Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Concerning

Monsieur de la Rochefoucault’s Maxim —“That marriage is sometimes convenient but never delightful.

IT may be thought a presumptuous attempt in me to controvert a maxim advanced by such a celebrated genius as Monsieur Rochefoucault, and received with such implicit faith by a nation which boasts of superior politeness to the rest of the world, and which, for a long time past, has prescribed the rules of gallantry to all Europe.

NEVERTHELESS, prompted by that ardour which truth inspires, I dare to maintain the contrary, and resolutely insist, that there are some marriages formed by love, which may be delightful, where the affections are sympathetic. Nature has presented us with pleasures suitable to our species, and we need only to follow her impulse, refined by taste, and exalted by a lively and agreeable imagination, in order to attain the most perfect felicity of which human nature is susceptible. Ambition, avarice, vanity, when enjoyed in the most exquisite perfection, can yield but trifling and tasteless pleasures, which will be too inconsiderable to affect a mind of delicate sensibility.

WE may consider the gifts of fortune as so many steps necessary to arrive at felicity, which we can never attain, being obliged to set bounds to our desires, and being only gratified with some of her frivolous favours, which are nothing more than the torments of life, when they are considered as the necessary means to acquire or preserve a more exquisite felicity.

THIS felicity consists alone in friendship, founded on mutual esteem, fixed by gratitude, supported by inclination, and animated by the tender solicitudes of love, whom the ancients have admirably described under the appearance of a beautiful infant: It is pleased with infantine amusements; it is delicate and affectionate, incapable of mischief, delighted with trifles; its pleasures are gentle and innocent.

THEY have given a very different representation of another passion, too gross to be mentioned, but of which alone men, in general, are susceptible. This they have described under the figure of a satyr, who has more of the brute than of the man in his composition. By this fabulous animal they have expressed a passion, which is the real foundation of all the fine exploits of modish gallantry, and which only endeavours to glut its appetite with the possession of the object which is most lovely in its estimation: A passion founded in injustice, supported by deceit, and attended by crimes, remorse, jealousy, and contempt. Can such an affection be delightful to a virtuous mind? Nevertheless, such is the delightful attendant on all illicit engagements; gallants are obliged to abandon all those sentiments of honour which are inseparable from a liberal education, and are doomed to live wretchedly in the constant pursuit of what reason condemns, to have all their pleasures embittered by remorse, and to be reduced to the deplorable condition of having renounced virtue, without being able to make vice agreeable.

IT is impossible to taste the delights of love in perfection, but in a well assorted marriage; nothing betrays such a narrowness of mind as to be governed by words. What though custom, for which good reasons may be assigned, has made the words husband and wife somewhat ridiculous? A husband, in common acceptation, signifies a jealous brute, a surly tyrant; or, at best, a weak fool, who may be made to believe any thing. A wife is a domestic termagant, who is destined to deceive or torment the poor devil of a husband. The conduct of married people, in general, sufficiently justifies these two characters.

BUT, as I said before, why should words impose upon us? A well regulated marriage is not like these connections of interest or ambition. A fond couple, attached to each other by mutual affection, are two lovers who live happily together. Though the priest pronounces certain words, though the lawyer draws up certain instruments; yet I look on these preparatives in the same light as a lover considers a rope-ladder which he fastens to his mistress’s window: If they can but live together, what does it signify at what price, or by what means, their union is accomplished. Where love is real, and, well founded, it is impossible to be happy but in the quiet enjoyment of the beloved object; and the price at which it is obtained, does not lessen the vivacity and delights of a passion, such as my imagination conceives. If I was inclined to romance, I would not picture images of true happiness in Arcadia. I am not prudish enough to confine the delicacy of affection to wishes only. I would open my romance with the marriage of a couple united by sentiment, taste, and inclination. Can we conceive a higher felicity, than the blending of their interests and lives in such an union? The lover has the pleasure of giving his mistress the last testimony of esteem and confidence; and she, in return, commits her peace and liberty to his protection. Can they exchange more dear and affectionate pledges? Is it not natural, to give the most incontestible proofs of that tenderness with which our minds are impressed? I am sensible, that some are so nice as to maintain, that the pleasures of love are derived from the dangers and difficulties with which it is attended; they very pertly observe, that a rose would not be a rose without thorns. There are a thousand insipid remarks of this sort, which make so little impression on me, that I am persuaded, was I a lover, the dread of injuring my mistress would make me unhappy, if the enjoyment of her was attended with danger to herself.

