This was intended to be an end of 2018 essay. On December 31 I finished and placed into a drawer the very final last version of Madison Rhapsody. This is the book I have been working on for over a decade. It is about the changes created in the 1960s, about loss, and memory. It has been a very personal story. And I am really glad to have put the last word to it.
So now, I am writing a beginning 2019 essay….thus, the title.
I am looking forward to researching in earnest England in the late 17th century-early 18th century. Lady Mary Wortley Montague traveled to Constantinople in 1718. If I am to show the reader how extraordinary this overland trek really was I will need to explain the physical and psychological restraints women faced, even this privileged aristocratic woman.
I have some natural resistance to studying those times, dare I say lack of interest? Lady Mary was an influential and ambitious woman during a very political time. (Although, I am beginning to understand that all times are very political when looked at closely. alas!) There were challenges to the Crown and internal conflicts between the Whigs and the Tories. All as nasty as anything we see in the 21st century. (Again, alas!) To me, this is all beside the point of what I want to tell. But it is background; it is the milieu Lady Mary inhabited, and made her who she was.
Lady Mary was a strong, intelligent woman manipulating her political environment for the benefit of her husband’s success. But, she also wrote and published and participated in an active intellectual society. Among others, but the most famous today, 300 years later, was Alexander Pope. He was friends with her, seemingly lusted after her, and eventually turned against her. She was the target of some of his most public and vicious criticism in his poetry. Apparently, the Dunciad lambasted her. This is future research for me.
While in the Orient Lady Mary, whose beauty had been ravaged by smallpox when she was about 20 years old, learned about inoculation for smallpox and brought the information back to England. She and many of her royal friends inoculated their children. Twenty years later, during another outbreak of the disease, the male medical establishment encouraged inoculation and took credit for it.
Lady Mary was a domineering woman with a weak inattentive husband, a spoiled irresponsible son and a daughter married into a family of political insiders. In later life she developed a passion for a bisexual Italian and followed him to Italy. There she lived on her own, visiting English friends, perhaps having an affair, feeling healthy as she aged, writing advice to her daughter and husband and despairing of her son.
All of this is interesting, all of it worth writing about
All of this is the weeds I must get through and understand to sail out into what I think is the most remarkable part of her life. She traveled overland in 1718 across Europe to Constantinople. She embraced every adventure. She recorded it all with intelligence and enthusiasm. In the foreign East she found ways within the confining structure of her class and times and gender to visit a Harem, to befriend people, to learn about Islam. She embraced the new and different fearlessly.
This is the Lady Mary who excites my imagination. And this is the project for 2019, 2020, etc. NOW, how to deal with all those pesky weeds!