Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter ix.

Vienna. — Dress of the ladies — Lady M’s reception at court — person of the empress — customs of the drawing-room — the emperor — empress Amelia — how seated at table — maids of honour, their office and qualifications — dressers — audience of the empress-mother — her extraordinary piety — mourning dress of the ladies at Vienna — audience of the empress Amelia — shooting-match by ladies.

To the Countess of ——.

Vienna, Sept. 14. O. S.

THOUGH I have so lately troubled you, my dear sister, with a long letter, yet I will keep my promise in giving you an account of my first going to court. In order to that ceremony, I was squeezed up in a gown, and adorned with a gorget and the other implements thereunto belonging; a dress very inconvenient, but which certainly shows the neck and shape to great advantage. I cannot forbear giving you some description of the fashions here, which are more monstrous, and contrary to all common sense and reason, than ’tis possible for you to imagine. They build certain fabrics of gauze on their heads, about a yard high, consisting of three or four stories, fortified with numberless yards of heavy ribbon. The foundation of this structure is a thing they call a Bourle, which is exactly of the same shape and kind, but about four times as big as those rolls our prudent milk-maids make use of to fix their pails upon. This machine they cover With their own hair, which they mix with a great deal of false, it being a particular beauty to have their heads too large to go into a moderate tub. Their hair is prodigiously powdered to conceal the mixture, and set out with three or four rows of bodkins (wonderfully large, that stick out two or three inches from their hair) made of diamonds, pearls, red, green, and yellow stones, that it certainly requires as much art and experience to carry the load upright, as to dance upon May-day with the garland. Their whale-bone petticoats outdo ours by several yards, circumference, and cover some acres of ground. You may easily suppose how this extraordinary dress sets off and improves the natural ugliness, with which God Almighty has been pleased to endow them, generally speaking. Even the lovely empress herself is obliged to comply, in some degree, with these absurd fashions, which they would not quit for all the world. I had a private audience (according to ceremony) of half an hour, and then all the other ladies were permitted to come and make their court. I was perfectly charmed with the empress; I cannot however tell you that her features are regular; her eyes are not large, but have a lively look full of sweetness; her complexion the finest I ever saw; her nose and forehead well made, but her mouth has ten thousand charms, that touch the soul. When she smiles, ’tis with a beauty and sweetness that forces adoration. She has a vast quantity of fine fair hair; but then her person! — one must speak of it poetically to do it rigid justice; all that the poets have said of the mien of Juno, the air of Venus, come not up to the truth. The Graces move with her; the famous statue of Medicis was not formed with more delicate proportions; nothing can be added to the beauty of her neck and hands. Till I saw them, I did not believe there were any in nature so perfect, and I was almost sorry that my rank here did not permit me to kiss them; but they are kissed sufficiently; for every body that waits on her pays that homage at their entrance, and when they take leave. When the ladies were come in, she sat down to Quinze. I could not play at a game I had never seen before, and she ordered me a seat at her right hand, and had the goodness to talk to me very much, with that grace so natural to her. I expected every moment, when the men were to come in to pay their court; but this drawing-room is very different from that of England; no man enters it but the grand-master, who comes in to advertise the empress of the approach of the emperor. His imperial majesty did me the honour of speaking to me in a very obliging manner; but he never speaks to any of the other ladies; and the whole passes with a gravity and air of ceremony that has something very formal in it. The empress Amelia, dowager of the late emperor Joseph, came this evening to wait on the reigning empress, followed by the two arch-duchesses her daughters, who are very agreeable young princesses. Their imperial majesties rose and went to meet her at the door of the room, after which she was seated in an armed chair, next the empress, and in the same manner at supper, and there the men had the permission of paying their court. The arch-duchesses sat on chairs with backs without arms. The table was entirely served, and all the dishes set on by the empress’s maids of honour, which are twelve young ladies of the first quality. They have no salary, but their chamber at court, where they live in a sort of confinement, not being suffered to go to the assemblies or public places in town, except in compliment to the wedding of a sister maid, whom the empress always presents with her picture set in diamonds. The three first of them are called Ladies of the Key, and wear gold keys by their sides; but what I find most pleasant, is the custom, which obliges them, as long as they live, after they have left the empress’s service, to make her some present every year on the day of her feast. Her majesty is served by no married women but the grande maitresse, who is generally a widow of the first quality, always very old, and is at the same time groom of the stole, and mother of the maids. The dressers are not, at all, in the figure they pretend to in England, being looked upon no otherwise than as downright chambermaids. I had an audience next day Of the empress mother, a princess of great virtue and goodness, but who picques herself too much on a violent devotion. She is perpetually performing extraordinary acts of penance, without having ever done any thing to deserve them. She has the same number of maids of honour, whom she suffers to go in colours; but she herself never quits her mourning; and sure nothing can be more dismal than the mourning here, even for a brother. There is not the least bit of linen to be seen; all black crape instead of it. The neck, ears and side of the face are covered with a plaited piece of the same stuff, and the face that peeps out in the midst of it, looks as if it were pilloried. The widows wear over and above, a crape forehead cloth; and, in this solemn weed, go to all the public places of diversion without scruple. The next day I was to wait on the empress Amelia, who is now at her palace of retirement, half a mile from the town. I had there the pleasure of seeing a diversion wholly new to me, but which is the common amusement of this court. The empress herself was seated on a little throne at the end of the fine alley in the garden, and on each side of her were ranged two parties of her ladies of quality, headed by two Young archduchesses, all dressed in their hair, full of jewels, with fine light guns in their hands; and at proper distances were placed three oval pictures, which were the marks to be shot at. The first was that of a CUPID, filling a bumper of Burgundy, and the motto, ’Tis easy to be valiant here. The second a FORTUNE, holding a garland in her hand, the motto, For her whom Fortune favours. The third was a SWORD, with a laurel wreath on the point, the motto, Here is no shame to be vanquished. — Near the empress was a gilded trophy wreathed with flowers, and made of little crooks, on which were hung rich Turkish handkerchiefs, tippets, ribbons, laces, &c. for the small prizes. The empress gave the first with her own hand, which was a fine ruby ring set round with diamonds, in a gold snuff-box. There was for the second, a little Cupid set with brilliants, and besides these a set of fine china for the tea-table, enchased in gold, japan trunks, fans, and many gallantries of the same nature. All the men of quality at Vienna were spectators; but the ladies only had permission to shoot, and the arch-duchess Amelia carried off the first prize. I was very well pleased with having seen this entertainment, and I do not know but it might make as good a figure as the prize-shooting in the Eneid, if I could write as well as Virgil. This is the favourite pleasure of the emperor, and there is rarely a week without some feast of this kind, which makes the young ladies skilful enough to defend a fort. They laughed very much to see me afraid to handle a gun. My dear sister, you will easily pardon an abrupt conclusion. I believe, by this time, you are ready to think I shall never conclude at all.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09