Jacobean Gossip Girl: Mary Wroth’s Urania 

“[2/5 stars] I died and seriously started contemplating why I’m in the English program.” – Goodreads reviewer

“I don’t think I want you to pass that one along to me.” – my mom

[The title page of Urania, engraved by Simon van de Passe]

One day I might use this space to talk about popular Renaissance literature, but today is apparently not that day. But in the tradition of my entry on Troilus and Cressida, I thought I’d introduce the wider internet to Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621), one of the earliest novels written by a woman in English, a book I only became aware of myself a few months ago. Upon hearing of it and its somewhat unconventional writer through an article in Smithsonian Magazine, I immediately wanted to read it and potentially do write up here. 

However, for a variety of reasons that we’ll get into as we go along, Wroth has not enjoyed a particularly robust afterlife as an author and it was a somewhat challenging affair to get my hands on a copy of Urania. As a novel that has largely passed from copyrighted publication (and has yet to be digitally converted on Project Gutenberg), I first went to my usual source for out-of-print books, a collection of printer/binders in India who will do print on demand for scanned copyright-free texts. It takes about a month for orders to make it stateside (India is far away), but the prices are generally very reasonable. Seriously, these guys have been my lifesavers so many times as I track down old scholarly treatises while researching for my books—I cannot recommend them highly enough, especially Gyan Books, if this is your bibliophilic jam. Anyway, they delivered the goods to the best of their ability, but for Urania, they were working from a scan of the original 1621 printed text and let’s just say that made the end result… challenging… to read.

[I gave it the old college try for the first ten or so pages and I thought I was going to go blind if I tried to read all 600 pages…]

Aside from the size and density of the text, because of the printing fashion of the seventeenth century, a reader also has to weed through the standard letter swaps of the time, where ‘s’ is ‘f’ and ‘u’ is sometimes ‘v’, among the other idiosyncratic spelling choices of Renaissance English. Those I have enough practice navigating that if the text had been more physically readable, I would have gone forward as is. But under the circumstances at hand, I abandoned ship and tracked down an almost equally rare copy of Professor Josephine Roberts’ annotated version from 1995. In addition to an excellently detailed introduction and extensive commentary notes, Roberts also provided what turned out to be the most valuable thing to me as I read other than a modernly-printed text—a thoroughly annotated character list. Which is going to scare off anyone who knows me, because if I’m clinging to a dramatis personae in a story, you know you’re really going to need it. Anyway, through the almost two months it took me to get a workable copy of this novel and then the slightly less arduous month it took me to read it (frankly another red flag for those who know my average reading speed), plus the less-than-enthusiastic tenor of the demand for such a discussion (as typified by the attitude of my flavor quotes above), I still really want to talk about this book, so let’s dig in.

For the 2 1/2 of you haven’t fled in terror from the above paragraphs, Urania’s full title is actually The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania. While a lady herself, Mary Wroth isn’t the titular countess, who is in fact her cousin by marriage, Susan de Vere. It was a common Renaissance structure to dedicate a work to a nobleperson, and often to place that person’s name in the title. A good example of this is the Arcadia prose poem of Sir Philip Sidney, whose full title is The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (the countess being his sister, Mary Herbert). I bring all of this up because all of these people are related—Mary Wroth was born Mary Sidney, niece to both Philip Sidney and Mary Herbert. The Sidneys were one of the premier literary families in England during the late Elizabethan/early Stuart period—matched perhaps only by the de Veres, led by Susan’s father, Edward, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (he of alleged Shakespearean authorship fame). So, Mary Wroth was raised in a highly educated, highly literate circle of aristocrats, but most importantly and unusually for the time, a tightly-bound coterie of learned women, a fact that would profoundly shape both her life and her writing.

[Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, wrote a play on the life of Mark Antony, called Antonius, which was likely one of Shakespeare’s major sources for Antony and Cleopatra outside of Plutarch.]

