The Aesthetics of Intimacy: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Her Readers

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[Lady Holdernesse] is tenderly attach'd to the polite Mr. Mildmay, and sunk in all the Joys of happy Love notwithstanding she wants the use of her 2 hands by a Rheumatism, and he has an arm that he can't move. I wish I could send you the particulars of this Amour, which seems to me as curious as that between 2 Oysters, and as well worthy the serious Enquiry of the Naturalists.(1)

In this bit of gossip excerpted from a letter of March, 1724, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu reveals a delightful intimacy with her subject and audience that characterizes that large group of her epistles to her sister, the Countess of Mar, written from 1721 to 1727. Keenly aware of her reader's appetite, Lady Mary has carefully modulated her diction and limited the details of her subject. Thus what for the Countess of Mar was a delectable palate of tiny but spicy morsels may leave the modern reader hungry for more. Such is the effect when we read the eighteenth-century familiar letter. Because the letter is so carefully designed with an audience of one so particularly chosen, today's readers cannot help feeling like idle eavesdroppers, privy to information not intended for our ears and which we do not comprehend fully. Uncertain of how to respond to the gossip of Lady Holdernesse and Mr. Mildmay, we become trapped in the rhetorically complex dynamic of the familiar letter, wherein the twentieth-century reader snoops on a conversation between the writer and recipient.

In this particular letter we sense a double lure, that more than mere mockery is implied by Lady Mary's rhetoric, that beneath the superficial slapstick image of the two lovers physically affectionate as mollusks is an unstated sympathy. A contextualized feeling seems to suggest that, although they will serve as a source of amusement for Lady Mary and her sister, the two lovers are to be admired for the honesty of their "tender" and "polite" passion and for their (apparent) comportment in seemly fashion, that is, according to the standards of social behavior that Lady Mary intimates. For Lady Mary was never one to withhold her judgment or condemnation of those in perceived violation of her moral and social criteria. We soon discover, however, that Lady Mary never asserts standards; we can only infer her standards when they are more honored in the breach than the observance. That is to say, Lady Mary does not have to be specific because she shares with her sister notions of taste and custom. This intimacy may very well reinforce the discomfort of the twentieth-century eavesdropper/reader. We may make correct inferences about Lady Mary's standards, and we may arrive at justifiable interpretations of the writer's attitude and tone; nevertheless, reading two and a half centuries later, we crave the historicity of factual data not supplied by Lady Mary; we are not quite satisfied with our interpretation without historical authentication of Lady Mary's feelings for the Lady Holdernesse. What we lack is an invitation to the dance: we fear that the intimacy between writer and recipient is not extended to us.

Thus the contemporary reader of the familiar letter is stricken with anxiety: a "shameful" desire to snoop, guilt from "prying" and from enjoying malicious gossip, and insecurity over insufficient data to justify reading it as a historical document. Yet the letter writer was not altogether unconscious of this "other" reader. Lady Mary herself recognized the literary value of her letters; it has often been noted that she carefully revised and collected for publication her Turkish embassy letters, but she was likewise aware that even the minutiae of the comings and goings of the aristocracy at court and in the bedchamber, if written well, would make highly readable and salable material. And so she wrote to the Countess of Mar in June of 1726 after reading a recently published collection of Madame de Sevigne's letters, "[V]ery pretty they are, but I assert without the least vanity that mine will be full as entertaining 40 years hence. …