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III - Acts of Writing and Authorship

“Then tooke she a knife, and in the rine of an Oake insculped a sypher”: acts of writing in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania

Laëtitia Coussement-Boillot

Résumés

The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1e et 2e partie) de Lady Mary Wroth regorge d’écrits tels qu’inscriptions sur des écorces d’arbres, lettres, poèmes, insérés dans le récit en prose. Paradoxalement, la plupart de ces actes d’écriture vont de pair avec des stratégies de dissimulation voire parfois de destruction. Certains actes d’écriture sont même assimilés à des actes de violence physique. Pour une femme, le fait d’écrire est envisagé comme potentiellement transgressif, mais moins que la prise de parole en publique, car l’écriture reste une activité solitaire et silencieuse, qui peut être confinée à la sphère privée. Cet article analysera les divers écrits, dans le récit de Lady Mary Wroth, afin de mettre en évidence la difficulté pour une femme, en ce début du 17e siècle, de se définir comme auteure.

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Texte intégral

I would like to thank Lynn S. Meskill for her proofreading of this article and her helpful suggestions.

  • 1 Lord Denny’s verses are reproduced in Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Lou (...)
  • 2 Ibid., p. 34.

1Lord Denny’s incensed letter addressed to Lady Mary Wroth, in which he called her a “Hermophradite in show, in deed a monster / As by thy words and works all men may conster”1 testifies to the widespread social injunctions to silence female would-be writers in the early modern period. After recalling the unnaturalness characterizing a woman writer, Denny enjoins Wroth to stop writing idle books as opposed to religious ones, and to follow Mary Sidney’s example: “redeem the time with writing as large a volume of heavenly lays and holy love as you have of lascivious tales and amorous toys ; that at the least you may follow the example of your virtuous and learned aunt.”2 As Margaret Ferguson has argued, the idea of a woman writer at the time was an oxymoron:

  • 3 Margaret Ferguson, “Renaissance concepts of the ‘woman writer’”, in Women and Literature in Britain (...)

If women are prescriptively defined as ‘chaste, silent and obedient’, according to a well-known ideal in Renaissance conduct books, and if both writing and printing are defined, for any number of reasons, as ‘masculine activities’ and also in opposition to ‘silence’, then the phrase ‘woman writer’ will be seen as a contradiction in terms.3

  • 4 For the sake of convenience, all subsequent references to The First Part of the Countess of Montgom (...)
  • 5 “Wroth’s creation of herself as a writer only added one more item in her catalogue of transgression (...)

2Faced with such antagonistic forces, Lady Mary Wroth’s publication, in 1621, of the first part of her romance, The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania4, may appear as an act of defiance5. The publication created a scandal which led to the book being immediately withdrawn from sale. The letter Lady Mary Wroth wrote to the Duke of Buckingham on December 15th, 1621 testifies to the her anxiety as regards the issues of print and publication:

  • 6 The letter is reproduced in The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), Louisiana, Lo (...)

I have with all care caused the sale of them to bee forbidden, and the books left to bee shut up […] and what I ame able to doe for the getting in of books (which from the first were solde against my minde I never purposing to have had them published) I will with all care, and diligence parforme.6

  • 7 See the very beginning of the introduction by Josephine A. Roberts to The First Part of the Countes (...)

3Very little is known about the circumstances surrounding the publication of The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, a manuscript which had circulated among Wroth’s friends before 1621. It is not clear whether Wroth actually took part in the preparation of the manuscript for publication7. In spite of her letter to Lord Denny, which denies any implication on her part, and although Lady Mary Wroth claims the book was sold “against my minde”, and was not intended to publication in the first place, “I never purposing to have had them published”, the title page with the dedication to the Countess of Montgomery and the elaborate engraving by the Dutch artist Simon Van de Passe might point toward Wroth’s involvement in the publication. Whatever Wroth’s actual role in the publication of her work, the scandal that ensued may account for the fact that The Second Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania remained an unpublished manuscript the circulation of which was therefore restricted to intimate circles.

  • 8 Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, Nendeln, Liechtenstein, 1 (...)