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was exceptionally erudite herself and we’re used to thinking of her reign as a watershed moment for women in England. But in truth, any latent feminist gains from her rule (very debatable on its own) were largely retconned by the accession of her second cousin (or first cousin twice removed, depending on your methodology), James I (1566-1625). Most women in Renaissance England lived lives largely absent from the public sphere, aside from duties related to household management, especially married women who had limited personal socio-legal rights under their husbands. Many women remained functionally, if not entirely, illiterate, and they were largely encouraged to be so. James’ own fraught marriage with Anne of Denmark, which was both an incompatibility of personalities as well as sexual orientation, did little to improve the status of women in a society that increasingly took the harder-line verses about innate female sin and weakness in the king’s newly sponsored English translation of the Bible to heart. A woman of Wroth’s birth could serve at court and write poetry or prose to be circulated privately among her literate peers of both sexes, but actively publishing for a public audience was anathema. That’s why when Urania appeared in print in 1621 under the firm of London bookseller John Marriot, who would later be the publisher of John Donne’s works, Wroth would be very coy about how involved she was in its publication and distribution. In a letter to James’ favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, no doubt demanding some kind of explanation on behalf of the king, she wouldn’t deny that she knew of the novel being published, but she doesn’t cop to giving it to Marriot directly.

Some of the serious uproar that followed Urania’s appearance was for Wroth’s breach of these codes of Jacobean feminine accomplishment, Sir Edward Denny famously calling Wroth a “hermaphrodite in show, in deed a monster” (she replied that he was a drunk and a “lying wonder”). But some of Denny’s and the court of James’ real objection to Urania was its content, because the novel, like many early novels, is a roman à clef, that is, a thinly-veiled fictional story about real events. The dizzying cast of Urania are largely stand-ins for many in the Jacobean upper class and apparently many of them had no trouble identifying themselves in the stories of marriages and romances gone awry that blanket Wroth’s novel. Denny himself believed that an episode involving the jealous husband of a violent aristocrat’s only daughter was meant to depict the marriage of his daughter and he didn’t appreciate his family’s supposed dirty laundry being aired for the masses. And aside from broadcasting their foibles to the public, James and the court might have also been scandalized that the focus of Wroth’s story (as much as it can lay a claim to focus) was perhaps the most shocking of them all: her own.

[Lady Mary Wroth]

The sprawling plot of Urania is a post-medieval prose romance of a fictionalized Europe of sovereign kingdoms (some real places, others imaginary) populated by a large cast (at least 195 distinct characters by my count) of monarchs and their noble courts, along with a supporting group of shepherds, hermits, priestesses, and nymphs. The episodic action is mostly concerned the romantic trials and triumphs of a core group of beautiful princesses and their handsome lords, interspersed with said lords’ chivalric adventures (usually in the quest for or defense of their lady loves). The title character, Urania, is a Shakespearean-style kidnapped princess who is raised by shepherds until she is rediscovered by her true royal family, but she’s actually more of a side character. The real pair at the center of this whirl of prose are two cousins: Pamphilia, the eldest daughter of the king of Morea, and Amphilanthus, the eldest son of the king of Naples; and it’s their tortured will-they-won’t-they love story that frames the seemingly hundred other love stories that fill Urania’s pages. Think of it as a Renaissance Love Actually determined to show you every last thing that can go right (or more often, wrong) in the course of true love, which might have never had it less smoothly than it does here. As for influences closer to Wroth’s own time, Urania takes a lot of its cues from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1590) and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532), as well as the pastoral prose poetry of her uncle Philip Sidney.

In her real love life, Mary married Sir Robert Wroth in 1604, but the union was by all accounts an unhappy one she had been pressured into contracting. The theme of jealousy, particularly jealous husbands, is a recurring one in Urania, and much of that seems to come from Sir Robert, who is also described by contemporaries as a drunk and a gambler. However, Sir Robert’s jealousy wasn’t entirely unfounded, because Mary harbored an enduring attachment to her first cousin William Herbert, eventually the third Earl of Pembroke, her aunt Mary Herbert’s son. In addition to being her aunt, Mary Herbert was also Mary Wroth’s godmother and Wroth spent much of her childhood being educated in her aunt’s household alongside her cousin. As you might have already put together, Pamphilia is Wroth’s character stand-in within Urania (though she also uses several other minor characters to sift through her marriage with) and William Herbert is Amphilanthus. In the story, Pamphilia is true to Amphilanthus, but like several men in the Urania-verse, he has a serious commitment problem, much like the philandering William Herbert, who was known for several high-profile run-ins with various ladies besides his wife. One of these was Mary Fitton, a gentlewoman serving in Elizabeth’s court, and one of the leading contenders for the identity of Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” from his sonnets. In Urania, Fitton is the proud, combative princess of Romania, Antissia, who spends most of the story as Pamphilia’s frienemy as they both vie for Amphilanthus’ attention—Antissia publicly and Pamphilia nursing her affection secretly.

