The historian F.C Hodgson described her as “one of our undoubted Twickenham celebrities”. Others saw her as an adventurer, an orientalist, a medical pioneer, a correspondent with the good and great and a heart breaker too.
Lady Mary Pierrepont, the eldest child of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull was born in May 1689. Following his wife’s death in 1692 the Duke passed the care of Mary and her three younger siblings to their grandmother.
When Mary was 7 years old her father, a member of the fashionable Kit Kat Club nominated the child as ‘a toast of the year’, to be one of a group of beautiful and fashionable ladies whose health was to be drunk during the season. He said that his daughter was “Far pretty than any lady on the list.” To prove his point he dressed Mary in her finest clothes and brought her to the club where her health was drunk by all assembled. Her wit and beauty were loudly extolled by the club members, some of the most eminent men of the time. She was feasted on lavish sweetmeats and according F.C Hodgson “overwhelmed with caresses”. Although from a modern viewpoint the entire episode seems a little suspect Mary’s reaction to the event was unquestioning. “Pleasure was too poor a word to express my sensations”, she said. “They amounted to ecstasy; never again, throughout my whole future life, did I pass so happy a day”.
Her education was divided between a governess that she despised and the free use of the library at the family property Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire where she taught herself Latin. She also served as housekeeper and hostess for her widowed father, taking ‘carving lessons’ three times a week to ensure that the meat served to her father’s guests was properly presented. By 1705, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, Mary Pierrepont had written two albums filled with poetry, a short novel, and a prose-and-verse romance. She also corresponded with two bishops, Thomas Tenison and Gilbert Burnet. Lady Mary was already showing herself to be an intellectual. She was also an attractive woman and by 1710 had two possible suitors to choose from: Edward Wortley Montagu and Clotworthy Skeffington - a name not guaranteed to raise confidence in a girl. Realising that her father wanted her to marry Clotworthy Mary eloped with Edward and married him in August 1712.
In 1714 her husband was appointed Junior Commissioner of Treasury and the couple set up home in London. Her ready wit and beauty soon made her a popular figure at the court of King George 1st. Amongst her friends were such notables as the Duchess of Marlborough, Alexander Pope and John Gay as well as the Prince and Princess of Wales. Her friendship was Alexander Pope who became infatuated with her was to prove to be a problem
In 1716 Lady Mary, pursued by letters from Pope, went to Istanbul with her husband Edward who had been appointed Ambassador to Turkey. This pleased her a great deal as she was tiring of life in England and taken with the idea of living abroad. In a series of letters sent home she said how much she enjoyed Turkey and its culture, art and traditions. She was particularly charmed by the beauty and openness of Ottoman women. She recorded a particularly amusing incident in which a group of Turkish women at a bath in Sofia, horrified by the sight of the stays she was wearing, exclaimed that “the husbands in England were much worse than in the East, for [they] tied up their wives in little boxes, the shape of their bodies”.
Having lost her brother to smallpox in 1713 and experienced a bout of the disease herself in 1715 Lady Mary was very interested in the Turkish custom of variolation - an early form of inoculation against the infection. In 1717 she wrote to a friend about the procedure…
“The small-pox, so fatal and so general amongst us (in the U.K), is here entirely harmless by the invention of ‘ingrafting’. There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation every autumn in the month of September when the great heat is abated…. Then the fever begins to seize the patients, and they keep to their beds two days, very seldom three…and in eight days time they are as well as before the illness There is no example of anyone who has died from it.”
Eager to spare her children from the disease in March 1718 she had her four-year-old son, Edward, inoculated with the help of Embassy surgeon Charles Maitland. On her return to London, she enthusiastically promoted the procedure even though it was seen as a ‘folk treatment’. In April 1721, when a smallpox epidemic struck England, she had her daughter inoculated by Maitland, the first such operation done in Britain. She also persuaded Princess Caroline and her two daughters to be inoculated by French-born surgeon Claudius Amyand after whom Amyand Park Road is named. In August 1721, seven prisoners at Newgate Prison awaiting execution were offered the chance to undergo variolation instead of execution. They all survived and were released. In later years. Edward Jenner, who was only 13 years old when Lady Mary died in 1762, developed the much safer technique of vaccination using cowpox instead of smallpox.
In about 1720 Edward Wortley bought Savile House on Heath Lane in Twickenham possibly prompted to the purchase by the love-struck Pope. Unfortunately, Pope’s relationship of friendship and intellectual compatibility with Lady Mary was beginning to sour - maybe because of her friendship with another admirer, Philip Duke of Wharton who lived on Cross Deep and maybe because she may have given him some misleading advice about buying shares in what became the South Sea Bubble. One account of the debacle went…
“at some ill-chosen time, when she least expected what romances call a declaration, he made such passionate love to her as, in spite of her utmost endeavours to be angry and look grave, provoked an immoderate fit of laughter; from which point he became her implacable enemy.”
In July 1739 Lady Mary left Twickenham and England, only returning in 1762 to die. She spent the latter years of her life editing her letters for publication, which eventually they were, and living in genteel poverty in what Horace Walpole described as “a little miserable bed chamber of a ready furnished house, with two tallow candles and a bureau covered with pots and pans.”
Much has been written of Lady Mary’s many accomplishments but perhaps the greatest was her resolute promotion of variolation - the first step to an end to the smallpox. Without her and later Edward Jenner millions of people would still be dying from the disease today.
– from Martyn Day