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.