Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth

Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth

Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth

Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth

Synopsis

Despite her fascinating life and her importance as a writer, until now Lady Mary Wroth has never been the subject of a full-length biography. Margaret Hannay's reliance on primary sources results in some corrections, as well as additions, to our knowledge of Wroth's life, including Hannay's discovery of the career of her son William, the marriages of her daughter Katherine, her grandchildren, her last years, the date of her death, and the subsequent history of her manuscripts. This biography situates Lady Mary Wroth in her family and court context, emphasizing the growth of the writer's mind in the sections on her childhood and youth, with particular attention to her learned aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, as literary mentor, and to her Continental connections, notably Louise de Coligny, Princess of Orange, and her stepson Prince Maurice. Subsequent chapters of the biography treat her experience at the court of Queen Anne, her relationships with parents and siblings, her love for her cousin William Herbert, her marriage to Robert Wroth, the birth and early death of her only legitimate child, her finances and properties, her natural children, her grandchildren, and her last years in the midst of England's civil wars. Throughout the biography attention is paid to the complex connections between Wroth's life and work. The narrative is enhanced with a chronology; family trees for the Sidneys and Wroths; a map of Essex, showing where Wroth lived; a chart of family alliances; portraits; and illustrations from her manuscripts.

Excerpt

Mary Sidney Wroth presents special opportunities and challenges to the biographer, because her works layer fact and fiction in such complex ways. She left no diary, and few of her letters survive, but much of her life can be reconstructed from the extensive records preserved by the Sidney family. Throughout Wroth’s childhood we have more documentation for her than for almost any early modern writer, primarily through the letters of her father to her mother during her father’s long absences at his post in Flushing, and also through the letters of her father’s agent Rowland Whyte, who took a real interest in the Sidney children. Whyte’s reports (1595–1602) to Robert Sidney form the basis for most of Chapter 2. Sidney’s letters to his wife were more numerous in their early, lengthy separations (1588–1603) than in his later service as Queen Anne’s Lord Chamberlain (1603–19), but the later letters still mention the movements of his children, including Wroth, as they stayed at Penshurst, at Baynards Castle, and visited each other at their country estates. Wroth’s homes of Durance and especially Loughton were near London and were favorite places for the family to visit, particularly when the king was hunting in the Forest of Essex.

Wroth’s works invite, and have received, biographical readings because The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania revolves around members of two closely related families: the King and Queen of Naples and their children Amphilanthus, Urania, and Leonius, who in many ways represent the Earl and Countess of Pembroke and their children William, Anne, and Philip Herbert; and the King and Queen of Morea and their children Pamphilia, Parselius, Rosindy, Philarchos, Philistella, and Bardariana, who often reflect Robert and Barbara Sidney and their family. As Gavin Alexander notes, Wroth’s “readers do seem … to concentrate on the woman behind the words” (Writing after Sidney 284). Such readings begin from their first recorded reception, by Sir Edmund Denny, who writes a satirical poem “From the father-in-law of Sirelius to Pamphilia, ” not only objecting to Wroth’s depiction of him and his family but also conflating Wroth with her avatar Pamphilia. Her poems and her characters in Urania often do have the feeling of lived truth, and Christina Luckyj characterizes Urania as “overtly, even outrageously . . .

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