The Second Missing Letter
As soon as she reached Constantinople, our wicked Lady went back to the bagnios, tackling Mr. Hill on her way: “’Tis also very pleasant to observe how tenderly he and all his brethren voyage-writers, lament the miserable confinement of the Turkish ladies, who are perhaps more free than any ladies in the universe, and are the only women in the world, that lead a life of uninterrupted pleasure.” As a feminist, Lady Montagu was clearly enthusiastic about the condition of women in Constantinople, and saw their confinement as a convenient way to escape men’s attention and power—the debate still rages on. This time, she witnessed the reception of a Turkish bride. “The virgins very hastily threw off their cloths, and appeared without (...) ornament or covering. (...)’Tis not so easy to represent to you the beauty of this sight, most of them being well proportioned and white skin’d; all of them perfectly smooth, and polished by the frequent use of bathing.” Our unknown tearer couldn’t stand these lines worthy of the poetess Sappho. The Lady’s sensual agitation is here too obvious to be ignored. She was definitely carried away by what the Europeans would call the licentious morals of this country. In the same letter, she related the sad story of a beautiful lady found dead in a street—probably killed over some domestic affair, alleged Lady Montagu. But death itself couldn’t belittle the sensuality of this creature. Her body was “naked, only wrapped in a coarse sheet” and “not quite cold”. Lady Montague was fascinated, and she noted that the girl “was so surprisingly beautiful, that there were very few men (...) that did not go to look upon her.”
Lady Montague went on with the disturbing story of a Spanish lady of quality who had been captured and raped by a Turkish Admiral while at sea, and who chose not to come back to her country when offered the opportunity—a nunnery was her only horizon there. She married the Admiral and “never had reason to repent the choice she made.” How in the world could a Christian woman feel less miserable in the hands of a Muslim? And how could a woman choose to rule her destiny rather than to obey the compulsory rules imposed by society? Let us tear down those pages for the sake of our children.
Our unknown tearer probably acted to spare some young people from this licentious civilisation at a time it collided with the European one (as also shown in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters). This is the genesis of Orientalism, the birth of the Seraglio’s wonderful tales of naked women, innocently bathing and discussing. Ingres or Flaubert, 150 years later, would give unforgettable images of this exotic sensuality—but it had already come to perfection in Lady Montagu’s work. I started to meditate over my incomplete copy, looking at the old small bits of papers—the only remains of the two sulphurous letters. They tell about the prudery of an unknown tearer, but also about the strength of Lady Montagu’s words. This is what they could provoke at the time. This modest copy seemed to have a deep meaning, after all; and its scars indeed tell a story not to be found in its pages... but in the missing ones.