Resistance is Not Futile

So there I was, exhausted, up to my knees in mud, shoulder against the front of my car, pushing with all my might, as my (male) friend tried to reverse out of a quagmire of a parking space. I had driven for three hours in driving rain, and knew that if we ever managed to get the car out, I would have to drive another three. I was pushing, the wheels were spinning, my arms and legs were aching, and, of course, my face was plastered in the mud spattering upwards; there was even mud inside my mouth. There is only one woman I would go through this for: Mary Wroth. Haven’t heard of her? Well that’s one of the answers to the question "why do we need a Women’s History Month?".

To celebrate Women’s History Month, I did think about writing a post about Shakespeare’s great women. I could have written about Shakespeare’s ruthless, warrior mothers, like Tamora or Volumnia, who defy gender expectations and go to extreme lengths to save what they believe to be important. Even if you don’t like them or don’t agree with their values, you can see they’ve got guts. It might have been entertaining to think about Shakespeare’s witty, comic heroines like Viola, Rosalind, and Beatrice, who can talk the hind leg off a donkey and dazzle all the way. I was tempted to write about my ultimate favourite, Cleopatra, an iconic, theatrical, infinitely adaptable queen who will stop at nothing, even death, to get her own way. Then it struck me, these were characters written by a man, their strong and iconic speeches came out of a man’s mind, and, at first at least, they were also performed by men. That kind of post would be just another heap of male literary history. Instead, l’m going to talk about Mary Wroth, who was writing at the same time as Shakespeare, and why she’s worth celebrating. Wroth was the first English woman to write a sonnet sequence – which she defied convention to publish, along with an impressively long prose romance – and she was a politically active, unconventional, radical, glamourous, passionate, and foxy lady. Literally a lady. She was Lady Mary Wroth. The very muddy incident I described above occurred on a trip to Wroth’s birthplace, the beautiful Penshurst Place, which is well worth a visit.

Image from Wikipedia Commons -
for better images visit the Solar at Penshurst Place

Because I’m that kind of girl, I’ll start with the glamour. From an early age she charmed everyone with her precocious academic ability, wit, and musical talent. She was known amongst court circles as a gifted poet and was sought out by friends as an authority on all things political. Alongside her intellectual gifts, Wroth was stunner: she was tall, with dark hair, and a striking complexion. Portraits of Wroth at Penshurst show her elegant oval face, with high cheek bones and enchanting dark eyes. She is often depicted in pale colours, matching her porcelain skin, and setting off her dark hair and eyes, paired with contrastingly bright accessories, like the bright red bracelet and emerald crucifix she wears over a white dress in one portrait. Red ribbons and red petticoat with a delicate cream and gold dress – the woman knew how to accessorize. Wroth came from an exciting family. She was niece to two famous poets, Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and her father (also a poet), Robert Sidney was famously deeply in love with his wife Barbara Gamage. Mary Wroth married Robert Wroth at a young age, and it seems as if he was a pretty dull husband, but he was also a big hit with James I, due to his liking for hunting and outdoor pursuits. In this way Mary Wroth became part of the inner circle of James I’s wife, Queen Anne, and took part in the bejewelled and glittering but scandalous court masques that Anne staged. Wroth was part of an exciting literary scene which included Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and her fame as a talented poet spread. Jonson even wrote that copying out her work had made him a better poet.

It was then that disaster struck. Mary’s husband, Robert Wroth, died, and shortly afterwards their new son, James, also died. Wroth was not only heartbroken, but also destitute, as along with her child, she had lost all the property revenues he had inherited. All her husband’s property now passed to his nearest male relative. Everyone expected that Wroth, a beautiful, young woman, would remarry, and she had some pretty good offers, including from the Earl of Oxford, whose wealth would have allowed her to continue her exhilarating court lifestyle. But Wroth did what no one expected. She chose not to remarry, but to live independently, which at that time, was brave and unusual. She embarked on an affair with her childhood sweetheart, her cousin William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, who had become a high profile courtier and was married to someone else. Together they had two children, a boy and a girl. What was really scandalous about this part of Wroth’s life, though, was not her relationship status, but her decision to print writing.

In the early modern period poetry written by courtiers was generally circulated in manuscript not in print, it was kept inside a select group of trusted individuals to exscribe and enjoy. Having work published by a commercial printer had certain stigma attached to it. For someone from Wroth’s background it might imply that she lacked the connections to circulate her work privately, plus the availability of the text to anyone who could afford it, had, in Wroth’s day, connotations of promiscuity, as the manuscript was understood as representative of the self. For Wroth’s detractors, she was in event circulating herself among strangers. On the other hand, Wroth’s decision to print meant that her work was available to more than a select few, and that the political ideas that she put forward could reach a wider audience. Wroth should be admired not only for her literary achievements, but her bravery in sharing them. Just as women today who share their opinions online become the victims of abuse and trolling, so too did Wroth. He decision to write and to share this work with the public was seen as unfeminine, so was called a “monstrous hermaphrodite” and accused of drunkenness and promiscuity.

Mary Wroth lived at a time when women’s education was not a priority, and when women’s self-expression (verbally or in writing) was equated with loose morals and promiscuity, but, like Shakespeare’s defiant women, she resisted these limitations. The difference is that Wroth was real! The story of Wroth’s resistance is an inspiration to us all. None of us need to accept the limitations that society places upon us, and if we are brave and determined we can achieve great things.

To find out more about Wroth:  
Take a look at some of her poetry online.
Read Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth by Margaret P. Hannay.
Visit Penshurst Place where Mary Wroth grew up. The house and gardens are beautiful, and what’s more they serve excellent cake!


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