4Both Urania I and Urania II are peppered with male and female characters who write. Wroth’s fictitious characters’ attitudes, especially women, to writing may tell us a lot about women coming to terms with authorship. Most often those writings are a means to express grief for the protagonists who suffer from melancholy for various reasons. The link between creativity, more specifically writing, and melancholy existed since Antiquity, as has been shown by Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl8. As we are reminded by Helen Hackett more recently, the nature of melancholy was ambiguous since it was viewed in two contradictory ways:

  • 9 Helen Hackett, “‘A book, and solitarines’: Melancholia, Gender and Literary Subjectivity in Mary Wr (...)

On the one hand, the Galenic tradition of humoral medicine regarded melancholy as an illness, an excess of black bile which was debilitating and disabling. On the other hand, the Aristotelian tradition, revived by Ficino and his school of Florentine Neoplatonists, regarded melancholy as an attribute of great men, of heroes, and especially of thinkers and men of letters. Jaques in As You Like It exemplifies the association of melancholy with verbal giftedness. The Petrarchan figure of the love-melancholic added to this tradition: the melancholy scholar and love-melancholic shared a preference for solitude, frenetic mental activity and the production of writing.9

  • 10 Urania I, Book I, p. 2.

5In Urania I and Urania II, Wroth foregrounds the Aristotelian tradition which links melancholy with literary creation. Perissus’s sonnet in the very first pages of Urania I testifies to its author’s “broken heart(s)”10 and Pamphilia is repeatedly portrayed as writing poems, sometimes carving poems in the bark of a tree, so as to give vent to her melancholy:

  • 11 Urania I, Book I, p. 92.

‘Nay,’ said shee, ‘since I finde no redresse, I will make others in part taste my paine, and make them dumbe partakers of my griefe.’ Then taking a knife, shee finished a Sonnet, which at other times shee had begunne to ingrave in the barke of one of those fayre and straight Ashes.11

  • 12 Urania I, Book III, p. 386-7.
  • 13 Urania I, Book III, p. 391.

6There are numerous similar examples of love poetry written by both the men and women characters. For instance, in Book III of Urania I, Bellamira recalls how after being abandoned by her lover she started writing, thereby imitating her lover’s habit: “Thus passed I part of the night ; the rest in an exercise mine undoer taught mee, putting my thoughts in some kind of measure, which else were measurelesse; this was Poetry, a thing hee was most excellent in”12. A few pages later, as Amphilantus has asked her to hear some her verse, one of her poems is included in the narrative and highly commended by the King: “‘And perfect are you sweet Bellamira’, said the King,‘in this Art ; pittie it is, that you should hide or darken so rare a gift.13 The very structure of the romance itself is built on the interlacing of various writings which echoe one another. As a matter of fact both the published first part of the Urania and the unpublished second part contain poems written by various characters in the romance. For instance, Book III of Urania I ends with the inclusion of seven sonnets under the heading Lindamira’s Complaint. A few pages earlier, Dorolina had explained to Pamphilia the necessity of putting one’s feelings on paper in order to preserve one’s sanity, taking up the topos of writing as a cure for melancholy:

  • 14 Urania I, Book III, p. 499.

Shee [Dorolina] would not bee answer’d so, but urg’d her againe, hoping to take her this way something from her continuall passions, which not utter’d did weare her spirits and waste them, as rich imbroyderies will spoyle one another, if laid without papers betweene them, fretting each other, as her thoughts and imaginations did her rich and incomparable mind.14

7Dorolina’s domestic simile is worth looking at closely. First, it emphasizes the materiality of the act of writing by insisting on the importance of what one writes on: “if laid without papers betweene them”. Second, by comparing writing to embroidery, a typically feminine activity, it deflates the transgressive potential of writing and simultaneously praises its quality and establishes its worth: the “rich imbroyderies” are but the mirror of a “rich and incomparable mind”.

8Placed within the context of writing as a cure for melancholy, it is no wonder that Pamphilia, the heroine suffering from Amphilantus’s unfaithfulness, should be the most prominent woman writer in the Urania and the author of the sequence of poems entitled Pamphilia to Amphilantus:

  • 15 Urania II, Book II, p. 279.

