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Montagu’s ‘The Turkish Embassy Letters’: The Questions of Perception and Representation in Travel Narratives

By Susmita Roy

Travel narratives influence in creating discourses. It is not possible for everyone to travel to every place in the world. Hence, travel writings sometimes become a medium to explore the beauty and culture of a land. At other times, travel narratives help the reader to have practical information about traveling costs and procedures of the travelled countries. They create interest in the reader’s mind to travel to those countries and provide misrepresentation or “fantasized perception” of those countries to the readers. Travel narratives represent culture and customs of the visited countries, thereby raising questions of perception and representation. Individual perspectives influence the lens of viewing and representing what they see. Stereotyped perception of a traveller misrepresents another culture in their travel writings. As Curl Jung says, “It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.” This article aims at looking into the question of perception and the issue of representation in travel narratives. It shows how representation matters in travel writings by bringing reference to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters in the light of Edward Said’s Orientalism. This article insists on the importance of avoiding pre-given perceptions and the importance of wearing an objective lens for the travellers while portraying another culture in travel writings.

In regard to perception, Edward Said’s Orientalism puts forward the issue of representation of the Orient by the Occident. He marks orientalism as a “social construction based on fantasized perception” the West has of the Orient. In Western art, literature and travel writings, the Eastern world has been depicted as “exotic and barbaric.” Thus, the world views the Orient as “exotic and barbaric” because of the discourse created by the West. The representation of one Eastern country in the travel writings of the West may differ from the representation of that country in the writings of another Eastern writer. In other words, the representation of one perspective can be challenged by that of another. As Tom Robbins writes, “One has not only an ability to perceive the world but an ability to alter one’s perception of it; more simply one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them.” So, one has the ability to alter another’s perception and thereby challenge one’s representation in writing.

In her letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu represents Turkish (Ottoman Empire) in a different way. Her letters neither reproduce nor complicate Eurocentrism. Rather, these letters replace Eurocentrism by representing moments of cultural confrontations. In her The Turkish Embassy Letters, she notes her travel experience as if she is looking at her surroundings as an interested participant rather than an authoritative spectator. Montagu abandons her stereotyped lens of viewing the world in spite of her Western “subject position.” In his article “Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters and Cultural Dislocation”, Mary Jo Kietzman contends, “Montagu views and analyses quite unselfconsciously, much like Said’s appropriative Orientalist or ethnography’s participant-observer” (543). This reference suggests that being an “ethnography’s participant-observer” can be a tool for avoiding the stereotyped lens of subjective perception in writing a travel narrative.

Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters is an example of “unselfconscious” travel narrative. In her initial letter, she describes the setting “unselfconsciously” as follows:

I walked almost all over the town yesterday, incognito, in my slippers, without receiving one spot of dirt, and you may see the Dutch maids washing the pavement of the street with more application than ours do our bedchambers. (Montagu 249)

This description clarifies Montagu’s unbiased representation of Ottoman Empire. Contrary to the stereotype of oppressed Eastern women cloistered in harems, Montagu constructs the image of Turkish women as “free” to contribute to their own society. She writes that the Turkish women are “perhaps freer than any ladies in the universe” (Montagu 406). Her claim subverts the stereotype perpetuated by male voyage writers who “lament (so ‘tenderly’) on the miserable confinement of Turkish ladies,” and which they believe obscures Turkish women’s experience (406). Lady Montagu considers the veil as a further symbol of constructive segregation – a means of establishing a personal female domain. She does not consider the veil as a proof of Islam’s fundamental misogyny as it has always been seen by the West. Rather, she claims that this provides women the opportunity to shape themselves and their societies. Montagu does not distort an objective reality by wearing a stereotyped lens; rather she makes an experimental attempt, as Kietzman argues, “not only to see the Other but to see how far the Other goes toward realizing what is hopefully a shared feminotopic goal” (546).

Traveling for Montagu, unlike other orientalist travel writers, creates a room for rewriting the socially-constructed discourse, for challenging the subjective truth. She accepts cultural amalgamation. She reorients herself by gathering experiences of what she sees and transforms her homeland with some of her experience. For example, she introduces Turkish practice of smallpox inoculation in England. She starts the process of cultural intervention. She rediscovers herself through her travel and her travel experience enables her to perceive the relationship between her and others as reciprocal. Her letters show how travel writings can enable cultural amalgamation and how subjectivity can be reinvented perpetually through social interaction. In her letter to Lady Bristol, Montagu writes, “You can imagine me half a Turk.” This reference indicates Montagu’s willingness to accept Turkish social practice as she accepts that of English. Travelling provides Montagu a process of having a hybrid subjectivity through the act of transformation by means of displacement. Thus, she is able to write an unbiased representation of Turkish society in her letters.

Traveling and writing about it can offer an intriguing insight into the larger exotic world differently than before when the traveller encounters the foreign customs and values that are distinct from his/her own society. However, the travelogues should by no means be considered as a convenient medium for misrepresenting the society visited, as has been done by a few travellers from the West while describing East with their romantic imagination, based on their subjective notion. Instead, the genre provides an open opportunity to the traveller to expand his/her horizons of mind and try to rise above the typical age-old prejudices to perceive the larger unknown world in an objective manner. Moreover, it enables one to learn, unlearn and relearn while considering travel as an attentive mode for constructing knowledge.

Bio:
Susmita Roy is an M.A. student and an independent researcher at the Department of English, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh. Her research interests include Postcolonialism, African-American Literature, and South-Asian Literature. She has a passion for traveling. In her leisure period, she likes to read and write short stories.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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