Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rats and cats--or, more properly, rats and cattiness

A handful of times in Victoria Glendinning's Jonathan Swift: A Portrait (1998), the author turns to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu for a bit of contemporary commentary, and every time she does Montagu comes through with a bit of vigorous, sharp-tongued imagery that brings the period and its strange characters to shimmering life. Montagu flits at the edges of accounts of a lot of prominent Georgian figures, turning up in biographies and anecdotes with regularity, but I'd never paid her much attention; Glendinning's selections were striking enough to convince me I was missing something.

Here, for example, is Montagu's poisonous description of the aged Lady Orkney, who in her youth had been the mistress of William III:
She "exposed behind a mixture of fat and wrinkles, and before a considerable pair of bubbys greatly withered, a great belly that preceded her; add to this the inimitable roll of her eyes, and her grey hair which by good fortune stood directly upright, and 'tis impossible to imagine a more delightful spectacle."
Cattiness is one of the many qualities I love in my reading that I try to avoid in life, and Montagu's brand--witty and perceptive, unstinting and finely honed--ranks among the best. This aside about George I, quoted by Glendinning, is simple but effective in its emphatically faint praise:
"[I]n private life, he would have been call'd an honest blockhead."
The moment that impressed me most, showing the ridiculous degree to which Montagu would indulge herself in a grudge, was Glendinning's note about a habit Montagu developed when she lived in Venice:
Lady Mary, when she lived in Venice, used to show privileged visitors her commode. On the bottom of this receptacle were painted the faces of Pope, Swift, and Bolingbroke.
All of which sent me to Montagu's letters, which, if my first quick look at them is representative, you'll be hearing more about in this space in the coming weeks. For now, I'll leave you with this effusion, from a letter sent to her sister in February 1725, when she was thirty-six:
All our Acquaintance are run mad; they do such things, such monstrous anstupendous things! . . . Sophia and I have been quite reconcil'd and are now quite broke, and I beleive not likely to piece up again. Ned Thompson is as happy as the Money and charms of Belle Dunch can make him, and a miserable Dog for all that. Public places flourish more than ever; we have Assemblys for every day in the week, besides Court, Operas, and Masquerades. With Youth and Money 'tis certainly possible to be very well diverted in spite of Malice and ill Nature, tho they are more and more powerfull every day. For my part as it is my establish'd Opinion That this Globe of ours is no better than a Holland Cheese and the Walkers about in it Mites, I possess my mind in patience, let what will happen, and should feel tolerably easy tho a great Rat come and eat halfe of it up.

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