“Beauty and Orientalism in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters” By Mike Yuan

Beauty and Orientalism in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters

Essay by Mike Yuan

Art by Debbie Liang

“Art is the Western myth, with which we both console ourselves and make ourselves.”

– Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Published posthumously in 1763, Turkish Embassy Letters gives a detailed account of Montagu’s observations of Turkey and raises insightful critiques of Orientalism. In this essay, I will explore how Montagu’s descriptions of beauty both attack and reinforce Orientalist biases. I argue that Montagu, by linking beauty to art, denounces the concept of “the inferior East” that Orientalism prescribes. She does this through several ways. , Firstly, she uses beauty and art to measure the development of Turkish culture; secondly, she  de-eroticizes Turkish women’s beauty, which previous travel writers sexualized; and thirdly, she links beauty to the state of nature, suggesting that nature and culture co-exist in Turkish aesthetics. However, while criticizing the notion of “the inferior East,” Montagu re-installs other Orientalist prejudices. That is, she considers the West as the standard for the East to adopt and ignores the unique history of the East, reducing it to a static idea for the West to study.

As “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” (Said 88), Orientalism has always been “complicit with the workings of Western power” (Bertens 163). The developed and rational West represents “universal civilization” (Bertens 163), to which the irrational and primitive East needs to catch up. Westerners also construct their own identities by studying the East as fixed knowledge without a distinct history of its own. As Said summarizes, the East is “an idea that has a history and a tradition of thoughts, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West” (89).

Montagu debunks the myth of “the inferior East” by highlighting the aesthetic quality of Sultana Hafise’s jewels. The Sultana has “four strings of pearl, the whitest and most perfect in the world, at least enough to make four necklaces every one as large as the Duchess of Marlborough’s” (115). Montagu uses the artistic values of the jewels (“whitest and most perfect”) as a measurement of cultural sophistication. That is, by comparing the Sultana’s jewels to the Duchess’, Montagu simultaneously compares the lifestyles of Eastern and Western elites. As she indicates that the Sultana’s pearls outshine the Duchess’ in size and quality, Montagu suggests that the Eastern noblewoman’s lifestyle is more luxurious than her Western counterpart. Thus Montagu reverses the power dynamics of Orientalist paradigms: the East, able to produce beautiful jewels, has surpassed the West, which no longer represents universal civilization.

Moreover, Montagu’s obsession with architectural aesthetics reveals that “inferior” is itself an incomplete label: while a culture may appear underdeveloped on the surface, it may be sophisticated in essence. While “the Turks are not at all solicitous to beautify the outsides of their houses,” the inside “display[s] their greatest magnificence”: the cushions are “brocade or embroidery of gold wire upon satin,” the rooms are “wainscoted with cedar set off with silver nails,” and the “gay and splendid” seats are “more convenient than [the West’s] (85). Seeing only the plain outside, one would conclude that Turkish houses are less aesthetically complex than Western architectures and that Turkey is inferior to the West. However, if one sees the luxurious interior, s/he will realize that Turkey has reached the same level of technological and aesthetical sophistication as the West. As such, “inferior East” fails to recognize the discrepancy between what a culture appears to be and what it is.

In addition, Montagu uses the Turkish house as a metaphor to criticize Western travel writers, whose writings of the East only focus on the surface. Travel writers are “fond of speaking what they don’t know” and “so far removed from truth and so full of absurdities,” because they “can only speak of the outside” (83-84). Refusing to enter the house, they only adopt an outsider’s perspective and fail to become part of the culture. Thus their representation of Turkey is superficial and ignores the “inside.” Montagu, however, has entered the house. As an active participant of the society, she realizes that previous travel writings cannot accurately capture Turkish people’s lives. Therefore, Western travel writers are as partial and incomplete as the concept of “the inferior East” itself: their writings, which stereotypically portray the East as the primitive, irrational Other, have failed to provide a comprehensive overview of Turkey.  

