Lady Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters: Challenging the Mainstream

Emel Zorluoglu Akbey is an assistant professor at Erzurum Technical University. She obtained both an MA and a Ph.D. from the University of Sussex. She has specialised in Hilda Doolittle and Kleinian psychoanalysis, and her major research interests include women writers, postcolonial literature, autobiography, psychoanalysis, gender, and war literature. She is currently working on Ottoman women writers (1756-1900).    


With the distorted description of the veil and the harem, a fantasy world has been formed by the mainstream writers, which curtailed the development of transnational dialogues. The woman who challenged mainstream writing and started to establish a dialogue across cultures in the eighteenth century was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Montagu lived between 1689-1762 and she kept a record of her correspondences (mainly sent from the Ottoman Empire to various cities in Europe) which were published posthumously under the title of Turkish Embassy Letters in 1763.[1]  She challenged the previous accounts recorded by male writers by presenting a rather different approach to the Turkish culture and by understanding the everyday lives of Ottoman women. Montagu was the first travel writer to record exclusively female spaces[2] and criticised the previous writers on several occasions for their untruthful accounts: ‘Now that I am a little acquainted with their ways I cannot forbear admiring either the exemplary discretion or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given accounts of them.’[3] ‘Thus you see, dear sister the manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe.’ [4]

Being a women and knowing the language helped Montagu to build a closer relationship with the Ottoman women that she met, which she proudly emphasised in her writing: ‘I speak the language passably and I have had the advantage of forming friendships with Turkish ladies and of their liking me, and I can boast of being the first foreigner ever to have had that pleasure.’[5] Given she could establish a healthy dialogue with Turkish women, she easily penetrated the private sphere and developed a rather distinctive view regarding the recurring tropes in Orientalist literature. In particular, her view regarding the veil was quite revolutionary for her time, a topic which has long preoccupied Western male writers. In a letter to Lady Mar, dated 1 April 1717, Montagu writes;

’Tis very easy to see they [ Turkish women] have more liberty than we have. […] You may guess how effectually this [ burka] disguises them. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discover. […] those ladies that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ’em upon a divorce with an addition which he is obliged to give ’em. […]

Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire. The very Divan pays a respect to ’em, and the Grand Signore himself, whenever a Bassa is executed, never violates the privileges of the harem (or women’s apartment), which remains unsearched entire to the widow.[6]

In another letter that she penned the same day to an unnamed Lady,[7] she describes her Western clothing and complains about being entrapped in a little box. ‘I was at last forced to open my shirt and show them my stays […], for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband’.[8]

By comparing Eastern and Western ways of clothing, Montagu turns all the presumed ideas, the long-lasting fascination with the veil inside out and makes her reader question the real meaning behind it. As Jacques Lacan remarks, one really ought to find out who offers the measure of the real.[9] ‘Eastern women’ and ‘Western women’ are not just expressions to geographically delineate the person’s origin but they are culturally loaded terms shaping the Western perception. In the passages quoted above the immediate link between signifier and signified is destroyed. While the Eastern veil, associated with backwardness and being submissive, is rendered to be the key to free movement, Montagu, wearing charming dresses, is depicted as imprisoned in a box and controlled by her husband.[10]

By deconstructing the meanings of most enduring symbols such as the veil and harem, Montagu construes herself as all-knowing. In the famous ‘hammam’ scene she solidifies her position as the ‘only one’ who can inform the reader about the real situations and becomes the textual authority with her uninterrupted gaze: [11]

 To tell you the truth, 1 had wickedness enough to wish secretly that Mr. Gervase could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improved his art to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions […]. In short, ’tis the women’s coffee house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented etc. (emphasis added )[12]

The gaze, according to Lacan, is not reduced to looking; the gaze is one’s awareness of being seen.[13] So, the veil prevents the gazer from the gaze that s/he desperately needs and creates a gap between the known and unknown. Not seeing the eyes, but knowing that there is a gaze, according to Slavoj Zižek, causes anxiety.[14] The fear of the unknown is created by the gap between being seen and not being able to see. As a woman, Montagu had been more privileged than men in accessing the inaccessible and used this advantage to penetrate the women only spaces that had been out of reach for men such as hammams and harems. As Montagu repeatedly states in her letters; Muslim women were invisible to Western men both figuratively and literarily. ‘What no book of travels could inform you of, as ’tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places.’[15] While men had been deprived of the pleasure of ‘knowing’, this pleasure was granted to Montagu for the fact of being a woman. With her penetrating gaze, she is empowered; she witnesses a scene beyond male writers’ and painters’ imaginations.

