June 4, 2001
Washington and Lee University
Lady Mary Wroth: Autonomy From the Traditional Role
In both her social and literary
life, Lady Mary Wroth strived for success and acknowledgement, defying
the traditional standards of both arenas in her attempt to do so. Through
her advantageous ties to the Sidney family, as well as through the connections
of Sir Robert Wroth, her husband, to the royal court, she was able to contribute
to the literary movement of the time and to the acknowledgement of women
in the era.
Though her relation to the
Sidneys greatly influenced and nurtured her career as an author, Wroth
contributed many innovations to literature varying greatly from those of
her relatives. It must be considered that it was not only rare for a woman
to be published in this era, but the style in which she writes, as well
as the topic, were generally considered to be men’s.
It is essential to establish
background information on Wroth and her family and their contribution to
the literary and social world of Elizabethan/Jacobean England to more fully
understand much of the debate about Wroth. Lady Mary had standing in society
as the daughter Sir Robert Sidney who "through his marriage to Barbara
Gamage… gained kinship with some of the most important families in Elizabeth’s
court" (Roberts 5). This marriage also brought him closer to such figures
as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser who had relations with others
tied to Barbara Gamage’s family. Another important aspect of Lady Mary
Wroth’s standing in society was that she was the niece of Sir Philip Sidney,
famed statesman and poet, as well as to Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of
Pembroke, who had "earned fame as a writer herself as well as for her patronage
of literature" (Quilligan 307). With her own marriage to Sir Robert Wroth,
Lady Mary Wroth increased her social standing as Wroth had been "knighted
by King James I at Sion House in May, 1603" and was known to be one of
the hunting partners of the king (Roberts 11). Wroth was known to be a
good friend of Queen Anne for some time prior to her decline in social
As the niece of the poets
Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, not to mention that her
father, Robert Sidney, was a poet himself, Wroth was subjected to poetry
as a way of life from birth. Perhaps the greatest influence on her was
the Countess of Pembroke, who was known for her patronage to such authors
as Daniel and Drayton and who "assembled at her country estate at Wilton
a veritable academy: ‘in her time Wilton house was like a college, there
were so many learned and ingeniose persons. She was the greatest patronesse
of witt and learning of any lady in her time'" (Roberts 14). Not only did
the Countess act as a patron of the arts, but she contributed her share
of poetry as well. "The highly visible acceptance of Mary Sidney’s writing,
even though offered as adjuncts to her dead brother’s [Philip Sidney] canon,
seems to have established the possibility of public female authorship for
Wroth as an early and intimate familial fact" (Quilligan 307). It is acknowledged
that as a child, Wroth spent a great deal of time with her aunt and continued
to do so as she grew up. In the Urania, there are interactions between
the Queen of Naples and Pamphilia that are suggestive of interactions between
Wroth and Mary Sidney who is now assumed to be the Queen of Naples (Hannay
Although the Countess of
Pembroke is known for her own writing, it was the kind of writing that
was acceptable of women during the time, focusing mostly on religious themes.
Although she provided "positive female models by depicting heroic women
in her translations of Petrarch and Garnier, her characters have been described
by one recent critic as ‘models of negation’ because of their definitions
according to male perspectives" (Miller, 295-296). Thus, Wroth's aunt served
as a mentor and "offered a precedent for female authorship" (Lewalski 243).
Yet, Wroth did not emulate Mary Sidney's subject matter. She was in fact
"attacked in part for her effrontery in presuming to write secular fiction
and poetry, in contrast to her aunt’s translations of religious poetry"
(Miller/Waller 6). The acceptance of Wroth’s works into the literary world
can greatly be explained by the fact that she was a member of the renowned
Sidney family. "Wroth’s class position and illustrious family precursors
served as an authorization to write and to be read" (Masten, 81). Although
she married into the Wroth family, she remained, though ‘unnamed’, a Sidney
(Waller, Rewriting 43).
Many critics, including Gary
Waller, argue that Wroth very closely imitates her father and her uncle
and that her success as a female author may very well have to do with her.
