Read CHAPTER VIII of Lady Mary Wortley Montague Her Life and Letters (1689-1762), free online book, by Lewis Melville, on


Montagu loses his place at the Treasury His antagonism against Walpole Lady Mary, “Dolly” Walpole, and Molly Skerritt The Earl and Countess of Mar leave England Montagu appointed Ambassador to the Porte Leaves England for Constantinople, accompanied by his wife Letters during the Embassy to Constantinople Rotterdam Vienna Lady Mary at Court Her gown Her interest in clothes Viennese society Gallantry Lady Mary’s experience Count Tarrocco Precedence at Vienna A nunnery The Montagus visit the German Courts A dangerous drive Prince Frederick (afterwards Prince of Wales) Herrenhausen.

Edward Wortley Montagu did not long hold office. Lord Halifax, First Lord of the Treasury in the Townshend Administration, died in May, 1715, when his place was taken by Lord Carlisle, who, however, held it only until the following October. Carlisle was succeeded by Sir Robert Walpole, promoted from the less important but far more lucrative post of Paymaster-General. In the new Commission of the Treasury Montagu’s name did not appear. Why Montagu was removed has not transpired; it may, indeed, be that he resigned, for he had a strong dislike for the new Minister. There may also have been some family sentiment in the matter, for while Lady Mary was an intimate friend of Walpole’s harum-scarum sister, “Dolly,” who was now Lady Townshend, Lady Walpole was very decidedly her enemy. Lady Mary presently had her tit-for-tat with Lady Walpole by “taking up” Walpole’s mistress, Molly Skerritt.

It may be here mentioned that Lady Mar was at this time living with her husband at Paris, at St. Germain, and that she remained abroad for the rest of her life. She had left England owing to the conduct of Lord Mar in taking an active part in the rebellion of ’15. He had set up the Pretender’s standard at Braemar, had suffered defeat at Sheriffmuir, and had been so fortunate as to escape with his master to Gravelines. In gratitude for his services, the Pretender created Lord Mar a Duke. Mar lived until 1732, dying at the age of fifty-seven, and he spent the years in losing the confidence of the Jacobites and endeavouring to ingratiate himself with the Hanoverian Kings of England in which latter quest he was markedly unsuccessful. His Scotch estates were confiscated, and his title attained the attainder of the earldom was not reversed until 1824.

Montagu, having tasted the sweets of office, even so minor a place as that of a Lord of the Treasury, was not content to enjoy such pleasures as a private life could afford. He desired to be somebody. Probably he worried the Government of the day, possibly he pointed out to the leaders of the Whig Party that he was possessed of parts that should not, in justice to his country, be ignored. He may even have approached the Throne. It is not inconceivable that he made himself a nuisance to all concerned.

Anyhow, it was ultimately decided that something must be done with him. But what? Austria and Turkey were at war in 1716; what better than to send Montagu as Ambassador to the Porte, with a mission to endeavour to reconcile the protagonists? He was appointed to this post on June 5.

It was while accompanying her husband on this mission that Lady Mary wrote her famous “Letters during the Embassy to Constantinople,” which constitute a very important document on the state of Europe at the time. It is by no means certain, however, that, in the first instance, these reflections were all cast in letter-form; it is much more likely that some were written in a diary. The letters appear as addressed to the Countess of Bristol, to the Princess of Wales, to Mrs. Thistlethwayte, to Lady Rich, to Alexander Pope, to the Abbe Conti, to Miss Sarah Chiswell, to Mrs. Hewet, to Lady Mary’s sister, the Countess of Mar, and others.

At the beginning of August, 1716, Montagu, with his wife and son, and, it is to be presumed, his suite, left England, and, after a very bad crossing, landed at Rotterdam. From that city, the cleanliness of which surprised and delighted Lady Mary “you may see the Dutch maids washing the pavement of the street with more application than ours do our bed-chambers” the party proceeded by way of the Hague, Nimeguen, Cologne, Frankfort-on-the-Main, Wurzberg, and Ratisbon to Vienna, where they arrived during the first week in September.

