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Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth. Farnham: Ashgate 2010. ISBN: 9780754660538. Xxxviii + 363 pp., 28 b/w ill.  Hbk.  £ 60

Reviewed by Katherine R. Larson

[1]  In his Defence of Poesie, Sir Philip Sidney exalts the creativity of poets by differentiating their ‘golden’ world from the more factual realm of the historian, who ‘sayth…what men haue done.’ The task of the early modern biographer – to interweave often sparse primary evidence and animate the moments that make up a life – lies somewhere between these interpretive poles. The biographical project is particularly fascinating in the case of Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651), a writer who relied on storytelling to capture the emotional trajectory of her own life and whose extant works – two versions of a sonnet sequence, a pastoral tragicomedy, and a prose romance – obsessively probe the boundaries between fact and fiction.This is the first full-length biography of Wroth, and it is a remarkable achievement: masterful in scope, meticulous in detail, and elegant in execution. Margaret P. Hannay, biographer and editor of Wroth’s aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and editor also of the letters of Wroth’s parents, brilliantly charts Wroth’s development as a writer within her family circle and courtly context and uncovers new evidence that dramatically alters our understanding of Wroth’s adult life.  Scholars have tended to see Wroth as an isolated figure, a woman who defied sociocultural expectations in writing and circulating her works and who, after a brief period in Queen Anne’s inner circle and an unhappy marriage, fell into disfavour as a result of her affair with her cousin, William Herbert, the scandalous publication of her romance Urania, and the birth of her illegitimate children. Hannay’s work offers an important corrective to this long-standing critical narrative.

[2]  From her earliest years, Wroth was situated within a sustaining and close-knit network of family and friends. One of the many delights of this biography is the detailed picture it provides of Wroth’s childhood. The extant letters of Wroth’s father, Sir Robert Sidney, to his wife Barbara, as well as the correspondence between Sidney and his agent Rowland Whyte, provide astonishingly rich insight into “Mall’s” upbringing and education, her close relationship with her parents that was to continue into her adult life, her exposure to international politics – and likely also literature – through her childhood visits to Flushing, and her early encounters with Queen Elizabeth. Drawing on these letters and on visual representations of the Sidney family, Hannay presents the young Wroth as a precocious, witty, beautiful, and beloved daughter who displayed a passion for reading and a talent for music, for dancing, and especially for writing. Wroth’s literary interests would have been nurtured within her family circle, by her companionship with other budding writers like her cousin Elizabeth Sidney and the young Anne Clifford, and especially by the model of her godmother and aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert. ‘[I]t is certain,’ Hannay concludes, ‘that [Mall] grew up with the idea that a woman could be a writer’ (56).

[3]  The motif of forced marriage that recurs throughout Wroth’s writings has provided much of the basis for scholarly claims about Wroth’s unhappy adulthood. It is clear that her marriage to Robert Wroth in 1604 was an arrangement that was concluded somewhat against her will, possibly in part due to a pre-existing de praesenti contract with William Herbert. Hannay demonstrates, however, that Wroth’s marriage offered her continued support for her writing and, over time, a certain degree of affection, as evidenced by the bequests of her husband’s will. Compared to many of her female contemporaries, Wroth was fortunate in her marriage partner.  Nor did her union with Robert Wroth isolate her from court. Wroth’s husband has frequently been vilified by critics as a “country bumpkin” (119) who preferred hunting to the dazzle of court life, his misfit status parodied through the figure of Rustic in Love’s Victory. Hannay offers a persuasive rereading of Robert Wroth (and, by extension, of Love’s Victory’s avatar structure), reminding readers of the centrality of hunting to Jacobean court life and underscoring the proximity to the King that Wroth’s role as forester ensured: “Robert Worth apparently rarely traveled, but the court came to him” (141). The Wroth estates of Durance and Loughton Hall were an easy journey from London, and Mall and her husband were celebrated for their hospitality there; Mall also sojourned regularly at Baynards Castle in London.  In actuality, it was Wroth’s younger sister Katherine, who moved to Wales after her marriage, who was cut off from family and court life to a much greater extent than Wroth.

[4]  Wroth’s husband died in 1614; her young son James followed two years later.  Wroth coped with these devastating losses – two of the many she sustained within her familial network – by immersing herself in the management of her finances, the renovation of Loughton Hall, and her writing. Over the next ten years, she would produce ‘all the final versions of the works for which she is known today’ (181). Once again, however, Hannay stresses that Wroth was far from isolated during this period. The publication of Urania in 1621 certainly provoked an outcry at court – most famously documented in the poetic “duel” (237) between Lord Edward Denny and Wroth – and after its appearance Wroth lost a degree of access to inner court circles. Yet fallout from Urania was likely not the sole factor contributing to these change. After Queen Anne’s death, her household was dissolved, and Wroth’s father lost his court position. Wroth’s mother Barbara Sidney also died in 1621, marking the end of the correspondence that so richly records the ‘little events that make up [Wroth’s] life’ (227). Critical assumptions concerning Wroth’s change in fortunes have stemmed in large part from this sudden silence.  We should “picture her in these years,” Hannay writes, not as an exilic figure, but rather as a writer actively engaged in her community, “circulating her poems by reading or singing them, or having them sung by professional musicians, among a coterie at Baynards Castle” (182) that included her relatives and friends, as well as other prominent writers, patrons, and musicians.