She was seen as "the inheritor of the family muse" (Waller 141). In contrast
with Waller’s argument, Naomi Miller makes a strong case in her article,
"Rewriting Lyric Fictions" for Mary Wroth’s credibility as an author separate
from her famous uncle, as well as her father: "Even as Wroth makes deliberate
reference to ‘olde fictions’ of Arcadia in her prose romance, Urania,
in order to differentiate her narrative from that of her uncle, Sir Philip
Sidney, so she writes the ‘ancient fictions’ of her Sidney forebears when
giving voice to the ‘true form’ of love in her poetry" (Miller, Rewriting
Lyric Fictions, 295). Miller further discusses how Wroth "transforms
the role of the lady in her own sequence from a breaker into a maker of
songs" (Miller, Rewriting 298). Even though Wroth's work was similar
to the works of her father and uncle in terms of what she wrote
about, it was presented in a different manner and with a different objective.
Roberts points out in her introduction to Wroth’s sonnets that she used
some of the same techniques as her uncle "in the use of a great variety
of stanzaic and metrical patters in her verse"; but she goes on to say
that "Departing from Sidney’s marked preference for one major sonnet form
(abbaabba cdcdee). . . Lady Mary favored a rhyme scheme using a
slightly different sestet (abba abba ccdeed). She included a total
of twenty-one variations in rhyme scheme, far more than Astrophil"
(Roberts 46-47). By not only differentiating her rhyme scheme from her
uncle’s, but also varying it to a greater degree, Wroth's writings suggest
that while she used Philip Sidney's subject matter, as many a Renaissance
poet did, she wanted to be different from him and wanted to create her
own sonnet sequence, not just an extension of his. The fact that she wrote
about what Philip and Robert Sidney did from the opposite perspective,
from the woman’s point of view, rather than the man’s, was a distinguishing
factor as well.
The corona sequence
itself is further evidence that Mary Wroth was in fact drawing directly
from the works of her father and uncle. Both Robert and Philip Sidney include
within their sequences. Naomi Miller makes an argument in favor of Wroth’s
individuality with the statement that "even where Wroth’s debt to the male
Sidneys is most marked, she fashions her corona to reveal the central
concerns of her sequence as a whole, distinguishing her perspective from
those of her uncle and father" (Miller, 300). Maureen Quilligan differentiates
Wroth from her familial predecessors on gender-based reasoning.
Because Mary Wroth uses her uncle’s texts in a process
that sometimes becomes one of virtually self-conscious revision, we may
gauge the sexual difference of their authorities in the specific details
of her many revisionary moves. The shared family gives them an experience
as similar as we are likely to get for two writers of the period; what
differs in their experience of that shared society, then, is quintessentially,
if not solely, their gender; through Sidney and Wroth we may perceive the
radically different ways in which their sex determined what their experience
Further argument for Wroth’s
individuality can be made, not in comparison with her family members, but
within her own writing. Jeff Masten makes note of sonnet P 48 in his article
"Shall I turne Blabb", stating that with the repeated "I ame[‘s]" she is
stressing her individuality. She is trying to get the reader to focus on
her and what she has to say rather than on the object she is addressing.
Also, one of the main themes of the Urania is Pamphilia’s quest
for autonomy. This seems to be a direct correlation between Wroth’s real
life and the fiction that she wrote.
Heather Dubrow points out
that Wroth was attracted to the sonnet "not only as the genre of her male
relatives but also as a potential model for her own subjectivity" (161).
In the classic Petrarchan tradition, a woman was the object of a man’s
desire, not the subject experiencing the desire. Thus Wroth introduced
a new aspect to the sonnet: while it was still in the Petrarchan style,
it was anti-Petrarchan in presentation. The idea of a woman writing about
a male showed the "emergence into our cultural history of the possibility
of more liberating practices" (Waller, The Sidney Family Romance,
45). Wroth's writings, thus, were controversial because even though she
apparently wrote in the Sidney tradition, she diverged from the norm established
for women writers. Her aunt, the Countess of Pembroke, never placed the
female in the active role of subject. Dubrow wonders at this by asking
"How does one reconcile Wroth’s choice of the Sidney family arms
and Sidney family genres with the independence she lays claim to as a female
author?" (135). Wroth was proud of her literary heritage and wanted to
continue in the Sidney tradition, but also wanted to make changes and contributions
of her own.
Wroth sought autonomy from
the traditional role of woman; that can be seen in her poetry which appears
to be a reflection of her life. Wroth became the lover of her first cousin,
William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who "was one of the Jacobean court’s
richest and--excluding James I’s serial male favorites--most powerful courtiers
and politicians" (Waller, The Sidney Family Romance, 18). She also gave
birth to his two illegitimate children. Mary Wroth was taking a great risk
socially, not least by choosing to have her love for Pembroke be the main
focal point of the Urania and Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.
