Wroth, Lady Mary (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))
Lady Mary Wroth 1587–1653(?)
(Born Mary Sidney) English fiction writer, poet, and playwright.
The following entry provides an overview of Wroth's career and works, and contains criticism published from 1946 through 1993.
Considered the first woman writer of English original prose fiction, Lady Mary Wroth published her lengthy prose romance, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621) at a time when women's writing was confined strictly to translation and pious works. For centuries dismissed as an imitation of the pastoral romance genre epitomized by Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590), Wroth's Urania and the sonnet sequence at the end of the work, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, have garnered increased scholarly attention since the 1970s for their successful transposition of the gender expectations that prevailed in seventeenth-century literary forms. Wroth's use of secular female viewpoints is recognized as an innovative approach to genres in which the point of view had been exclusively male. In Urania, Wroth reversed traditional male notions of community, creating a word of feminine friendship through which she depicted the quest for self identity and the formation of same sex friendships that support and transcend passion and marriage to the opposite sex. Wroth characterized women as the purveyors of culture and constancy, and while her works reflect the systematic subordination of women to the patriarchal mores of the times, her female characters manage to assert their identities, thereby avoiding victimization. Published after the pastoral and sonnet forms were past their popularity, Wroth's Urania expanded the conventions of the genres by fusing the romantic tradition with the realistic through the use of diversionary subplots and dialogue in the style of the novelle. Both for her daring examination of gender expectations and the stylistic deviations she made from traditional literary forms, Wroth is receiving increased scrutiny in modern scholarship.
The eldest daughter of Sir Robert Sidney, a poet and government official, and Lady Barbara damage, Mary Sidney was born on 18 October 1587 into a family established in both literary pursuits and life in the courts of Elizabeth I and James I. For this reason, she had access to educational and cultural opportunities rare for
a woman of her time. Wroth's uncle was Sir Philip Sidney, author of influential Renaissance works including the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (1590), and the pastoral romance Arcadia, both of which were to provide important models for Wroth's writing. Due to the literary interests of her family and her mother's active role in educating her children, Wroth spent her childhood practicing writing, language, and music. Wroth also traveled with her mother on the Continent when her father assumed a governorship in the Netherlands, spending much of her early childhood abroad. While receiving a thorough education in the arts from her mother, it was Wroth's aunt Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke and sister to Sir Philip Sidney, who inspired her to literary pursuits. The Countess of Pembroke not only wrote poetry and translations from French and Italian, she also published them—a bold venture for a woman in the 1590s. According to Josephine Roberts, the Countess of Pembroke's work in various verse forms, particularly in a metrical version of the Psalms she had begun with Sir Philip Sidney, probably stimulated Wroth's interest in poetical techniques. Wroth used her aunt as the model for characters in her own work, as the Queen of Naples in the Urania, and as Simena in the play Love's Victory (1620s?). The family's standing at court increased during Wroth's early years. When Queen Elizabeth visited Penshurst in 1600 to show her favor for Sir Robert, young Mary Sidney entertained the queen with dancing, foreshadowing later dramatic performances at the court of James I.
In 1604, Mary married Robert Wroth, who had been knighted the previous year by James I and whose hunting skills found favor with the king. The union was not a happy one; Sir Robert Wroth's dissatisfaction with his new wife was apparent to Mary Wroth's father, who commented upon their marital difficulties in a letter to his wife. However unhappy the marriage, Lady Mary Wroth's position at court was enhanced by her new husband's and her father's rising influence with James I. She performed in several court entertainments for Queen Anne, most notably The Masque of Blackness in 1605 and Masque of Beauty in 1608 by the poet Ben Jonson, with whom Lady Wroth shared a mutual admiration for many years. Jonson wrote a poem praising Wroth's poetry, and commented to William Drummond on the unworthiness of her marriage to Robert Wroth. Due to her position at court, Lady Wroth became known as a literary patron as well as poet in her own right. She was most certainly composing verse by 1613, and her work may have circulated as early as 1605. In between her duties at court and at the Wroths' country estate, where she played hostess to the royal couple when James I came to hunt, Wroth wrote songs and sonnets, many of which would make up her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. Lady Wroth was well known as a poet long before the first publication of her work in 1621. However, although active and respected in literary circles, Wroth's first effort at publication may have been spurred by financial obligations incurred following the death of her husband in 1614, a month after the birth of their only child, a son. Robert Wroth left his wife a large debt. Her circumstances worsened with the death of her son, which caused Wroth to lose much of her husband's estate to his uncle due to the lack of an immediate male heir.
