Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xxxviii.

From Pera of Constantinople. — Barrenness disgraceful among the Turkish ladies — often destroy themselves by quackery on this account — naturally prolific — the Turkish houses why liable to fire — mildness of the winter at Constantinople — Turkish punishment for convicted liars.

To Mrs T——.

Pera of Constantinople, Jan. 4. O. S.

I AM infinitely obliged to you, dear Mrs T—— for your entertaining letter. You are the only one of my correspondents that have judged right enough, to think I would gladly be informed of the news amongst you. All the rest of them tell me, (almost in the same words) that they suppose I know every thing. Why they are pleased to suppose in this manner, I can guess no reason, except they are persuaded, that the breed of Mahomet’s pigeon still subsists in this country, and that I receive supernatural intelligence. I wish I could return your goodness with some diverting accounts from hence. But I know not what part of the scenes here would gratify your curiosity, or whether you have any curiosity at all for things so far distant. To say the truth, I am at this present writing, not very much turned for the recollection of what is diverting, my head being wholly filled with the preparations necessary for the increase of my family, which I expect every day. You may easily guess at my uneasy situation. But I am, however, comforted in some degree, by the glory that accrues to me from it, and a reflection on the contempt I should otherwise fall under. You won’t know what to make of this speech; but, in this country, ’tis more despicable to be married and not fruitful, than ’tis with us to be fruitful before marriage. They have a notion, that whenever a woman leaves off bringing forth children, ’tis because she is too old for that business, whatever her face says to the contrary. This opinion makes the ladies here so ready to make proofs of their youth, (which is as necessary, in order to be a received beauty, as it is to shew the proofs of nobility, to be admitted knights of Malta) that they do not content themselves with using the natural means, but fly to all sorts of quackeries, to avoid the scandal of being past childbearing, and often kill themselves by them. Without any exaggeration, all the women of my acquaintance have twelve or thirteen children; and the old ones boast of having had five and twenty, or thirty a-piece, and are respected according to the number they have produced. — When they are with child, ’tis their common expression to say, They hope God will be so merciful as to send them two this time; and when I have asked them sometimes, How they expected to provide for such a flock as they desire? They answered, That the plague will certainly kill half of them; which, indeed, generally happens, without much concern to the parents, who are satisfied with the vanity of having brought forth so plentifully. The French ambassadress is forced to comply with this fashion as well as myself. She has not been here much above a year, and has lain in once, and is big again. What is most wonderful, is, the exemption they seem to enjoy from the curse entailed on the sex. They see all company on the day of their delivery, and, at the fortnight’s end, return visits, set out in their jewels and new clothes. I wish I may find the influence of the climate in this particular. But I fear I shall continue an English woman in that affair, as well as I do in my dread of fire and plague, which are two things very little feared here. Most families have had their houses burnt down once or twice, occasioned by their extraordinary way of warming themselves, which is neither by chimnies nor stoves, but by a certain machine called a tendour, the height of two feet, in the form of a table, covered with a fine carpet or embroidery. This is made only of wood, and they put into it a small quantity of hot ashes, and sit with their legs under the carpet. At this table they work, read and very often, sleep; and, if they chance to dream, kick down the tendour, and the hot ashes commonly set the house on fire. There were five hundred houses burnt in this manner about a fortnight ago, and I have seen several of the owners since, who seem not at all moved at so common a misfortune. They put their goods into a bark, and see their houses burn with great philosophy, their persons being very seldom endangered, having no stairs to descend.

BUT, having entertained you with things I don’t like, ’tis but just I should tell you something that pleases me. The climate is delightful in the extremest degree. I am now sitting, this present fourth of January, with the windows open, enjoying the warm shine of the sun, while you are freezing over a sad sea-coal fire; and my chamber is set out with carnations, roses, and jonquils, fresh from my garden. I am also charmed with many points of the Turkish law, to our shame be it spoken, better designed, and better executed than ours; particularly, the punishment of convicted liars (triumphant criminals in our country, God knows). They are burnt in the forehead with a hot iron, when they are proved the authors of any notorious falsehoods. How many white foreheads should we see disfigured! How many fine gentlemen would be forced to wear their wigs as low as their eye-brows, were this law in practice with us! I should go on to tell you many other parts of justice, but I must send for my midwife.

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