In her writing Montagu adroitly depicts that though these women inhabited very different cultural realities, their struggles, needs, and concerns were similar.[16] They needed female communities, such as women’s coffee houses, free-mobility and economic independence.[17] Through interaction these women transformed one another and enhanced cross-cultural awareness.

[1] For more information about Montagu as letter writer see Robert Halsband, ‘Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as Letter-Writer.’ Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 80, no.3 (1965): 155-163; and Anna Desai, ‘Introduction.’ in The Turkish Embassy Letters, edited by Malcolm Jack, vii-xIii. London: Virago Press, 1995.

[2]Kader Konuk, ‘Ethnomasquerade in Ottoman-European Encounters: Re-enacting Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,’ Criticism 46, no.3 (2004):393.

[3] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, edited by Malcolm Jack (London: Virago Press, 1995), 71.

[4] Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, 71-72. She mostly critiqued and corrected previous travel writers such as George Sandys, Paul Rycaut, Jean Dumont, and Aaron Hill see Melda Yegenoglu,  Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80.

[5] Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, 132.

[6] Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, 71-72.

[7] Later this lady is identified as Lady Rich, see, Jack, The Turkish Embassy Letters, 174.

[8] Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, 60.

[9] Jacques Lacan, Book 1: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-1954: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques Allain-Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 18.

[10] Anna Secor, ‘Orientalism, Gender and Class in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters: to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters &C,’Ecumene 6, no.4(1999): 18. Also, as Konuk highlights ‘Dress is a common signifier of tradition, change, progress, inferiority, or failure in imitating Western civilization in travel literature’. konuk, 410-411

[11] Yegenoglu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism, 80.

[12] Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, 59. For further details regarding the hammam scene, see Srinivas Aravamudan, ‘Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization.’ ELH 62, no. 1 (1995): 69-104.

[13] Svitlana Matviyenko, ‘The Veil and Capitalist Discourse: A Lacanian Reading of the Veil beyond Islam,’ Re-Turn: A Journal of Lacanian Studies 6 (2011):98.

[14] Matviyenko, ‘The Veil and Capitalist Discourse: A Lacanian Reading of the Veil beyond Islam, 98.

[15] Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, 60.

[16] Mary Jo Kietzman, ‘Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters and Cultural Dislocation,’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 38, no.3 (1998): 540.

[17] See Joseph W. Lew, ‘Lady Mary’s portable seraglio,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 24, no.4 (1991): 440-441.


Bibliography

Aravamudan, Srinivas. ‘Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization.’ ELH 62, no. 1 (1995): 69-104.

Desai, Anna. ‘Introduction.’ in The Turkish Embassy Letters, edited by Malcolm Jack, vii-xIii. London: Virago Press, 1995.

Halsband, Robert. ‘Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as Letter-Writer.’ Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 80, no.3 (1965): 155-163.

Kietzman, Mary Jo. ‘Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters and Cultural Dislocation.’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 38, no.3 (1998): 537-551.

Konuk, Kader. ‘Ethnomasquerade in Ottoman-European Encounters: Re-enacting Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.’ Criticism 46, no.3 (2004): 393-414.

Lacan, Jacques. Book 1: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-1954: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques Allain-Miller, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1991).

Lew, Joseph W. ‘Lady Mary’s portable seraglio.’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 24, no.4 (1991): 432-450.

Matviyenko, Svitlana. ‘The Veil and Capitalist Discourse: A Lacanian Reading of the Veil beyond Islam.’ Re-Turn: A Journal of Lacanian Studies 6 (2011): 97-119.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. The Turkish Embassy Letters, edited by Malcolm Jack, London: Virago Press, 1995.

Secor, Anna. ‘Orientalism, Gender and Class in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters: to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters &C.’Ecumene 6, no.4(1999): 375-398. Sage Journals.

Yegenoglu, Melda. Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 

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