Then when sadest parts of true-felt griefe had possessed her to ther owne thoughts longe enough, they gave her leave to write her conseites, as she did her hands, into som od and unusuall (as her fortunes were turned) sort of verce: a thing she had nott in a pretty space dunn ore could give libertie soe longe to her sorrow and cross destinie as to doe. They were extreame sad and dolefull, and sertainly such as would have moved too farr in Amphilantus, had hee then seene them.15

9If love appears as the primary impetus for writing, the relation between the two is a complex, even contradictory one ; writing is both seen as a necessary, privileged means for disburdening one’s heart from the pains of love and yet the publishing of one’s feelings endangers the necessary concealment of one’s passion, especially for a woman who was expected to remain silent. As a consequence in order to protect one’s love, writing is often associated with secrecy. Contrary to speaking, which implies the making public of one’s feelings, writing becomes a means of ensuring concealment to a certain extent.

Writing and secrecy

  • 16 Urania I, Book II, p. 318. See also the article by Jeff Masten, “‘Shall I turne blabb?’: Circulatio (...)
  • 17 Urania I, Book II, p. 318.
  • 18 The name Lindamira can be read as a anagram of Ladimari, hence a pun on Lady Mary, and another figu (...)
  • 19 Urania I, Book III, p. 499.
  • 20 Urania I, Book III, p. 502.
  • 21 Urania I, Book III, p. 501-502.
  • 22 Urania I, Book II, p. 325.
  • 23 The Queen of Naples is also described as most “rare in Poetry” (Urania I, p. 489); she too writes a (...)
  • 24 Urania I, Book III, p. 490.
  • 25 On the topic of secrecy in writing and the Urania as a “roman à clef”, see the introduction by Jose (...)

10The anguish of her love becoming public is voiced by Pamphilia when she expresses her fear of turning “ blabb”16: “nor yet has any eare (except his owne) heard me confesse who governs me”17. When asked by Dorolina to recite her poetry, Pamphilia refuses and resorts to a subterfuge: she creates a persona, Lindamira18, and narrates the latter’s story in prose, “faigning it to be written in a French story”19. Book III concludes with seven sonnets written by Pamphilia, who is said to share Lindamira’s grief: “which complaint, because I lik’d it, or rather found her estate so neere agree with mine I put into Sonnets”20. Pamphilia’s trick aims at concealing the lovers’ identities, and also at preserving her reputation, in direct opposition with what happened to her fictitious Lindamira: “her honor not touched, but cast downe, and laid open to all mens toungs and eares, to be used as they pleas’d”21. In Pamphilia’s description of Lindamira’s dishonour one will notice the obvious sexual overtones. Having one’s reputation tainted is akin to being sexually abused by men, “to be used as they pleas’d”. Earlier on Pamphilia had written her lover’s name in anagram, on the bark of an oak, thereby reinforcing the link between writing and secrecy: “Then tooke she a knife, and in the rine of an Oake insculped a sypher, which contained the letters, or rather the Anagram of his name shee most and only lou’d”22. This episode is recalled later in Urania I when the Queen of Naples23 passes through the woods where Pamphilia has engraved the name of her lover on the barks of trees and tries to decipher the coded names: “Going along the Spring they found many knots, and names ingraven upon the trees, which they understood not perfectly, because when they had decipher’d some of them, they then found they were names fained and so knew them not”24. Interestingly, the narrator describes a double encoding process since the Queen of Naples cracks the code only to realize the names are fake. Pamphilia’s encoding device proves utterly successful. The fact that writing is linked with encoding and consequently with deciphering for potential readers may also be linked with the nature of Lady Mary Wroth’s romance, that of a “roman à clef”25.

  • 26 Bernadette Andrea, “Pamphilia’s Cabinet: Gendered Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania(...)
  • 27 Another reference to the cabinet as a box is found later in the Urania: when the enchantment in the (...)
  • 28 Urania I, Book 1, p. 62.

11As the critic Bernadette Andrea26 has argued, women’s often takes place in a cabinet, a private, interior, protected space. The word “cabinet” is doubly linked to the notion of a private space since it refers both to the room in which the woman retreats to write, and to the box in which she keeps her papers27: “she (Pamphilia) went to her bed againe, taking a little Cabinet with her, wherein she had many papers, and setting a light by her, began to read them”28. In Urania II, when the King of Tartaria visits Pamphilia to ask her to marry him, he finds her immersed in her writing:

  • 29 Urania II, Book II, p. 270-271.

