'in plain English, stark naked'

Orlando, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Reclaiming Sapphic Connections

in Volume 19 (2007): Issue 1 (Mar 2007): A History of Her Own: History and the Modernist Woman Writer. Guest Editors: Mark Llewellyn and Ann Heilmann
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Despite her claims to truth and plainness, however, Montagu’s autobiographical account is embellished, feigned and fragmented. She rewrites herself as a precocious fourteen-year-old as opposed to nineteen, and the related events and emotions do not always correspond with those outlined in her letters. In failing to write in so ‘plain a manner’, Montagu gestures at the inevitable fabrication involved in writing the self and in writing history. In particular, she exposes the difficulty of portraying a protagonist who ‘had a way of thinking very different from that of other Girls’ (79), of inscribing a person who defies the fixed, gendered categories of ‘plain English’. The problematics of depicting history and conforming to that powerful dictator, ‘reputation’, are further evident in Montagu’s ‘History of her Own Times’which she reportedly destroyed ‘as fast as she finished it, in a sustained, heroic act of self-censorship’.2 Indeed, the contradictory impulse to write the life of Montagu and to write it according to the policing gaze of ‘Chastity, Modesty and Purity’ plagues Montagu’s self-representations, as well as those of the critics who attempt to write and edit her life for future readers.