady Mary is a very clever woman -, but a philosophical attitude.


The final assertion of these preliminary remarks is that the Letters live as a consequence of their induced empiricism. We can play imagining Lady Mary Wortley Montagu writing to her sister or to her daughter about the deep, abstract meanings of the Koran, or about other speculative realms of the Muslim philosophy or ritualism one can never understand across the Channel. The ladies and even Pope would have accepted them as mere eccentricities, with a due sense of horror and fear. Are we now entitled to blame them for their social and intellectual conformity?


A spiritual portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, as derived from the Letters, will help us better understand her philosophical link to empiricism. The letters reveal not a free thinker, but in a certain degree a mild non-conformist, wrapped in the discrete flavor of independence from the customs. Lady Mary experiences a “mortal aversion to writing”[4], and she is “not partial to people for their titles, although she is always busy obeying aristocratic conventions and the unwritten laws of the society behavior.” She proves to be a pacifist, does not like free thinkers, like Rousseau, whom she meets, believes in world perfection, even before Karl Popper, but she is “a good deal inclined to believe Mr. Hobbes, that the state of nature is a state of war”[5], which allows her to conclude that “human nature [is] not rational”[6]. “I am not, indeed – she writes to Abbé Conti from Vienna – an enemy to dissipation and hurry, much less to amusement and pleasure”, but she “cannot endure long even pleasure, when it is fettered with formality, and assumes the air of system.”[7] She thinks that “forms and ceremonies […] make life formal and tiresome”[8], a belief which she tries to transmit to her hosts; as a consequence, she enjoys a “true female spirit of contradiction”[9], and likes oddities, like saint corpses or bones, which she eagerly visits – and even touches – during her sojourn in Germany. In Turkey she buys both Oriental clothes or fabulous handkerchiefs, and even a mummy, which she thinks will have a better chance to cross the Continent to reach England, than the same vestige owned the Swedish king, dismembered in pieces by its tiresome journey. The keyword of the first half of her travel is mortification, which leads us to believe that she experienced her adventure as initiation, although she denounces the Viennese “pestilential passion” for alchemy, which “has already ruined several great houses.”[10]


Thus, Lady Mary dislikes spiritual extremism, or fanaticism, and acknowledges that each form of life should be adjusted to the sound expectations of society. Her Turkish experience lies in the distinction between mondenity and society, as she interprets the first as being the excessively formalized form of the latter. Two different aspects of aristocratic life mark her sojourn towards South-East: the mondenity of the upper-class life in Vienna, and the splendor of the women in Constantinople, which she enthusiastically considers as being “the freest in the world”[11] – despite the warnings of some illustrious predecessors, whom she kindly disregards. A short glimpse over the Turkish society presented in the Letters shows a sort of societal escapism: the aristocratic English lady frees herself both from the conventions of her milieu, and the excessive orientalist rhetoric of her time, contradicting her correspondents which a sense of truthfulness they have been reluctant to admit. In fact, Lady Mary leaps from exotism to empiricism, describing a glamorous Levant in the mirror of pleasure and lust: the condition of the woman. Men are almost absent from her letters, which also indicates a shift towards gender emancipation.


A short outline of Lady Mary's Oriental observations will help us penetrate the true sense of her intellectual and symbolic journey. “…you see – she writes to Abbé Conti – these people are not so unpolished as we represent them. '’Tis true their magnificence is of a different taste from ours, and perhaps of a better. I am almost of opinion they have a right notion of life; while they consume it in music, gardens, wine and delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some scheme of politics, or studying some science to which to which we can never attain, or, if we do, cannot persuade people to set that value upon it we do ourselves.”[12] It would be probably an exaggeration to see in the denunciation of this never-ending intellectual aspiration an analogy to Spengler's “Faustian culture” (from the Decline of the West), but Lady Mary considers that while the Western culture and way of life are linked rather to death than to human fulfillment (“We die or grow old and decrepit before we can reap de fruit of our labours”[13]), the Oriental (and especially Turkish) philosophy of life is a function of everyday lust. As she perceives the facts, the Orientals enjoy a different quality of time – that of the never-ending present, wrapped in pleasure and sensitivity -, as compared to the Westerners, who live time as a tragic continuum, leading from birth to death through the narrow corridors of despair, grievance and tragedy. The Turkish life presented by Lady Mary is a non-tragically, positive society, as compared to the Western one, which is full of sufferance and negativity. A good example of this comparison lies in the way the Turks treat the slaves: “I know you'll expect – Lady Mary writes to the Countess of Bristol – I should say something particular of the slaves; and you will imagine me half a Turk when I don't speak of it with the same horror other Christians have done before me. But I cannot forbear applauding the humanity of the Turks to these creatures; they are never ill-used, and their slavery is, in my opinion, no worse than servitude all over the world. 'Tis true they have no wages; but they give them yearly clothes to a higher value than our salaries to any ordinary servant. But you'll object, men buy women with an eye to evil. In my opinion, they are bought and sold as publicly and more infamously in all our Christian great cities.”[14]