The difficulties for women brought on by patriarchal mores greatly influenced Wroth's later works, which extensively address the problems of marrying for financial gain, and the impoverishment that widowhood often brought to women of her class. During her early years as a widow, Wroth continued a romantic liaison with her cousin William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, which had begun during her marriage, eventually bearing two illegitimate children by him. Herbert is thought to be the model for the character Amphilanthus, the object of Pamphilia's affections in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, while Wroth herself is thought to be reflected in Pamphilia. Despite her relationship with the wealthy Herbert, Wroth's financial position became increasingly desperate, and she may have decided to publish as a means out of her difficulties. Unfortunately, this avenue was forever closed to her with the appearance of the Urania, appended with the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, in 1621. Composed during the period 1618-1620, the Urania incorporates elements of the roman à clef, detailing Wroth's fall from favor in court upon the death of her husband, attributing her circumstances to court slander, and basing several episodes in the work on actual court scandals. Publication of the Urania sparked a venomous flurry of criticism by courtiers who claimed to identify their own embarrassing episodes in the work. Sir Edward Denny, in particular, was incensed by Wroth's depiction of his affairs and waged a public campaign to disparage the Urania and Wroth. Wroth responded in kind, answering his public outcries with spirited rebuttals and attempting to rally the support of influential friends, to whom she insisted she had not meant any harm. In the end, however, she was forced to remove the work from circulation, and it remained unpublished for the rest of her life. Despite the scandal, Wroth continued to write prolifically throughout the 1620s, producing a second part to the Urania, and composing the drama Love's Victory, for which there is no record of performance. Her financial position, however, became increasingly dire, and she was forced to petition the king several times for protection from creditors. Little is known of Wroth's later years, and no literary material exists from the last three decades of her life. Wroth likely died in 1651 or 1653 without ever having regained financial stability or her former standing at court.
Wroth's three major works all derive from established literary forms popular in her time, but their unifying and distinguishing feature is the adaptation of exclusively male forms and techniques to a female point of view. In each of her works, the protagonists are women who suffer subordination to a patriarchal society, but nevertheless shape their own destinies in fulfillment of a quest for identity and spiritual freedom. Wroth's concern is to evoke a female community of friendship in which women attain acceptance and respect outside the norms of male-dominated society, which glorified court rituals or traditional heroic exploits. Strong women characters in Elizabethan literature often were paragons of virtue or female extensions of the male concept of heroism; for example, warriors or Amazons in the tradition of Spenser. In contrast, Wroth's women range from the virtuous to the deceitful. None defines herself by male standards of female virtue or heroism, and instead looks inward to determine her identity. In the Urania, for example, Wroth presents resilient women characters whose notions of self are challenged by male inconstancy and their subordinate position in society. The 600 page prose romance chronicles the adventures of a huge cast of characters, with the central theme being Queen Pamphilia's vow of love and loyalty to King Amphilanthus. Pamphilia's vow is tested continually by separation from her beloved and by various intrigues that reveal his inconstancy to her. Parallel to this plot is that concerning Pamphilia's close friend Urania, an important commentator on the many adventures narrated in the work. Ostensibly a shepherdess, Urania embarks on a search for her parents and her true identity, symbolizing the feminine quest for self identity and the rejection of societal expectations. The heroic deeds of knights are compared with the spiritual heroism of women's striving for the freedom to shape their lives. Female unhappiness is portrayed as a result of betrayal by the men to whom they have pledged loyalty; a theme that is explored further in the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, which follows the Urania in the 1621 edition.
