Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy

Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy

Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy

Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy

Synopsis

Although Lady Mary was long well-known as a "character," a letter writer, and a traveler, there has recently been a renewed widespread and serious interest in her literary work. Despite being an aristocrat and a woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) made herself into a writer. She saw herself as "haunted by the Daemon of Poesie." She wrote literary criticism of Addison and the only essay by a woman published in the Spectator, together with spirited verse replies to Pope and Swift, and passionate love-poems which dispute the period's label "Age of Reason." Her essays (some published anonymously in newspapers) and poems (many of which appeared with or without her secret connivance) deal with issues still alive and accessible today: love, marriage, prejudice against women writers, and the medical breakthrough of smallpox innoculation. Hard-hitting, eloquent, and often funny, the work of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu will be essential reading for the growing number of scholars, students, and general readers of women's writings.

Excerpt

It is fifteen years since the first edition of these Essays and Poems appeared, and therefore getting on for 300 years since Lady Mary Wortley Montagu first saw her writing in print (anonymously: readers of that Spectator essay of 1714 no doubt assumed it to be by Addison or Steele, or perhaps by one of their gentlemen associates). It is nearly 200 years since Lady Mary's descendants, the then Marquess of Bute and Earl of Wharncliffe, with several other interested parties, were deep in debate about a projected first edition of her Works. Like the Spectator regulars, these heirs and guardians of her reputation were all male; they planned a proper, family-sanctioned edition of her writings which was provoked by, and designed to nip in the bud, plans for more opportunistic and commercial publication. It is, alas, over three years since Robert Halsband died, who would have rejoiced to see a paperback edition extend her readership more widely.

Like others of her time, sex, and class, Lady Mary wrote firstly for her relations and intimate friends. But consistently, from her teens to the last year of her life, she sought a wider audience. Her first readership, a coterie of adolescent girls, spanned a surprising social range, from daughters of great dukes to daughters of provincial attorneys. She titled her manuscript volume of those days 'The Entire Works of Clarinda'; she annotated her critique of Addison's Cato (1712): 'Wrote at the Desire of Mr. Wortley, suppress'd at the desire of Mr. Adison'. Returning as a dying woman to England, she gave her own MS of her Embassy Letters to the Revd Mr Sowden. He was her last hope for making them public, in case the copyists she had already encouraged should fail to do so. She made no mistake in judging that her family would prefer them to remain unknown: her daughter was to treasure in secret her mother's lifelong diary, but eventually to burn it.

Today she belongs primarily to her readers. Very, very few of those readers share her class, and perhaps a minority share her nationality. Probably the greater number share her gender, and probably most of that majority share her feminism, or would at . . .

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