Biography of Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth was born into the prominent Sidney family in the late sixteenth century. She was the daughter of Robert Sidney, first earl of Leicester, and Barbara Gamage Sidney. She was also the niece of Sir Philip Sidney and his sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, both of whom are considered prolific and influential poets, as well as political figures, during the reign of Elizabeth I. As a girl, Wroth was also involved in court proceedings, having danced before Queen Elizabeth twice in her youth to great praise. In 1605, Wroth participated in Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness before Queen Anne, a performance that fostered an ongoing social and literary friendship with Jonson.

She married Sir Robert Wroth in 1604 but the couple had a notably unhappy marriage. It is generally assumed that, despite her marriage to Wroth, Mary retained a fondness for her first cousin, William Herbert (son of Mary Sidney Herbert), the presumed father of her two sons. Herbert was known as a bit of a "ladies man," and many agree that the romantically inconstant character of Amphilanthus in Wroth's The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (1621) is based on the author's relationship with her cousin. When Robert Wroth died in 1614, his estate had incurred a significant amount of debt, and the widowed Mary did not inherit any land or money from her late husband.

Coming from a privileged background, Wroth received a rich literary education and excelled in the arts. Her most well-known work, The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, was published in 1621 by printer Augustine Matthews, with much debt owed to Wroth's uncle, Philip Sidney, and his prose romance The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia written in the 1580s. However, Wroth's work is more than an homage paid to her famous uncle; the plot of Urania (the first known romance by an English woman) is complex, winding, and driven by over 1,000 different characters. Unlike the Arcadia, which focuses on individual nobles in a pastoral setting, Urania follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a number of families from around the globe, leading many to compare it to Edmund Spenser's epic The Faerie Queene, which was published in 1590 and again in 1596.

Urania is frequently studied for a number of reasons, the most prominent being the work's representation of the romance genre from a markedly feminine perspective. Following the character of Pamphilia (whom many agree is a literary stand-in for Wroth herself), the text explores the significance of romantic and ethical constancy and raises questions about whether men and women should be held to the same standard of fidelity. The work is also famous for showcasing a number of instances of women writers and poets, an occurrence many assume to be Wroth's own political statement about the status of women in early modern England. As such, Wroth often interrupts the prose of the romance to include poetry, the most explicit example of which comes when Pamphilia pens a lengthy sonnet sequence (more than 80 sonnets) about her love for Amphilanthus. This sequence, though originally published in the manuscript, has garnered a literary reputation of its own and is often studied as a separate work entitled Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. It is here that Wroth engages with a rich history of the sonnet tradition, including those poems written by her uncle Philip Sidney in his 1592 sequence Astrophil and Stella.

Though Urania was published in 1621, Wroth's own involvement in the publication process is unknown. Early modern English aristocratic writers often found themselves confronting what is now known as the "stigma of print," or the disfavor associated with printed works rather than privately circulated manuscripts. Most critics agree that Wroth probably circulated Urania in manuscript form with the intention of having it printed, as she never denied knowledge of the work's publication. This strategy was a popular one that allowed writers to disseminate their work to a large body of people while still maintaining the aristocratic respectability of manuscript circulation exclusively for the hands of the country's most elite population.

Despite her fame and notoriety today, at the time Mary Wroth spent much of her widowhood managing the enormous amount of debt her husband had left her after his death. She filed a number of legal claims to help her recover, but the latter half of her life is relatively undocumented. She died in either 1651 or 1653, according to a Chancery document published in 1668. The place and cause of her death remain unknown.

Study Guides on Works by Mary Wroth

Mary Wroth’s cycle of sonnets Pamphilia to Amphilanthus consists of 83 sonnets and 20 songs. Each of the entries in the cycle are written from the point of view of Pamphilia which in its original Latin means something along the lines of full of...