The first known edition of Wroth's sonnets consisted of 110 poems and seven miscellaneous pieces, but by the publication of the Urania, she had revised the sequence to the eighty-three sonnets and twenty songs. The only Renaissance sonnet sequence composed by a woman, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus transforms the traditional Petrarchan conceit of a male sonneteer addressing a female love object to a female sonneteer writing of her love for a man. The characters' names reflect the main concern of the poetry; Pamphilia means "all-loving", while Amphilanthus means "lover of two". The contrast between women's constancy and men's inconstancy is voiced with emotion and depth by Pamphilia, who attempts to resolve the struggle between her desire to surrender to passion and the need to retain her identity and freedom. Although the poems are addressed to Amphilanthus, the focus of the poetry is Pamphilia's examination of her own character, her thoughts on love, her inner virtue, her ambivalence towards marriage. These themes are continued in Love's Victory, Wroth's pastoral tragicomedy modelled after the love story in Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella. In the play, Wroth focusses on a woman's right to choose whether and whom to marry. As in the Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, there are strongly autobiographical motifs to the play, as Wroth decries the repercussions of marrying for financial gain rather than for love. As in her other works, women play the dominant role in the action; the deity Venus, who comments on the action and guides the characters' behavior, dominates Cupid. The drama portrays one woman's decision to marry for love and another's decision to not marry at all, while the forced marriage of two characters ends in their mock deaths, a symbol of the stifling nature of arranged unions. Female friendship again is an important element of the action, with the women characters meeting to discuss their roles in romance and to empower each others' decisions regarding marriage. Although men are portrayed as disrespectful of women, in some cases comparing women with animals, Wroth endows her female characters with self-respect and the strength to shape their lives and make decisions, thus avoiding victimization. In her works, Wroth adhered to traditional forms and took her stylistic cues from the literary establishment of her times, but her writing was far from merely derivative of these forms in its transposition of gender roles to endow a female narrator with the ability to examine her own character and her society.
With the rediscovery of her works and the release of important editions of her poetry by Gary Waller in 1977 and Josephine Roberts in 1983, among others, Wroth's place in the development of literary forms received new scrutiny. Most Wroth critics have sought to examine and clarify the role of the female voice and the revolutionary impact of the transposition of gender. The majority of scholars studying this aspect of Wroth's work have agreed that her representation of female perspectives and the creation of feminine community are both artistically successful and refreshing variations on established forms. In addition, critics have noted that the feminine viewpoint in her work serves as an important aid in a historical and sociological understanding of the role of women and the difficulties they faced during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. From both an historical and a literary standpoint, critics are continuing to research Wroth's contributions to English literature and to acknowledge her role in establishing the tradition of a literary feminine voice.
The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (fiction) 1621
*Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (poetry) 1621
‡Love's Victorie (drama) 1621(?)
†The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth (poetry) 1983
* Sonnet sequence first printed as the conclusion to Urania; published as separate work Pamphilia to Amphilanthus by Lady Mary Wroth, edited by G. F. Wallter, 1977.
†Wroth's poetry circulated in manuscript as early as 1605. This edition was edited by Josephine A. Roberts.
‡No record of performance. First published as Lady Mary Wroth's 'Love's Victory': The Penshurst Manuscript, edited by...
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SOURCE: "The Pastoral Romance," in Women Writers: Their Contribution to The English Novel 1621-1744, 1944. Reprint by Cork University Press, 1946, pp. 47-69.
[In the following excerpt, MacCarthy examines Wroth's The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania in the context of Elizabethan prose traditions and the influence of Sydney's Arcadia, and shows how Wroth blends realism and romanticism through the use of sub-plots and dialogue.]
In 1621, in the person of Lady Mary Wroath, woman made her first contribution to English prose fiction. Having barely mentioned the name of the first English woman-novelist, we must at once retrogress after the manner of a writer...
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SOURCE: "The Nature of Poetry," in The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, pp. 41-60.
[In the following essay, Roberts discusses Wroth's treatment of the subject of love relationships and the influence of Petrarchan and pastoral literary traditions in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Urania, and Love's Victory.]
