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...
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