Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

ELIZABETH CARY
Lady Falkland
(ca. 1585-1639)

Britain
Author

Elizabeth Tanfield Cary is associated with a number of "firsts" in the history of English women writers. She is perhaps best known for her play The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry ( 1613), the earliest surviving female-authored drama published in England. She is the first woman to be the subject of a biography written by a woman: Lady Falkland Her Life was the work of one or more of Cary's daughters, composed after their mother's death. There is increasing agreement among scholars that Elizabeth Cary is the author of a history of King Edward II, and if so, The Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II ( 1627, pub. 1680) is the first prose history by an English woman. According to Her Life, Cary also wrote a work of religious controversy in reply to her son, Lucius; this is an extraordinary move on Cary's part, because early modern women were discouraged even from reading arguments about theological matters.

Thanks to Her Life, we know more details about Cary than about many early modern figures, including Shakespeare. Written by one or more of her daughters (perhaps in collaboration), who were nuns in a French convent together, the biography emphasizes Cary's spiritual life, particularly her 1626 conversion to Catholicism. This was a controversial decision in Protestant England where religious beliefs and political loyalty were inextricably connected, and the impact on Cary's domestic life was severe. Her Life does not mention, for instance, that Cary received public acclaim for her learning and writing, notably her two plays. The poet Michael Drayton praised Cary's intellectual talents when dedicating two poems to her, and Sir John Davies, another well-known literary figure, complimented her plays in his verse and urged her to print them. It is important to remember as well that Her Life is a biography of a mother by her daughter(s) and that

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