The shift from cruelty or morality (with their equal: politics) to pleasure is the shift from man to woman. The most quoted excerpts from Lady Mary's letters deal with the image of the Oriental women. “The Turkish ladies – she writes – […] are perhaps freer than any ladies in the universe, and they are the only women in the world that lead a life of uninterrupted pleasure exempt from cares; their whole time being spent in visiting, bathing, or the agreeable amusement of spending money and inventing new fashions. A husband would be thought mad that exacted any degree of economy from his wife, whose expenses are no way limited but by her own fancy. 'Tis his business to get money, and hers to spend it: and this noble prerogative extends itself to the very meanest of the sex.”[15] As we shall later see, this wishful and almost utopian gender perception does not meet similar considerations on this subject, written by other travellers. In Lady Mary's eyes, Turkish female freedom is due to the so-called “masquerade”, which apparently softens the social rankings, linking upper-class women to slaves in a mixture of emancipated feminity: “'Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have. No woman, of that rank soever, being admitted to go into the streets without two muslins; one that covers her face all but her eyes, and another that hides the whole dress of her head, and hangs halfway down her back, and their shapes are wholly concealed by a thing they call a ferigee,  which no woman of any sort appears without; this has strait sleeves, that reach to their finger-ends, and it laps all round them, not unlike a riding-hood. In winter 'tis of cloth, and in summer plain stuff or silk. You may guess how effectually this disguises them, [so] that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave. 'Tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when she meets her; and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street.”[16]. “'Tis perpetuate masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery”[17]; among them Lady Mary lavishly cites secret love affair meetings at a Jew's shop and other illicit gallantries, performed under the casual discretion provided by the veil. “You may easily imagine – Lady Mary giggles to the Countess of Mar – the number of faithful wives very small in a country where they have nothing to fear from a lover's indiscretion…”[18] Please compare: Shakespeare's Othello is a jealous killer Mauro


A complementary attitude of luxury and pleasure lies in the famous Hammam scene of the Letters, describing a visit to a public bath preserved exclusively for women. Entering the bath in her travelling habit, the English lady certainly raised some sensation among the naked, charming “goddesses” present in the building, but – Lady Mary goes on – they “received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to a stranger. I believe in the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, or satiric whispers, that never fail in our assemblies when any body appears that is not exactly dressed in the fashion.”[19] The distinction between the Western restrictive society and the Oriental “pleasure society” reappears, when the visitor is kindly invited to undress and join the crowd: “The lady that seemed the most considerable among them, entreated me to sit by her, and would fain have undress me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty. They being all so earnest in persuading me, I was at last forced to open my shirt, and shew them my stays; which satisfied them very well, for, I saw, they believed I was so locked up in that machine, that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband.”[20]


Lady Mary marks a shift from the Western society of hypocritical masks and convenience strategies to the Oriental society of the masquerade, which allows women to exercise their liberty and even their secret erotic propensities. The whole passages from the letters point to the concept of rational pleasure, derived from Locke's empiricism. In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding[21], Locke ranks pleasure among the “simple ideas of both sensation and reflection”, defining it as “delight”, opposed to “pain” and “uneasiness”[22]. Pleasure has a compensative role in the economy of life: as we find everywhere only “imperfection, dissatisfaction”, “it has therefore pleased our wise creator to annex to several objects, and to the ideas which we receive from them, and also to several of our thoughts, a concomitant pleasure…”[23] As coming from God, as an attachment to things and ideas, pleasure is part of the rational contiguity of the world, due to the “positive ideas”. On the contrary, pain, or sufferance is negative. We can thrive to pleasure (and as such, to a positive feeling of life) by trusting our perceptions, the “ideas of sensation [being] often changed by the judgement”[24]. As such, rational pleasure denotes our participation to the universe, as beings looking for positive completeness.


A different aspect is related to the will. Will is driven by uneasiness, lack of completion, or by pain. Will indicates the presence of negativity in man: not the completeness, but merely the aspiration towards it. Will is a sort of active prison man imposes upon him: therefore, “in respect of willing a man is not free”[25].  On the contrary, freedom is equaled to pleasure; on the condition we do not attain it by any kind of effort or thriving. Pleasure is as such linked to the passivity of the senses: when the man leaves life to only happen around him, without even forcing it into being, he gets the greatest chances to reach the complexity of pleasure.


