Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xii.

Vienna. — Dress and assemblies of the Austrian ladies — gala days — convent of St Lawrence — wooden head of our Saviour — dress of the Nuns — their amusements — particulars concerning a beautiful Nun — reflections on the monastic state, &c.

To the Lady x ——.

Vienna, Oct. 1. O. S. 1716.

YOU desire me, madam, to send you some accounts of the customs here, and at the same time a description of Vienna. I am always willing to obey your commands; but you must, upon this occasion, take the will for the deed. If I should undertake to tell you all the particulars, in which the manners here differ from ours, I must write a whole quire of the dullest stuff that ever was read, or printed without being read. Their dress agrees with the French or English in no one article, but wearing petticoats. They have many fashions peculiar to themselves; they think it indecent for a widow ever to wear green or rose colour, but all the other gayest colours at her own discretion. The assemblies here are the only regular diversion, the operas being always at court, and commonly on some particular occasion. Madam Rabutin has the assembly constantly every night at her house; and the other ladies, whenever they have a mind to display the magnificence of their apartments, or oblige a friend by complimenting them on the day of their saint, they declare, that on such a day the assembly shall be at their house in honour of the feast of the count or countess —such a one. These days are called days of Gala, and all the friends or relations of the lady, whose saint it is, are obliged to appear in their best clothes, and all their jewels. The mistress of the house takes no particular notice of any body, nor returns any body’s visit; and, whoever pleases, may go, without the formality of being presented. The company are entertained with ice in several forms, winter and summer; afterwards they divide into several parties of ombre, piquet, or conversation, all games of hazard being forbid.

I SAW t’other day the Gala for Count Altheim, the emperor’s favourite, and never in my life saw so many fine clothes ill-fancied. They embroider the richest gold stuffs; and provided they can make their clothes expensive enough, that is all the taste they shew in them. On other days, the general dress is a scarf, and what you please under it.

BUT now I am speaking of Vienna, I am sure you expect I should say something of the convents; they are of all sorts and sizes, but I am best pleased with that of St Lawrence, where the ease and neatness they seem to live with, appears to be much more edifying than those stricter orders, where perpetual penance and nastiness must breed discontent and wretchedness. The Nuns are all of quality. I think there are to the number of fifty. They have each of them a little cell perfectly clean, the walls of which are covered with pictures more or less fine, according to their quality. A long white stone gallery runs by all of them, furnished With the pictures of exemplary sisters; the chapel is extremely neat and richly adorned. But I could not forbear laughing at their shewing me a wooden head of our Saviour, which, they assured me, spoke during the siege of Vienna; and, as a proof of it, bid me mark his mouth, which had been open ever since. Nothing can be more becoming than the dress of these Nuns. It is a white robe, the sleeves of which are turned up with fine white callico, and their head-dress the same, excepting a small veil of black crape that falls behind. They have a lower sort of serving Nuns, that wait on them as their chambermaids. They receive all visits of women, and play at ombre in their chambers, with permission of their abbess, which is very easy to be obtained. I never saw an old woman so good-natured; she is near fourscore, and yet shews very little sign of decay, being still lively and cheerful. She caressed me as if I had been her daughter, giving me some pretty things of her own work, and sweetmeats in abundance. The grate is not of the most rigid; it is not very hard to put a head through, and I don’t doubt but a man, a little more slender than ordinary, might squeeze in his whole person. The young count of Salamis came to the grate, while I was there, and the abbess gave him her hand to kiss. But I was surprised to find here, the only beautiful young woman I have seen at Vienna, and not only beautiful but genteel, witty, and agreeable, of a great family, and who had been the admiration of the town. I could not forbear shewing my surprise at seeing a Nun like her. She made me a thousand obliging compliments, and desired me to come often. It will be an infinite pleasure to me, (said she, sighing) but I avoid, with the greatest care, seeing any of my former acquaintance, and whenever they come to our convent, I lock myself in my cell. I observed tears come into her eyes, which touched me extremely, and I began to talk to her in that strain of tender pity she inspired me with; but she would not own to me, that she is not perfectly happy. I have since endeavoured to learn the real cause of her retirement, without being able to get any other account, but that every body was surprised at it, and no body guessed the reason. I have been several times to see her; but it gives me too much melancholy to see so agreeable a young creature buried alive. I am not surprised that Nuns have so often inspired violent passions; the pity one naturally feels for them, when they seem worthy of another destiny, making an easy way for yet more tender sentiments. I never in my life had so little charity for the Roman Catholick religion, as since I see the misery it occasions; so many poor unhappy women! and then the gross superstition of the common people, who are some or other of them, day and night, offering bits of candle to the wooden figures that are set up almost in every street. The processions I see very often, are a pageantry, as offensive, and apparently contradictory to common sense, as the pagods of China. God knows whether it be the womanly spirit of contradiction that works in me; but there never before was such zeal against popery in the heart of,

Dear madam, &c. &c.

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