One biased understanding of Turkey popularized by travel writers is the sexual appetite of Turkish women . Hill, for instance, eroticizes and exoticizes Turkish women, claiming that they are  

so lascivious are their Inclinations, that…they can procure the Company of some Stranger in their Chamber, [and] claim unanimously an equal share of his Caresses…nor can he be permitted to leave them, till having exerted his utmost Vigour in the Embraces of the whole Company, he becomes incapable of further Service.(111)

As Bohls points out, Hill’s portrayal of women as sexual predators comes from his imagination (29). That is, Hill only focuses on the outside and eroticizes Eastern women through his imagination. As such, his inaccurate exaggeration of Turkish women’s hypersexuality exoticizes Turkey;imagining Turkish women’s sexual appetites, he hints at their inferiority to the refined and well-mannered Western women. Thus Hill re-affirms the East as the West’s “feminine opposition: irrational, passive, undisciplined, and sensual” (Bertens 164).

In response, Montagu corrects such “falsehoods perpetuated by previous travel writers” (Lo 111) by appropriating beauty to art. The naked women in the bathhouse “[w]alk’d and mov’d with the same majestic Grace which Milton describes of our General Mother. There were many amongst them as exactly proportion’d as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian” (59). Although Orientalist paintings often placed a Western gaze on naked Eastern women, Montague uses the bathhouse, a traditionally Orientalist site, to attack Orientalist biases. Appealing to Western art, Montagu de-eroticizes the female body and transforms it into an aesthetic construction that, like the goddesses of Guido and Titian, should be appreciated rather than sexualized. Further, “our general Mother” emphasizes the similarities between Turkish women and Montagu, a Western woman, and underscores that Turkish women are not hypersexualized objects but normal human beings without “the least wanton smile or immodest Gesture” (59). Therefore, as Bohls summarizes, “[b]y comparing the bathing women to works of European art…[Montagu] attempts to de-eroticize and de-exoticize them, neutralizing Orientalist stereotypes” (28).

Adding to Bohls’ argument, I contend that Montagu untangles Orientalism also by linking beauty to the state of nature. Montagu claims that Turkish women “have naturally the most beautiful complexions…England cannot show so many beauties” (70). Similarly, Fatima has “a behaviour so full of grace and sweetness, such easy motions, with an air so majestic, yet free from stiffness or affectation” (89). Montagu’s emphasis on “nature” conforms to the Orientalist logic that the East, being less civilized and more primitive, is closer to nature than to civilization. However, she undermines Orientalism by suggesting that it is precisely the East’s lack of civilization that makes it superior. That is, as the East is closer to nature, it possesses a form of elevated, natural beauty absent in the West. While Westerners’ elegance is taught and their beauty artificial, Easterners are not only beautiful but also naturally so. As a result, Montagu demonstrates that primitiveness does not equate to inferiority – being primitive does not mean being underdeveloped but means being less corrupted by civilization.

In saying that the East’s primitiveness/naturalness makes it superior, I seem to have contradicted my earlier argument that the East is as developed as the West. However, I believe that Montagu’s Turkey neutralizes this contradiction, allowing naturalness and cultural development to co-exist. According to Montagu, Turkish jewels are “a large bouquet of jewels made like natural flowers…the buds of pearl, the roses of different coloured rubies, the jessamines of diamonds, the jonquils of topazes” (70). The aesthetically-pleasing jewels, like Sultana Hafise’s, measure the level of cultural development. However, the flower shapes indicate that the artistic values in these jewels are also grounded in their naturalness. As such, the East has outweighed the West by achieving something the West cannot. That is, there is a clear nature-culture dichotomy in the West, and the West cannot be “natural” because of its state of civilization. In contrast, the flower-like jewels of the East juxtapose nature and culture, and suggest the possibility of a world beyond this dichotomy, in which nature and culture co-exist in harmony. As such, the East does not lose its naturalness due to its development.