Lady Mary was all impatient to go to Court, for, as she put it, “I am not without a great impatience to see a beauty that has been the admiration of so many nations,” but she was forced to stay for a gown, without which there was no waiting on the Empress. Presently the gown was ready, and Lady Mary was presented.

“I was squeezed up in a gown” (she wrote to her sister, Lady Mar), “and adorned with a gorget and the other implements thereunto belonging: a dress very inconvenient, but which certainly shews the neck and shape to great advantage. I cannot forbear in this place giving you some description of the fashions here which are more monstrous and contrary to all common sense and reason, than ’tis possible for you to imagine. They build certain fabrics of gauze on their heads about a yard high, consisting of three or four stories fortified with numberless yards of heavy ribbon. The foundation of this structure is a thing they call a Bourle which is exactly of the same shape and kind, but about four times as big, as those rolls our prudent milk-maids make use of to fix their pails upon. This machine they cover with their own hair, which they mix with a great deal of false, it being a particular beauty to have their heads too large to go into a moderate tub. Their hair is prodigiously powdered, to conceal the mixture, and set out with three or four rows of bodkins (wonderfully large, that stick [out] two or three inches from their hair), made of diamonds, pearls, red, green, and yellow stones, that it certainly requires as much art and experience to carry the load upright, as to dance upon May-day with the garland. Their whalebone petticoats outdo ours by several yards circumference, and cover some acres of ground.

“You may easily suppose how much this extraordinary dress sets off and improves the natural ugliness with which God Almighty has been pleased to endow them all generally. Even the lovely Empress herself is obliged to comply, in some degree, with these absurd fashions, which they would not quit for all the world.”

The above passage is the more interesting because it has so often been asserted that Lady Mary took no interest in dress. As a matter of fact, however, there are several indications in her letters that she thought a good deal about clothes.

“My little commission is hardly worth speaking of; if you have not already laid out that small sum in St. Cloud ware, I had rather have it in plain lutestring of any colour,” she wrote in June, 1721, to her sister, Lady Mar, at Paris.

“I would have no black silk, having bought here,” she said on another occasion; and again, “My paper is done, and I will only put you in mind of my lutestring, which I beg you will send me plain, of what colour you please.” “Dear Sister, adieu,” she wrote in 1723. “I have been very free in this letter, because I think I am sure of its going safe. I wish my nightgown may do the same: I only choose that as most convenient to you; but if it was equally so, I had rather the money was laid out in plain lutestring, if you could send me eight yards at a time of different colours, designing it for linings; but if this scheme is impracticable, send me a nightgown a la mode.”

Apparently Lady Mar was careless or forgetful of the commission, for a little later Lady Mary was writing pathetically: “I wish you would think of my lutestring, for I am in terrible want of linings.”

The account of the Austrian Court of the day, as given by Lady Mary, is invaluable, for there is no other available written by an English person accustomed to another Court.

Lady Mary’s descriptions of Viennese society are also delightful, and if she wrote of the royal circle with respect, she bubbled over with merriment when writing of folk less highly placed. A letter of hers to Lady Rich is too delicious to be omitted.

“I have compassion for the mortifications that you tell me befall our little friend, and I pity her much more, since I know that they are only owing to the barbarous customs of our country. Upon my word, if she was here, she would have no other fault but being something too young for the fashion, and she has nothing to do but to transplant hither about seven years hence, to be again a young and blooming beauty. I can assure you that wrinkles, or a small stoop in the shoulders, nay, even grey hair itself, is no objection to the making new conquests. I know you cannot easily figure to yourself a young fellow of five-and-twenty ogling my Lady Suffolk with passion, or pressing to lead the Countess of Oxford from an opera. But such are the sights I see every day, and I don’t perceive any body surprised at them but myself. A woman, till five-and-thirty, is only looked upon as a raw girl, and can possibly make no noise in the world till about forty. I don’t know what your ladyship may think of this matter; but ’tis a considerable comfort to me, to know there is upon earth such a paradise for old women; and I am content to be insignificant at present, in the design of returning when I am fit to appear nowhere else. I cannot help lamenting upon this occasion, the pitiful case of too many good English ladies, long since retired to prudery and ratafia, whom if their stars had luckily conducted hither, would still shine in the first rank of beauties; and then that perplexing word reputation has quite another meaning here than what you give it at London; and getting a lover is so far from losing, that ’tis properly getting reputation; ladies being much more respected in regard to the rank of their lovers, than that of their husbands.

