Lady Mary Wroth was born Mary Sidney, on October 18, 1587, into a family connected to the royal courts of Elizabeth I and James I. She was the daughter of Sir Robert Sidney, later Earl of Leicester, and Lady Barbara Gamage. She is best known as the first English woman to write a full-length prose romance and a sonnet sequence, departing from traditional "women's" genres such as epitaph and translation. Her work helped to open up the English literary world to women, and allowed female writers to move beyond pious subject matter (Beilin 212).
Like other girls of her day, Wroth did not attend school. But unlike most, she was taught at home by private tutors. Her mother was known as a patron of the arts, and in 1973 a previously unknown manuscript containing 66 poems written by her father was discovered. Wroth was also heavily influenced by her father's literary siblings. Her uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, was famous as a soldier, statesman and poet, and her aunt, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, both composed her own and revised and edited her brother's works.
In contrast to Mary Wroth's literary family, her husband, Sir Robert Wroth, whom she married in 1604, had little to do with the arts. He preferred hunting and the life of the court. Husband and wife often clashed, though as much as Wroth grew to detest Sir Robert, his friendship with the King brought her into a close contact with Queen Anne (Roberts, Dictionary of Literary Biography 121: 297). She performed with the Queen in court masques early in James' reign, including Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness, in January of 1605. Jonson even dedicated The Alchemist (1612) to Wroth.
As a poet, Wroth reversed the customary gender roles of the sonnet sequence. The complaining Petrarchan lover attempting to court a cool, unwilling woman is replaced, in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, by a woman who wrestles with her own emotions and with the absence of her beloved. In Wroth's own life the role of Amphilanthus seems to have been played by her first cousin, William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, the father of two of Wroth's three children. In contrast to Wroth's husband, Herbert was a renowned patron of the arts. Sir Robert Wroth seems either to have been ignorant of, or untroubled by, this liaison; he named Pembroke as an executor of his will, and referred to Wroth as a "deere and loving wife." After Robert Wroth's death in 1614, Mary was left heavily in debt. She could not longer afford the lavish expenses attendance at court demanded, and she was plagued by vicious rumours, which led eventually to her fall from favour with Queen Anne. For a time Wroth lived in Pembroke's London home.
Turning to writing after her alienation from the court, Wroth produced Urania, a pastoral romance containing thinly veiled references to court figures. To this work she appended the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. The book was dedicated to another friend and literary patron, Pembroke's sister-in-law, Susan (Vere) Herbert, Countess of Montgomery. One reader of the Urania, Sir Edward Denny, took the romance to contain an account of his own infidelities, and his complaints to the King succeeded in having Wroth's book removed from circulation. The controversy did not end Wroth's writing career, however, and she produced a pastoral tragicomedy, Love's Victory, in the mid 1620s. Wroth spent the last years of her life in seclusion, and died in 1653, at the age of 66.
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University of Saskatchewan
Department of English
Revised June 8, 1998