In Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters, the Orient and its people are brought to the foreground through a myriad of personal letters. An accurate and informative representation of the Orient is pursued by Montagu, with a critical tone against previous Orientalist writers who had written in a way “so far removed from the truth and so full of absurdities (Letter XXXVII),” and she seemingly challenges Said’s views that Orientalism is merely “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[1] Despite this, in many ways Montagu contributes to the exoticisation and fetishisation of the Orient that is so ardently castigated by Said; yet when one delves deeper into her writing, one finds more than just an account of her observations of the East. As a result of her role as a Western woman writing about the East, Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters engage in Orientalist discourse in an entirely new way, and to see just how Montagu can be categorised in traditional discourse it is necessary to closely analyse her identity as both a Westerner and a female. Her dual identity is the salient to why Montagu is neither Orientalist nor counter-Orientalist, but rather, tangential to Orientalist discourse.

In many ways Montagu challenges Said’s view that knowledge and understanding of the Orient “depends more on the West than on the Orient,” and The Turkish Embassy Letters appears in many ways as a counter-Orientalist text. She criticises writers such as Dumont who had previously fetishised Turkish women – “the most curious Eye can perceive nothing but enchanting Beauties,”[2] – and takes issue with this mis-representation, writing that she “cannot forbear admiring either the exemplary discretion of extreme stupidity of all writers that have given accounts of them (Letter XXX).” Her techniques of representation reflect this; the use of the letter form, as opposed to travel-writing perhaps, conveys credibility – she suggests many times in her letters that she would not conjure up exoticised, fantasy stories for her readers unless they had actually occurred. Moreover, the letter form encourages persuasive intimacy with the reader, allowing us to enter otherwise hidden spaces within the Orient. However, the letters were carefully edited and polished by Montagu who had hinted at her want to have them published after her death, and perhaps then their veracity can indeed be questioned.

Her claims to authority unravel prevalent Orientalist discourses, assert the disparateness of Turkish society and bring issues of class into the foreground. She is able to do this as woman as opposed to being a Westerner, thus straying from Said’s assertion that the “lives, histories, and customs” of the people of the Orient “have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West.”[3] Her decision to focus on the spaces of women’s freedom, for example the Turkish bath-houses, rather than their limitations of marriage, religion and family, reflect how she is set on introducing a new kind of Orientalist knowledge and de-bunk myths surrounding Oriental women by highlighting that Turkish women could enjoy a space free from men – a privilege that British women may not have had. Indeed, she jovially quips that “the husbands in England were much worse than in the East, for [they] tied up their wives in little boxes, the shape of their bodies” – in reference to the tight corsets worn by English women. The freedoms of Oriental women – a complex conglomeration between class-based and feminine discourses – battle against those typically based on the spheres of education, economic or political life – areas in which Montagu herself participated in defiance of prevalent norms in her own society. Furthermore, her status as a woman of rank meant that she could penetrate spaces others could not; many, however, see this as a point of criticism. Emmeline Lott, who wrote about her experiences working as a governess for the Khedive of Egypt’s son, argued that Montagu’s aristocratic rank limited her to only the most attractive element of Oriental lifestyle – “her handsome train, Lady Ambassadress as she was, swept but across the splendid carpeted floors of these noble Saloons of Audience, all of which had been, as is invariably the custom, well “swept and garnished” for her reception.”[4] In this manner, perhaps Montagu’s Western techniques of representation do not “make the Orient visible, clear, “there” in discourse about it” as stated by Said – her rank perhaps permits her from truly delving into the Orient.

Paradoxically, in some ways Montagu fulfils the role set out by Said in representing the Orient in a manner that is inherently Western. In Letter XXVII, Montagu enters a Turkish bath house, a secret space hidden from male gaze, yet exposes it and its nakedness in a manner that could be interpreted as fetishisation. By entering a new place and penetrating the secret spaces of femininity as an explorer, Montagu is comparable to Woolf’s Flush when the intrepid spaniel enters Barrett’s back bedroom for the first time – subverting the perspective of narrative and occupying the space of an unfamiliar Other. Montagu’s perspective is one of emphasising relations between East and West, such as comparing the baths to English coffee-houses, yet when recounting how there were marble seats in the bath houses “on which sat the Ladies, and on the second their slaves behind them,” the slaves remain as the Other: as mere objects. Montagu appears to fulfil the stereotype of Orientalism in literature where writers see themselves as morally or imaginatively superior to what they depict. Said suggests that the relationship between the Occident and Orient is an asymmetrical one; a “relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony”[5] – and so Montagu’s writings on only the privileged members of the Orient cloud the accuracy her representation even further.

In many ways Montagu almost fulfils the stereotype of the egocentric Western ethnographer by turning herself into the object – something which Said states that is “one of the deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”[6] She states: “[The Turkish women] repeated over and over to me ‘guzelle, pek guzelle,’ which is nothing but ‘charming, very charming’” – she is seemingly objectified and reflected back through their vision. Alterity is what Derrida describes as facilitating true representation, however – “the alterity of the other inscribes in this relationship that which in no case can be ‘posed’”[7] – and so being likened to the privileged women is a flawed technique of representation perhaps, linking back to Emmeline Lott’s earlier argument. Montagu even seems to adopt Dumont’s Orientalist discourse by exoticising the Turkish women and likening them to goddesses or earth-mothers: “There were many among them as exactly proportioned as every any Goddess was drawn by pencil of Guido or Titian (Letter XXVII).” By being too entertained by this foreign female beauty, her gaze has almost become male. Paradoxically, other such as Elizabeth Warnock Fernea see Montagu as “remarkably free of ethnocentrism” and reinforcing the Enlightenment ideas of empiricism, egalitarianism and objectivity.[8] It is her duality as a Westerner and a woman that facilitate such extremely differing critiques of her works.

To conclude, discernibly Montagu and her writing must be critiqued with both cultural and gender aspects of Orientalism in mind in order to holistically engage with the text. Culturally, Montagu is the subject, a Westerner viewing the East (the object). As a woman, however, Montagu is an object viewing an object. The dynamics of power in both areas are distinct and different and therefore both must be taken into consideration before trying to label Montagu concerning her role within the wider literary group of Orientalist writers. If one focuses completely on Montagu’s views on Turkish women, her opinion of their role in Turkish society, and her refutations of previous male accounts, it is easy to see her as counter-Orientalist. That sort of focus, however, only deals with Montagu as a woman and only opposes Orientalism in its gender aspect. Montagu’s techniques of representation, therefore, are both Orientalist and counter-Orientalist; cultural and gender-orientated.

Bibliography

[1] Said, E. Orientalism. In: Leitch, V The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton & Company. p1866

[2] Dumont, J (1699).  A new voyage to the Levant containing an account of the most remarkable curiosities in Germany, France, Italy, Malta, and Turkey : with historical observations relating to the present and ancient state of those countries. Hague. p271.

[3] Said, E. Orientalism. In: Leitch, V The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton & Company. p1868

[4] Lott, E (1867). The English Governess in Egypt: Harem Life in Egypt and Constantinople : R. Bentley

[5] Said, E. Orientalism. In: Leitch, V The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton & Company. p1870

[6] Said, E. Orientalism. In: Leitch, V The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton & Company. p1866

[7] Derrida (1971) interview with Guy Scarpetta, republished in Positions (English edition, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[8] Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, “An Early Ethnographer of Middle Eastern Women : Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 – 1762)” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 40: Arabic and Islamic Studies in Honor of Nabia Abott: Part Two (Oct. 1981): 335.

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