I am reading a biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Isobel Grundy. It is the most detailed and academic biography I’ve ever read, filled with footnotes and references. These are gifts to me as I work to bring into focus what it was like for a woman to travel in 1717.
Today my intrepid, aristocratic Lady Mary has finally arrived in the Ottoman Empire. Her first visit to Eastern culture is in Sofia, capital of present day Bulgaria. When she visits the Turkish bath house a transformative phase in her life begins. She is delighted beyond all measure. Grundy says, “As usual, Lady Mary was alert to what was and what was not different.”
Inside the five domed stone building where the women’s bath was but one marbled room with sulfurous hot springs she viewed 200 women. They were naked, relaxed, drinking fruit juice, embroidering, plaiting one another’s hair, and all around appeared entirely comfortable. Their good humor and friendliness welcomed her. Egalitarianism was noteworthy since she did not know the status of one woman from another. She did observe the absence of small pox scars which was something she had recently been afflicted with, and she also noted the lack of red marks from tight stays in clothing.
Grundy says “…to find unadorned, unemproved feminity free from lewdness or narcisssism or rivalry: this was a most happy denial of what her own culture had led her to expect.”
What strikes me to learn, but sadly doesn’t entirely surprise, is that when her letters describing this were published it created a scandal. She was accused of making it up, of not being delicate or lady-like. As if that was not bad enough, in more recent times she has been accused of snobbery for not joining those women in the bath.
Reactions change according to the norms of the time, but what doesn’t apparently change is the fact that a woman reporter is judged first for her socially aberrant attitudes and then, if lucky, for what she is describing.
Fifty years after reading Lady Mary’s letters describing the Turkish bath, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted this from notes he had made earlier. Her letters were a powerful stimulus to the imagination. And they still are!