Once, and but once, his heedless youth was bit, And liked that dangerous thing, a female wit.
—Alexander Pope

“A passionate man,” said Stendhal, “is seldom witty.” Building on that aphorism, one might go on to say that a witty man is rarely handsome. A beautiful woman who, along with being witty, is also commonsensical is rarest of all. They do, however, turn up, perhaps every century or two. Such a woman was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She lived (1689–1762) in a cold and hard age, where beauty helped immensely, wit was a useful weapon, common sense a necessity, and only passion an embarrassment.

Lady Mary was born with every advantage, real and artificial, and a number of true disadvantages. One distinct advantage was that she was an aristocrat, the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, Marquis of Dorchester, afterwards Duke of Kingston. Her secure place among...

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