Lady Mary Wroth
by Nandini Das
Lady Mary Wroth is best known today as the first English woman writer to have published an original work of prose fiction. For her contemporaries, however, her primary identity was as a member of the illustrious Sidney family. As the elaborately decorated title-page of her book announced to the world in 1621, she was, after all, "Daughter to the right Noble Robert Earl of Leicester, and Niece to the ever famous, and renowned Sir Philip Sidney knight, and to the most excellent Lady Mary Countess of Pembroke." It was an identity in which Wroth herself took enormous pride, and which left a decided mark on all her writing.
Mary’s father, Sir Robert Sidney, had married the wealthy Glamorganshire heiress Lady Barbara Gamage in 1584 in spite of Queen Elizabeth’s initial opposition to the match. Mary was born on October 18, 1586 or 1587, into an extended network of kinship that connected some of the most important families of the Elizabethan court.
Childhood During the greater part of Mary’s childhood, Robert Sidney was away in the Netherlands, where he had taken over as the Governor of Flushing after Philip Sidney’s death in 1586. Much of our information about Mary’s life during this period comes from the correspondence between her father and his steward Rowland White, later transcribed and printed in the Historical Manuscript Commission’s report on the De L’Isle and Dudley Papers. The image presented to modern readers through these exchanges is of a much-loved, intelligent child.
In 1597, for example, when Robert suggested that Barbara should leave the three older children behind during one of her frequent visits to the Lowlands, Mary requisitioned White’s support for her cause. On April 4, White wrote to Robert with a touching description of the mutual sorrow of mother and daughter at the prospect of separation. He added that that it was "Mrs Mary" who "came over to me and prayed to me to write to you for leave to come over to see your Lordship, and that she was yet too young to part from her mother." The very next day White wrote again: "I would to God your Lordship would bestow a letter upon Mrs Mary, it would greatly encourage her to do well, for since you said you would write, she by her speeches shows a longing for it."
Education Robert Sidney took an active interest in his daughter’s education despite the prolonged periods of separation. As early as in October 1595, White was reporting back to the absent father that Mary was "very forward in her learning, writing, and other exercises she is put to, as dancing and the virginals". By 1600 Mary was certainly old enough and proficient enough to dance before the Queen during a royal visit to the Sidney family home. Two years later White wrote that Mistress Mary and her dancing partner, "one Mr Palmer, the admirablest dancer of this time" were both "much commended by her Majesty" during another royal Christmas visit to Penshurst.
In later years, Mary’s interest in the arts, her own literary and musical talents would become a defining part of her character. She would write, dance at royal entertainments and court masques, she would have a range of literary and musical works written for or dedicated to her; even the unknown artist of her famous portrait at Penshurst seemed to attest to her musical accomplishments when he depicted Mary with an archlute as her only companion.
Marriage On 27 September 1604, Mary was married to Sir Robert Wroth, a wealthy Essex landowner ten years her senior. As Jonson recorded in his poem "To Sir Robert Wroth," the latter shared King James’s passion for hunting and frequently hosted him during the royal hunting trips in Essex. Jonson would later remark that Lady Wroth was "unworthily married to a jealous husband," and problems seem to have risen fairly early in the relationship. Not even a fortnight after the marriage, Robert Sidney unexpectedly came across his son-in-law in London. Wroth seemed discontent, Sidney wrote to his wife on 10 October 1604, although "it were very soon for any unkindness to begin".
While her husband preferred to stay in his country residence, Mary Wroth spent most of her time in London, where her father’s fortunes rose rapidly in King James’s court. He had been created Baron Sidney of Penshurst and the Queen Consort’s Lord Chamberlain in 1603, Viscount Lisle in 1605, and finally, in 1618, would become the Earl of Leicester. Wroth’s own place within the inner circle at court was almost certainly due to her identity as a Sidney, an identity which she markedly retained by adopting the Sidney arrowhead for her coat of arms.
Along with other women of the Sidney-Pembroke faction, she danced in Queen Anne’s first masque, the Masque of Blackness(1605), and in the Masque of Beauty which followed three years later. During this time, Wroth also kept up the tradition of patronage for which the Sidneys were renowned. Jonson dedicated The Alchemist (1612) to her, as well as a number of poems that extol her personal virtues as well as her Sidney lineage; so did George Chapman, William Drummond, George Wither, and Joshua Sylvester, among many others.
After ten years of marriage, Mary Wroth’s first son was born in February 1614 and named James in honour of the king. A month later her husband died, leaving her with an annual jointure of £1200, and £23000 debt. Wroth’s financial situation worsened when the child died in July 1616. Most of the estate now returned to John Wroth, the nearest male relative of her husband, while she was left with the enormous debts. This, however, was only part of her problems, for it seems that she had by this time also become deeply involved in a relationship with her first cousin, William, third Earl of Pembroke.
The Affair Pembroke was a popular and powerful courtier, a poet and a well-known patron of literature. He also seems to have been something of an inveterate philanderer, a reputation confirmed by Wroth’s later fictional representation of her romance-hero, the fickle Amphilanthus, who is forever being lured away by the wiles of other women from the constant and virtuous Pamphilia. Pembroke had married the rich heiress Lady Mary Talbot barely a month after Wroth’s marriage in 1604, but it is possible that their relationship had begun even before their respective marriages. We do not know how long the relationship lasted, but Wroth bore him two children after her husband’s death – William and Catherine. One of these two children may have been the subject of a poem by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, "sent to Lady Mary Wroth upon the birth of my Lord of Pembroke’s Child," in which Wroth’s motherhood is depicted as an extension of her creative literary skills.
