The eighteenth century has long been one of my favourite periods of English history. Put (very) schematically, it was the age of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that championed rationality and empiricism over tradition and belief as a basis for social organisation. Great store was set by the value of education, literacy, and the public airing of ideas for the improvement of individuals and society; there was also a fascination with the past, which had finally become a distinct conceptual 'space'.
While in France the Enlightenment was largely the province of a select group of social and political thinkers based in Paris (often called the philosophes), in England it was an altogether more broadly-based movement, penetrating (to some extent) beyond the rarefied levels of society and taken up with enthusiasm in the provinces as well as the capital. The result was what has been called the 'democratisation of culture': via newspapers and journals, coffee house debates, increased leisure time, a printing explosion, and consumerism. Learning was no longer the sole province of universities and the Church; political commentary no longer belonged to Parliament.
(Essentially, books. Lots of books. ;-))
More particularly, it's one of the few times and places besides my own that I could ever countenance living in as a woman. For women, too, were consumers of the new culture of books and ideas. They ran their own literary salons, wrote novels, acted as literary patrons, compiled libraries - and even, to a limited but much greater extent than ever before, could make intellectual contributions of their own.
But this only happened to some degree, of course, much limited by class and the continuing conservatism within many aspects of social relations. The Selected Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) present us with a slice of that life - to the tune of over 300 hundred letters spanning 60 years - and show both sides of the coin. On the one hand, Lady Mary corresponded with politicians (Walpole) and poets (she fell out with Pope spectacularly) and clergy, discussing literature, theology, politics and even medicine - she witnessed smallpox innoculations being carried out while travelling in Turkey (1716-18), and was instrumental in promoting the process once back in England.
On the other, she was keenly aware of the constrictions placed upon women by social and moral expectations, and how her own learning could make her an object of scorn. She was not an overt feminist in today's terms - she conceives of women largely in terms of their relationship to (male) society, and seems to have considered men and women as properly belonging to different spheres of activity and manners of behaviour (the quotation in the title of this post comes from a passage in which she associates women's power with their effect upon men). But she did hold strong views on how education might improve women's lot, if only it were permitted to. In 1753, writing to her daughter, Lady Bute, with advice on her granddaughters' education, she commented:
But I think it the highest Injustice [...] that the same Studies which raise the character of a Man should hurt that of a Woman. We are educated in the grossest ignorance, and no art omitted to stiffle our natural reason; if some few get above their Nurses’ instructions, our knowledge must rest conceal’d and be as useless to the World as Gold in a Mine. I am now speaking according to our English notions, which may wear out (some ages hence) along with others equally absurd.
Six years later, she put her sentiments into verse:
Our sex’s weakness you expose and blame,
Of every prating fop the common theme;
Yet from this weakness you suppose is due
Sublimer virtue than your Cato knew.
From whence is this unjust distinction shewn?
Are we not formed of passions like your own?
Nature with equal fire our souls endued,
Our minds as lofty and as warm our blood.
O’er the wide world your wishes you pursue,
The change is justified by something new;
But we must sigh in silence and be true.
In her long and extremely active life, Lady Mary travelled and read widely. She spent time in Constantinople when her husband was a government envoy to the Ottoman court, writing exceptionally vivid - and openminded - accounts of her observations of Turkish life (the Embassy Letters, published during her lifetime). She also lived for twenty years of her later life, separate from her husband Edward (with whom she had eloped at the age of 23), in France and Italy. She ran her own political periodical (The Nonsense of Common Sense), wrote poetry, read and translated Latin, Greek, French and Italian, and kept abreast with all the fashionable writings of the day, including Voltaire, and even powered through Richardson's Clarissa in a matter of weeks (!) (although her verdict on the last was a fairly contemptuous one).
She had many friends, an Italian lover, a beloved daughter - and a wastrel son prone to running away, getting into debt, having disastrous relations with older women, and getting into trouble (he spent some time in jail) ... to whom she left the mighty sum of one guinea in her will. Her wit, charm, and thirst for life, her fondness for gossip and her Whiggish politics, her joys and disappointments - all these shine through her lively, clever, and honest letters.
Imagination catches fire easily when one wishes to discuss one’s own merit, but Alas! I have some glimmer of common sense, which shows me pitilessly what I am. All I can truly say is that I was young without coquetry, affectation, or giddiness; I am old without peevishness, superstition, or slander. (1758)