“But what you’ll think very odd, the two sects that divide our whole nation of petticoats, are utterly unknown. Here are neither coquettes nor prudes. No woman dares appear coquette enough to encourage two lovers at a time. And I have not seen any such prudes as to pretend fidelity to their husbands, who are certainly the best-natured set of people in the world, and they look upon their wives’ gallants as favourably as men do upon their deputies, that take the troublesome part of their business off of their hands; though they have not the less to do; for they are generally deputies in another place themselves; in one word, ’tis the established custom for every lady to have two husbands, one that bears the name, and another that performs the duties. And these engagements are so well known, that it would be a downright affront, and publicly resented, if you invited a woman of quality to dinner, without at the same time inviting her two attendants of lover and husband, between whom she always sits in state with great gravity. These sub-marriages generally last twenty years together, and the lady often commands the poor lover’s estate even to the utter ruin of his family; though they are as seldom begun by any passion as other matches. But a man makes but an ill figure who is not in some commerce of this nature; and a woman looks out for a lover as soon as she’s married, as part of her equipage, without which she could not be genteel; and the first article of the treaty is establishing the pension, which remains to the lady though the gallant should prove inconstant; and this chargeable point of honour I look upon as the real foundation of so many wonderful instances of constancy. I really know several women of the first quality, whose pensions are as well known as their annual rents, and yet nobody esteems them the less; on the contrary, their discretion would be called in question, if they should be suspected to be mistresses for nothing; and a great part of their emulation consists in trying who shall get most; and having no intrigue at all is so far a disgrace that, I’ll assure you, a lady, who is very much my friend here, told me but yesterday, how much I was obliged to her for justifying my conduct in a conversation on my subject, where it was publicly asserted that I could not possibly have common sense, that I had been about town above a fortnight, and had made no steps towards commencing an amour. My friend pleaded for me that my stay was uncertain; and she believed that was the cause of my seeming stupidity and this was all she could find to say in my justification.”

But Lady Mary, though only twenty-seven, and therefore, according to her own account, much too youthful for the gallants of Vienna, yet had an experience:

“But one of the pleasantest adventures I ever met in my life was last night, and which will give you a just idea after what a delicate manner the belles passions are managed in this country. I was at the assembly of the Countess of , and the young Count of led me down stairs, and he asked me how long I intended to stay here? I made answer that my stay depended on the emperor, and it was not in my power to determine it. Well, madam, (said he), whether your time here is to be long or short, I think you ought to pass it agreeably, and to that end you must engage in a little affair of the heart. My heart (answered I gravely enough) does not engage very easily, and I have no design of parting with it. I see, madam, (said he sighing,) by the ill nature of that answer, that I am not to hope for it, which is a great mortification to me that am charmed with you. But, however, I am still devoted to your service; and since I am not worthy of entertaining you myself, do me the honour of letting me know whom you like best among us, and I’ll engage to manage the affair entirely to your satisfaction. You may judge in what manner I should have received this compliment in my own country, but I was well enough acquainted with the way of this, to know that he really intended me an obligation, and thanked him with a grave courtesy for his zeal to serve me, and only assured him that I had no occasion to make use of it.

“Thus you see, my dear, gallantry and good-breeding are as different, in different climates, as morality and religion. Who have the rightest notions of both, we shall never know till the day of judgment, for which great day of éclaircissement, I own there is very little impatience in your, &c.”