[5]   It was during her widowhood that Wroth rekindled her affair with her cousin. If Robert Wroth emerges in this biography as a much more sympathetic figure than scholars have tended to assume, Wroth’s beloved, the handsome, charismatic, and witty William Herbert, loses a bit of his shine. Theirs was an unequal relationship. While Herbert cut a dashing figure at court, Hannay points out that Wroth may have been attracted just as much to the powerful ‘world that he represented’ (194). Unlike the older and wealthier Herbert, Wroth “risked nearly everything” (251) in entering into a relationship with him. In its emphasis on the power imbalance between the cousins, Hannay’s reading colours Wroth’s fervent devotion to Herbert, encapsulated by the constancy of her avatar Pamphilia, in much more vulnerable and one-sided terms: ‘Pembroke’s various affairs, with Wroth and others, may have been for him little more than pleasant diversions from more pressing matters of state.  For Wroth that affair defined her life’ (193).

[6]  A significant contribution of this biography is the new light that it sheds on the lives of Wroth’s twins by Herbert. Wroth’s reputation was clearly impacted by the illegitimate birth of her children, but Hannay shows that ‘she was not completely ostracized by her family’ (253). William Herbert did not provide for his children in the years before his death in 1630, devoting himself instead to a new affair with the Countess of Devonshire. Yet William and Katherine were both known by their father’s surname, which indicates a certain measure of privilege and acceptance.  Moreover, Philip Herbert, William’s younger brother, generously helped to provide for them. Hannay documents the beginnings of William’s military career, concluding that he was likely a casualty of the Civil Wars. Katherine, in turn, married well – not an easy feat in the early 1640s – further underscoring Wroth’s success ‘in launching her children into positions suitable to her rank and beyond her fortune, even though they had no legal status as Herberts’ (283).

[7]  Hannay’s meticulous research has unearthed important new information regarding Katherine’s marital trajectory. Katherine’s first marriage was to the prosperous and well-established John Lovet, not, as previously assumed, John Lovel.  The correction of this longstanding error – ‘The eye sees what it expects to see’ (293) – has led in turn to the discovery that she married again after the death of her first husband.  Her union to James Parry, which was likely also arranged with the help of Philip Herbert, produced two children: James and Philip.  Mary Wroth, as it turns out, was a grandmother.

[8]  Hannay’s analysis of the lives of William and Katherine Herbert provides rich insight into Wroth’s experience of the Civil Wars, a conflict that split the Sidney and Herbert families. Within this context, Wroth likely continued to be based at Loughton and was a respected member of her community. It was ‘not a bad life’ for wartime: ‘No troops were quartered in her home …; Loughton hall was not under siege, nor was it plundered’ (306). She continued to host gatherings with neighbours, relatives, and friends. And undoubtedly she continued to write. As Hannay eloquently puts it, ‘One might argue that her love for William Herbert inspired her work and therefore she stopped after his death in 1630, but other women have loved unfaithful men without writing a sonnet sequence, a drama, and some 1,000 pages of prose romance. Surely she loved to write as much as she loved her cousin’ (306). Indeed, by the end of her life Wroth was recognized and celebrated by many of her contemporaries above all as a writer.

[9]  Wroth’s writings document much of the ’emotional truth’ (224) of her experiences, and Hannay provides important reconsiderations of her extant texts. She devotes close attention to the important differences between the Folger manuscript and 1621 print versions of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, drawing on Ilona Bell’s recent work to consider how ‘manuscript and print circulation could be designed for different ends’ (183). She also posits a new date for Love’s Victory, arguing that the tragicomedy may have been composed for the marriage of Wroth’s younger sister Barbara in 1619.  The play’s emphasis on forced marriage and ‘impediments to love’ might seem at first glance a strange choice of topic for a wedding, but Hannay rightly notes that ‘the drama, with its family references, has the feel of an occasional piece,’ and the work certainly ‘ends with joy for most of the characters’ (221). Equally fascinating is Hannay’s exploration of the unfinished second part of Urania, in which Wroth challenges romance conventions by exploring her characters’ marriages, parental experiences, and aging processes.  In her attention to the ‘wrinkles’ and ‘the loss of love’ that she associates with age (267), Wroth “seems to be struggling toward a kind of verisimilitude that we today associate with the novel” (266).

[10]  Given the tragic loss of Wroth’s surviving papers in the nineteenth-century conflagration at Loughton Hall, we don’t know how her later writing evolved. We do, however, get a glimpse of the geographical trajectory of her surviving writings. Hannay brilliantly traces the manuscript continuation of the Urania, now held at the Newberry Library, to Tredegar Park, Wales, a short distance from Katherine Herbert Parry’s home. After Wroth’s death, which Hannay carefully dates to March 1651, Katherine would have ‘likely carried her mother’s most prized possessions – a few jewels, perhaps, maybe some family portraits, and almost certainly her manuscripts’ (312). These would have then been passed on to Wroth’s grandchildren. It is deeply moving to know that Wroth’s writings were preserved by her daughter, and equally exciting to realize that there might well be further extant Wroth manuscripts in Wales.

[11]  Wroth’s writings have too often been taken as a straightforward reflection of her life.  Hannay dexterously confronts the ‘kaleidoscope’ (xii) of Wroth’s avatars, capturing the emotional richness that she channeled into her texts while also drawing on an astonishing range of sources to establish a compelling picture of Wroth as the confident creator of those characters. In so doing, she reshapes the landscape of Wroth scholarship by reconnecting this important writer to the familial, literary, and courtly networks that nurtured and inspired her throughout her life and that appear, refracted, in her texts. The fire at Loughton Hall and the subsequent demolition of St. Nicholas Church, which was adjacent to Loughton Hall and served as the chapel for the Wroths, undoubtedly erased considerable evidence of Wroth’s later life and writings. In the absence of a tomb or a plaque, her ‘true monument’ (311), Hannay concludes, is her extant works. This biography, however, deserves to be read in related terms. Itself a testament to the artful integration of biographical fact and creative vision, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth stands as a fitting tribute to an innovative storyteller.

University of Toronto, June 2011