WROTH, Lady Mary

(1587-1653?)
One of the most important woman writers in early modern England, Mary Wroth produced the first female-authored romance, pastoral play, and sonnet sequence in English. Wroth's family was well known for its literary accomplish­ments. Her uncle, Sir Philip Sidney,* was a famous courtier during Elizabeth I's* reign and the author of a popular sonnet sequence, a romance, and literary criticism. Wroth's aunt was Mary Sidney* Herbert, a poet, translator, and dis­tinguished literary patron. Wroth's father, Robert Sidney, also wrote verse. The Sidney name was important to Wroth, who kept her family coat of arms after her marriage.
Wroth participated actively in the artistic and social life of James I's* court. She was chosen twice to perform in court masques, a significant honor. The poet and playwright Ben Jonson* wrote several poems to Wroth and dedicated his play The Alchemist to her. She was married in 1603 to Sir Robert Wroth, one of James's frequent hunting companions; the marriage was not particularly happy. Wroth's husband died in 1614, and their only son, James, died in 1616. Wroth spent many years paying off the huge debts left by her husband. Although Wroth was less active in court circles after 1616, she maintained ties with many at court and took part in Queen Anne's funeral in 1619. Between 1614 and 1621 Wroth had two children, William and Catherine, with her cousin William Her­bert, the third earl of Pembroke. After 1621 her name appears in documents related to her debts and later to transfers of property or tax payments. The precise year and circumstances of her death are unknown.
Wroth's romance The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621) is an enor­mous work of nearly 600,000 words; roughly half remains in manuscript. The romance depicts the adventures, courtships, and marriages of a large cast of noble lovers. It defends the right to choose one's spouse and harshly criticizes unions arranged against the desires of either party. As Wroth's contemporaries recognized, the romance alludes to real people and events during James I's reign. Some references are biographical; the relationship between Pamphilia and Am-philanthus, the main characters, parallels in a complex fashion Wroth's experi­ences with Herbert. Edward Denny's vehement, public reaction to his unflattering portrait in the book caused Wroth to stop its further sale. In a widely circulated poem to Wroth, Denny labels her a "hermaphrodite" for being a woman and a writer, and he makes innuendos linking her "idle" book with her illegitimate children. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Wroth's sonnet sequence, was printed at the back of the Urania. It is the first English sequence in which the unrequited lover-poet is a woman. Wroth's pastoral play (c. 1620), a tragicom­edy entitled Love's Victory, may have been acted privately. Its main themes of love and desire are explored through the experiences of four couples, each rep­resenting a different kind of love.
Bibliography
S. P. Cerasano and M. Wynne-Davies, eds., Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents, 1996.
M. Wroth, The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania, ed. J. A. Roberts, 1995.
M. Wroth, The Poems ofLady Mary Wroth, ed. J. A. Roberts, 1983.
Gwynne Kennedy

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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