I first delved into Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s astringent and witty letters about fifteen years ago when compiling a Book of Days for the Folio Society. I had to find extracts for each day of the year, written on that day – so nearly all from diaries and letters. Towards the end of my search I was left with several stubbornly blank dates, and was even thinking I might have to write bogus entries, but she, along with Pepys, as it were saved the days.
Lady Mary (1689–1762) was a creature of the Augustan Age, with an often forthright but above all rational approach to the world, far removed from the sensibility that later swept in. Lytton Strachey identified her ‘outspoken clarity’ – if today’s social media had been around for her to use, one could see her quickly getting into trouble. She is best known for the letters she wrote from Turkey, where her husband was ambassador in 1717–18, but prior to these came the ones to him before they eloped in 1712. In those of the 1720s she told her sister of the excesses and frivolities of London society, while in the 1740s and ’50s she wrote to her daughter from her self-imposed exile on the Continent.
Like Belloc’s Godolphin Horne, Lady Mary was ‘nobly born’; she might not have ‘held the human race in scorn’ but she often regarded it with an unblinking eye. She was the eldest child of Evelyn Pierre-pont, Earl of Kingston, later promoted Marquis and finally Duke. Her mother, a daughter of the Earl of Denbigh, died when she was only 3 and it seems likely this led to her education being ‘one of the worst in the world’ at the hands of a superstitious old governess who had been her mother’s nurse. But she had what she called ‘my natural inclinations to solitude and reading’ as well as the run of her father’s library, and she taught herself Latin and Greek. In the 1750s she was to offer advice about the education of her granddaughter to her daughter, Lady Bute:
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