TWO married lovers lead very different lives: They have the pleasure to pass their time in a successive intercourse of mutual obligations and marks of benevolence; and they have the delight to find, that each forms the entire happiness of the beloved object. Herein consists perfect felicity. The most trivial concerns of economy become noble and elegant, when they are exalted by sentiments of affection: To furnish an apartment, is not barely to furnish an apartment; it is a place where I expect my lover: To prepare a supper, is not merely giving orders to my cook; it is an amusement to regale the object I dote on. In this light, a woman considers these necessary occupations, as more lively and affecting pleasures than those gaudy sights which amuse the greater part of the sex, who are incapable of true enjoyment.

A FIXED and affectionate attachment softens every emotion of the soul, and renders every object agreeable which presents itself to the happy lover (I mean one who is married to his mistress). If he exercises any employment, the fatigues of the camp, the troubles of the court, all become agreeable, when he reflects, that he endures these inconveniences to serve the object of his affections. If fortune is favourable to him, (for success does not depend on merit) all the advantages it procures, are so many tributes which he thinks due to the charms of the lovely fair; and, in gratifying this ambition, he feels a more lively pleasure, and more worthy of an honest man, than that of raising his fortune, and gaining public applause. He enjoys glory, titles, and riches, no farther than as they regard her he loves; and when he attracts the approbation of a senate, the applause of an army, or the commendation of his prince, it is her praises which ultimately flatter him.

IN a reverse of fortune, he has the consolation of retiring to one who is affected by his disgrace; and, locked in her embraces, he has the satisfaction of giving utterance to the following tender reflections: “My happiness does not depend on the caprice of fortune; “I have a constant asylum against inquietude. Your esteem renders me “insensible of the injustice of a court, or the ingratitude of a “master; and my losses afford me a kind of pleasure, since they “furnish me with fresh proofs of your virtue and affection. Of what “use is grandeur to those who are already happy? We have no need of “flatterers, we want no equipages; I reign in your affections, and I “enjoy every delight in the possession of your person.”

IN short, there is no situation in which melancholy may not be assuaged by the company of the beloved object. Sickness itself is not without its alleviation, when we have the pleasure of being attended by her we love. I should never conclude, if I attempted to give a detail of all the delights of an attachment, wherein we meet with every thing which can flatter the senses with the most lively and diffusive raptures. But I must not omit taking notice of the pleasure of beholding the lovely pledges of a tender friendship, daily growing up, and of amusing ourselves, according to our different sexes, in training them to perfection. We give way to this agreeable instinct of nature, refined by love. In a daughter, we praise the beauty of her mother; in a son, we commend the understanding, and the appearance of innate probity, which we esteem in his father. It is a pleasure which, according to Moses, the Almighty himself enjoyed, when he beheld the work of his hands; and saw that all was good.

SPEAKING of Moses, I cannot forbear observing, that the primitive plan of felicity infinitely surpasses all others; and I cannot form an idea Of paradise, more like a paradise, than the state in which our first parents were placed: That proved of short duration, because they were unacquainted with the world; and it is for the same reason, that so few love matches prove happy. Eve was like a silly child, and Adam was not much enlightened. When such people come together, their being amorous is to no purpose, for their affections must necessarily be short-lived. In the transports of their love, they form supernatural ideas of each other. The man thinks his mistress an angel, because she is handsome; and she is enraptured with the merit of her lover, because he adores her. The first decay of her complexion deprives her of his adoration; and the husband, being no longer an adorer, becomes hateful to her who had no other foundation for her love. By degrees, they grow disgustful to each other; and, after the example of our first parents, they do not fail to reproach each other With the crime of their mutual imbecillity. After indifference, contempt comes apace, and they are convinced, that they must hate each other, because they are married. Their smallest defects swell in each other’s view, and they grow blind to those charms, which, in any other object, would affect them. A commerce founded merely on sensation can be attended with no other consequences.

A MAN, when he marries the object of his affections, should forget that she appears to him adorable, and should consider her merely as a mortal, subject to disorders, caprice, and ill temper; he should arm himself with fortitude, to bear the loss of her beauty, and should provide himself with a fund of complaisance, which is requisite to support a constant intercourse with a person, even of the highest understanding and the greatest equanimity. The wife, on the other hand, should not expect a continued course of adulation and obedience, she should dispose herself to obey in her turn with a good grace: A science very difficult to attain, and consequently the more estimable in the opinion of a man who is sensible of the merit. She should endeavour to revive the charms of the mistress, by the solidity and good sense of the friend.