Despite her criticism of  the myth of “the inferior East,” Montagu reaffirms other Orientalist assumptions. To begin with, by appealing Eastern beauty to Western art, she uses the West as the standard for the East to adopt. Montagu appropriates Fatima’s beauty to Western art – “but her eyes! Large and black, with all the soft languish of the blue” (89) – and claims that Fatima “had not the air of a Turkish girl” (119). In contrast, in North Africa, where “art is extinct,” she calls the locals “the most frightful creatures that can appear in a human figure” (148-149). The contrast shows that Montagu defends a culture against Orientalism only if it follows Western aesthetic standards. Turkey is not inferior because it is aesthetically pleasing from the perspective of Western art, while she despises North Africa because “art is extinct” there, and it does not contain any Western artistic value. As such, Montagu reinstalls Orientalism by implying that the West sets up standards to which the East needs to catch up.

Moreover, by linking beauty to art, Montagu silences the East. Comparing Fatima to “the finest piece of sculpture” (89), Montagu reinforces the Western gaze found in Orientalist paintings. She completely silences Fatima and suggests that Fatima, an artistic construction, is to be observed and studied on the surface, and that her mind beneath the surface does not matter. Therefore, while accusing travel writers of staying outside, Montagu does not truly step inside either. Ignoring Fatima’s voice, Montagu’s description of Fatima resembles a dramatic monologue, in which the speaker gains total control over the addressed.

Ultimately, Montagu’s letters transform the East into fixed knowledge for the West to study. In her letter to Alexander Pope, Montagu claims that “the princesses and great ladies pass their time at their looms…in the same manner as we find Andromache and Helen described…The snowy veil that Helen throws over her face is still fashionable” (75). With reference to Homer’s Iliad, Montagu again gives a mythologized aesthetic account of Turkey. In doing so, however, she suggests that Turkey is still the same as it was in ancient times; her obsession with beauty treats Turkey as a static entity and erases any possibility for it to develop over time. As such, she reduces Turkey to a fixed idea that has no unique history or identity of its own: it has to borrow and derive its present identity from a fabricated past. Like Homer’s text, the East becomes fixed knowledge for Montagu, a Westerner, to study, and through this process of studying, the West dominates the East.

Montagu’s obsession with beauty in her Turkish Embassy Letters both denounces and substantiates Orientalist assumptions. Overall, she criticizes Orientalist biases against Turkey. She attacks the notion of “the inferior East” by linking beauty to Western art. She uses beauty/art to a) measure Turkey’s development, b) de-eroticize Turkish women, and c) highlight Turkey’s naturalness. All three approaches demonstrate that the East is not necessarily inferior to the West, and that inferiority is itself a Western construction that travel writers promoted. However, Montagu reinforces other Orientalist prejudices. Her appeal to Western art still considers the West as the standard for the East to learn from, and her obsession with art silences the East, treating is as a static idea with no distinct history. Still, though inevitably affected by the biases of her time, Montagu’s unpacking of Orientalism is laudable and offers an uncompromising – and, needless to say, relatively more objective – alternative for the West to view the non-European “Other.”

Works Cited

Bertens, Johannes W. Literary Theory: The Basics. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008.

Bohls, Elizabeth A. “Aesthetics and Orientalism in Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters.” Women Traveler Writers and the Language of Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Dobson Andrew. “Do we need (to protect) nature?” The Politics of Protection: Sites of Insecurity and Political Agency, edited by J. Huysmans, A. Dobson, and R. Prokhovnik, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 175-88.  

Hill, Aaron. A Full and Just Account of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire in all its Branches: With the Government, and Policy, Religion, Customs, and Way of Living of the Turks, in General. London: John Mayo, 1709.

Lo, Kyung Eun. “The Female Traveler’s Gaze in Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters.” British and American Fiction, vol. 20, no. 2, 2013, pp. 105-121.

Montagu, Mary W. Turkish Embassy Letters. Edited by Malcolm Jack, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Said, Edward W. “Orientalism.” Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978. 87-91.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty: A Novel. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005.

Willerslev, Rane. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Attachment: The Turkish Bath

Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique. Le Bain Turc. 1862, Musée du Louvre, Paris. https:// www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/turkish-bath