PAMPHILIA TO AMPHILANTHUS
Lady Mary Wroth's contemporaries recognized that her verse belonged to the Petrarchan tradition and strongly identified her as Sir Philip Sidney's successor, "In whom, her Uncle's noble Veine renewes." Despite the early seventeenth-century fashion of "hard lines," and...
(The entire section is 7450 words.)
SOURCE: "Feminine Identity in Lady Mary Wroth's Romance Urania," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 328-46.
[In this excerpt, Swift discusses Wroth's portrayal of the search for female identity through the characters Pamphilia and Urania, and draws parallels to Wroth's own struggle for acceptance and recognition in seventeenth-century society.]
In 1621 Lady Mary Wroth published The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, a beautiful folio divided into four lengthy books, approximately 600 pages of prose and poetry that concludes with the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. An unpublished 145-page manuscript,...
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SOURCE: "'Not much to be marked': Narrative of the Woman's Part in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 121-37.
[In this excerpt, Miller studies Wroth's creation of a female community in the Urania, and examines her use of narrative strategies that revise the conventions of romance and affirm the resiliency of female characters.]
Virginia Woolf's speculations in A Room of One's Own about the hypothetical fate of Shakespeare's unknown sister achieve unexpected relevance in the example of Lady Mary Wroth, Sir Philip Sidney's niece. Woolf muses that any woman born with a gift of...
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SOURCE: "'A Sydney, though un-named'; Lady Mary Wroth and her Poetical Progenitors," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XV, No. 1, March, 1989, pp. 12-20.
[In this analysis of the Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, MacArthur contends that the absence of important Petrarchan conventions in Wroth's poetry functions as an assertion of the persona's feminine voice.]
Critics have often commented upon the tensions in Lady Mary Wroth's prose romance The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania (London, 1621), of which the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus became a part. Carolyn Ruth Swift [in English Literary Renaissance, 14, 1984]...
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SOURCE: "Feminine Self-Definition in Lady Mary Wroth's Love's Victorie," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 171-88.
[In the following essay, Swift studies how Wroth's belief that women should have freedom of choice regarding marriage and the direction of their lives finds expression in her tragicomedy Love's Victory.]
In her pastoral play Love's Victorie, Lady Mary Wroth created a feminine dreamworld analogous to the "masculine dreamworld" that Renato Poggioli [in his The Oaten Flute] finds in traditional Renaissance pastorals. As male authors retreat to Arcadia in protest against sexual conformity and...
(The entire section is 6178 words.)
SOURCE: "A New Woman of Romance," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 63-77.
[In the following excerpt, Shaver examines Wroth's female protagonists, observing the ways in which they assert power within the strict behavioral confines of the feminine Renaissance ideal.]
An examination of Pamphilia, the cynosure and central character of the Lady Mary Wroth's romance Urania, shows to how great an extent her author appears to have internalized the Renaissance ideal of womanhood with its insistence on chastity above all, then silence and obedience. On the other hand, Wroth's women characters also embody glimmerings of new kinds of political,...
(The entire section is 6599 words.)
SOURCE: "Mary Wroth's Love's Victory and Pastoral Tragicomedy," in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, edited by Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, The University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 88-109.
[Lewalski provides a brief history of the pastoral tragicomedy and discusses the influence of this tradition in Wroth's Love's Victory.]
Mary Wroth's pastoral tragicomedy, Love's Victory, has recently been published for the first and only time; it was unknown except to a small contemporary coterie, and is still virtually unread. Only one complete manuscript is extant, at Penshurst; the Huntington Library has a partial...
(The entire section is 6365 words.)
SOURCE: "Mary Wroth and the Invention of Female Poetic Subjectivity," in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, edited by Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, The University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 175-90.
[In the following excerpt, Feinberg explores Wroth's innovative use of a female perspective in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus and her evocation of "a fictional audience of women readers and writers."]
The nature of women's writing was clearly at issue early in the seventeenth century. Remember Rosalind's response to Phoebe's verses: "I say she never did invent this letter, / This is a man's invention and his hand" ([William...
(The entire section is 5013 words.)
SOURCE: " 'Watch, gaze, and marke': The Poetry of Mary Wroth," in The Sidney Family Romance: Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and the Early Modern Construction of Gender, Wayne State University Press, 1993, pp. 190-219.
