Rare letter by Mary Wortley Montagu, pioneering travel writer, up for sale

Written in 1717, the only surviving correspondence from the celebrated chronicler of her time in Turkey heads sale of female writers’ work

Declaring that “I like travelling extremely & have no reason to complain of having had too little of it, having now gone through all the Turkish Dominions in Europe”, the only surviving letter written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu from Turkey has gone up for sale.

Written in April 1717 from Adrianople, now Edirne, to her long-time correspondent Mrs Frances Hewet, the letter sees Lady Mary talk of her “Journeys through Hungary, Bohemia, & the whole Tour of Germany”. Turkey, she tells her “dear” Mrs Hewet, “is one of [the] finest in the world; hitherto all I see is so new to me, it is like a fresh scene of an opera every day”. Her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was ambassador to Turkey at the time.

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu from 1720. Photograph: Bernard Quaritch Ltd

The letter also mentions her son, saying that he “never was better in his life”. Lady Mary vaccinated her son against smallpox in Turkey.

“In this letter she confirms his continued health, which suggests that this letter dates from after his inoculation,” said the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch, which has put the letter up for sale for £5,000.

Lady Mary would go on in England in 1721, in the middle of a smallpox epidemic, to have her daughter inoculated against the disease. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “the practice of inoculating children spread rapidly among those who knew Lady Mary and who had already been bereaved by the disease”. “Lady Mary’s most important activity during the 1720s, for the world if not for herself, was the introduction to western medicine of inoculation against smallpox,” says the dictionary of the poet and letter writer, who was a friend of Alexander Pope but became estranged, the latter attacking Lady Mary in his Dunciad in 1728.

Bernard Quaritch called the letter “unique”, as it is the only original to survive of all those Lady Mary wrote from Turkey. “It’s a wonderful thing,” said bookseller Mark James. “She was an incredible woman.”

The 18th-century missive is the star of a new catalogue from Bernard Quaritch celebrating 250 years of women travellers. The catalogue also features a copy of Margaret Mee’s Flowers of the Brazilian Forest, one of only 400. Published in 1968, her book identifies three flowers previously unknown to science. It also includes a rare first edition of Baghdad Sketches, the first book by British writer and explorer Freya Stark, who would go on to be one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian Deserts.

Margaret Mee’s Flowers of the Brazilian Forests (1968)
A plate from Margaret Mee’s Flowers of the Brazilian Forests (1968). Photograph: Bernard Quaritch Ltd

The sale includes a 1763 second edition of Lady Mary’s Embassy Letters, about her travels with her husband on his posting to Turkey. The author rewrote her letters on her return to England and circulated them to her friends in a manuscript. They were published after her death and proved hugely successful, going through three editions in 1763.

James pointed to a preface to the letters written by Mary Astell in 1724, arguing that female travel writers are superior to their male counterparts. “I confess, I am malicious enough to desire that the world should see to how much better purpose the ladies travel than their lords; and that, whilst it is surfeited with Male-Travels, all in the same tone and stuffed with the same trifles; a lady has the skill to strike out a new path, and to embellish a worn-out subject, with variety of fresh and elegant entertainment,” writes Astell.

“If you say women travellers, people tend to think of those from the second half of the 19th century,” said James. “But we wanted to stretch out the spectrum, to pull it back and forward, so we’re covering 250 years.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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