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The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu (Hardback)

Scientist and Feminist

P&S History Social History Women of History Science Biographies 18th Century

By Jo Willett
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 288
Illustrations: 30 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526779380
Published: 30th March 2021


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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.

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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