Love-making was indeed one of the principal pastimes at Vienna. There was Count Tarrocco (who was in attendance on the Prince of Portugal), and, as she told Lady Mar, “just such a Roman Catholic as you.” “He succeeds greatly with the devout beauties here,” she went on to say; “his first overtures in gallantry are disguised under the luscious strains of spiritual love, that were sung formerly by the sublimely voluptuous Fenelon and the tender Madam Guion, who turned the spirit of carnal love to divine objects; thus the Count begins with the spirit and ends generally with the flesh, when he makes his addresses to holy virgins.” Presently, she teased her sister about this same young man. “Count Tarrocco is just come in,” she wrote. “He is the only person I have excepted in my general order to receive no company I think I see you smile but I am not so far gone as to stand in need of absolution; though as my heart is deceitful, and the Count very agreeable, you may think that even though I should not want an absolution, I would nevertheless be glad to have an indulgence. No such thing. However, as I am a heretic, and you no confessor, I shall make no more declarations on this head. The design of the Count’s visit is a ball; more pleasure I shall be surfeited.”

The “phlegm of the country” surprised Lady Mary, who declared that it was not from Austria that one could write with vivacity and by her letters at once disproved her statement. According to her, amours and quarrels were carried on calmly and almost good-temperedly. Strong feelings only came into play when points of ceremony were concerned. A man not only scorned to marry a woman of family less illustrious than his own, but even to make love to her “the pedigree is much more considered by them than either the complexion or features of their mistresses. Happy are the shes that can number among their ancestors Counts of the Empire; they have neither occasion for beauty, money, or good conduct to get them husbands.” How far this passion for rank and precedence went is indicated by an amusing incident related by Lady Mary.

“’Tis not long since two coaches, meeting in a narrow street at night, the ladies in them not being able to adjust the ceremonial of which should go back, sat there with equal gallantry till two in the morning, and were both so fully determined to die upon the spot, rather than yield in a point of that importance, that the street would never have been cleared till their deaths, if the emperor had not sent his guards to part them; and even then they refused to stir, till the expedient was found out of taking them both out in chairs exactly at the same moment; after which it was with some difficulty the pas was decided between the two coachmen, no less tenacious of their rank than the ladies.”

Lady Mary herself was, of course, unaffected, because, as the wife of an ambassador, she, by their own customs, had the pas before all other ladies to the great envy of the town.

Lady Mary, who had had enough of solitude during her long residence in Yorkshire, now in Vienna was determined to enjoy herself and flung herself into all the social gaieties. She went everywhere and met everyone. She dined at the villa of Count Schoenbrunn, the Vice-Chancellor; she attended all the assemblies of Madame Rabutin and the other leaders of society, and all the “gala days”; she danced; she went to the theatre, and, then, as a contrast, to a nunnery, which left her unhappy, as, indeed, she put on record:

“I was surprised to find here the only beautiful young woman I have seen at Vienna, and not only beautiful, but genteel, witty, and agreeable, of a great family, and who had been the admiration of the town. I could not forbear shewing my surprise at seeing a nun like her. She made me a thousand obliging compliments, and desired me to come often. It will be an infinite pleasure to me, (said she, sighing,) to see you; but I avoid, with the greatest care, seeing any of my former acquaintance, and whenever they come to our convent, I lock myself in my cell. I observed tears come into her eyes, which touched me extremely, and I began to talk to her in that strain of tender pity she inspired me with; but she would not own to me that she is not perfectly happy. I have since endeavoured to learn the real cause of her retirement, without being able to get any other account, but that every body was surprised at it, and nobody guessed the reason.

“I have been several times to see her; but it gives me too much melancholy to see so agreeable a young creature buried alive, and I am not surprised that nuns have so often inspired violent passions; the pity one naturally feels for them, when they seem worthy of another destiny, making an easy way for yet more tender sentiments; and I never in my life had so little charity for the Roman-catholic religion as since I see the misery it occasions; so many poor unhappy women! and the gross superstition of the common people, who are, some or other of them, day and night offering bits of candle to the wooden figures that are set up almost in every street. The processions I see very often, are a pageantry as offensive, and apparently contradictory to all common sense, as the pagodas of China. God knows whether it be the womanly spirit of contradiction that works in me; but there never before was so much zeal against popery in the heart of,

“Dear madam, &c.”