Then hee went to her whom hee found alone, onely boockes about her, which she ever extreamly loved and she writing. Butt when she parceaved him, she clapt her papers into her deske, and rising told him she was glad to see him waulke soe well abroad.29

  • 30 See Bernadette Andrea, op. cit., “Pamphilia’s choice of the sonnet for her poetic compositions, a f (...)
  • 31 Urania I, Book II, p. 295.
  • 32 C. Luckyj, A Moving Rhetoricke, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002.
  • 33 C. Luckyj, op. cit., p. 136.
  • 34 Urania I, Book II, p. 212.

12It is interesting to notice the narrator’s insistence on Pamphilia’s private self, as well as her personal act of writing, at the very moment when Rodomandro is about to ask her to become his wife, to share a mutual, reciprocal space. Because it is linked with privacy and associated with a feminine space, the cabinet can be a potentially subversive site30, as we are aptly reminded by the Angler woman’s statement: “more innocency lyes under a fayre Canope, then in a close chest, which lock’t, the inward part may be what it will”31. As C. Luckyj32 has shown, writing, like silence, allowed the subject to retreat to a private self. The development of print culture went hand in hand with the production and consumption of texts in silence. Luckyj notes that “subversive silence is associated also with women’s authorship”33 and she mentions the episode in Urania I when Leandrus from his window gazes at Pamphilia in the garden below, as she is silently composing a song which will be transcribed in the narrative: “But while this quiet outwardly appear’d, her inward thoughts more busie were, and wrought, while this Song came into her mind”34.

13The act of writing requires secrecy and all along the Urania, we are reminded of the dangers inherent in the circulation of writings. Whereas Pamphilia is careful to conceal her works in her cabinet, another character, Antissia, serves as a foil to Pamphilia’s discreet acts of writing. In Urania II, Antissia becomes mad because of her unrequited love for Amphilantus. She retires from society and hires a poet as a tutor whose aim is to excell Ovid. Here is how Antissius describes the frantic poetry written by his aunt Antissia:

  • 35 Urania II, Book I, p. 40-41.

This fellow was brought to her by meere chance, beeing waulking on thos sands, raving out high-strained lines which had broke the bounds of his braines, and yett raged in the same fitt still. Itt was Antissias ill fortune to heere of him, and soe to send for him to her, she beeing butt on the top of the hill, and soe entertained him into her service. And soe fittly hath hee served her as to make her as mad as him self, beeing a dangerous thing att any time for a weake woeman to studdy higher matters than their cappasitie can reach to ; and indeed she was butt weake in true sence, butt colorick ever and rash, and now such a heigth of poetry, which att the best is butt a frency. And yett in Lovers itt is a most commendable and fine qualitie, beeing a way most excellent to express their pretious thoughts in a rare and covert way (butt they are meere poets that I spake of when I condemned poetry), this way I adore itt. Butt my Aunts raging, raving, extravagent discoursive language is most aparantly and understandingly discernd flatt madnes.35

  • 36 A lot of criticism has already been written on Antissia as a female writer and on her association w (...)

14The opposition between the respectable poet – who could be Pamphilia – whose “pretious thoughts” are expressed “in a rare and covert way” and Antissia’s “raging, raving, extravagent discoursive language”36 is clearly delineated. Moreover one notices in passing Antissius’s disparaging comment on women’s limited capacities to grasp “higher matters”.

  • 37 See above footnote 16.
  • 38 “The jealous and despightfull Melinea, when dancing did begin, of purpose let the paper fall, but s (...)
  • 39 Urania I, Book II, p. 187.
  • 40 Jeff Masten, “‘Shall I turne blabb?’: Circulation, Gender and Subjectivity in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets (...)
  • 41 “I gaind the conveying of that letter to, as I had dunn of som of his beefor of most import. And so (...)

15If the threat of “turning blabb”37 voiced by Pamphilia and embodied by Antissia concerns more particularly women, the uncontrollable disclosure of one’s writing may also apply to men. For instance Dolorindus, who is in love with Selinea, writes verse to her but loses them; they are intercepted by Melinea38, who also loves Dolorindus. Selinea, recognizing her lover’s handwriting, wrongly believes that the poetry was addressed to Melinea and becomes jealous, which leads Dolorindus to lament the destructive power of his verse: “Alas that ever I did take a penne in hand to be the Traytor to my joy”39. Jeff Masten40 has argued that the Urania privileged the protection of the characters’ manuscripts while their circulation was often seen as problematic. In Urania II, letters which circulate can be stolen, lost, intercepted, as in the case of Forsandurus41, Amphilantus’s treacherous tutor. At the end of Urania II, a young woman explains to Amphilantus and Pamphilia how, while she was writing verse, the wind blew her paper away to the feet of a knight (Andromarko) with whom she immediately fell in love:

