Analyzing Lady Mary’s Turkish Embassy Letters: Gender, Writing, And Identity
Identity is a idiosyncratic way of defining a person. It can be influenced by many factors: race, class, culture, gender and so on. The Turkish Diplomatic Letters has an orientalist preconception of the East. In this ideal, identity is solely based on culture and race. This account must be written from the perspective of a woman. The women Lady Mary Wortley Montagu encountered would have appeared submissive, oppressed and victimized by their culture if they were seen from a male perspective. They would be portrayed as ‘damsels in distress’. Lady Montagu examines gender as something that is not just a part of identity but also separate. Lady Montagu’s female perspective allows her to look at gendered inequality as an occurrence that is universal. Orientalists would look at the West as being ‘free’ and their people as oppressed. The English protagonist can see that Turkish women are liberated by the veil’s anonymity. Lady Montagu’s ability to redefine liberty from a orientalist point of view also allows her to liberate Turks who are labeled as “others”.
In Turkish Embassy letter, the Turks are identified by a comparison to England and its ‘amiable connections with men of letters and taste’. The comparison with England’s “amiable connections with men of taste and letters” highlights this ‘otherness. Education is a key factor in determining one’s identity and reputation within English society. The concept ‘taste’ is strongly associated with a refined society of the eighteenth centuries. Montagu’s indoctrinated system of class is apparent. The subtle yet important approval she gives to ‘amiable social circles’ is also reflected in the wording of her essay. In the examination of gender, it is not possible to separate them. Lady Montagu defines’mens’ as being those capable of both education and good tastes. The praise for English customs comes immediately after a graphic account of Turkish barbarism. This is done to prompt a comparison between the cultures. In this way, the people described in both accounts represent each culture, and are especially poignant because they include the actions taken by a Turkish Prince. He orders the strangulation of several people who are under suspicion by his royal court. It’s not just that ‘persons without identity’ are a sign of the lower class being deprived of their voice. They also suggest a disposable aspect to human existence. In contrast to’men of taste and letters’, violence in ‘barbaric’ spectacles disregards class. Everyone is reduced to a cadaver. This comparison is also a judgement that both the story and the reader are quick to make. Irony is evident, but it cannot be avoided. The English were judged for their’veins wit’, ‘elegant speech’, and their manners. While the Turks were judged for their laws. In this way, the Turks are portrayed in an unbalanced and biased manner. The English, who are notorious for judging on the basis of superficiality, consider them the “other”. To understand the Turkish culture fully, you must see it as an independent culture. Lady Montagu is only able to see the world from a distance, and can therefore observe without being judged.
In a novel that is written from the perspective of a woman, and has access to female-only areas, gender is unavoidable. This comparison, which was initially based on sensitivity, now shows how both cultures define freedom and oppression of women. Teresa Heffernan explains the 18th century view on the Turkish veiled women, who can either be “saved”, from their culture, or they must “submit”.  Instead, Lady Montagu believes that the veil is more of a protection against the patriarchy and not an alienation to an oppressive society. Their’methods for evasion and concealment, which are very favorable to gallantry’ is admirable. This sense for disguise is important whether you are in English or Turkish society. Women are constantly judged for their appearance, morality and actions. This is an unavoidable reality in a surface-level society. This veil is used to make Lady and handmaiden look the same. Social class, as well as flesh, can be’masked out’ by this ‘perpetual disguise’ (Montagu) In this way, freedom can be achieved through anonymity. Western men, however, would find it oppressive. Lady Montagu compares her own experience in England to this. By the customs of marriages and dowries (Montagu, P.xi), English women can be compared to the Turks who are suspected to oppress them. This comparison can also be used to link the idea of “gallantry”. In different climates, gender politics and culture are as different. However, the fight against oppression does not take into account race or culture. In fact, gender politics has a universality that transcends all cultures. In this gender examination, class is also a factor. Although the author is Lady Montagu, she appreciates the freedom offered by ‘even servitude’. Lady Montagu refuses to consider class when examining gender, even though she has a high status. The gender of the individual is therefore examined separately. In terms of females, the word ‘liberty” is defined in different ways depending on class, culture, and location. However, Lady Montagu is not concerned with any of this, and instead celebrates Turkey’s freedom.
So far, both the Turkish culture and its people have been studied. Yet, these observations were made through written words, and it’s important to reflect on the significance of the act of writing. The perspective of Lady Montagu and the letters she wrote as a source of information become problematic. In the 18th century, many travel writers claimed to have made discoveries. The genre may cause some doubts whether the information is factual or not. Lady Montagu asserts that she is writing the truth: “I […] want you to believe me”. It is clear that Lady Montagu believes in the truth of her words, and she does so throughout her letter. She also knows her letters can be used to teach. It’s possible Lady Montagu repeats the same thing so this seemingly accurate representation is taken more seriously at home. However, the assertion of the truth creates doubts. This is due to the perspective. Lady Montagu might not have the same truth as others. Lady Montagu’s writings contradict previous masculine narratives. For example, Joseph Spence said that “Turkish lady, you are aware, is like a prisoner”. The phrase ‘you’re aware’ suggests a claim of authenticity due to the gender. The fact that Lady Montagu claims to be telling the truth could suggest that Turkish women’s politics are not something men can record, because their very gender affects how they view a culture. The author’s voice is just as important as any content, even if it is only female-only areas. The truth is not something that you can see, but rather, it’s something that has to be perceived.
The Turkish Ambassador Letters can also be seen as a record or construction of identities, particularly of Turks, who are perceived as being the ‘other. This account defines Lady Montagu’s’self,’ one who represents the English consciousness. Her letters blur the distinction between’self,’ and the ‘other.’ Lady Montague dresses in Turkish clothing, aligning her with the culture and politics of their dress. Gender does not allow for a separation between cultures. Lady Montague, too, identifies the oppression Turkish women face that English woman also endure. However, there are still some moments where Lady Montagu’s language is alienating, like when she uses the word ‘phlegm.’ This is because it seems that she will never be able to get rid of this male, Orientalist narrative. Her letters are filled with tension. The narrative is an amalgamation of English and Turkish customs. It allows Lady Montagu an analytical position, but also a detached perspective.
Heffernan T., “Feminism against the East/West Divide. Lady Mary’s Turkish embassy letters”, Eighteenth Century Studies 33.2 (2000) 201-205
The Turkish Embassy letters, St Ives Virago Press (St Ives), M. W. Montagu.
Scholz S., English Women in Oriental Dress’: Playing a Turk in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Performing Cultures and Daniel Defoe’s Roxana. by Sabine Schulting et al (Surrey: Ashgate, 2012)