Saturday, June 02, 2007

Mary Wortley Montagu: Life on the Golden Horn

Mr Bani picked this up in Pareeeee no less. Lucky fella. It's a slim little volume containing a selection of the letters she wrote to friends and family from Constantinople (also from the journey there and thence). Her husband had been stationed there as ambassador - a post that lasted only a year, but Lady Mary made full use of her time there. She learnt Turkish, often went about the town in Turkish dress (in other words a full veil, a very useful disguise), and seems to have taken pleasure in being able to refute the more fanciful ideas of the country that had been spread by more inventive travel writers.
Your whole letter is full of mistakes from one end to the other. I see you have taken your ideas of Turkey from that worthy author Dumont, who has writ with equal ignorance and confidence. 'Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant [...] so full of absurdities I am very well diverted with them. They never fail to give you an account of the women, which 'tis certain they never saw, and talking very wisely of the genius of men, into whose company they are never admitted, and very often describe mosques which they dare not peep into.

I looked Lady Mary up on Wikipedia, and she seems to have been a very colourful personality. This certainly is apparent in her letters anyway. They are in turns descriptive, intelligent, scathing and pensive. She writes of fashion to her sister:
I saw the other day a gala for Count Althann, the Emperor's favourite, and never in my life saw so many fine clothes ill-fancied [...] provided they can make their clothes expensive enough that is all the taste they show in them.
and to Alexander Pope of the horrors of war.
[...]the field being strewed with the skulls and carcases of unburied men, horses and camels. I could not look without horror on such numbers of mangled human bodies, and reflect on the injustice of was that makes murder not only necessary but meritorious. Nothing seems to me a plainer proof of the irrationality of mankind, whatever fine claims we pretend to reason [...]

I'm really pleased to have read this little book. It was entertaining and informative - who can argue with that? While reading I mused upon the lost art of letter-writing - how I wish we could end our letters with stuff like
Upon this occasion admire the heroism in the heart of your friend etc.
instead of the dull "Your's truly".

The book is part of a Penguin series called Great Journeys, 20 books by different travel writers from Herodotos to Kapuściński. It would be great fun to read them all - to own them all! - but I shouldn't encourage my book-hoarding side.

In other news I've caught a nasty virus. My throat is sore as hell, and I am about to gargle with an infusion of sage, garlic and ginger. Let's hope I don't vomit. Again.


HB said...

"It would be great fun to read them all - to own them all! - but I shouldn't encourage my book-hoarding side."

LOL! Ellers, takk for tipset! Dette skal jeg sjekke ut:-) Har endelig fått paperback-utgaven av "The Ard of Detection" i posten også. Gleder meg til å lese!:-)

God bedring!

bani said...

Åååhhhh, trevlig läsning! Lyllos dig som har det framför dig....!