Leaving England to start her journey, Lady Mary leaves behind her a culture based on negativity, in order to gain complex pleasure from the Oriental feeling of completeness and “positive” life. It is interesting to note here that all her hints to England and the continental culture are based on negativities. “I cannot help wishing, in the loyalty of my heart – the traveller writes to the Countess of Bristol – that the parliament would send hither a ship-load of your passive obedient men, that they might see arbitrary government in its clearest and strongest light, where it is hard to judge whether the prince, people, or ministers are more miserable.”[26] To add a further example: I have already quoted the famous line concerning the misery of the continental thinking: “We die or grow old and decrepid before we can reap de fruit of our labours.”[27]


A last question lies in the difference between experience and imagination, which involves the inter-textual dimension of the Letters. Lady Mary – who had read a lot about Levant before her departure, especially Sir Paul Rycaut's account (1652) – explicitly writes her epistles in order to correct the negative perception of the region and religion she is entering, although her interest in the Koran or in the ritualistic aspects of the Muslim faith does not exceed the accidental remarks of a traveler who is determined to keep distance from doctrines and differences, and see only the societal aspects of them, embodied in love poetry.


The negative imagination of her fellow English aristocrats concerns her a lot. “You will perhaps be surprised at an account so different from what you have been entertained with by the common voyage-writers, who are very fond of speaking of what they don't know” – she replies to Mrs. Thistlethwayte.[28] In June 17, 1717, an English lady asks her to buy her a Greek slave “who is to be mistress of a thousand good qualities”. The refusal is blunt, and neglects common conveniences: “Your whole letter is full of mistakes from one end to the other. I see you have taken your ideas of Turkey from that worthy author Dumont, who has written with equal ignorance and confidence. 'Tis a particular pleasure to me here, to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removed from truth, and so full of absurdities, I am very diverted with them.”[29] A true Anglican, Lady Mary hates Rome, a conviction which she shares with her hosts: „I explained to him [to effendi Achmet-Beg, the family's host in Belgrade] the difference between the religion of England and Rome; and he was pleased to hear there were Christians that did not worship images, or adore the Virgin Mary. The ridicule of transubstantiation appeared very strong to him.”[30] Chirstian priests are also guilty for distorting the Koran, by biased translations: „He [again: Achmet-Beg] assured me, that if I understood Arabic, I should be very well pleased with reading the Alcoran, which is so far from the nonsense we charge it with, it is the purest morality, delivered in the very best language. I have since heard impartial Christians speak of it in the same manner; and I don't doubt that all our translations are from copies got from the Greek priests, who would not fail to falsify it with the extremity of malice. No body of men ever were more ignorant, and more corrupt...”[31]


In this respect, Lady Mary's aestheticism is fully understandable through the peculiar Oriental perception of the Enlightenment. In his L'Orient imaginaire[32], Thierry Hentsch points out that there has been a shift in the perception of the Orient from the 16th to the 18th century, throughout Europe. Traditionally, starting with the Renaissance, Europe has perceived the Orient on three different levels: as a fascination towards secret mysticism, as apostasy (the Mohammedanism), and as the realm of an extremely strong interest in philosophy and science, a tradition one can trace back to Averroes. For Pierre Belon du Mars, who paid a trip to Levant between 1546 and 1549, and published Les Observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses mémorables, trouvées an Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie & autres pays étrangères, rédigées en trois livres (1554) the Turks are skillful doctors, and their slaves are so nice, that they participate in the common good along with their masters, although the people's religion is false, based on the revelations of a „fake prophet”.[33] Guillaume Postel (De la république des Turcs, 1560; La Livre de la concorde entre le Coran et les Evangiles, 1553) still speaks about „the perverse argumentation of the Koran”[34], but praises the piety and the religious fervor of the Muslims, who could become a good example to the Christians. As seen in the second title, religious „concorde” as spiritual universalism is a stronger word for Postel than separation: both „lights” are the emanation of the same Transcendence, in two complementary revelations. This tolerance goes up to Voltaire, and passes through Jean Bodin, whose Heptaplomeres (never published during his lifetime) imagines a new Symposion, where seven theologians gather: a Catholic, two Protestants, a Jew, a Muslim, a follower of the religion of the nature, and an eclectic. They conclude over a spiritual polyphony, with harmonies and discordances.[35] In his La Méthode de l'histoire, Jean Bodin distinguishes among three types of populations in Europe: the brutal peoples of the North, who live under the signs of Mars and the Moon, having the warrior Scythes among them, as forerunners of the Turks, the contemplative and philosophical people of the South (Greeks, Latins, Egyptians), who live under the sign of Saturn, and the active, political men of the central part of Europe (under the sign of Jupiter), by whom Bodin kindly understands the French, under the sign of Saturn, and the active, political men of the central part of Europe (under the sign of Jupiter), by whom Bodin kindly understands the French. The allegory hides a tripartition, as Georges Dumézil has defined it in his works: the „political” French take the role of the „power” (or the scepter), the people of the North that of the military, and the Mediterranean people the role of work and subsistence.


