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The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu (Hardback)

Scientist and Feminist

Hobbies & Lifestyle > Science Military > Biographies P&S History > By Century > 18th Century P&S History > Social History Women of History

By Jo Willett
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9781526779380
Published: 30th March 2021
Last Released: 20th October 2021


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In the press!

‘Willett tells her story briskly and well, and with considerable wit herself' ~ Hugh Thomson, The Spectator

'This book tells a rich and fascinating story' ~ Lucasta Miller, Daily Telegraph

'If you love history and biography, you'll have a lovely time with this' ~ Stylist Magazine

'An engaging biography that brings the subject to life' ~ The Lady

'Jo Willett plunges us into Mary's life with clarity and wit – a page turner from the start – a fascinating, courageous life. Unnervingly pertinent for our troubled times' ~ Actress Anna Chancellor Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Hour, Ordeal by Innocence

'Brilliantly written biography of a fearless woman who changed the course of history. Hard to imagine a more timely account of a woman who should be a role model for a generation. Put her on every twenty pound note until she is' ~ Anne Sebba, author of That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, Les Parisiennes, and Jennie Churchill

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300 years ago, in April 1721, a smallpox epidemic was raging in England. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu knew that she could save her 3-year-old daughter using the process of inoculation. She had witnessed this at first hand in Turkey, while she was living there as the wife of the British ambassador. She also knew that by inoculating - making her daughter the first person protected in the West - she would face opposition from doctors, politicians and clerics. Her courageous action eventually led to the eradication of smallpox and the prevention of millions of deaths.

But Mary was more than a scientific campaigner. She mixed with the greatest politicians, writers, artists and thinkers of her day. She was also an important early feminist, writing powerfully and provocatively about the position of women.

She was best friends with the poet Alexander Pope. They collaborated on a series of poems, which made her into a household name, an ‘It Girl’. But their friendship turned sour and he used his pen to vilify her publicly.

Aristocratic by birth, Mary chose to elope with Edward Wortley Montagu, whom she knew she did not love, so as to avoid being forced into marrying someone else. In middle age, her marriage stale, she fell for someone young enough to be her son - and, unknown to her, bisexual. She set off on a new life with him abroad. When this relationship failed, she stayed on in Europe, narrowly escaping the coercive control of an Italian conman.

After twenty-two years abroad, she returned home to London to die. The son-in-law she had dismissed as a young man had meanwhile become Prime Minister.

This is a biography of Mary Wortley Montagu. Mary is a fascinating woman. She is a scientist, writer, and feminist. I had never heard of her before. Yet, this biography gave me an excellent introduction of her... this was a very comprehensive biography on an important, but forgotten woman!

NetGalley, Lauralee Jacks

Featured in

Family and Community Historical Research Society Newsletter, Volume 22, November 2021

"This book is recommended to anyone interested in medical history or early feminism."

The Historian, The magazine of the Historical Association

It is 5 stars from me for the one, I loved finding out more about Mary – she certainly made a name for herself when she was alive and she deserves the recognition that the author is giving her now.

She truly was an absolutely fascinating woman – I love a good biography and this was definitely a revelation – she really did so much! Very highly recommended!!

Read the full review here

Donna's Book Blog

As featured in

Made Lifestyle July 2021

This timely book celebrates one of the most remarkable women of the 18th century.

The Spectator April 2021

Jo Willett’s brisk and witty biography is a fitting tribute to “one of the most remarkable women of the 18th century”.

Read the full review here

The Week

This biography covers Mary Wortley Montagu’s remarkable life and serves to remind us that she should be given credit for her pioneering views on variolation which paved the way for the advances to be made by Jenner almost a century later. The book will certainly be of interest to historians, as well as the general reader.

British Society for the History of Medicine 

I have always wanted to learn more about Lady Mary and this book did a decent job of it. I definitely recommend it! Lady Mary indeed was an interesting & strong woman!

NetGalley, Reviewer Reviews

I can’t recommend enough this book. Lady Mary was a fascinating woman and Jo Willett describes her life beautifully. The book has small chapters, about 10-12 pages each, on different aspects of her life, making it a delight to read and easy to follow.

