Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter x.

Vienna. — Vienna a paradise for old women — different acceptation of the word reputation at London and at Vienna — neither coquettes nor prudes at Vienna — every lady possessed both of a nominal and real husband — gallant overture to lady M. to comply with this custom.

To the Lady R——.

Vienna, Sept. 20. O. S. 1716.

I AM extremely rejoiced, but not at all surprised, at the long, delightful letter, you have had the goodness to send me. I know that you can think of an absent friend even in the midst of a court, and you love to oblige, where you can have no view of a return; and I expect from you that you should love me, and think of me, when you don’t see me. I have compassion for the mortifications that you tell me befel our little old friend, and I pity her much more, since I know, that they are only owing to the barbarous customs of our country. Upon my word, if she were here, she would have no other fault but that of being something too young for the fashion, and she has nothing to do but to transplant herself hither about seven years hence, to be again a young and blooming beauty. I can assure you, that wrinkles, or a small stoop in the shoulders, nay, even gray-hairs, are no objection to the making new conquests. I know you cannot easily figure to yourself, a young fellow of five and twenty, ogling my lady S-ff — k with passion, or pressing to hand the countess of O——d from an opera. But such are the sights I see every day, and I don’t perceive any body surprized at them but myself. A woman, till five and thirty, is only looked upon as a raw girl, and can possibly make no noise in the world, till about forty. I don’t know what your ladyship may think of this matter; but ’tis a considerable comfort to me, to know there is upon earth such a paradise for old women; and I am content to be insignificant at present, in the design of returning when I am fit to appear no where else. I cannot help, lamenting, on this occasion, the pitiful case of too many English ladies, long since retired to prudery and ratafia, who, if their stars had luckily conducted hither, would shine in the first rank of beauties. Besides, that perplexing word reputation, has quite another meaning here than what you give it at London; and getting a lover is so far from losing, that ’tis properly getting reputation; ladies being much more respected in regard to the rank of their lovers, than that of their husbands.

BUT what you’ll think very odd, the two sects that divide our whole nation of petticoats, are utterly unknown in this place. Here are neither coquettes nor prudes. No woman dares appear coquette enough to encourage two lovers at a time. And I have not seen any such prudes as to pretend fidelity to their husbands, who are certainly the best natured set of people in the world, and look upon their wives’ gallants as favourably as men do upon their deputies, that take the troublesome part of their business off their hands. They have not however the less to do on that account; for they are generally deputies in another place themselves; in one word, ’tis the established custom for every lady to have two husbands, one that bears the name, and another that performs the duties. And the engagements are so well known, that it would be a downright affront, and publicly resented, if you invited a woman of quality to dinner, without, at the same time, inviting her two attendants of lover and husband, between whom she sits in state with great gravity. The sub-marriages generally last twenty years together, and the lady often commands the poor lover’s estate, even to the utter ruin of his family. These connections, indeed, are as seldom begun by any real passion as other matches; for a man makes but an ill figure that is not in some commerce of this nature; and a woman looks out for a lover as soon as she’s married, as part of her equipage, without which she could not be genteel; and the first article of the treaty is establishing the pension, which remains to the lady, in case the gallant should prove inconstant. This chargeable point of honour, I look upon as the real foundation of so many wonderful influences of constancy. I really know some women of the first quality, whose pensions are as well known as their annual rents, and yet nobody esteems them the less; on the contrary, their discretion would be called in question, if they should be suspected to be mistresses for nothing. A great part of their emulation consists in trying who shall get most; and having no intrigue at all, is so far a disgrace, that, I’ll assure you, a lady, who is very much my friend here, told me but yesterday, how much I was obliged to her for justifying my conduct in a conversation relating to me, where it was publicly asserted, that I could not possibly have common sense, since I had been in town above a fortnight, and had made no steps towards commencing an amour. My friend pleaded for me, that my stay was uncertain, and she believed that was the cause of my seeming stupidity; and this was all she could find to say in my justification. But one of the pleasantest adventures I ever met with in my life was last night, and it will give you a just idea in what a delicate manner the belles passions are managed in this country. I was at the assembly of the countess of ——— and the young count of ——— leading me down stairs, asked me how long I was to stay at Vienna? I made answer, that my stay depended on the emperor, and it was not in my power to determine it. Well, madam, (said he) whether your time here is to be longer or shorter, I think you ought to pass it agreeably, and to that end you must engage in a little affair of the heart. — My heart, (answered I gravely enough) does not engage very easily, and I have no design of parting with it. I see, madam, (said he sighing) by the ill nature of that answer, I am not to hope for it, which is a great mortification to me that am charmed with you. But, however, I am still devoted to your service; and since I am not worthy of entertaining you myself, do me the honour of letting me know whom you like best amongst us, and I’ll engage to manage the affair entirely to your satisfaction. You may judge in what manner I should have received this compliment in my own country; but I was well enough acquainted with the way of this, to know that he really intended me an obligation, and I thanked him with a very grave courtesy for his zeal to serve me, and only assured him, I had no occasion to make use of it. Thus you see, my dear, that gallantry and good-breeding are as different, in different climates, as morality and religion. Who have the rightest notions of both, we shall never know till the day of judgment; for which great day of eclaircissement, I own there is very little impatience in

your, &c. &c.

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