Katharine Emerson
Final Paper
June 4, 2001
ENGL 290
Washington and Lee University


Lady Mary Wroth: Autonomy From the Traditional Role of Woman

        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 standing.

        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 24-25).

        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 coronas 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 could be.         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.

Works Consulted

Dubrow, Heather. Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and its Counterdiscourses.
        Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Fienberg, Nona. "Mary Wroth and the Invention of Female Poetic Subjectivity."
        Reading Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
        Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. 175-190.

Hackett, Helen. "Courtly Writing By Women."
        Women and Literature in Britain 1500-1700. Helen Wilcox, Ed.
        Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hannay, Margaret P. "'Your vertuous and learned Aunt': The Countess of Pembroke as a Mentor to Mary Wroth."
        Reading Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
        Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. 15-34.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. Writing Women in Jacobean England.
        Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Masten, Jeff. "'Shall I turne Blabb?': Circulation, Gender, an Subjectivity in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets."
        Reading Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
        Knoxville: 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."
        The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print.  Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, Eds.
        Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. 295-310.

Miller, Naomi J. and Gary Waller, eds. Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England.
        Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Quilligan, Maureen. "The Constant Subject: Instability and Female Authority in Wroth’s Urania Poems."
        Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry.
        Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus, Eds.
        Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 307-335.

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

Waller, Gary. "Mary Wroth and The Sidney Family Romance: Gender Construction in Early Modern England."
        Reading Mary Wroth. Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Eds.
        Knoxville: 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.

Text copyright ©2002 Katharine Emerson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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