[Mary Fitton]

There is no concrete evidence that William and Wroth engaged in anything beyond a serious emotional affair before the death of Wroth’s husband in 1614, but after that, despite William still being married, the two of them had a long term relationship that produced at least two children, much to the horror of their joint relatives. To be clear, the Sidney-Herberts didn’t object to this match because of the consanguinity of the people involved, first cousin marriage in Renaissance England was hardly unusual. The tacit disapproval of the clan more likely initially stemmed from the Herberts looking for a larger outside fish (and her dowry) to hook for the future Earl of Pembroke (which they got in Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury), and later, because both parties were married to other people. Wroth’s aunt Mary Herbert’s doppelgänger in the Urania-verse is fittingly Amphilanthus’ mother, the otherwise unnamed queen of Naples, who in the story is supportive of the relationship between Pamphilia and her son, sanction Wroth longed for from her beloved godmother in real life, but likely never received. This is coupled with a portrait of Wroth’s father, Robert Sidney, the Earl of Leicester, in the also unnamed king of Morea, who respects Pamphilia’s desire to not be forced into another marriage while she waits for Amphilanthus—a clear indictment against her marriage to Robert Wroth in an otherwise doting depiction of her father within the text. Wroth uses fiction to shape a world where her love for William is celebrated by those closest to her, just as she uses it to craft a happy, if temporary, ending for her and her cousin.

The six-hundred-and-change-long Urania ends with Pamphilia and Amphilanthus reunited and happy after many tribulations, but much of the proceeding narrative hints that Pamphilia is doomed to lose him eventually. A direction that shows even at her most romantic and wish-fulfilling, Wroth understood who her adored cousin really was, and William Herbert will in fact end their relationship within a few years of Urania’s publication; and Wroth will spend the long last thirty years of her life struggling with financial difficulties left over from her husband’s untimely death, dying herself in relative obscurity in 1653. Aside from laments for the cruelties of love that the men of her world visited upon the women she knew, Wroth also writes plaintively about the other struggles she and her female friends faced. Male centric-inheritance laws, arranged marriages, spousal abuse, and a very proto-Wollstonecraftian decrying of the lack of female education that left women woefully ignorant are all issues that Urania addresses, even if Wroth is too ahead of her time to be able to envision workable solutions. The women of Urania remain largely passive—sometimes literally trapped in fantastical enchantments until the plot wanders back to free them. The ironic part is that Wroth herself was arguably far more daring and proactive than her sighing, sonnet-writing doppelgänger Pamphilia when it came to catching her elusive Amphilanthus, though in the published Urania, modest wistfulness carries the day.

[William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and his face that so many women around him were apparently so crazy for. Different times…]