"Like Wroth’s own, Pamphilia’s fantasy life centers on desire and writing,
sexuality and language" (Waller, Rewriting 59).
Wroth's autonomy is much
more clear in retrospect than at the time, due to the fact that "even fairly
recent scholarship hastened to undervalue the literary worth of Wroth’s
romance, defining her achievements primarily in terms of her uncle’s generic
influence" (Miller/Waller 7). However, rather than being forgotten, her
time had not yet come as a poet (Miller/Waller 5). Wroth's work may not
have been appreciated until a later time because it was not important that
a woman was writing at all, regardless of the fact that she was being innovative
and adding new techniques to the sonnet tradition. Dubrow makes the argument
that she is "responsible not for introducing the erosion of boundaries
but for intensifying an ongoing process" (158). Moving away from the influence
of her uncle and father, Wroth’s additions helped to reshape the sonnet
tradition. She ignored the legacy of her uncle and father, who wrote about
women in an objective manner, and gave "a new and female voice to love
within the sonnet tradition" (Miller 305). Wroth was the first woman in
the English sonnet tradition to write from the female perspective. She
also wrote one of the first plays by women, Love’s Victory.
Wroth’s sonnets, as Heather
Dubrow points out, also reveal her less confident side and the questioning
of her writing ability. In sonnet P45, Wroth writes "My owne fram’d words,
which I account the dross/ Of purer thoughts, or recken them as moss/ While
they (witt sick) them selves to breath imploy" (lines 6-8). Here she compares
her words to moss, which is suggestive that she does not think they are
effective. However, the rest of her sonnet sequence testifies that she
overcame this insecurity, and through it paved the way for future women
writers to be able to write about what they wished.
One of Wroth's main goals
seemed to be to distinguish the fact that a woman existed beyond the role
of a wife, and Wroth is the first woman in English literature to write
about the "pleasures of the self" (Fienberg 177). Perhaps this is why she
wrote to a lover rather than a husband. Barbara Lewalski claims that she
did this as "a matter of choice not cultural imposition, and as a means
to personal and artistic growth" (263). Jeff Masten recognizes that "though
her love is male-directed, her constancy (the privileged virtue) is self-maintained"
(77). That statement supports her autonomy. For Wroth there is nothing
wrong with loving, as long as it is through choice, and not because of
conforming to convention. It is important the Pamphilia loves Amphilanthus
and not the other way around, because in this sequence she "takes over
the genre long dedicated to the analysis of the male lover’s passions,
pains, fantasies, frustrations, and uses it to give voice and subjectivity
to the woman lover, celebrating her self-construction through a self-chosen
ideal of constancy" (Lewalski 7). Furthermore, the character in the Urania
that is representative of Wroth, Pamphilia, is a queen. Her role as a queen
is characteristic of Wroth’s desire to be the mistress, not of others,
but of herself. As Queen Elizabeth paved the way for women in autonomy
and power, Wroth begins to pave to way for women through her authorship.
Dubrow, Heather. Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism
and its Counterdiscourses.
Cornell University Press, 1995.
Fienberg, Nona. "Mary Wroth and the Invention of Female
Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
University of Tennessee Press, 1991. 175-190.
Hackett, Helen. "Courtly Writing By Women."
Literature in Britain 1500-1700. Helen Wilcox, Ed.
Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Hannay, Margaret P. "'Your vertuous and learned Aunt':
The Countess of Pembroke as a Mentor to Mary Wroth."
Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
University of Tennessee Press, 1991. 15-34.
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. Writing Women in Jacobean
Harvard University Press, 1993.
Masten, Jeff. "'Shall I turne Blabb?': Circulation, Gender,
an Subjectivity in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets."
Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
University of Tennessee Press, 1991. 67-87.
Miller, Naomi J. "Rewriting Lyric Fictions: The Role of
the Lady in Lady Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus."
Englishwoman in Print. Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, Eds.
The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. 295-310.
Miller, Naomi J. and Gary Waller, eds. Reading Mary
Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England.
The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Quilligan, Maureen. "The Constant Subject: Instability
and Female Authority in Wroth’s Urania Poems."
Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry.
D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus, Eds.
of Chicago Press, 1990. 307-335.
Roberts, Josephine. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth.
Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Waller, Gary. "Mary Wroth and The Sidney Family Romance:
Gender Construction in Early Modern England."
Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Waller, Gary. The Sidney Family Romance: Mary
Wroth, William Herbert, and the Early Modern Construction of Gender.
State University Press, 1993.
Text copyright ©2002 Katharine Emerson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.
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