A Heads-Up From Mary Wortley Montagu

In the early nineteenth century an English lady accompanied her husband, recently appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte, on a journey overland to Constantinople. She regaled her family, friends and major social figures with her observations, often complaining of the falsity of previously published information. I was struck by her description of the weekly shooting matches of the court ladies of Vienna, whom she claimed were “skilled enough to defend a fort”. I do not recall seeing this covered in any Merchant-Ivory type historical romance. Might it be that we have exaggerated the helplessness of past generations of women for our own purposes? Or perhaps court ladies were markswomen everywhere but in London.

On arrival, Lady Mary claimed that the lives of Turkish women had been misreported through the inability of male travel writers and pundits to get close enough to them. In consequence, these had simply made everything up. She reckoned, for example, that she was the first Englishwoman to visit a Turkish bagnio, as she called it, or a hammam as we would now say, so as to witness the wives of the pashas and their attendant girl-slaves taking their leisure without a stitch. She also attended on the widow of the previous Sultan, at first with a Greek interpreter but eventually learning Turkish.

Her account of the lives of the upper-class Turkish ladies was so different from the conventional view that either one or the other must be false. Where we see the veil as oppression, Lady Mary claimed that it allowed wives a disguise for their amorous affairs out on the town, with men who did not even know who they were and so could not betray them. In this way and in others, she claimed they were much freer than the equivalent Englishwomen, though she did qualify this by admitting that if caught in their extramarital affaires, they might get murdered. Even with this proviso, we might note how her between-us-girls fieldwork totally short-circuited the conventional categories of patriarch and subject woman. It is possible that she had been caught by the same trap as was later Margaret Mead; namely, that some mischievous Turkish ladies had, for their own amusement, sold her a bill of goods. It is also possible that she was right, but that her perspective did not prevail because it failed to flatter its readers’ sense of cultural superiority.

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