Lord Byron, Literary Detective: The Recovery of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Long-Lost Venetian Letters

By Hegele, Arden | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Lord Byron, Literary Detective: The Recovery of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Long-Lost Venetian Letters


Hegele, Arden, The Byron Journal


Abstract

This essay discusses the implications of a curious episode from Byron's life in Italy. Encouraged by Venetian intellectuals, Byron engaged in a serious scholarly investigation of the history of a singular eighteenth-century literary figure, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The contribution of Byron's research to Montagu scholarship was valuable and precocious, and his project of recovering letters by Montagu was of such significance that his friends were inspired to take it up after his death. Despite Byron's wish that his substantial discoveries be published, they were not included in biographies of Montagu until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the episode reveals much about Byron himself, illustrating unexpected sides of the poet as a literary historian and an aficionado of the writing of a very distinctive woman.

Between late 1817 and the summer of 1818, John Murray received a series of peculiar letters from Byron that documented the poet's considerable efforts to uncover information about a fellow British writer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Having moved to Italy following the collapse of his marriage the previous year, Byron had by 1817 settled into the conversazioni of the Venetian literary community.1 Byron's first letter to Murray about Montagu, dated 3 December 1817, recounts how the poet, accompanied by Hobhouse to the Countess Albrizzi's salon on 1 December, was approached by a 'Venetian Lady, learned and somewhat stricken in years'.2 This learned lady was Maria Petrettini, the wife of the Venetian censor, and she was seeking Byron's assistance in undertaking a research project.3 Having already published Vita di Cassandra Fedele in 1814, a biography of the fifteenth-century Italian woman writer and scholar,4 Petrettini had taken on the task of writing the life of Lady Mary, whose personal history bore notable similarity to Byron's: she was an English writer who had chosen exile in Italy following the wreck of her reputation in England. But in Byron's Venice, nearly eighty years later, her story had been forgotten: 'Lady M[ary] lived the last twenty or more years of her life in or near Venice [...] but here they know nothing', wrote Byron to Murray. Accordingly, the ambitious Petrettini - whose project was impeded not only by a 'total dearth of information on [her] subject', but also by 'ignorance of English' - appealed to Byron to procure her whatever information about Montagu was available in England. In turn, Byron directed the request to his publisher, indicating that Murray should send him copies of Montagu's Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M-y W-y M-e, written during her travels in Europe, Asia and Africa (first published in 1763) and the only available biography (1803), which was notoriously inaccurate (and, as Byron termed it, 'stupid'). The poet himself intended to 'transfer & translate [the material] to the "Dama" in question'.5 While we do not have Murray's response, as several of his letters to Byron from this period are missing,6 it seems that the publisher enthusiastically sent the material: in September 1818 he reminded Byron of the episode, and requested 'to be favoured with a Copy' of the Italian version of the biography 'as soon as possible'.7

Not long after his interest in Montagu had been piqued by his modest involvement in Petrettini's project, Byron was approached by Dr Francesco Aglietti, a professor of medicine and the head of the medical school at Venice, who later treated both Teresa Guiccioli and Byron's daughter, Allegra.8 As well as being, in the poet's opinion, the 'best Physician not only in Venice but in Italy', Aglietti was a leading literary enthusiast. 9 In the early spring of 1818, he presented Byron with a collection of original letters addressed to Francesco Algarotti, an eighteenth-century Italian nobleman and philosopher, six of which had been written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu between 1739 and 1758. In violation of the English custom of returning letters to the family after their writer's death, Algarotti had kept a collection of letters from Montagu as well as from other English notables living in Italy during the eighteenth century, including Lord Hervey, Thomas Gray and William Mason. …

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