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Robert Halsband (ed.), The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Vol. 1: 1708–1720

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MARY ASTELL'S PREFACE1 TO THEEMBASSY LETTERS

The Travels of an English Lady in Europe, Asia and Affrica

  • Let the Male-Authors with an envious eye
  • Praise coldly, that they may the more decry:
  • Women (at least I speak the Sense of some)
  • This little Spirit of Rivalship o'recome.
  • I read with transport, and with Joy I greet
    A Genius so Sublime and so Complete,
    And gladly lay my Laurels at her Feet.

M[ary] A [stell]

To the Reader.

I was going, like common Editors, to advertise the Reader of the Beautys and Excellencys of the Work laid before him; to tell him that the Illustrious Author had oppertunitys that other Travellers, whatever their Quality or Curiosity may be, cannot obtain, and a Genius capable of making the best Improvement of every oppertunity. But if the Reader, after perusing one Letter only, has not discernment to distinguish that natural Elegance, that delicacy of Sentiment and Observation, that easy gracefulness and lovely Simplicity (which is the Perfection of Writing) in which these Letters exceed all that has appear'd in this kind, or almost in any other, let him lay the Book down and leave it to those who have.

The noble Author had the goodness to lend me her M.S. to satisfy my Curiosity in some enquirys I made concerning her Travels. And when I had it in my hands, how was it possible to part with it! I once had the Vanity to hope I might acquaint the Public that it ow'd this invaluable Treasure to my Importunitys. But alas! The most Ingenious Author has condemn'd it to obscurity during her Life, and pg 467Conviction, as well as Deference, obliges me to yeild to her Reasons. However, if these Letters appear hereafter, when I am in my Grave, let this attend them in testimony to Posterity, that among her Contemporarys one Woman, at least, was just to her Merit.

There is not any thing so excellent but some will carp at it, and the rather because of its excellency. But to such Hypercritics, I shall only say,     *       *          *         *         *        *         *         * *         *      *         *         *       *       *        *        *         *

I confess I am malicious enough to desire that the World shou'd see to how much better purpose the Ladys Travel than their Lords, and that whilst it is surfeited with Male Travels, all in the same Tone and stuft with the same Trifles, a Lady has the skill to strike out a New Path and to embellish a worn-out Subject with variety of fresh and elegant Entertainment. For besides that Vivacity and Spirit which enliven every part and that inimitable Beauty which spreds thro the whole, besides that Purity of Style for which it may justly be accounted the Standard of the English Tongue, the Reader will find a more true and accurate Account of the Customs and Manners of the several Nations with whom the Lady Convers'd than he can in any other Author. But as her Ladyship's penetration discovers the inmost follys of the heart, so the candor of her Temper passes over them with an air of pity rather than reproach, treating with the politeness of a Court and gentleness of a Lady what the severity of her Judgment cannot but Condemn.

In short, let her own Sex at least do her Justice; Lay aside diabolical Envy and its Brother Malice with all their accursed Company, Sly Whispering, cruel backbiting, spiteful detraction, and the rest of that hideous crew, which I hope are very falsely said to attend the Tea Table, being more apt to think they haunt those Public Places where Virtuous Women never come. Let the Men malign one another, if they think fit, and strive to pul down Merit when they cannot equal it. Let us be better natur'd than to give way to any unkind or disrespectful thought of so bright an Ornament of our Sex, merely because she has better Sense. For I doubt not but our hearts will tell us that this is the Real and unpardonable Offence, whatever may be pretended. Let us be better Christians than to look upon her with an evil eye, only because the Giver of all good Gifts has entrusted and adorn'd her with the most excellent Talents. Rather let us freely own the Superiority of this Sublime Genius as I do in the sincerity of my Soul, pleas'd that a Woman Triumphs, and proud to follow in her Train. Let us offer her the Palm which is justly her due, and if we pretend to any Laurels, lay them willingly at her Feet.

Dec. 18th 1724.

M[ary] A[stell]

    Charm'd into Love of what obscures my Fame,
    If I had Wit, Fde celebrate Her Name,
    And all the Beautys of her Mind proclaim;

  • Till Malice deafned with the mighty sound,
  • Its ill-concerted Calumnys confound,
  • Let fall the Mask, and with pale Envy meet
  • To ask, and find, their Pardon at Her Feet.

You see, Madam, how I lay every thing at your Feet. As the Tautology shews the poverty of my Genius, it likewise shews the extent of your Empire over my Imagination.

May 31. 1725

Text H MS 254

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Editor’s Note
1 See above, p. xvii.
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