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Lady Mary Wroth, Urania

Margaret Hannay on Lady Mary Wroth:


Lady Mary Wroth was the first English woman to write an extended work of prose fiction.  She was well placed to observe the aristocracy as the daughter of Robert Sidney, later earl of Leicester, and Barbara Gamage, a Welsh heiress. She was the beloved niece of the wealthy earl and countess of Pembroke. Even after her arranged marriage to Sir Robert Wroth she spent summers at the Sidney estate of Penshurst Place and winters at Baynards Castle, the London home of the Pembrokes. There she conversed with the most prominent politicians and writers, wrote poetry and had it set to music by the best composers, and wrote her prose romance, which was probably read aloud to family and friends. Wroth’s life is as fascinating as the fictions she wrote.  At age thirteen, she danced before Queen Elizabeth, and at seventeen, she acted in a court masque with Queen Anne. Wroth watched Shakespeare act in his own plays, heard her relative Sir Walter Raleigh talk about founding Virginia, and almost certainly met Pocahantas and ambassadors from Morocco. Wroth’s later prose fiction echoes elements of her own life, including foreign travel, tragic deaths of siblings, arranged marriage, a lifelong love for her cousin, royal visits to her home, and then civil war.


On the title page of The Countess of Montgomerys  Urania, named for Wroth's close friend Susan, countess of Montgomery, Wroth identifies herself by reference to two famous writers: her uncle Sir Philip Sidney and her aunt Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke. At the lower left you see a knight and a lady who are approaching the allegorical tower of the Throne of Love; the domes are surmounted with the figures of Cupid, Venus, and Constancy. The hundreds of intersecting tales in this complex work are mostly about love, though they also incorporate political themes.  The central tale is about Queen Pamphilia’s love for her cousin, the Emperor Amphilanthus, whose name means "lover of two."  Pamphilia takes pride in her constancy to him, even as he repeatedly becomes entangled with other women. This echoes, in fascinating and elusive ways, Wroth’s own love for her cousin William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, even though they both had arranged marriages with others. Wroth had a vivid imagination that took the world she knew and transformed it into fiction, often adding melodramatic flourishes to events that had happened to herself and to those she knew.




Margaret Hannay, Professor of English at Siena College, is the author of  Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (Oxford UP, 1990), and of  Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (Ashgate, 2010). She is the editor of  Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. Ashgate Critical Essays on Women Writers in England, 1550-1700. Vol. 2  (2009), and of  Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators and Writers of Religious Works  (Kent State UP, 1985).  She has edited, with Noel J. Kinnamon and Michael G. Brennan,  The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (Oxford UP, 1998); and, with the addition of Hannibal Hamlin,  The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney for the Oxford World Classics series (2009).



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Mary Wroth. The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania. London, 1621

Mary Wroth. The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania. London, 1621


Audio Stop: Margaret Hannay on Lady Mary Wroth

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