Lady Mary Wortley Montagu Poems
The Power of Beauty in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “Saturday—The Small-Pox”
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s poetry reflects her keen awareness of the gender politics that pervaded her lifetime. Exploring themes of power, sexuality, and beauty in her writing, she stands out because of her criticism of the patriarchal standards that were predominant during the eighteenth century. Her poem “Saturday—The Small-Pox” reflects on feminine beauty and the power that women hold and express in their physical appearances. Though the poem could be viewed as a satirical portrayal of feminine vanity or a criticism of feminine narcissism, it may also be read as an exploration of beauty as a way of expressing power. In the poem, Flavia, a woman who has been scarred with smallpox, relays the loss of power that she experiences as a result of her diminished beauty. Montagu asserts the value of beauty as a form of power in a patriarchally structured society in her poem “Saturday—The Small-Pox.”
The poem focuses on the thoughts of Flavia, who is looking at herself in the mirror and lamenting the loss of her beauty. She is struggling to accept her changed appearance after having the smallpox and is concerned with how this loss of beauty will impact her life. She conveys a great sense of loss in her outcries:
How am I changed! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre to myself unknown!
Where’s my complexion? Where my radiant bloom,
That promised happiness for years to come? (5-8)
For Flavia, the loss of her beauty is not merely a superficial loss. She feels as though she has lost the promise of a happy future. Montagu seems to be criticizing the unnecessary value that society places on beauty standards through Flavia’s dramatic reaction. A woman’s future should not rely on her beauty alone. Still, for Flavia, her beautiful appearance had allowed her to have a sense of control over her own life in the past, and she feels as though she has been dealt a great loss.
Though the notion that beauty is the most valuable attribute that a woman can possess is founded in patriarchal ideology, it is important to understand that this type of social and political atmosphere would have been the standard for the time. For a woman like Flavia, her beauty may have been her only mechanism for balancing out the power divide between men and women of the eighteenth century. Women of this time had to learn how to operate within the confines of their gender roles, and harnessing the power of their beauty may be one of the ways that women sought control over their own lives. If women were already seen as sexual objects or things to be admired by the men, then, seeking power, the women would have to take advantage of this position and exploit their physical appearances for their own benefit.
The problem with beauty as a form of power is that it is fleeting. For Flavia, her beauty has been taken as a result of smallpox. For other women, beauty, by conventional standards, often diminishes with age. Montagu suggests that this is simply the nature of power. She writes,
Monarchs and beauties rule with equal sway:
All strive to serve, and glory to obey:
Alike unpitied when deposed they grow,
Men mock the idol of their former vow. (85-88)
She suggests that regardless of where a person gains their power, it can be lost. While addressing power’s temporariness, Montagu simultaneously places feminine power on the same level as masculine power. She is asserting that each type of expression of power is equally valuable. By likening beauties to monarchs, Montagu conveys the importance of the power that women possess in their beauty.
In conclusion, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s poem “Saturday—The Small-Pox” helps explore beauty as an expression of female power in a patriarchally structured society. Women of the eighteenth century were confined to submissive positions in society; therefore, these women had to operate within the confines of their roles while still attempting to better their positions in society. Because of this, women would utilize their positions as objects of desire in order to take advantage of the opportunities that it provided them. These women harnessed the power of their beauty in attempts to gain some form of control over their lives. They took control of what was being used against them, and they did it for their own betterment.