Such extra-marital relationships were not unknown at the Jacobean court, but it is possible that along with the serious financial constraints that Wroth suffered after the death of her husband, the affair with Pembroke played a part in her withdrawal from Queen Anne’s circle after 1614. Contemporaries claimed that Pembroke was a special favourite of Queen Anne, and gained the position of the King’s Lord Chamberlain in 1615 through her mediation. In the circumstances, it is significant that the romance which Wroth later published returns repeatedly to the motif of the jealousy of a powerful Queen, who exiles her weaker rival from the court in order to gain her lover.
Wroth’s retirement from the inner circle at court did not stop her from taking an active interest in national and international politics. She shared her own knowledge of political affairs with her friends and acquaintances, and corresponded with Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador to the Hague. When Anne Clifford visited the Sidneys at Penshurst, she recorded in her diary that she had met, among others, "Lady Wroth, who told me a great deal of news from beyond the sea". Some of this interest in politics and international political negotiations would later add an extra dimension to Wroth’s depiction of her romance heroes and heroines, whose identities as public figures with political roles to perform often conflict with their private identities and desires as love-struck men and women.
Urania The romance itself may have been made possible by Wroth’s withdrawal from the hectic life at court. Even in comparison to other chivalric prose romances which were popular in its time, the Urania (1621) is an enormous book, written in lengthy, loose-structured sentences. The first part, which was printed incomplete, runs to about 350,000 words; the second part, which was left equally incomplete in manuscript, contains about 240,000 words. The 1621 edition also contains a sequence of 103 sonnets, called Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, and other lyrics are scattered throughout the texts.
Within her extended family, Mary Wroth would have known quite a few writers, both men and women, including her father, whose own unpublished poetry has only recently been discovered. The major literary precedents, however, were two – her illustrious uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, and her aunt, the Countess of Pembroke. The Countess was a noted literary patron, and a poet and translator in her own right. In choosing to edit Sidney’s Arcadia and continue his translations of the Psalms after her brother’s death, she had in a way appropriated the authority which had been posthumously vested in Sir Philip Sidney as the ideal Protestant patron and author, while still conforming to the established and acceptable genres of feminine writing. Breaking with this powerful precedent, Wroth ventured into a totally different literary arena in which men had always been the creators and women the passive recipients of the finished artefact. This was the world of chivalric romance, love, and Petrarchan lyrics.
Dedicated to one of her closest friends and kinswomen, Pembroke’s sister-in-law Susan, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania echoes the title of its more famous familial predecessor, Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Its intricate and interlaced narratives follow the fortunes of two central heroines, Pamphilia and Urania, as well as numerous other characters, whose actions range over the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. The narrative can perhaps be best described as a kaleidoscope, in which elements of popular Continental romances, Greek romances, pastoral literature and the Arcadia mingle, often producing tantalizing glimpses of the real stories of the Sidneys and their circle at court.
Pamphilia herself is a semi-autobiographical figure, who significantly inherits the crown and kingdom of her uncle, and whose love for her fickle first cousin Amphilanthus occasions much of the travelling, story-telling, and exchange of love lyrics. Some of the other characters are especially recognisable under barely disguised anagrams. The story of Bersindor’s marriage to a "great Heyre," for example, is consistent in its details with the marriage of Robert Sidney and Barbara Gamage. Bersindor’s eldest daughter Lindamira (Lady Mary) falls victim to the jealousy of the Queen, and is forced to leave the court and return to the country to live with her husband.
The Scandal Many other allusions may be lost to the modern reader, but we know that Wroth’s contemporaries thought of the book as a sensational roman-à-clef, and most did not approve of her dabbling with matters which were best left alone, especially by a woman. John Chamberlain wrote to his friend Dudley Carleton, that Lady Mary "takes great liberty or rather license to traduce whom she please, and thinks she dances in a net." One man especially took great exception to Wroth’s assumption of such liberty. Edward Denny, Baron of Waltham, recognised shades of his personal family scandal in the episode of Seralius and his father-in-law. Denny wrote two heated letters remonstrating with Wroth about the alleged insult to his family, which Wroth denied. He wrote and circulated a vicious poem traducing the book and describing Wroth as a "hermaphrodite in show, in deed a monster"; Wroth responded with parody, calling Denny himself a "hermaphrodite in sense, in Art a monster." However, the matter was evidently serious enough for her to look for additional support. She wrote to James I’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, and to William Fielding, first Earl of Denbigh, denying all responsibility for the Urania’s publication, asserting that she had not written the text for public consumption. Whatever the circumstances behind the printing of the book might have been, the existence of a copy with corrections in her own hand suggests that Wroth certainly acknowledged the book as her own.
Other Works After the controversy surrounding the publication of the Urania, Wroth seems to have largely withdrawn from public life. However, she did not stop writing. The continuation to the Urania picks up the narrative exactly at the point the first part ended. Its focus is largely on a younger generation of romance heroes and heroines, working their way through a romance territory full of echoes of earlier stories and exploits of their progenitors. The pastoral play Love’s Victorie is closely related to an important episode of this second part of the romance; its dramatic action typically interlaced with fictional convention and familial stories. Neither was printed in Wroth’s lifetime.
Later Life Very few records about Wroth’s personal life in her later years have survived. The few known facts are mainly gleaned from legal documents, court and parish records. For example, we know that Wroth continued to be plagued with serious financial difficulties throughout her life. Requesting royal warrants for protection from creditors almost became an annual affair and she later had to sell off a large portion of her remaining lands. Given the circumstances, however, Wroth continued to manage her own financial and personal affairs with considerable determination for the rest of her life. According to a Chancery Deposition written in 1668, Lady Mary Wroth died in 1651 or 1653. It is only in recent years that her pioneering literary creations have begun to attract the attention they deserve.