WHEN a pair who entertain such rational sentiments, are united by indissoluble bonds, all nature smiles upon them, and the most common objects appear delightful. In, my opinion, such a life is infinitely more happy and more voluptuous, than the most ravishing and best regulated gallantry.

A WOMAN who is capable of reflection, can consider a gallant in no other light than that of a seducer, who would take advantage of her weakness, to procure a momentary pleasure, at the expence of her glory, her peace, her honour, and perhaps, her life. A highwayman, who claps a pistol to your breast, to rob you of your purse, is less dishonest and less guilty; and I have so good an opinion of myself, as to believe, that if I was a man, I should be as capable of assuming the character of an assassin, as that of defiling an honest woman, esteemed in the world, and happy in her husband, by inspiring her with a passion, to which she must sacrifice her honour, her tranquillity, and her virtue.

SHOULD I make her despicable, who appears amiable in my eyes? Should I reward her tenderness, by making her abhorred by her family, by rendering her children indifferent to her, and her husband detestible? I believe that these reflections would have appeared to me in as strong a light, if my sex had not rendered them excusable in such cases; and I hope, that I should have had more sense, than to imagine vice the less vicious, because it is the fashion.

N. B. I AM much pleased with the Turkish manners; a people, though ignorant, yet, in my judgment, extremely polite. A gallant, convicted of having debauched a married Woman, is regarded as a pernicious being, and held in the same abhorrence as a prostitute with us. He is certain of never making his fortune; and they would deem it scandalous to confer any considerable employment on a man suspected of having committed such enormous injustice.

WHAT would these moral people think of our antiknights-errant, who are ever in pursuit of adventures to reduce innocent virgins to distress, and to rob virtuous women of their honour; who regard beauty, youth, rank, nay virtue itself, as so many incentives, which inflame their desires, and render their efforts more eager; and who, priding themselves in the glory of appearing expert seducers, forget, that with all their endeavours, they can only acquire the second rank in that noble order, the devil having long since been in possession of the first?

OUR barbarous manners are so well calculated for the establishment of vice and wretchedness, which are ever inseparable, that it requires a degree of understanding and sensibility, infinitely above the common, to relish the felicity of a marriage, such as I have described. Nature is so weak, and so prone to change, that it is difficult to maintain the best grounded constancy, in the midst of those dissipations, which our ridiculous customs have rendered unavoidable.

IT must pain an amorous husband, to see his wife take all the fashionable liberties; it seems harsh not to allow them; and, to be conformable, he is reduced to the necessity of letting every one take them that will; to hear her impart the charms of her understanding to all the world, to see her display her bosom at noon-day, to behold her bedeck herself for the ball, and for the play, and attract a thousand and a thousand adorers, and listen to the insipid flattery of a thousand and a thousand coxcombs. Is it possible to preserve an esteem for such a creature? or, at least, must not her value be greatly diminished by such a commerce?

I MUST still resort to the maxims of the East, where the most beautiful women are content to confine the power of their charms to him who has a right to enjoy them; and they are too sincere, not to confess, that they think themselves capable of exciting desires.

I RECOLLECT a conversation that I had with a lady of great quality at Constantinople, (the most amiable woman I ever knew in my life, and with whom I afterwards contracted the closest friendship.) She frankly acknowledged, that she was satisfied with her husband. What libertines, said she, you Christian ladies are! you are permitted to receive visits from as many men as you think proper, and your laws allow you the unlimited use of love and wine. I assured her, that she was wrong informed, and that it was criminal to listen to, or to love, any other than our husbands. “Your husbands are great fools,” she replied smiling, “to be content with so precarious a fidelity. “Your necks, your eyes, your hands, your conversation are all for the “public, and what do you pretend to reserve for them? Pardon me, “my pretty sultana,” she added, embracing me, “I have a strong “inclination to believe all that you tell me, but you would impose “impossibilities upon me. I know the filthiness of the infidels; I “perceive that you are ashamed, and I will say no more.”

I FOUND so much good sense and propriety in what she said, that I knew not how to contradict her; and, at length, I acknowledged, that she had reason to prefer the Mahometan manners to our ridiculous customs, which form a confused medley of the rigid maxims of Christianity, with all the libertinism of the Spartans: And, notwithstanding our absurd manners, I am persuaded, that a woman who is determined to place her happiness in her husband’s affections, should abandon the extravagant desire of engaging public adoration; and that a husband, who tenderly loves his wife, should, in his turn, give up the reputation of being a gallant. You find that I am supposing a very extraordinary pair; it is not very surprising, therefore, that such an union should be uncommon in those countries, where it is requisite to conform to established customs, in order to be happy.

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