  • 42 Urania II, Book II, p. 412.

as soone as I had writen thes (I confess) foulish lines and read them, laying them by, the traiterous Boreus with a curst blaste blew the paper from mee, raising itt of a pretty height, soe as I beelieeved itt wowld nott rest till itt were a distance from me. I am quick of foote, folowed itt, chafing att the lightnes of itt to express my follys to more then mine owne eyes, which I had till that time ever kept secrett […] after I had runn a pretty way, I saw the paper light. I then rann faster, and thinking to stoope to take itt up, I saw the bravest knight that eyes had ever beeheld.42

  • 43 Urania II, Book II, p. 411.
  • 44 Urania was the first romance written by an Englishwoman.
  • 45 This line by Lord Denny is reproduced in Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, (...)
  • 46 See Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance, Ithac (...)

16Ironically, as the woman who was flouting Cupid and seeking refuge in books43 started writing verse, she immediately became a subject to love. In the young woman’s narrative, the piece of inscribed paper is endowed with a will of its own, “I saw the paper light”, and seems to be wantonly playing with its author. We have seen earlier that, for many characters of the Urania, being in love was an incentive to writing but here the situation seems to be reversed since the young woman is writing verse before she actually falls in love. Wroth’s insistence in her narrative on the necessary concealment of pieces of writing, especially for women whose reputation is always potentially threatened, is all the more conspicuous as one of the attacks levelled at Wroth when she published her Urania in 162144 was her indecent act of exposure through the publication of a piece of fiction: “Thus hast thou made thy self a lying wonder / Fooles and their Bables seldome part asunder”45. Wroth’s association of women writers with secrecy and concealment in the Urania may reflect the social constraints which weighed on the female authors and restricted their scope of writing to religious texts or maternal advice books in the early modern period. As noted by Wendy Wall, “Mary Wroth, writing an imaginative work of fiction rather than a polemical religious tract, ironically defaces the text that she speaks ‘in print’: by rehearsing a male paradigm with a vengeance, she alters and ‘defaces’ it, both through her broad revisions of poetic tradition and her specific erasure of the ‘face’ of corporeality”46. This may account for the recurrent association of writing with destruction.

Writing and erasure

  • 47 Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle, Madison, The university of Wisconsin P (...)
  • 48 This association of writing with erasure may have been inspired by Wroth’s uncle, Sir Philip Sidney (...)
  • 49 Urania 1, Book I, p. 63.
  • 50 See Bernadette Andrea, op. cit., “I shall return to the poem Pamphilia simultaneously births and bu (...)
  • 51 Susan J. Wiseman, “What Echo says: Echo in Seventeenth-century Women’s poetry” in Renaissance Confi (...)
  • 52 Urania I, Book I, p. 1

17Critic Mary Ellen Lamb noticed the “rare destruction of a woman’s poem in this romance”47 ; this is a statement I would like to qualify. If numerous poems by Pamphilia and other characters, whether male or female, are inserted in the narrative, Wroth nonetheless insists on the potential or real destruction accompanying certain the act of writing48. Early in Urania I, Pamphilia is described as writing poetry yet her lines are short-lived: “Then tooke shee the new-writ lines, and as soone almost as shee had given them life, shee likewise gave them buriall”49. As critics have noticed, the irony is that the poem, in spite of its supposed destruction, is inserted in the narrative by Wroth50. Susan Wiseman51 makes a parallel between Lady Mary Wroth and Urania who starts her first poem with “Unseen, unknown, I here alone complaine”52, thereby erasing her voice at the same time as she manifests it through her very poetic utterance, all the more so as the poem is included in the romance at the meta-narrative level. Urania’s ambiguous position as subject of discourse at the very beginning of the romance could anticipate Pamphilia’s difficulty in asserting herself as a writer and her oscillation between literary creation and destruction, between assertion and concealment.