In November the Montagus interrupted their stay at Vienna to visit some of the German Courts. They went to Prague, where the attire of the ladies amused Lady Mary. “I have been visited by some of the most considerable ladies, whose relations I know at Vienna,” she wrote to Lady Mar. “They are dressed after the fashions there, as people at Exeter imitate those of London; that is, the imitation is more excessive than the original; ’tis not easy to describe what extraordinary figures they make. The person is so much lost between head-dress and petticoat, they have as much occasion to write upon their backs ‘This is a woman,’ for the information of travellers, as ever sign-post painter had to write, ‘This is a bear.’” From Prague to Dresden, travelling thither by a most alarming route:

“You may imagine how heartily I was tired with twenty-four hours’ post-travelling [to Dresden], without sleep or refreshment (for I can never sleep in a coach, however fatigued). We passed by moonshine the frightful precipices that divide Bohemia from Saxony, at the bottom of which runs the river Elbe; but I cannot say that I had reason to fear drowning in it, being perfectly convinced that, in case of a tumble, it was utterly impossible to come alive to the bottom. In many places the road is so narrow, that I could not discern an inch of space between the wheels and the precipice. Yet I was so good a wife not to wake Mr. Wortley, who was fast asleep by my side, to make him share in my fears, since the danger was unavoidable, till I perceived by the bright light of the moon, our postilions nodding on horseback, while the horses were on a full gallop, and I thought it very convenient to call out to desire them to look where they were going. My calling waked Mr. Wortley, and he was much more surprised than myself at the situation we were in, and assured me that he had passed the Alps five times in different places, without ever having gone a road so dangerous. I have been told since it is common to find the bodies of travellers in the Elbe; but, thank God, that was not our destiny; and we came safe to Dresden, so much tired with fear and fatigue, it was not possible for me to compose myself to write.”

From Dresden the travellers visited Leipzig, and then went to Brunswick, and afterwards to Hanover, where they paid their respects to George I. It was there that Lady Mary first made the acquaintance of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, Frederick Louis, himself presently Prince of Wales and father of George III. He was then nine years of age.

“I am extremely pleased that I can tell you, without either flattery or partiality, that our young Prince has all the accomplishments that it is possible to have at his age, with an air of sprightliness and understanding, and something so very engaging and easy in his behaviour, that he needs not the advantage of his rank to appear charming. I had the honour of a long conversation with him last night, before the King came in. His governor retired on purpose (as he told me afterwards) that I might make some judgment of his genius, by hearing him speak without constraint; and I was surprised at the quickness and politeness that appeared in every thing he said; joined to a person perfectly agreeable, and the fine fair hair of the Princess.”

Amazed as Lady Mary was at the size of the Palace at Hanover which, she said, was capable of holding a greater court than that of St. James’s, and the opera-house which was larger than that at Vienna, what principally amazed her was the orangery at Herrenhausen and what principally delighted her was the use of stoves, then unknown in England.

“I was very sorry that the ill weather did not permit me to see Herrenhausen in all its beauty; but, in spite of the snow, I thought the gardens very fine” (she wrote with enthusiasm to Lady Mar). “I was particularly surprised at the vast number of orange trees, much larger than I have ever seen in England, though this climate is certainly colder. But I had more reason to wonder that night at the King’s table. There was brought to him from a gentleman of this country, two large baskets full of ripe oranges and lemons of different sorts, many of which were quite new to me; and, what I thought worth all the rest, two ripe bananas, which, to my taste, are a fruit perfectly delicious. You know they are naturally the growth of Brazil, and I could not imagine how they could come there but by enchantment. Upon enquiry, I learnt that they have brought their stoves to such perfection, they lengthen the summer as long as they please, giving to every plant the degree of heat it would receive from the sun in its native soil. The effect is very near the same; I am surprised we do not practise in England so useful an invention.

“This reflection naturally leads me to consider our obstinacy in shaking with cold six months in the year, rather than make use of stoves, which are certainly one of the greatest conveniences of life; and so far from spoiling the form of a room, they add very much to the magnificence of it, when they are painted and gilt, as at Vienna, or at Dresden, where they are often in the shape of china jars, statues, or fine cabinets, so naturally represented, they are not to be distinguished. If ever I return, in defiance to the fashion, you shall certainly see one in the chamber of,

“Dear sister, &c.”