[In this essay, Waller presents an overview of the traditions, influences, and seventeenth-century gender roles that shaped Wroth's poetry.]
Despite their apparent obviousness, the words we use to describe gender assignments are sites of continual struggle. "Man" and "woman" are sliding, not stable, signifiers. Nor are the material practices that embody our lived sexual roles adequately descibed by the tragic limitations of such binarism. New forms of...
(The entire section is 11836 words.)
Paulissen, May Nelson. "The Life and Milieu of Lady Mary Wroth." In The Love Sonnets of Lady Mary Wroth: A Critical Introduction, edited by Dr. James Hogg, pp. 1-77. Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik Universität Salzburg, 1982.
A complete study of Wroth's life and the context of her work.
Roberts, Josephine A. "The Biographical Problem of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 43-53.
Provides a biography of Wroth and comments on the autobiographical nature of Pamphilia to...
(The entire section is 703 words.)
Wroth, Lady Mary (Poetry Criticism)
Lady Mary Wroth 1587-1653
English poet and fiction writer. See also Lady Mary Wroth Literary Criticism.
Wroth was the first woman to publish a complete sonnet sequence and an original work of prose fiction in English. While women writers of the earlier English Renaissance had limited themselves to genres such as translation, dedication, and epitaph, Wroth openly transgressed traditional gender boundaries by writing secular love poetry and fictional romance in which the female lover was the pursuer of the male beloved. Her sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621), along with the poetry she included in her prose romance The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621), are noted for their unprecedented reversal of gender roles, their expert use of the Petrarchan sonnet form, and their often biting biographical sketches of Wroth's contemporaries.
Evidence from Sidney family correspondence places Wroth's year of birth as 1587. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Robert Sidney and Lady Barbara Gamage, both of whom were well-known patrons of the arts, and the niece of Sir Philip Sidney, a great Elizabethan poet, statesman, and soldier whose tragic death in the Netherlands elevated him to the status of national hero. Wroth was strongly influenced by her family's literary leanings. In addition to her father—who was a minor poet in his own right—and uncle, Wroth's aunt and godmother, Mary Sidney, was a powerful force in shaping her talent and desire to write. Married to Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke, Mary Sidney hosted regular gatherings of poets, theologians, and scientists at her country estate. She herself wrote poetry and translations from French and Italian works, which she boldly published under her own name. She also served as the editor of the surviving works of her brother Philip after his death and wrote metrical versions of the Psalms, which are recognized as works of great poetic art. Wroth acknowledged her aunt's influence, offering deeply respectful depictions of her in Urania and in her drama Love's Victory. Following Philip Sidney's death, Wroth's father was appointed to fill his brother's post as governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, where he served during much of Wroth's childhood. He kept in close contact with his family, though, through visits and letters, many of them containing reports from home on the activities of his eldest daughter. Wroth's education was typical for a privileged girl of her time: she studied with a number of household tutors under the guidance of her mother. Negotiations for her marriage began around 1599, and she was eventually wed to Sir Robert Wroth, the son of a wealthy Essex landowner, in 1604. Fundamental differences in temperament and interests became evident between the couple almost immediately, and both are known to have been unhappy with the union, partly because of Mary Wroth's long-term affair with her cousin William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. But her husband's great skill in hunting garnered much admiration from King James I, who frequently visited the Wroths' country homes with his court. This afforded Wroth the opportunity to befriend members of the king's court, many of whom were educated art patrons, including Queen Anne. By 1613 Wroth had begun her writing career, and apparently her poetry circulated in manuscript form years before its publication in 1621 and was admired despite the fact that the sonnet form was by that time long out of fashion. Robert Wroth died in 1614, leaving his wife with a month-old son and a £23,000 debt. When her child died two years later, Wroth's circumstances worsened because much of her husband's estate went to his uncle, John Wroth. Her correspondence from this time indicates that she moved into William Herbert's London home, Baynard's Castle, and bore him two children, William and Catherine. Following her husband's death, Wroth suffered a decline in royal favor, losing her place among Queen Anne's intimate circle of friends, although the exact cause of her downfall is uncertain. Wroth seems to have blamed vicious gossip about her relationship with William Herbert, but it is likely that her husband's debts left her unable to afford to participate in the lavish court entertainments. Wroth thinly fictionalized many of her personal experiences, and those of her family and friends, in Urania. Some, including the courtier Sir Edward Denny, were outraged to find their personal affairs recounted by Wroth. Denny launched a vicious attack against Urania and its author, with his complaints eventually reaching the king. Trying to rally support, Wroth assured the first Duke of Buckingham that she never meant her work to offend and volunteered to stop the sale of it. Following the storm of criticism, the book was never reprinted, but it continued to be read through the seventeenth century. Wroth continued writing a second, unpublished part of Urania and a play, Love's Victory. The later period of Wroth's life seems to have been devoted largely to settling financial difficulties. To forestall her creditors, she repeatedly applied to the crown for warrants of protection, which were granted at regular intervals. The only record of Wroth's death appears in a Chancery deposition of 1668, in which she is said to have died in 1651, but Wroth more likely died in 1653. No literary works survive from the last thirty years of her life.