I say the “published Urania”, because technically this novel is only the first part of the story. The second part of Urania was never published in Wroth’s lifetime and exists as a single holographic manuscript held at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Professor Roberts collaborated on a companion edition of the second part to her annotated first part, but it is even rarer and I have been unable to find a copy for sale yet (I thought I had, but the seller ended up canceling the order—if I ever succeed, look out for a sequel entry). The manuscript is unfinished and missing folios, but the gist of this continuation is principally a story following a second generation of these noble families and children of the characters from the first part. Because Pamphilia and Amphilanthus, as forecasted in part one, end up in political marriages not to each other, much of the focus (finally) shifts to Urania and her children with the king of Albania, Steriamus. Urania is the doppelgänger of Susan de Vere, and the character’s displaced identity that opens the novel that bears her name might be meant to reflect that Susan was predominantly raised away from the literary de Veres in the household of her maternal grandfather, Elizabeth’s wily chief advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, after the death of her mother. Urania falls in love with Pamphilia’s brother Parselius, who is the one who realizes that she is the missing princess of Naples (and therefore Amphilanthus’ little sister) only to be abandoned by him, which might reflect some youthful affairs of the heart Susan had until her grandfather put the kibosh on them. Unlike the almost perpetually lovelorn Pamphilia, who is arguably constant to a fault, Urania is dramatically cured of her first heartbreak with Parselius by being thrown off a cliff into the sea (seriously) by Amphilanthus under the direction of the mysterious oracle Melissea, who pops up periodically to dispense love horoscopes and advice. Freed of her love for Parselius, Urania is able to accept the love of Steriamus (William’s brother, Philip Herbert, the Earl of Montgomery) and live pretty much happily ever after.

Now, the more widely-read among you might have waded through everything I’ve told you about Urania so far and thought a lot of it sounded awfully familiar, and not just because you remember the odd snatch of The Faerie Queen. Because if you think this all sounds weirdly similar to The Tale of Genji, except set in Renaissance England, you’re not alone. Part of what attracted me to Urania in that Smithsonian article was this strange parallel with the Japanese classic. A woman-centric story with a female author at the very dawn of the novel as an art form? Check. A story preoccupied with a sprawling, impossibly attractive group of interrelated aristocrats, led by a gorgeous male paragon who falls in love at the drop of a hat and his beautiful favorite lady who’s the author stand-in? Check. Said aristos spouting poetry at every given turn? Check. Strange interludes of magic or the fantastic in an otherwise grounded story? Check. Large second part following the kids that’s less interesting to its audience? Check. Separated by almost exactly six hundred years and roughly 9,500 miles, Murasaki Shikibu and Mary Wroth managed to produce two novels dealing with many of the same themes under circumstances that are less different than they might first appear. Englishwomen of Wroth’s time were less physically confined than the ladies of the Heian court of Japan, but they confronted many of the same social and cultural limitations on their autonomy. Universal experiences like love, jealousy, and loss are also identical: Genji isn’t any happier with his culturally-sanctioned polygamy than Amphilanthus is juggling his serial monogamy; just as Pamphilia can’t escape letting her rivals live rent-free in her head any more than the fictional Murasaki can avoid letting her rivals literally live rent-free in the house she had hoped would be hers alone with Genji.

[Genji scroll painting of Chapter 39 – 夕霧 Yūgiri (“Evening Mist”)]

In the interest of full disclosure, Murasaki Shikibu is a more elegant prose stylist (even in translation) than Mary Wroth—there’s a reason why The Tale of Genji has basically never been out of print in eleven hundred years and I had to spend half of this entry describing the process of getting ahold of Urania. That said, I think this extreme state of affairs is more of a testament to Jacobean misogyny than Urania’s lack of literary merit. Its plot can be tortuous to follow and Wroth is under the mistaken impression that we need to know the complete backstory of at least 150 of those 195 characters, but these and similar flaws are ones that many early novels share. This is because we hadn’t figured out all of the “rules” of novel writing, and I don’t personally think Wroth is generally any worse of an offender than, say, Spencer or Cervantes. Or Murasaki herself.

And Wroth did have a number of admirers even in her skeptical times. Chief among these was the playwright Ben Jonson, who dedicated his play, The Alchemist, to Wroth, as well as a sonnet in which he asserted that copying out her works made him both a better poet and a better lover—a very Ovidian tribute. Jonson himself can be an acquired taste, but as possibly the first person to recognize the seismic shift Shakespeare (the real Will, not Suzie de Vere’s dad) would be in English culture, he more than perhaps anyone of his generation had his finger on the pulse of what mattered artistically around him. And that suggests that Wroth has been done dirty by posterity to degree unjustified by her talents or her literary output. 

[Mary Wroth’s mother, Barbara Sidney, Countess of Leicester, with six of her eleven children (c. 1596). Based on the date of the painting and the birth order of her children, it is likely that Mary is the girl second from the right.]
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