CARY, Elizabeth Lady Falkland

(c. 1585-1639)
Among the most remarkable learned women in early modern England, Eliz­abeth Cary is best known for writing The Tragedy of Mariam, the first female-authored play published in English (1613), and for her strong religious convic­tions. We know more about Cary than about many early modern figures, thanks to a biography written by one of her daughters. Structured around Cary's spir­itual life, particularly her conversion to Catholicism in 1626, the Life is itself an important document—the first female-authored biography of a woman in English. An avid reader, Cary learned French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and He­brew at a young age, translating Seneca's epistles and Abraham Ortelius's ge­ography. In 1602 she was married to Henry Cary; the arranged match was apparently neither happy nor affectionate. Nine of their children survived to adulthood, including Lucius, a prominent intellectual and royalist in the English Civil War. After years of religious doubts, Cary converted to Catholicism in 1626, while her husband was serving as lord deputy in Ireland. When her con­version became public, Cary was pressured by Charles I and various courtiers to recant and was confined briefly to her residence. Her mother refused to aid her; her husband denounced her in letters from Ireland, cut off financial support, emptied the house, and took away the children. Cary and her servant, Bessie Poulter, survived with the help of friends and fellow Catholics. Henry and Eliz­abeth may have reconciled by his death in 1633; afterwards, she lived again with most of her children.
Although works of piety and devotion were deemed suitable for women, works of religious controversy were not. Cary nevertheless read Catholic and Protestant polemicists extensively; she translated the works of Cardinal Jacques Davy Du Perron and wrote one herself. Cary harbored priests (a crime), saw four daughters convert and join a Catholic convent in Lille, and abducted her two youngest sons from Lucius's home and sent them abroad (illegally) for Catholic training. For several decades her home was frequented by Anglican clergy, Catholic priests, students, and others who valued intellectual discussions of religious issues. Cary died of a respiratory illness in 1639.
Cary was praised in her time for her learning and writing. The Tragedy of Mariam evidently circulated in manuscript before it was printed and may have influenced Shakespeare's Othello and the anonymous The Second Maiden's Tragedy. In addition to Mariam, an elegy on the Duke of Buckingham's death, and probably a history of Edward II, Cary also wrote works not yet recovered: translations, poems, hymns to female saints and the Virgin Mary, and a play about Tamburlaine.
B. Weller and M. Ferguson, eds., The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry: with "The Lady Falkland: Her Life," 1995.
Gwynne Kennedy

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

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