Book Review of The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu

This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you decide to click on a link and make a purchase, I may receive, at no extra cost to you, a small commission that goes back into helping me keep the blog running. Thank you for your support. I was also sent a copy of this book for review, but all opinions are my own. 

Sitting in a spindly plastic chair, masked-up, t-shirt rolled above one shoulder and inwardly wincing at the thought of the glistening, sharp needle-tip that was about to plunge into my left arm, I thought of one person. 

The person that started it all, and changed the course of medicine in England. 

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. 

I know, right: Who

I was sent The Pioneering Life Mary Wortley Montagu by Pen and Sword Books

Lady Mary's name has been largely erased from history, popping up only as a side-note to the more famous Edward Jenner. Jenner achieved staggering work in 1796, creating a scientifically-developed vaccine to eradicate smallpox, using material from cowpox sores. Incredible work. He even invented the term 'vaccination', from the Latin 'vacca' for cow, which reminds us even now of his original discovery. At school in the 1990s, we were taught that Edward Jenner pretty much woke up one morning, noticed that milk maids didn't get smallpox as often as the general public and basically invented the vaccine we know and love today. 

But it didn't exactly work like that. Jenner had been inoculated as a child as part of Lady Mary's campaign and built his vaccine work on top of what was already known about inoculation. But we just don't hear of Mary all that much. 

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is now where she belongs - fully in the spotlight, and recognised for her achievements - thanks to a new book about her, The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu by Jo Willett. 

If you've never heard of Mary - and there's a fairly good chance that you haven't - buckle up, because she led a long and  full life. 

The book details all the sides of Mary: the writer - creating poetry and satire and standing up for the rights of women, particularly with regards to where women stood in marriage and their rights to an education. She was also a woman of letters, leaving a paper trail around Europe and scribbling humorous and heartfelt letters to other writers and politicians of the day. She was confident and independent - spending most of the last twenty years of her life travelling around Europe, taking in sights and soaking up local cultures. Her fashion sense was described as unusual, her fashion a reflection of her stays in Turkey, France and Italy. It was actually at a Turkish Bath where she noticed that, while smallpox was rife and its tell-tale scabs part of everyday life back in England, the Turkish women's skin was clear and blemish-free. And, like any brilliant scientist, she wondered why. 

As a smallpox sufferer herself, she learned of the Turkish treatment for the prevention of smallpox - taking some of the material from infected sores and applying it to fresh cuts in a healthy person's arm. So certain was Mary that it would work, that she had her own five-year old son given the procedure in Turkey in 1718 and then her daughter, this time on English soil, in 1721. It was Mary then, who organised the first smallpox inoculation in England. 

Before I read Jo Willett's book, I didn't know that

The book examines all aspects of Mary's life. You get to know the writer, traveller and letter-writer that she was. She was resilient and bold, certainly, and this shows through in her letters, which are quoted throughout the book and really take you back in time. There's also a vulnerable side, particularly when it came to some of the men in her life and there were moments where she showed a naivety. There are problems and a breakdown in the relationships with her husband and children and the book is certainly a very balanced view of Mary's life, which is important I think. And while Mary wasn't a feminist in the same sense as the placard-waving Suffragettes in the early 1900s; or a scientist in a white coat and bubbling potions kind of way - she was working at a time that these kinds of ideas were really in their infancy. Her pioneering attitude and willingness to take risks raised important questions within both these fields, although, as the book states, she was often ridiculed for these attitudes during her lifetime. She wasn't afraid to speak out about ideas of women's roles and rights in marriage and the need for women to have a good education. 

After reading this book, you do feel as if you've gotten to know Lady Mary Wortley Montagu yourself. I certainly felt inspired by her energy, that floats up from these pages two hundred years after her death. I'm so glad I read it. It's about time that Lady Mary was known for her huge contribution to history, for her resilience and her eighteenth century sass. 

When it's time for me to sit on that plastic spindly chair in that cold office again,  I'll definitely think of her. 

The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu can be found at the Pen and Sword website, your local bookseller or Amazon

Have you read this book? Let me know what you think in the comments below! 

Never want to miss a post? Subscribe to my newsletter here: