Anne-Sophie at UEA

An International Student of Literature in England.

Travel Literature: The Turkish Embassy Letters

As mentioned in my previous post, I got my Travel Literature essay back! I got 73%!!! I’m so relieved because with most essays, I usually know I’ll get around 65% but with this one I was really worried. I had the feeling it could do very well but worried that it was totally off topic and not as “in depth”. This is probably because this essay was very much based on close reading, while others (Science Fiction, Cultures of Suburbia…) were more “thematic” and explored lots of different texts and issues.

I read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters early in the semester – I think it was week 3 or 4 and know I’d adore it from reading the blurb. The letters were written at the beginning of the 18th century but published posthumously. They recount Montagu’s travels throughout Europe and to the Ottoman Empire (mainly in Turkey). I only studied Orientalism for a week at the beginning of first year and didn’t realise that was I was going to read was (maybe? That’s an issue I kind of raised in my essay) part of this tradition.

I remember reading the Letters while being at my boyfriend’s in Southampton and adoring them and all of Montagu’s insights – fantastic for her time! I was amazed by her open-mindedness (sometimes shocked by awful things she said about Tunisian women) and felt like I was in Turkey with her – and since reading the Letters I really want to go to Turkey. I also remember the seminar and how fascinating I’d found it, focusing mainly on the idea of “ethnomasquerade” (copying foreigners and foreign fashions through lifestyle, language, clothing, etc). Another things I loved about this book was how easy it was to read for an 18th century text (something I’d struggled a bit with when I did the module 18th Century Writings in second year), which is why I would really recommend this book, particularly if you’re interested in proto-feminism (in its br

My initial idea for this essay seemed good at first but I realised it was a bit shit after talking about it with the seminar leader who said it was way too broad and that I needed more perspective. My initial idea was to discuss to what extent Montagu is or is not orientalist, talking about her proto-feminist discourse but how this discourse can also be linked to Orientalism, etc. Instead, I decided to focus on the “rhetoric of firstness” (which sounds super smart and pretentious – I love it!) because throughout all her letters, Montagu constructs a persona and claims that she is the first European woman to undertake such a journey (which isn’t true).

Throughout the module, one of our running themes was “utopia” – studied through actual utopias such as The Blazing World, Utopia, The Isle of Pines but also through semi-fictional texts such as autobiographies. I therefore decided to read the Letters, and one idealised scene in particular, as a utopia or “feminotopia”.

I was much more satisfied with this new essay outline and I was also happy because throughout my studies, several of my projects and essays focused on recurring themes, motifs and ideas I’m very interested in. Most of the time these ideas were: existentialism and anxiety (European Literature, Contemporary Fiction), mental illness (Nervous Narratives, Cultures of Suburbia), artificiality (Contemporary Fiction, Cultures of Suburbia).

I knew Travel Literature was the last essay I would even have to write (at least for university) and I really wanted to do it on something I’d not written about before. Writing an essay that was (partly) about women seemed very important to me in a way – though I’d already written about women and women’s condition in my essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (you can read about it here), and a little bit in my essay about gender and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, in Reading Texts 2 in first year. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about The Turkish Embassy Letters so much (it was by far my favourite text done in this module, with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark – another text I considered writing about in my project).

So if you’re interested and want to know a little bit more about the text, here’s my introduction:

Remaking the Orient: the rhetoric of firstness in Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters.

” ‘The great success of the Turkish letters lies at least partially in the circumstance of her escaping for a year or two from her confining society and experiencing a new world without the prejudices with which she was born.’ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s journey through Europe to the Ottoman Empire in 1716, where her husband was appointed ambassador, was a life-changing experience. Remarkable for the descriptions of Turkey and of the people she encountered there, Montagu’s Letters are unique for ‘insights that were exceptional for their time.’ Indeed, writing in the context of Orientalism and imperialism and unwillingly representing the British Empire due to her background, Montagu’s open-mindedness and resistance to judgment has been celebrated by critics of the past decades as ‘a rare ability to see herself through the eyes of others.’ The Letters are noticeable for their focus on Turkish women, the desire to depict an authentic picture of religion and culture in eighteenth-century Turkey and a violent rejection of travel narratives. This awareness of singularity is used throughout Montagu’s narrative to serve her rhetoric of firstness and socio-political goals, as will be argued in this essay. Assuming a position of authority and claiming to infiltrate spaces not yet discovered –  Turkey and the feminine realm – Montagu writes herself inside and outside traditions. This essay will therefore study how Montagu’s rhetoric of firstness allows her to engage with and challenge travel writers preceding her and, consequently, to re-invent both the Orient and herself. While the Letters represent a more faithful picture of the Orient, thus putting Montagu in the position of ethnographer, they also give her a space onto which she can project her ideals to re-examine society. Despite extraordinary accounts about Arabic poetry and religion, Montagu’s descriptions of Turkish women have been criticized for participating in Orientalism. However, this essay argues that the eroticizing of women and the idyllic representation of feminine spaces such as the Turkish bath in Sofia participate in Montagu’s construction of a utopian ideal. Indeed, travel is, for Montagu, mental as well as physical: The Turkish Embassy Letters serve Montagu’s political agenda.  By becoming alien – object rather than subject – and assuming the role of a social critique, Montagu’s journey allows her to assess eighteenth-century England, meditate on women’s position in society and, finally, advocate for their education.”

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4 comments on “Travel Literature: The Turkish Embassy Letters

  1. Ravenclaw Book Club
    12 June, 2017

    That sounds like quite an interesting read!
    I did The Blazing World last semester and really liked it. And I wrote my summative for Lit in History 1 on Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, so I wrote a bit about Orientalism as well. Really interesting topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anne-Sophie
      12 June, 2017

      Yeah it was so interesting! I enjoyed The Blazing World too but found it difficult to read — though reading it a second time might help!
      I’d heard of this one but haven’t read it. I’m very intrigued now! I’ll have to read about about orientalism.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ravenclaw Book Club
        12 June, 2017

        It’s an interesting book! The author has some very problematic ideas but the book is fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Project grades and graduation update | Anne-Sophie at UEA

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