Lady Mary Wortley Montague and the Turkish baths

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!File:Le Bain Turc, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, from C2RMF retouched.jpg


The importance of research

I’ve spent most of this week sitting at my desk scribbling ideas about the who, what, when for a piece of fiction lurking in my brain. But, I can’t decide if it is linked stories or a full novel.  I think it takes place in Afghanistan, but maybe Iran, or even perhaps Turkey. Is it in the 21st century? I know there are refugees and I know there is an American nurse. All good things to know, but not nearly enough to begin creating.

In a moment of clarity I decided I needed more information.  Most importantly, I decided that research, i.e., reading, is ‘work’, is ‘writing’……maybe I’ll call it ‘pre-writing’.

Happily, I’m fully prepared for this moment.  An entire shelf of travel books describing foreign places during various centuries awaits my indulgence…..I mean, ‘research’.  I’ve begun with Mary Lee Settle’s Turkish Reflections. This is a wonderfully written memoir of her several years spent living in and learning about Turkey.  Personal, historical, descriptive.  It’s a joy to spend hours touring with her.

turkish reflections by MaryLee Settle 001

Next up is: Twelve Days in Persia, by Vita Sackville West, Somebody’s Heart is Burning by Tanya Shaffer, and A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Somewhere along this journey I will feel inspiration and direction to face down that empty pad of yellow paper again.  In the meanwhile, bon voyage to me.

work in progress

“Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.” Spectator 93, 16 June, 1711.

I recently discovered this comment and it has helped me decide on my next project.  It will be something diverting, entertaining, and perhaps, even useful.  For several years now I have been following a fascination with all things Middle Eastern.  It began when I purchased a frayed, but beautiful Oriental rug at a local auction.  It’s a double tree-of-life design and I began researching its origins.  That led to books about carpets, about Persia, about Turkey.  I found histories, stories, including the wonderful Arabian Tales (1001 nights), and travel books. My study is filled. I want to know about the lives of women there and then.

One extraordinary woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montegu, fascinates me. She was a British, titled, educated woman in an unhappy marriage who took the opportunities offered to her to investigate and taste the larger world.  In 1716 (yes!) she traveled overland with a young son and her husband to Turkey (the Ottoman Empire).  She wrote letters rich with details and delight of a foreign way of living, dressing, eating.  It changed her profoundly.  She also is credited with bringing the information about small pox vaccination back from the East a full generation before Edward Jenner’s ‘discovery’.  In fact, since she had suffered disfigurement from small pox as a young woman she allowed her young son to be vaccinated in Turkey.  A very daring and intelligent decision.

I didn’t discover someone unknown, but I would like to make her better known, and hope to do so through a novel.  Why a novel? Well, because I don’t believe I have the fastidiousness required for a biographer.  I like to indulge in flights of fancy, and I have a fertile imagination which needs regular feeding.  I want to color in the unknown bits of her life.