Because Wroth wrote her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus at least ten years after the height of the form's popularity in the 1590s, she had at her disposal for study some of the greatest examples of the form ever written, including her uncle's wildly successful Astrophil and Stella (1591). While maintaining the Petrarchan sonnet rhythms and rhymes, Wroth had to redefine the roles of the lovers since her “hero,” Pamphilia, was a woman. A major theme of the sequence is female constancy in the face of male fickleness. Because of this, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus contains a note of implicit though repressed anger and sorrow that also sets it apart from earlier sonnet sequences written by men, who, in Petrarchan fashion, portrayed themselves as the impassioned wooers of cold, distant women. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is Wroth's “crown of sonnets,” a group of fourteen sonnets imitating the Italian verse form corona, in which the last line of each sonnet serves as the first line of the next. Wroth's crown of sonnets serves as a central turning point in Pamphilia's inner debate on the joy and suffering of human passion. At the end of the crown, Pamphilia seems to have concluded only that she is as perplexed as ever by love. In addition to the sonnets, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus contains many pastoral songs in which Wroth envisions an idyllic, innocent love, in contrast to the reality of the corrupt and inconstant affairs she witnessed in the royal court. For women writers of the time, the pastoral mode served as a vehicle to rebuke the sexual politics and masculine power to which they were subject. Many critics speculate that Wroth was addressing in her sonnet sequence her ongoing love affair with William Herbert, whom she could not have married because of the great disparity in wealth between their respective families. Herbert wrote lyric poetry of his own that appears to respond to Pamphilia's fitful questioning of Amphilanthus's fidelity. Pamphilia and Amphilanthus appear again as major characters in Wroth's prose romance The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, written circa 1618 to 1620. While the tension between the lovers is again central to the plot, Wroth assigns far greater significance to the enduring friendship between the two heroines of the story, Pamphilia and Urania. Dispersed throughout Urania are fifty-six poems, including sonnets, madrigals, dialogues, ballads, and pastoral narratives. These poems reveal Wroth's experimentation in a variety of meters, most notably sapphics. Wroth adapted each poem to fit the personality of the character assigned to recite it in the text. She also included poems specifically based on her uncle's The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia, but, as in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Wroth recast the view of woman from a passive subject of love's mastery to an active, controlling artist. Both the prose and the poetry of Urania contain thinly veiled references to actual occurrences in the lives of Wroth's Sidney relatives and her acquaintances in royal court society. These often scathing depictions of scandalous and treacherous love affairs brought much unwelcome publicity to their subjects, some of whom published equally caustic verse in response to Wroth.
