Friday, May 28, 2010

The Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1790); Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe (1676)

Two English ladies, living two generations apart, travel half the world in pursuance of their husbands' careers. Lady Mary made a circuit from London through the Low Countries to Austria to Hungary to the Ottoman capital, and from there via the Mediterranean to north Africa, Italy, and thence to Paris and then home; all this over the course of about two years, 1716-1718, while her husband was an ambassador. In the 1650s and 1660s, Lady Fanshawe covered less ground but also had a rougher time of it, for the English Civil War you might say crafted her itinerary. Her husband, later the baronet Sir Richard Fanshawe, sided with the monarchy against Oliver Cromwell, and so the couple spent a great deal of time during the Commonwealth beating about from England to the Netherlands to France to Spain -- anywhere royal heads were still safe -- raising money for the dispossessed prince who, on Cromwell's death, became King Charles II.

Both women wrote books which, if not timeless repositories of wisdom, are nevertheless remarkable time capsules of life and adventure in their respective eras. Lady Mary's Letters are the more interesting to read, since she was a better, indeed a delightful writer who not only performed at concert pitch for an audience of great friends like Alexander Pope himself, but also carefully chose and polished what she wanted posterity to see. Her book only came out decades after her death. She was probably a fun person to be around, too, if perhaps a little snooty. She loves being the clear-eyed, liberated and logical Protestant Englishwoman, asking tough questions of the friars showing her holy relics in Bavarian churches. If the church possesses, for instance, both the mantle of a saint and a silver-plated griffin's claw, does that mean the griffin was also a saint? Her host smiled abashedly.

Lady Fanshawe, however, probably led a more interesting life, at least to the reader sitting in comfort and clicking through her Memoirs on a Kindle. (What would the ladies have thought about that?) In old age, she wrote in firm but somewhat pedestrian style of all the things that had happened to her on her travels, almost week by week, for years. She wrote for her one surviving son, so there are many family details that he could have untangled better than we can do. She seems to have had no desire to please a fretful posterity with gay, polished summations: these memoirs were meant to honor her late husband, and so she fleshed out anything and everything that concerned him, right down to the apparently photographic memories of official state ceremonies (he was an ambassador, too), and to what guards wore which uniforms, and what the people lining the dusty roads, cheering, looked like.

Yet what with the travel and the narrow escapes and the forged passports, the shipwrecks and the perpetual hunt for money, one wonders how the former Ann Harrison herself stood it. Perhaps she found it wonderfully "interesting" too, and all for the service of a noble and godly prince. Perhaps seventeenth century Englishwomen were simply made of sterner stuff than we can imagine. I would think after a while, the adventures would simply turn ghastly, and the reward of reaching a career in the wasp's nest of Stuart diplomacy, only to find betrayal and disgrace there, would finally break anyone's spirit. The twenty pregnancies added in must have been small help in times of family turmoil. (For her part Lady Mary, in the course of her Letters, appears to have had two.) Six miscarriages, including a set of triplet boys, fourteen births, withal four survivals to adulthood: Lady Fanshawe recounts them all, and notes in every case when death happened and where "my son" or "my daughter" is buried. For one decade-long stretch, she lost a child, on average, every two years.

It's best to let these ladies speak for themselves, but before listening to them, it's also wise to note one way in which both their eras now overlap our own. It lies in their experience of Islam. For several centuries now, we Westerners, we Americans especially, have been able to develop an amnesia about Islam because we have not much encountered it. Until very recently, the U.S. Marines' hymn's lyrics about "the shores of Tripoli" might have been the only (and beyond oblique) reference to Islam remotely a part of American life. We are accustomed instead to religion as a sedate, gentle human construct -- each one a part of the civic fabric -- and to understanding that everyone simply agrees, one day a week, to let one another worship peacefully where all choose, all faiths being essentially the same: benign.

Islam is different, and our ancestors saw it. Lady Fanshawe, sailing from England to the safety of the Continent circa 1650, knew that the approach of a Turkish vessel meant the real threat of a combat, capture, and slavery. "When we had just passed the Straits, we saw coming towards us, with full sails, a Turkish galley well manned, and we believed we should all be carried away slaves ...." She was not a hyperventilating Islamophobe. The Muslim slave trade was vigorous to say the very least. Two generations later, Lady Mary traveled and lived in the Ottoman Empire as a distinguished guest, made great progress in learning Turkish and appears also to have made polite noises when her hosts encouraged her to study "alcoran." She wrote, for public consumption, glowing descriptions of splendidly rich, beautiful cool Turkish homes sumptuously appointed in rare woods and and glowing fabrics, all plashing with fountains, and of fields and gardens blooming in the warm Mediterranean January; she wrote of her cloistered friend, the enchanting Fatima, exquisite and serene.

