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.