5/5 stars

Read the full review here

Coffee and Books

After reading this book, you do feel as if you've gotten to know Lady Mary Wortley Montagu yourself. I certainly felt inspired by her energy, that floats up from these pages two hundred years after her death. I'm so glad I read it. It's about time that Lady Mary was known for her huge contribution to history, for her resilience and her eighteenth century sass.

Read the full review here

Love British History

Really didn’t know what to expect from this book. the premise was interesting, but often history books can be just a bit stale and dry, can’t they? Well, this one smashed that stereotype, and how!

What an amazing woman Mary Wortley Montagu was. I hadn’t even heard of her prior to reading this book, which goes into great detail about her life and adventures – I don’t hesitate to use the word adventures, either. Hers is an incredible story.

Jo Willett has done a brilliant job here. She has really brought Mary Wortley Montagu (neé Pierrepoint) to life – and what a chequered life! Fitting that this book is being published in 2021, the 300th anniversary of the very first inoculation in the West(against Smallpox), which was pioneered by our heroine. Obviously, inoculation is still a very hot topic all these years later, though thankfully, Smallpox has now been eradicated and has been for over 40 years. (Inoculations work, kids, get jabbed!)

That’s before we get on to her championing of women. Mary Wortley Montagu can very definitely be considered an early dopter of feminism and she strived for the position of women in society to be improved.

This is a really warm, well written and amusing book. I actually couldn’t put it down. It really was a case of “Wow, what next?!” for pretty much each and every chapter.

5/5 – highly recommended

Read the full review here

Daisy Says

I thoroughly enjoyed Jo Willett's latest book. Mary's story is told in an engaging, snappy way, which puts the reader firmly in the seat next to her on this adventure that was Mary's life: the good, the bad and the inoculated.

Read the full review here

Natalie is a History Buff

First and foremost, Lady Mary was an early pioneer of smallpox inoculation after learning about it in Turkey and I’m outraged I was never taught about this early work in school. Instead all emphasis was put on Edward Jenner without any background on Lady Mary’s pioneering work. In light of the current work with the COVID vaccine, this book is particularly relevant.

Lady Mary was also a feminist. A bright, witty and complex woman, she spent a lot of her time writing articles and poetry. Some chapter highlights for me include the one on Lady Mary’s time in Turkey and the friendships chapter. They reveal a whole host of fascinating characters including Mary Astell, Voltaire, and Alexander Pope.

Many aristocratic women have been hidden away in history, we often focus on the more well known men, women or royalty, and yet aristocratic women’s lives are a rich insight into their experiences. It must have been amazing to look through Lady Mary’s letters and other publications. This was such a well researched book.

I cannot recommend this biography enough, Lady Mary is honestly just a mesmerising and fearless woman. In my opinion, this book made me realise her life would make a brilliant
film or TV series! (There was so much drama! 😆)

Read the full review via Instagram

Instagram, @historian_ellis

It is a very enjoyable and easy to read book. I would recommend it to all those interested in the Georgian era.

Local history/ nursing and public health groups, Alison Wall

Fascinating read…

I had no idea who this person was before picking up this book but I’m so glad her story was told. So many different and fascinating aspects to this woman’s life. She was a mother and a wife. A crusader. A writer. A feminist. A pioneer in so many different ways, a feminist definitely. A lay scientist might be more accurate (in my opinion)…

She pushed and cajoled, so in many ways the diplomat that her husband was. She believed that smallpox was a disease that could be managed if not cured and devoted so much of her life to convincing those around her of the same. And all this in a time where women were still very much in the shadow of their male counterparts. She was of the aristocracy so she was given more leeway than perhaps others may be been given, but I admire her for the many envelopes she pushed. She used that status to her advantage as she mixed and mingled with the important figures of her time. She was not a perfect person and I appreciate the balance the author brought to her story. She wasn’t an unflawed mother or the ideal partner but led a life of truth to herself and her beliefs.

A great read and one that has me looking for more about (for me) this influential person…

NetGalley, Diane Radtke

Article: Meet Britain's first vaccinator

As featured by

The Daily Telegraph

I first remember learning about Mary Wortley Montagu in a university English course, although I only got a sampling of her work and didn’t think to go deeper into her impact. However, this book provides a great overview of her life and contributions, including the one I didn’t realize she was known for: introducing the smallpox vaccine to Europe. She had a colorful life, including a loveless marriage, a love affair with an Italian, and a writing career that led to her association with other writers of the day, like Alexander Pope. I feel like this serves as a fairly thorough starting point for someone who knows next to nothing like I did, but also will satisfy those who may know a bit more.

