Monday, May 3, 2021

"Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband" by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Portrait of Lady Mary Pierrepont
by Godfrey Kneller
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (née Pierrepont - 1689-1762), the rebellious protofeminist that pioneered smallpox inoculation in England. Though largely known for her Turkish Embassy Letters (published posthumously and without her family's consent - like Austen, Lady Mary was also the victim of familial censorship, both through burned letters and image cultivation), written while her husband was ambassador to Constantinople, she also wrote a great deal of poetry. Her audience was her social circle, but some of these made it into print. In lieu of a proper post, I thought I'd share one of her poems with you, remarkably modern in its notions of gender, but be warned: modern audiences making a study of her will be confronted with a great deal of racism in her prose, as really ought to be expected from any 18th century Englishman traveling almost anywhere outside of their home country. Such content will not be reproduced by me here, though I feel obligated to call it out. 

The following poem teases my Janeite head, causing plot bunnies to explode. It is inspired by a scandalous court case from 1724, when Sir William Yonge filed for divorce from his wife, Mary, on grounds of adultery. He discovered that she had taken a lover, one Colonel Norton (who he also successfully sued for damages), and though they were already separated, and despite his many well-documented affairs, he used it as grounds for divorce. In accordance with the laws of the time, the courts found in his favor, bestowing Mary's dowery and the bulk of her fortune upon him in compensation. What happened to Mary Yonge (née Heathcote) after being deprived of her social status and wealth? Maybe she decided to disguise her name and set herself up in one of the few professions accessible to ladies at the time, and become a companion to some wealthier lady in need? I know the idea that Mr. Darcy could possibly have hired an infamous divorcee as a companion to his beloved sister is pretty farfetched (and history records that she remarried immediately after the divorce), but my brain keeps toying with the idea, nonetheless. Regardless, it is very possible Austen knew of the court case, and maybe the name did have some nefarious connections for her when she chose it. What it much more certain is that Austen would not have read the following verse, written from Mary Yonge's perspective, as it wasn't published until 1972. I'm not going to provide a lot of context, except that both the "patron" and "the man you fear" are probably Sir Robert Walpole, and that the blanked out names in the last line are Churchill (General John Churchill) and Lowther (Anthony Lowther), both rumoured to have had affairs (the former with Lady Walpole). 

Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband (1724)

Think not this paper comes with vain pretense
To move your pity, or to mourn th’ offense.
Too well I know that hard obdurate heart;
No softening mercy there will take my part,
Nor can a woman’s arguments prevail,
When even your patron’s wise example fails.
But this last privilege I still retain;
Th’ oppressed and injured always may complain.
    Too, too severely laws of honor bind
The weak submissive sex of womankind.
If sighs have gained or force compelled our hand,
Deceived by art, or urged by stern command,
Whatever motive binds the fatal tie,
The judging world expects our constancy.
    Just heaven! (for sure in heaven does justice reign,
Though tricks below that sacred name profane)
To you appealing I submit my cause.
Nor fear a judgment from impartial laws.
All bargains but conditional are made;
The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;
Defrauded servants are from service free;
A wounded slave regains his liberty.
For wives ill used no remedy remains,
To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.
    From whence is this unjust distinction grown?
Are we not formed with passions like your own?
Nature with equal fire our souls endued,
Our minds as haughty, and as warm our blood;
O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue,
The change is justified by something new;
But we must sigh in silence—and be true.
Our sex’s weakness you expose and blame
(Of every prattling fop the common theme),
Yet from this weakness you suppose is due
Sublimer virtue than your Cato knew.
Had heaven designed us trials so severe,
It would have formed our tempers then to bear.
    And I have borne (oh what have I not borne!)
The pang of jealousy, the insults of scorn.
Wearied at length, I from your sight remove,
And place my future hopes in secret love.
In the gay bloom of glowing youth retired,
I quit the woman’s joy to be admired,
With that small pension your hard heart allows,
Renounce your fortune, and release your vows.
To custom (though unjust) so much is due;
I hide my frailty from the public view.
My conscience clear, yet sensible of shame,
My life I hazard, to preserve my fame.
And I prefer this low inglorious state
To vile dependence on the thing I hate—
But you pursue me to this last retreat.
Dragged into light, my tender crime is shown
And every circumstance of fondness known.
Beneath the shelter of the law you stand,
And urge my ruin with a cruel hand,
While to my fault thus rigidly severe,
Tamely submissive to the man you fear.
    This wretched outcast, this abandoned wife,
Has yet this joy to sweeten shameful life:
By your mean conduct, infamously loose,
You are at once my accuser and excuse.
Let me be damned by the censorious prude
(Stupidly dull, or spiritually lewd),
My hapless case will surely pity find
From every just and reasonable mind.
When to the final sentence I submit,
The lips condemn me, but their souls aquit.
    No more my husband, to your pleasures go,
The sweets of your recovered freedom know.
Go: court the brittle friendship of the great,
Smile at his board, or at his levee wait;
And when dismissed, to madam’s toilet fly,
More than her chambermaids, or glasses, lie,
Tell her how young she looks, how heavenly fair,
Admire the lilies and the roses there.
Your high ambition may be gratified,
Some cousin of her own be made your bride,
And you the father of a glorious race
Endowed with Ch——l’s strength and Low——r’s face. 

No comments:

Post a Comment