The sixth of April, 2011: smallpox and ortolans

Time for a welcome return to Clutterbuck for everyone’s favourite 18th-century pin-up, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Here’s what she wrote to her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, from Turin in April 1741:

I take this opertunity of writeing to you on many Subjects in a freer manner than I durst do by the post, knoeing that all letters are open’d, both here and in other places, which occasions them to be often lost, beside other Inconveniences that may happen.

The English Politics is the general Jest of all the nations I have pass’d through, and even those who profit by our Follys cannot help laughing at our Notorious Blunders, tho they are all persuaded that the Minister does not act from Weakness but Corruption.

I like Lady MWM. Although she was could be a bit of a nag if people didn’t answer her letters, she did far more good than bad – not least in introducing a primitive form of inoculation to Britain (about 70 years before Jenner refined the first effective smallpox vaccine).

She was living in Adrianople (now Edirne) when she discovered that “a set of old Women” made a practice of regularly inoculating the people of the city with “as much venom [i.e. “the best sort” of smallpox matter] as can lye upon the head of her needle”. Those inoculated suffered fever for two or three days, but were then up and about “as well as before”.

I am Patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our Doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of ’em that I thought had Virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their Revenue for the good of Mankind… Perhaps if I live to return I may, however, have courrage to war with ’em.

It was Lady MWM’s influence that prompted Princess Caroline to have her daughters inoculated during the 1721 pox epidemic (after a few experiments on guinea-pigs from Newgate Prison, naturally).

About 1 in 50 people died as a result of inoculation, so it wasn’t quite the blessing Lady WMW had hoped.

This wasn’t her only disappointment. Her son, Edward the younger, was another big letdown. He’s listed in the Oxford DNB as a “traveller and criminal” (he dabbled in a little light extortion). “His considerable talent and undoubted oriental scholarship left few tangible traces,” the article notes, “but he claims a place in any gallery of notable eccentrics.”

Horace Walpole noted that he had “more snuff-boxes than would suffice a Chinese idol with an hundred noses” – a sure sign of a wrong ‘un. And Lady MWM was under no illusions. “I am not surpriz’d at what concerns my son,” she wrote to Wortley. “I expect never to hear any thing agreable relateing to him.”

At another time she wrote:

Both Nature and Interest (were I inclin’d to follow blindly the Dictates of either) would determine me to wish him your Heir rather than a stranger; but I think my selfe obliged both by Honor [sic], conscience, and my regard for you, no way to deceive you, and I confess hitherto I see nothing but Falsehood and weakness through his whole Conduct.

Young Wortley Montagu perished, finally, after being spiked by a bone when eating an ortolan. The ortolan itself would, according to culinary custom, have first been drowned in Armagnac.  I don’t know which of the two is the more ridiculously aristocratic way to go.


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