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Review: The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist by Jo Willett. A guest review by London Historians Member Caroline Rance, aka @quackwriter.

montaguHow else could I begin a review of a biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu than to draw parallels between the smallpox epidemic of 1721 and our own situation precisely three centuries later? It was in that year that Lady Mary had her little daughter inoculated against smallpox and advocated for the uptake within England of this established Eastern practice. Inoculation involved deliberately infecting a person with the disease so that they would suffer a mild case and develop immunity to future exposure.

Although riskier than vaccination, which superseded it at the end of the 18th century, inoculation had a vital role in the long process of discovery that eventually saw the total eradication of smallpox across the world. It was a precursor to the vaccines that protect us from many diseases today.

My own interest in Lady Mary has focused on this medicine-related episode, but Jo Willett’s engaging biography shows how much more there was to this extraordinary woman. The pioneering inoculation advocacy is just one facet of a life full of literary achievement, romantic misadventure and independent wanderings around Europe.

The book is warmly observed, accessible to the general reader and confidently researched, drawing on Lady Mary’s correspondence and that of her friends (and enemies) to reveal the intelligence, courage and – perhaps most memorably for me – the vulnerability of its subject. The material is well organised, with a clear theme to each chapter. This means that the book does not always run in a chronologically linear fashion, but does feel carefully thought out and comprehensive.

Born into an aristocratic family in 1689, the young Lady Mary Pierrepont ‘stole’ an education by sneaking into her father’s library and teaching herself Latin. By her mid-teens she was already an accomplished and witty writer, but for a girl of her social status, marriage was a destiny difficult to avoid. Faced with an unprepossessing suitor by the name of Clotworthy Skeffington, she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu – hardly someone she would describe as her ‘paradise’, but better than the alternative. During her twenties, Lady Mary accompanied her husband in his role as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, immersing herself in local life. It was during this period that she wrote her famous Turkish Embassy Letters and learnt about the process of inoculation.

As a pioneer in the fight against physical disease, Lady Mary’s importance is assured, but I was less convinced by the author’s assertion that she can be described as a mental health campaigner too. In 1728, Lady Mary’s sister Frances, nicknamed ‘Sister Mar’, experienced a catastrophic breakdown after years of psychological struggle. Lady Mary fought to protect her sister from male family members who wished to keep Lady Frances out of the way as cheaply as possible and take possession of her money. Lady Mary’s intervention through the Court of Chancery enabled her sister to be treated with dignity in a well-run asylum, with a fair financial allowance. Although worthy of admiration, Lady Mary’s determination was clearly focused on looking after her own loved one, not on campaigning for mental health provision among the wider population.

I have mentioned Lady Mary’s vulnerability, and it is Willett’s handling of this aspect that I found particularly honest and compelling. It is easy to champion Lady Mary as a role model, but those for whom she had responsibility – her children – might beg to differ, as her relationship with them in adulthood was strained. Her daughter married the Earl of Bute against her father’s wishes, leading to tension in the family. Meanwhile, Lady Mary was continually exasperated by the exploits of her son Edward, a chap so dissolute and useless that he eventually had no option but to become an MP.

Lady Mary’s flaws are also evident in some of her relationships with men. Although she was well-armed in the battle of scathing literary wit she undertook with former friend Alexander Pope, there were times in her life when she was less self-possessed.

Having fallen in love with the much younger Venetian intellectual, Francesco Algarotti, she unofficially left her husband and travelled across Europe in the hope of building a life with him. After successfully avoiding her for years, Algarotti finally turned up, but any relationship that did occur was short-lived. Travelling alone might have been adventurous, but Lady Mary’s continuing infatuation in the face of being messed about appears somewhat undignified.

When someone is so clever, unconventional and courageous, it is disconcerting to imagine that they could fall prey to scammers, yet Lady Mary’s entanglement with the bandit Count Palazzi in Brescia brings home the fact that intelligence is not always a defence against manipulation – he is reminiscent of the internet swindlers who send friend requests to mature women today. Palazzi conned her out of huge amounts of money and was probably responsible for the theft of her jewels. Yet she continued bailing him out even after realising something dodgy was going on, which provides a fascinating contrast to the independence Lady Mary displayed in so much of her life.

Although a more superficial account of Lady Mary would perhaps celebrate her as the ‘strong woman’ stereotype, Willett shows that she was more than just an eccentric historical character – she defied convention, retained an inquiring mind in the face of gendered social pressure, and she made an important contribution to medical science. But she was complicated and vulnerable too, and the honesty of this portrayal of her humanity is what makes this such an enlightening and absorbing biography.

The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist, 232pp, by Jo Willett published in hardback by Pen & Sword on 30 March with a cover price of £25 but available for less. 

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