During Women’s History Month, we’re looking at female writers who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries, like Lady Mary Wroth (neé Sidney).
Lady Mary Wroth was born in 1587 into a literary family that included her uncle Sir Philip Sidney (author of the prose romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia and the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella), her aunt Mary Sidney (known for her poetic translations of the Psalms), and her father Robert, who circulated his poetry among family and friends.
Wroth is perhaps best known as the author of the prose romance The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania and the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. An early version of this sonnet sequence, written in her own hand, survives in a single manuscript and is part of the Folger collection.
Margaret Hannay, professor of English at Siena College and an expert in early modern women’s writing, wrote this commentary about Wroth and Urania for the Folger exhibition, Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700 in 2012:
“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 Pocahontas 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 Montgomery’s 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.”