“Drinking a dish of tea with Sapho”: The sexual fantasies of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Lord Byron

Alison Winch

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Byron’s admiration for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was exceptional in a period when her reputation was still suffering from Alexander Pope’s and Horace Walpole’s virulent misogyny. Byron was fascinated by her and claimed to have read her Turkish Embassy Letters (1763) by the age of 10. His letters reveal an erotic attraction towards this scholarly woman. When he was residing in Venice, he discovered the passionate letters that Montagu had sent to her young Venetian lover over 60 years earlier. These letters reveal a series of performative sexual
identities constructed in relation to a lover. This article argues that Byron can be productively read through his alliances with earlier, sexually transgressive literary figures. More specifically, Montagu’s works, as well as her queer ethnomasquerades, were influential in his writing of Don Juan (1819), and also in his creation of a Byronic celebrity persona. For both writers, philhellenist and Orientalist discourses enable possibilities of self-imagining and celebrity spectacle. Montagu’s
depictions of passionate travelling and heroic sexuality reveal continuities across the borders of canonized literary periods.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-99
Number of pages18
JournalWomen's Writing
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013


  • travel writing
  • Orientalism
  • eighteenth century
  • Lord Byron
  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
  • sexualities
  • gender

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