18Many other characters in the romance testify to the ambiguous dialectics of literary assertion and erasure. Melisinda, who is in love with Ollorandus, destroys the letter she receives from him for safety reasons. She burns the letter and puts the ashes in a cabinet which she will treasure:

  • 53 Urania I, Book II, p. 272.

she also gave the death to the other, or rather the safer life, sacrificing it unto their loves, carefully putting the ashes up in a daintie Cabinet, and inclosing them within ; these Verses she then made, witnessing the sorrow for the burning, and the vowes she made to them burned.53

  • 54 Urania I, Book II, p. 273.
  • 55 Urania I, Book II, p. 273.

19The destruction of Ollorandus’ love letter is immediately followed and perhaps counterbalanced by the creation of Melisinda’s own verse, which she will preserve. As a matter of fact, her poem is included in the narrative but she repeatedly alludes to the words she has destroyed by fire.She betrays her obsession with those “reliques of pure love”54 which she fetishizes: “This did not satisfie her, grieving for the losse of those kind lines, but each day did shee say the Letter to her selfe, which so much shee loved, as shee had learned by heart ; then looking on the Ashes, wept, and kissing them, put them up againe ; and thus continued shee… ”55 Another female character, Pelarina, undertook a pilgrimage after having written love poems:

  • 56 Urania I, Book IIII, p. 533-534.

yet this I repent not, but a vanity I had about mee, which because once liked by him, and admired by our Sexe, or those, of them that I durst make my follies seene unto, a fond humour of writing, I had set downe some things in an idle Booke I had written…56

  • 57 in Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana, Louisiana State University (...)

20Strangely enough, Pelarina does not repent having yielded to her lover, but having written about love, that is having publicly disclosed her love and, what is more, having written an “idle Booke”, the formulation interestingly anticipates Lord Denny’s attack levelled at Lady Mary Wroth’s published Urania: “Thy wrathfull spite conceived an Idell book / Brought forth a foole which like the damme doth look”57.

21In Urania II, Licandro also writes love poetry to unburden his heart and intends to destroy his verse when he is prevented by his friend’s arrival:

  • 58 Urania II, Book I, p. 80.

When he had ended this woefull piece of poetry, hee read itt, hee layd itt downe, then waulked about the roome, glad hee had utterd some part of his burdenous cariage […] Then hee wowld have burnt itt, but ther was noe fire ther, nor indeed was there perfect heat enough in itt self to blace to any such like heat. Tear itt then hee was about, butt Ollymander (who seldome used to bee soe longe from him) came att the instant and saved the innocent lines from martirdome, taking them from him…58

  • 59 See above Urania I, p. 63.

22Just as Pamphilia’s poem was included in the narrative in Urania I59, Licandro’s poem is inserted in the romance. What distinguishes the two episodes is the fact that Pamphilia succeeds in destroying her writing whereas Ollymander does not. This may point to the inherent link between woman’s writing and destruction, a link also exemplified in the story of Mary Wroth’s published Urania and its withdrawal from circulation shortly after its publication.

23In Sonnet 22 in the sequence Pamphilia to Amphilantus, the speaker draws a parallel between the suffering inflicted by Cupid and the Indians scorched by the sun:

Like to the Indians, scorched with the sunne,
The sunn which they doe as theyr God adore
Soe ame I us’d by love, for ever more
I worship him, less favors have I wunn.

  • 60 We find the same pun based on the anagram of “worth” and “wroth” in Josuah Sylvester’s sonnet to he (...)

24Wroth’s reference to the black Indians may recall her participation in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Blackness, in 1606. She compares the writing of her verse to “the marke of Cupids might”, and the sacrificial rites of Indians: “Beesids theyr sacrifies receavd’s in sight / Of theyr chose sainte: Mine hid as worthles rite”. Whereas the Indians’ sacrifice may be shown, hers must be “hid as worthles rite” or “wroth-less write”, if we pun on both “worth”60 and “rite”. Once more, the writing subject is threatened by erasure. Besides pointing to the worthlessness of her writing and highlighting the idea of concealment, Wroth also implicitely compares writing to a sacrificial rite, that is to a rite that included leaving a scar on the body. This will lead me to examine the physicality of some acts of writing which, in some extreme cases, become acts of torture.

Writing and torture

25At the beginning of Urania II, the narrator makes a digression on poets:

  • 61 Urania II, Book I, p. 22.

for if a fine, pleasing fancie come in, they so feare to lose itt, if the expression bee never soe little sliped, as pen and inke are soone made executioners, and silly paper must suffer and bear the mourning livery of his conceipt, somm times as light as aire, yett still of one couler and weight to the pressed paper.61

  • 62 Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance, Cornell U (...)

