Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – a ‘bad mother’

I am delighted to welcome fellow author,  the lovely Jo Willet, to tell us about her book ‘The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist‘ which has just been published by Pen and Sword Books.

Jo has been an award-winning TV drama and comedy producer all her working life. Her credits range from the recent ‘Manhunt‘, starring Martin Clunes, to ‘Birds of a Feather’ and has now ventured in writing. This is her first book and she’s now busy working on her second – also a historical biography. Jo is married with a daughter, a son and a step-son. She lives in London and Dorset. You can find out more about Jo by clicking on the link at the end.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu - wikimedia commons. Artist: Jonathan Richardson
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – Wikimedia commons. Artist: Jonathan Richardson

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her husband Edward had two children – confusingly called Edward and Mary. Lady Mary’s two children had starkly contrasting lives and their mother’s relationship with both of them, though loving, was often stormy. Even in her lifetime she was sensitive to criticism that she was that dreaded thing: a bad mother.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants. attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour. NPG
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants. attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour. NPG

Lady Mary is most famous for her contribution to the fight against smallpox.  Both her children were involved.  She inoculated her son Edward, aged nearly 5,  while the family were living in Turkey in 1718.  But this was common practice in Turkey at the time and Lady Mary was simply following in the footsteps of another Englishman, Sir Robert Sutton.

Lady Mary’s daughter, Countess of Bute - wikimedia commons. Artist - after Joshua Reynolds.
Lady Mary’s daughter, Countess of Bute – Wikimedia commons. Artist – after Joshua Reynolds.

Her ground-breaking decision was to inoculate her only daughter, young Mary, aged 3, once the family were back in England.  So young Mary became the first person in the west to be given protection against the smallpox. Young Mary was educated at home.  She enjoyed putting on theatrical productions.  Her mother, rather disloyally, described her as plain.

Lady Mary and Wortley set about finding a suitable husband for young Mary, once she reached the age of 18, as was the custom.  They themselves had eloped, but they clearly wanted something more respectable for their daughter.  Young Mary met a Scottish nobleman, John Stuart, Earl of Bute, in 1735, who also liked acting. The two fell in love but her parents were unhappy with the match.  Lady Mary made the mistake of telling her daughter what she thought of Bute.  He was honest, she said, but hot-tempered.  She would prefer young Mary to remain single. Needless to say, this did not go down well. The marriage nevertheless went ahead but without a formal wedding reception.

Lady Mary’s son-in-law, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute - wikimedia commons. Artist Joshua Reynolds.
Lady Mary’s son-in-law, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute – Wikimedia commons. Artist Joshua Reynolds.

The couple were exceptionally happy together and had eleven children. They initially lived at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, where Young Mary grew lonely and depressed.  Her mother – who was herself living far away by now, in France and Italy – worried about her. The two had quarrelled – we don’t know why – at the point when Lady Mary decided to leave her husband and live abroad.  Very gradually their letters trace an improved relationship.  Eventually, nearly 20 years later, Lady Mary was at a concert in Venice when someone told her how beautifully her daughter sang, and she burst into uncontrollable tears.

The Butes had meanwhile moved to London. Here, Bute became great friends with Frederick, Prince of Wales, and when the Prince died his widow, Princess Augusta, made him tutor to their oldest son. When this son then inherited the throne as George III he manoeuvred to have his former tutor made Prime Minister.  Unfounded rumours abounded that Bute was having an affair with Princess Augusta.  When the elderly Lady Mary arrived back in London at the time of Bute’s premiership, her daughter and son-in-law found her an eccentric embarrassment. On her death, they buried her quickly, to avoid controversy.

Lady Mary’s only son, Edward Wortley Montagu, showing his love of the East - wikimedia common. Artist Matthew William Peters
Lady Mary’s only son, Edward Wortley Montagu, showing his love of the East – Wikimedia common. Artist Matthew William Peters

Lady Mary’s only son, Edward Wortley Montagu, could not have been more different from his goody goody sister.  He caused his parents heart-ache from the start.  He accompanied his parents in their carriage all the way from London to Constantinople, and a love of the East remained with him all his life.  Back home in England, though, he was sent to Westminster School, which he hated.  He ran away, swapping clothes with an urchin in Whitechapel and getting a job as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Gibraltar.  He was missing for five months and his mother wrote that: ‘Nothing that ever happened to me has touched me so much.’  My own instinct – although there is no evidence to support this – is that Edward was probably abused around this time.

His parents, unsure what to do with him, gave Edward a series of tutors and sent him off to the West Indies.  When he returned, aged 17, he provoked controversy by marrying a washerwoman and then immediately abandoning her.  He was sent abroad again, with a new tutor, where he went through a period of religious fanaticism and began drinking heavily. His father avoided having any direct contact with him, but Edward did have a stormy meeting with his mother in London, where he demanded more money.  He was already heavily in debt.

In 1741 Lady Mary – now living in France –  received a letter from her son, asking for her help in dissolving his marriage so he could find an heiress to marry instead.  Mary was sceptical but Wortley pressurised her to meet him.  Eventually the two did spend a couple of days together in a village near Avignon.  Edward, aged 29, had lost his looks and put on weight, Mary wrote to his father and ‘He has a flattering, insinuating manner which naturally prejudices strangers’. Things went relatively well until Edward broached the difficult subject of whether Wortley would leave his by now vast fortune to Edward as their only son. He indicated he would ensure Mary were taken care of, were that to be the case.  This attitude infuriated her and so they parted.

Family connections procured an army commission for Edward, and he even served in battle at Fontenoy in France.  Mary had to wait a month before hearing that he had survived.  He was a prisoner of war for a time but then returned to England.

Again, Wortley exerted family pressure to ensure he was given a safe parliamentary seat, so as to escape prosecution. But Edward fell into bad company again, forging a friendship with a notorious highwayman, James McLean, who was then sent to the gallows.  He made a bigamous marriage with a friend of McLean’s, Miss Elizabeth Ashe, and embarked with her on a career of swindling, gambling, extortion and physical violence. He was thrown into the Châtelet prison in Paris, but released on bail and sent back to England.  As Mary wrote to Wortley:

The only way to avoid disappointment is never to Indulge any Hope on his Account.

Having not seen either of her children for many years, Mary’s death brought them back into her life. Wortley died in 1761 and  defied convention by leaving his fortune to their daughter not their son. Inevitably Edward challenged this.  Mary, who by now had breast cancer, made the long journey across Europe to London to be reunited with her daughter’s family and fight Edward’s lawsuit. She admitted that Edward had broken her heart. But relations with the Butes were not easy either.  Whether or not she was indeed a Bad Mother, Mary’s relationships with her children ultimately brought her precious little happiness.

You can find out much more about Mary Wortley Montagu and her family in Jo’s book and check out her website  here.