But she also traveled through the wild Serbian countryside in company with "bassas," imperial Ottoman officials, and their guards, the "janizaries" (slave soldiers, originally kidnapped Christian boys forcibly converted to Islam), both of whom preyed grotesquely on the helpless Serbian peasants. They slaughtered their animals, ate their food, and then charged them "teeth-money," "a contribution for the use of their teeth, worn with doing them the honour of devouring their meat. ... the wretched owners durst not put in their claim, for fear of being beaten." She notes that all this oppression is owing the "natural corruption of a military government, their religion not allowing of this barbarity, any more than ours does." Here, she is wrong. The bassas and the janizaries could certainly have pointed to Islam's laws demanding the jeziya, the tax levied on infidels for being infidels.

And in a section of letters at the end of the book, which seem to have been intended to remain private (from Letter LIII forward -- "Footnote, this and the following letters are now first published"), she is even less sanguine about the wonders of Muslim civilization. Men go in terror of "the vile spirit of their government," which "stifles genius, damps curiosity, and suppresses an hundred passions." Women go in terror of men.

The luscious passion of the seraglio is the only one almost that is gratified here to the full; but it is blended so with the surly spirit of despotism in one of the parties, and with the dejection and anxiety which this spirit produces in the other, that ... it cannot appear otherwise than as a very mixed kind of enjoyment.

Even the lovely Fatima herself is of startling parentage. She is the daughter of a Polish Christian woman, kidnapped and enslaved in one of the many running battles the Ottoman Turks fought in eastern Europe, always lunging for more conquest -- more jihad. Mind you, this was long after the Crusades. They had only just been beaten back from Vienna in 1683, about halfway through our two ladies' flourishings. The date of that Muslim defeat was September 11.

It is all part of a pattern that we have had the luxury of forgetting, a historical truth that was delivered to our attention in short doses during the 1980s and 1990s, and then with ferocious confidence on another September 11. This historical truth is not that Muslims are awful people; it is that Islam is the only major world faith which demands the subjugation of all non-believers, period. When its most passionate adherents take the mandate seriously, war, conquest, enslavement, punitive taxes, and the raising of mosques on other people's sacred sites are the norm. Two vigorous, educated women, living in the most civilized cities in Europe three and four hundred years ago, saw normative Islam in action on their travels in Europe. They recorded it, matter-of-factly. Pay attention to these voices, for, not only can they help cure us of our pleasant and dangerous amnesia, but the more you read in old books, the more you'll find these ladies are just two of a surprisingly large company of witnesses.

But, we said we would let them speak for themselves. They did take notice of less deadly subjects. They enjoyed audiences with royal personages, cast a jaundiced eye over other women's dresses and hair, attended archery demonstrations among court ladies, went to the opera. The great disadvantage of reading on a Kindle is that you cannot ruffle back and forth through the pages. You have to click about, one little screen at a time, and you forget things. I had forgotten that Lady Mary, gadding regally about, saw the ruins -- or what she believed were the ruins -- of both Troy and Carthage. For a gentlewoman of the Augustan age and a friend of Pope, this must have been a supremely pleasing experience. And early on in her travels, she wrote with delight of Vienna as a garden spot for mature women:

A woman, till five and thirty, is only looked upon as a raw girl, and can possibly make no noise in the world, till about forty. I don't know what your ladyship may think of this matter; but 'tis a considerable comfort to me, to know there is upon earth such a paradise for old women; and I am content to be insignificant at present, in the design of returning when I am fit to appear no where else.

And as for the storm-tossed Lady Fanshawe, wife of a Stuart cavalier from the age of sixteen, this is her first meal after a shipwreck, and she's enraptured to get it:

... we sat up and made good cheer; for beds they had none, and we were so transported that we thought we had no need of any, but we had very good fires, and Nantz white wine, and butter,and milk, and walnuts and eggs, and some very bad cheese; and was not this enough, with the escape of shipwreck, to be thought better than a feast? I am sure until that hour I never knew such pleasure in eating, between which we a thousand times repeated what we had spoken when every word seemed to be our last.

These women lived lives, if I may mix a metaphor, at full throttle and without a safety net. Lady Fanshawe and her husband were glad to start married life with a fortune of £20 cash, which he used to buy pen and paper, the tools of his trade (diplomacy). For her part, Lady Mary wrote her friends, half-jokingly, that she hoped to survive the trip from Vienna through Hungary to Peterwaradin in Serbia, in the depths of winter, but that it would make her of necessity incommunicado for a while. Her steely, un-self-pitying address to a correspondent could sum up any one day or year that either of these two ladies ever lived through: "Adieu, dear sister: this is the last account you will have from me of Vienna. If I survive my journey, you shall hear from me again. I can say, with great truth, ... 'I have long learnt to hold myself as nothing'; but when I think of the fatigue my poor infant must suffer, I have all a mother's fondness in my eyes, and all her tender passions in my heart."

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