Lady Wroth with archlute. Unknown artist.
From the collection of Viscount De L’Isle.
I recently read Mrs March by Virginia Feito. It was a terrific read, full of curiosities and strange behaviours. One of which came from the author herself – a second epigraph inserted towards the end to preface the final two chapters of the book.
The first epigraph was a section of the poem The Gossipers by Dylan Thomas. Feito selected her epigraphs perfectly. This one highlights how concerned Mrs March was by the opinions of others, with a random comment being the trigger for sending her off down a rabbit hole of suspicion and delusion
This second epigraph (below) was the first two lines of Crowne of Sonnets Dedicated to Love by Lady Mary Wroth (1587 – 1653). I was duly intrigued to see how well this one matched the final moments of the story.
Crowne of Sonnets Dedicated to Love
In this strange labyrinth how shall I turn? Ways are on all sides, while the way I miss: If to the right hand, there, in love I burn; Let me go forward, therein danger is. If to the left, suspicion hinders bliss; Let me turn back, shame cries I ought return, Nor faint, though crosses with my fortune kiss; Stand still is harder, although sure to mourn. Thus let me take the right, or left hand way, Go forward, or stand still, or back retire: I must these doubts endure without allay Or help, but travail find for my best hire. Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move, Is to leave all, and take the thread of Love.
Mrs March was one unusual lady. Paranoid, probably mad, maybe even schizophrenic. Feito’s story has a long, sinuous build, with the final two chapters delivering the long awaited pay off. ‘Strange labyrinth‘ sums up the workings of Mrs March’s mind perfectly. She was one troubled lady.
I was also reminded of a section from this year’s Miles Franklin award winning novel, The Labyrinth,
The maze is a challenge to the brain (how smart you are), the labyrinth to the heart (will you surrender). In the maze you grapple with the challenge but in the labyrinth you let go. Effortlessly you come back to where you started, somehow changed by the act of surrender.
Mrs March’s heart AND mind were a labyrinth not only to herself, but to others. It could be said that she had surrendered and let go too much. Danger and suspicion and shame threaten her at every turn and once she started down the winding path, there was no clear way out.
I do love it when an author finds the perfect epitaph for their book. Twice!
But who on earth was Lady Mary Wroth?
She was the daughter of Robert Sidney (sometime poet), the first earl of Leicester and Lady Barbara Gamage. She was also the niece of Sir Philip Sidney (poet-courtier) and goddaughter of Mary Herbert nee Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (writer & patron of the arts).
Wroth danced before Queen Elizabeth I and was intimate friends with Queen Anne (until the publication of her book). Her marriage to Robert Wroth in 1604 was an unhappy one almost from day one. Her friend Ben Jonson noted that ‘my Lady Wroth is unworthily married on a Jealous husband’. He also left her in dire financial straits when he died a decade later. Wroth then began/continued a relationship with her cousin William Herbert, the 3rd earl of Pembroke. They had (at least) two illegitimate children together.
William was also a favourite of Queen Anne. Although affairs of this nature where common at court at this time, the story goes that Queen Anne was very displeased about Mary & William’s relationship.
According to the Poetry Foundation she was the,
first Englishwoman to write a complete sonnet sequence as well as an original work of prose fiction. Although earlier women writers of the 16th century had mainly explored the genres of translation, dedication, and epitaph, Wroth openly transgressed the traditional boundaries by writing secular love poetry and romances.
Crowne of Sonnets Dedicated to Love is a sequence of fourteen poems of fourteen lines each (click on the link to read ALL 14 as I’ve only included the first one above). They formed part of her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus which was appended to her prose romance The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania when it was published in 1621.
The sonnets were written in corona form.
Corona (Italian for crown/circle/ring) demanded that the last line of each poem served as the first line of the next. By the end of the series, the last line of the final poem will be the same as the first line of the first poem, thus completing a circle or cycle.
The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania epic contains over six thousand words, more than three hundred characters with a total of 56 poems interspersed throughout. She plays with an incredible array of genres to highlight the different personalities of her characters – sonnets, madrigals, dialogues, ballads, pastoral narratives, and sapphic lines.
The controversy, though, centred around the technique she used for her novel. It was a roman à clef about ‘Queen Pamphilia’ and her love for her cousin, the ‘Emperor Amphilanthus’. Many of the characters and their scandals were based upon members of the Sidney family as well as those at the court of King James. Some of those alluded to in the book were duly outraged, and publicly condemned Wroth for her work.
She withdrew the book from publication later in the year.
This and her cooling friendship with Queen Anne, saw Mary retire from court life. By the mid-1620’s the inconstant William Herbert was also losing interest and having other affairs. The final decade of Mary’s life is mostly undocumented, although it appears that her financial difficulties dogged her until the end.
Mary is commemorated in Loughton, Essex by the naming of a footpath adjacent to Loughton Hall as Lady Mary’s Path.
This post is part of A Poem For a Thursday with Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness.
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.