The Life of Lady Mary Wroth (1587?-1651?)

by John Butler and Anniina Jokinen

Lady Wroth
Lady Wroth with archlute. Unknown artist.
From the collection of Viscount De L'Isle.
        Lady Mary Wroth was the daughter of Robert Sidney, later Earl of Leicester, and the wealthy heiress Barbara Gamage, first cousin to Sir Walter Ralegh. Robert Sidney was himself a poet, and the younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Because of her father's appointment as Governor of Flushing in the Netherlands in 1588, Mary spent much of her early childhood at the house of Mary Sidney, Countess of Montgomery. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, Robert Sidney was recalled to court by James I, who created him Earl of Leicester and made him one of his chief advisers and courtiers.
        In 1604 Mary was married to Sir Robert Wroth, a wealthy landowner in favor with James I. Although the marriage was not a happy one, Wroth's favor with the king brought Lady Mary into court circles. She even got a role in Queen Anne's first masque, Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness, as Ethiopian nymph Baryte. She also appeared in Jonson's Masque of Beauty three years later. Lady Mary became a personal acquaintance of Ben Jonson who dedicated his The Alchemist to her. It has been speculated that the two were perhaps lovers at some time, though there is little evidence to support it. Sir Robert Wroth had been a reputed wastrel, spendthrift, drunkard, and womanizer—his death in 1614 left Mary in enormous debt.
        For some time Mary Wroth had been the mistress of her first cousin William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, with whom she had two illegitimate children, a son and a daughter. The birth of one was celebrated in a poem by Lord Herbert of Chirbury, another relative and literary admirer of Mary's. The scandal probably affected her standing at court—she was no longer asked to appear in masques, nor to be part of Queen Anne's circle of friends.
        In 1621, Lady Wroth's prose romance The Countess of Montgomeries Urania was published. In Urania, drawing partly on court events, scandals and personalities, Wroth relates the love story of Pamphilia and Amphilanthus, which she uses as a framing-story for a large number of tales about female characters married to unsuitable husbands or matched with unfaithful lovers. Like Sidney's Arcadia, which Wroth clearly admired and perhaps imitated (depending on the definition of "imitate," although Jonson's sense of the word fits better than "epigone"), Urania takes love as its main theme and the prose is interspersed with poems, printed at the end as a sonnet-sequence in the first edition. Wroth's interest is the idea of fidelity, and the double standard erected by men around its practice. Pamphilia knows that Amphilanthus, her lover (they are not married), has the capability to be faithful, and she also insists, which is novel, that he must learn to be faithful in order to be worthy of her. Thus, while it looks like Pamphilia is just playing out another patient-Griselda scenario, the opposite is the case. As she is not married to him, she does not have to be loyal, but chooses to be so. She also considers herself worthy of him only if he lives up to her standards, and although Amphilanthus does not at first buy her ideas about male responsibility and maturity, he eventually comes around. The other characters (and there are quite a few) play out variations of the same theme. What also makes the work interesting is that the women are consciously searching for their own identities, which they perceive as being apart from the men in their lives; the book opens, for example, with Urania in search of herself—she is aware that she is not really a shepherdess, but she does not know who she is beyond that.
        Urania caused great controversy because of its purported similarities to actual people and events. In particular, Edward Denny, Baron of Waltham, charged Wroth with slander. He wrote two angry letters to her and attacked the work in a poem. This poem was mocked by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in the final couplet of her 1664 preface to Sociable Letters.1 Lady Wroth claimed innocence and wrote a brilliant poem in answer. In addition, she sent letters of appeal to friends of James I and bought back many of the books. This did not deter her from writing a sequel, The Second Part of the Countesse of Montgomerys Urania, but the work remained unpublished. She also wrote an unpublished play, Love's Victory, and some poetry.
        Of her later life virtually nothing is known or recorded, the scholarly consensus being that her reputation was permanently besmirched by Urania's notoriety and that she must have kept a low profile.

1 Roberts, Josephine A. "The Life of Lady Mary Wroth." The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

A Short Bibliography:
  • Hannay, Margaret Patterson. "Mary Sidney: Lady Wroth."
    Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation.
    Katharina M. Wilson, ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
  • MacArthur, Janet. "'A Sydney, Though Unnamed': Lady Mary Wroth and Her Poetical Progenitors."
    English Studies in Canada March 1989: v15(1), 12-20.
  • Miller, Naomi J. and Gary F. Waller, eds. Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England.
    Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
  • Paulissen, May. "Forgotten Love Sonnets of the Court of King James: The Sonnets of Mary Wroth."
    Publications of the Missouri Philological Association 1978: v3, 24-31.
  • Paulissen, May. The Love Sonnets of Lady Mary Wroth : A Critical Introduction.
    Salzburg studies in English literature. Elizabethan & Renaissance studies ; 104
    Salzburg, Austria : Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik Universität Salzburg, 1982.
  • Quilligan, Maureen. "Lady Mary Wroth: Female Authority and the Family Romance."
    Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance. George M. Logan and Gordon Teskey, eds.
    Ithaca, NY: CUP, 1989.
  • Roberts, Josephine A. "Labyrinths of Desire: Lady Mary Wroth's Reconstruction of Romance."
    Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1991: v19(2), 183-92.
  • Roberts, Josephine A. "The Life of Lady Mary Wroth." The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth
    Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

  • Waller, Gary and Naomi Miller. Reading Mary Wroth : Representing Alternatives
    in Early Modern England
    . Memphis: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

  • Waller, Gary. The Sidney Family Romance : Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and the
    Early Modern Construction of Gender
    . Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.

  • Waller, Gary F. "Struggling into Discourse: The Emergence of Renaissance Women's Writing."
    Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works.
    Margaret Patterson Hannay, ed. Kent, OH: KSUP, 1985.
  • Wroth, Lady Mary. The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library
    of Essential Works
    : Printed Writings, 1500-1640. London: Scolar Press, 1996.

  • Wroth, Lady Mary. The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania.
    Josephine A. Roberts, ed. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Text Society, 1995.

  • Wroth | Works | Links | Essays | Books | 17th C. Eng. Lit.

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