The next century brings about a shift towards separation. In the meantime, the Turks expanded their conquers in Europe, and the cultural Europe answers by denying them any profound human and cultural substance, by shifting the interest towards the by-products of their civilization. This trend is called „ethnographism”, and it is represented by Jean Thévenot, who voyaged in Turkey from 1655 to 1659, publishing later a Voyage du Levant. Thévenot is fair enough to concede that the Turks „are good people”, but his imagination is already full of preconceptions, which he is eager to contradict: Mahomet is a „man with no science”, the Koran is „full of fables and follies”, but the Turks are not barbarians and devilish, as many Christians see them.[36]


The most radical representative of this latest perception is Leibniz, who prepares an expedition to Egypt, on the expense of the French king Louis XIV (1672). In his preliminary report to the king, Leibniz writes about the political chaos of the Ottoman Empire, saying that the Turks are nothing but ignorant and barbarian: they do not know history and geography, are ignorant in religion, being nothing than a prison for slaves and a land of total obscurity. As Thierry Hentsch remarks (I am still very much indebted to his demonstration), Leibniz works for the „Orientalism” of the 19th century, not for the rehabilitation performed during the Enlightenment. On the contrary, the Enlightenment discovers Arabic poetry: in 1704, Antoine Galland publishes in Paris The Arabian Nights, and the whole century starts to approach Oriental religion through its aesthetic by-products: story telling and poetry. As such, the Islam was taken into the houses, kept on shelves and taught as source of beauty.


In less than three centuries – Thierry Hentsch argues – the European perception of the Orient, and especially of the Ottoman Empire, marked a shift towards exotism and aestheticism. From a strange culture, as it was perceived in the 17th century, the Orient became a collection of curiosities and of poetry brilliant enough to raise imagination. Voltaire (Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, 1764) still considers that the Koran is „a bulk of ridiculous, vague and incoherent revelations and predictions”.[37]

A little bit earlier, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – although she likes Turkey – perceives it as a piece of artistry: „This country is certainly one of the finest in the world – she writes to Mrs. Hewet -; hitherto all I see is so new to me, it is like a fresh scene of an opera every day.”[38]  

[1] See: Srinivas Avaramudan: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization, in: EHL 62.1 (1995), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, p. 69-104; Teresa Heffernan: Feminism Against the East/West Divide: Lady Mary's Turkish Embassy Letters, in: Eighteen-Century Studies, 33.2 (2000), The American Society for Eighteen-Century Studies, 2000, p. 201-215

[2] Edward Said: Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient. Penguin Books, 1995, p. 3

[3] See Srinivas Avaramudam, op.cit. (Title and text)

[4] Mary Wortley Montagu: Letters. With an Introduction by Clare Brant. Everyman's Library, 1992, p. 74

[5] Ibid., p. 100

[6] Ibid., p. 100

[7] Ibid., p. 89

[8] Ibid., p. 113

[9] Ibid., p. 168

[10] Both quotations: ibid., p. 90

[11] Ibid., p. 168

[12] Ibid., p. 175

[13] Ibid., p. 175

[14] Ibid., p. 166

[15] Ibid., p. 168

[16] Ibid., p. 116

[17] Ibid., p. 116

[18] Ibid., p. 116

[19] Adrianople, April 1, 1717 (To the Lady ---). Ibid., p. 105

[20] Ibid., p. 106

[21] Selected by Mary Whiton Calkins,  Felix Meiner, Leipzig, 1913 (Bibliotheca Philosophorum, vol. IX)

[22] Op.cit., chapter VII, p. 45 sq.

[23] Ibid., p. 46

[24] Ibid., p. 67

[25] Ibid., p. 142 (Chapter XXI. Of Power)

[26] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters, ed. cit., p. 112

[27] Ibid., p. 175

[28] Ibid., p. 128

[29] Both quotations: ibid., pp. 145-146

[30] Ibid., p. 108

[31] Ibid., p. 109

[32] Thierry Hentsch: L'orient imaginaire. La vision politique occidentale de l'Est méditerranéen. Les Éditions de Minuit, 1988

[33] Op.cit., pp. 96-98

[34] Ibid., p. 102

[35] Apud: Thierry Hentsch, op.cit., p. 108

[36] Ibid., p. 125 sq.

[37] Ibid., p. 154

[38] Letters, ed.cit., p. 129