While the scandal over Urania caused Wroth a degree of infamy, it does not appear to have discouraged her contemporaries from reading her works. Sir Aston Cokayne offered his opinion in verse: “The Lady Wrothe's Urania is repleat / With elegancies but too full of heat,” referring to Wroth's frequent allusions to court scandals in her subplots. Among Wroth's admirers was Elizabethan dramatist Ben Jonson, who praised the psychological insight of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. Wroth's works nevertheless fell into oblivion after the seventeenth century, where they remained until the publication of a new edition of the sonnet sequence in 1977, in timely correspondence with the rise in interest of women writers and feminist literary theory. Since that time, Wroth's poetry has been more widely discussed, and critics praise her perfection of form, her criticism of oppressive social customs, and the breadth of emotion she explored.
The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania 1621 (prose and poetry)
*Pamphilia to Amphilanthus by Lady Mary Wroth [edited by G. F. Waller] 1977
†The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth [edited by Josephine A. Roberts] 1983 (letters and poetry)
‡Lady Mary Wroth's ‘Love's Victory’: The Penshurst Manuscript [edited by Michael G. Brennan] (drama) 1988
*Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was first published as a part of Urania.
†Circulated in manuscript as early as 1605.
‡Love’s Victorie was written c. 1621.
(The entire section is 71 words.)
SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, by Lady Mary Wroth, edited and introduced by G. F. Waller, Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977, pp. 1-21.
[In the following essay, Waller presents an overview of Wroth's themes and style in, as well as the publication history of, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.]
Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is a collection of sonnets and songs written by Lady Mary Wroth (c. 1586-1640), probably in the second decade of the seventeenth century. Lady Wroth's poetry was praised highly by Ben Jonson but has never been collected and published in its entirety. One version of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus...
(The entire section is 13170 words.)
SOURCE: “The Biographical Problem of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 43-53.
[In the following essay, Roberts questions the extent to which Wroth's Petrarchan sonnet sequence was based on her personal experiences.]
Beginning with Petrarch's Canzoniere, the autobiographical elements of the sonnet sequence have remained a constant source of scholarly debate. Does the sonneteer transform actual experience into art? Should the sonnets be read as literary constructs apart from any personal or historical contexts?1 These questions recur significantly in the case of Lady Mary...
(The entire section is 37387 words.)
SOURCE: “Rewriting Lyric Fictions: The Role of the Lady in Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus,” in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 295-310.
[In the following essay, Miller discusses Wroth's reversal of the traditional gender roles in the classical sonnet form.]
Near the end of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Lady Mary Wroth's poet-speaker contrasts the “true forme of love” in her thoughts with those “ancient fictions” that conjure shapes from the stars.1 During the English Renaissance, male...
(The entire section is 6686 words.)
SOURCE: “‘This Strang Labourinth’: Lady Mary Wroth,” in Women Writers of the English Renaissance, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 170-90.
[In the following essay, Walker explores the ways in which Wroth manipulated genre conventions and gender ideology.]
Isabella Whitney's miscellanies and Mary Fage's acrostics manipulate genre so that it can accommodate the work of these industrious women. The writing of Lady Mary Wroth, niece of the Countess of Pembroke, provides us with a rather different but perhaps even more bold manipulation of genre.1 Wroth is particularly significant because she chose to write in courtly genres that were traditionally the...
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SOURCE: “Ariadne, Venus, and the Labyrinth: Classical Sources and the Thread of Instruction in Mary Wroth's Works,” in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 96, No. 2, April 1997, pp. 204-21.
[In the following essay, Farabaugh discusses the classical sources that Wroth used in her works and argues that, as with her subversion of her contemporary sources, Wroth shaped classical elements to further her literary agenda.]
Much has been written about Mary Wroth's use of genres as forms of identification with her famous uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, and her aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Scholarship has begun to examine the ways in which she...
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Andrea, Bernadette. “Pamphilia's Cabinet: Gendered Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania.” ELH 68, No. 2 (Summer 2001): 335-58.
Explores the metaphorical cabinet in Urania as the site of both sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women writers' enforced silence and their implicit involvement in European colonialism.
Kuin, Roger. “More I Still Undoe: Louise Labé, Mary Wroth, and the Petrarchan Discourse.” Comparative Literature Studies 36, No. 2 (1999): 146-61.
Discusses the ways in which Wroth and the earlier Renaissance poet Labé successfully “invaded” the male...
(The entire section is 254 words.)