To commemorate the books in this summer's Restless Women Travelers series—(re)introducing you to great travel narratives by women—we'll be exploring some fascinating works from around the world that we’ve rediscovered. This week, we highlight Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters.
The Turkish Embassy Letters by Mary Wortley Montagu are an excellent place to start our exploration. Considered a classic work not just of women’s travel writing but of cultural commentary as a whole, the book influenced and inspired future generations of European women travelers to explore the East.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Turkey with her husband in 1716, when he was appointed British ambassador to the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire. Over the course of about two years, she wrote an extraordinary series of letters to family, friends, and (often royal) acquaintances in England, that detailed her experiences as she traveled through Europe and eventually settled in Turkey. Lady Montagu was particularly interested in writing about her impressions of the women she encountered on her journey; these descriptions are essential, given that our records of the time are overwhelmingly male-centric. Lady Montagu herself was very aware of the need to provide an alternative to the male perceptions of the Orient. Here is an excerpt from a letter in which she discusses the position of women in Turkish society, especially as compared to women in Western cultures:
I could also, with very little trouble, turn over Knolles and Sir Paul Rycaut, to give you a list of Turkish emperors; but I will not tell you what you may find in every author that has writ of this country. I am more inclined, out of a true female spirit of contradiction, to tell you the falsehood of a great part of what you find in authors; as, for instance, in the admirable Mr Hill, who so gravely asserts, that he saw, in Sancta Sophia, a sweating pillar, very balsamic for disordered heads. There is not the least tradition of any such matter; and I suppose it was revealed to him in vision, during his wonderful stay in the Egyptian catacombs; for I am sure he never heard of any such miracle here. 'Tis also very pleasant to observe how tenderly he and all his brethren voyage-writers lament the miserable confinement of the Turkish ladies, who are perhaps more free than any ladies in the universe, and are the only women in the world that lead a life of uninterrupted pleasure, exempt from cares; their whole time being spent in visiting, bathing, or the agreeable amusement of spending money, and inventing new fashions. A husband would be thought mad, that exacted any degree of economy from his wife, whose expences are no way limited but by her own fancy. 'Tis his business to get money, and hers to spend it: and this noble prerogative extends itself to the very meanest of the sex. Here is a fellow that carries embroidered handkerchiefs upon his back to sell. And as miserable a figure as you may suppose such a mean dealer, yet, I'll assure you, his wife scorns to wear any thing less than cloth of gold; has her ermine furs, and a very handsome set of jewels for her head. 'Tis true, they have no places but the bagnios, and these can only be seen by their own sex; however, that is a diversion they take great pleasure in.
In our Restless Women Travelers series, we will celebrate and (re)introduce you to some of the most important travelogues written by women, from Frances Trollope’s colonial voyage to the contemporary jungle treks of Kira Salak. Make sure to look through our list of upcoming titles to find the travel tale that will inspire you to be restless this summer!
On Sunday, June 22, we'll be hosting a very special book launch for the first title in our series, Edith Wharton's A Motor-Flight Through France. The event will take place at The Mount—Edith Wharton's gorgeous home in the Berkshires. Beginning at 5:30, we'll have a short reading, conversation, and cocktails on the patio overlooking Wharton's gardens, with fellow readers, writers, and travelers. We hope to see you there!
*“Lady President” was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s first pseudonym as a published writer.