NetGalley, Courtney Tonokawa

Listed in ‘Books & Podcasts: This Month’s Best Historical Reads and Listens’

History Revealed, April 2021

As featured ‘On The Bookshelf’

BBC History Magazine, April 2021

Review by Juanita Coulson

TV producer Jo Willett has crafted an engaging biography that brings her subject to life.

The Lady, March 2021

The incredible life story of Lady Mary Wortley, this is a woman who battled doctors, politicians and clerics 300 years ago to give her three-year-old daughter an inoculation against smallpox (after seeing it first-hand in Turkey). She also wrote poetry with Alexander Pope and avoided an unwanted marriage by eloping, only to enter into a disastrous affair with a much younger man before escaping back to England. If you love history and biographies, you’ll have a lovely time with this.

Read the full review here


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What a fascinating person Mary Wortley Montagu was! Born in England in 1869 she was always unusual, clever, intellectual and independent. She is particularly known for her advancement of the smallpox inoculation (engrafting) but this book details so much more, too. She was an international traveler, author, women's rights advocate, mother and was associated with the likes of Voltaire, Alexander Pope and Henry Fielding, her cousin.

Mary did not marry for love...she did not marry her "paradise" but instead her "limbo". However, in her mind this enabled her to do whatever she liked. She and her husband spent much of their physical and emotional lives apart. When living in Turkey engrafting was successful and common and Mary was the first to inoculate her child in the West. Understandably, many did not trust it and this resulted in deaths. She would use every tiny drop from smallpox pus and scratch little cuts into skin and introduce the pus into the cuts. About five days later the person got ill but then felt much better and did not get smallpox again.

Mary may have been extremely privileged but her life was not easy. Her two children were basically estranged for years, her sister spent ages in a mental asylum and she had a few rocky relationships, especially with Alexander Pope which ended in disaster. She fell in love with a much younger Italian as well. Her heart swooned when she first saw Venice...I can relate to this as a frequent traveler to Italy. She spent time in France, too.

Nonfiction and History readers, do read this well-written and thoroughly-researched book on a remarkable woman, not always likeable but always interesting. The sheer amount of information is vast! I learned so much and am grateful for this new knowledge base.

NetGalley, Brenda Carleton

Mary Wortley Montagu is best known today for introducing smallpox vaccination into western Europe after discovering its practice in Turkey when her husband was British ambassador there. But she was much more. She was a capable writer, a friend (and enemy) of Alexander Pope and other leading writers of the first half of the 18th century, a believer in the abilities of women in an age of widespread male chauvinism, a woman who travelled across Europe in times of war... A marriage entered into by elopement turned relatively loveless, and her last decades were spent apart from her husband. In middle age she had a passionate relationship with a much younger bisexual Italian who used his good looks to advance his interests. In later life she was exploited for some years by an Italian swindler. A wayward son was a constant problem.

This book depicts her colourful life well. Within a broad chronological framework most chapters are focused thematically - on a particular aspect of her life in a given period, for instance her literary endeavours and interactions, or a particular relationship. This means some darting back and forth in time but also makes for a more coherent account than a strict chronological approach would.

NetGalley, Michael Cayley

About Jo Willett

JO HAS BEEN an award-winning TV drama and comedy producer all her working life. Her credits range from the recent MANHUNT, starring Martin Clunes, to BIRDS OF A FEATHER. Her most relevant productions include BRIEF ENCOUNTERS (a fictionalised story of the first women who ran Ann Summers parties in the 1980s), THE MAKING OF A LADY (an adaption of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel The Making of a Marchioness), BERTIE AND ELIZABETH (telling the story of the Queen Mother’s marriage) and the BAFTA-and-RTS Award-Winning A RATHER ENGLISH MARRIAGE (starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Joanna Lumley, adapted from the novel of the same name by Angela Lambert). She studied English at Queens' College Cambridge and has an MA in Arts Policy. She is married with a daughter, a son and a step-son. She lives in London. 

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