26The terms “executioners”, “suffer”, “mourning livery” build up a metaphor in which writing poetry becomes an act of torture. Within this first metaphor is intertwined a second sexual metaphor, thanks to the bawdy meaning of the verb “pressed”. As Wendy Wall62 reminds us, in the seventeenth century, to “undergo a pressing” meant to act the lady’s part and be pressed by a man.The narrator therefore creates an analogy between the paper which is pressed just as the woman is pressed by the man in the sexual act.

  • 63 Urania I, Book I, p. 87. The emphasis is mine.
  • 64 Urania I, Book I, p. 92.
  • 65 Urania I, Book I, p. 92.

27The idea of writing as physical torture is taken up in Limena’s story in Urania I, when Limena, Perissus’ beloved, describes the wounds inflicted by her jealous husband Philargus: “When I had put off all my apparell but one little Petticote, he opened by breast, and gave me many wounds, the markes you may here yet discerne63. In this episode, Limena’s body becomes a text on which her husband inscribes marks. Those marks, if shown, can be deciphered by the onlooker who will then read the tragic story of Limena.The association of writing with torture is also developed by Pamphilia when she is described writing poetry on the barks of trees: “Then taking a knife, shee finished a Sonnet, which at other times shee had begunne to ingrave in the barke of one of those fayre and straight Ashes, causing that sapp to accompany her teares for love, that for unkindnesse”64. The narrator insists on the knife which causes the sap to flow and the term “unkindesse” may apply to the lover’s suffering as well as to the tree being the victim of the lover’s grief. The sonnet which immediately follows insists on the inscription as an act of torture: “Keepe in thy skin this testament of me”, or “Thy sap doth weepingly bewray thy paine, / My heart-blood drops with stormes it doth sustaine”65. The tree is being carved or tortured by the lover, just as the lover is suffering from the pains of love.

28At the end of Urania I, the episode of the Hell of Deceit provides yet another example of the close association between writing and torture. Pamphilia discovers Amphilantus imprisoned by his former mistresses, Musalina and Lucenia, who try to erase Pamphilia’s name from Amphilantus’ heart:

  • 66 Urania I, Book IIII, p. 583.

at last she saw Musalina sitting in a Chaire of Gold, a Crowne on her head, and Lucenia holding a sword, which Musalina tooke in her hand, and before them Amphilantus was standing, with his heart ript open, and Pamphilia written in it, Musalina ready with the point of the sword to conclude all, by razing that name out, and his heart as the wound to perish.66

  • 67 The image of the wounded, bleeding heart may also have been inspired by Spenser’s 1st sonnet in the (...)
  • 68 Shannon Miller, “Constructing the Female Self: Architectural Structures in Mary Wroth’s Urania” in (...)

29Probably inspired by Spenser’s account of Busirane’s torture of Amoret in the Faerie Queene67 (III. xi. 21), this episode is crucial in so far as it encapsulates both the dialectics of writing and erasure and the link between acts of writing and physical suffering. As Shannon Miller has argued, both Pamphilia and Musalina can be seen as figures of Wroth, but paradoxically, the figure of Musalina, a powerful woman, simultaneously threatens to destroy Pamphilia, another image of Wroth in the narrative68. Echoing the Hell of Deceit episode, Amphilantus later has a vision of Pamphilia’s heart with his name written on it in bloody letters:

  • 69 Urania I, Book IIII, p. 655.

there did hee perceive perfectly within it Pamphilia dead, lying within an arch, her breast open and in it his name made, in little flames burning like pretty lamps which made the letters, as if set round with diamonds, and so cleare it was, as hee distinctly saw the letters ingraven at the bottome in Characters of blood.69

  • 70 In Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana, Louisiana State University (...)

30By reminding us of the physicality of the act of writing and by occasionally linking it to acts of torture, Wroth may be calling attention to the dangers inherent in writing, especially for a woman writer in the early modern period. Writing may first be conceived as an outlet for love-stricken melancholics, yet even that outlet is not a reliable one, as the disillusioned Pamphilia reminds us in one of her poems: “I seeke for some smale ease by lines, which bought/ Increase the paine; griefe is nott cur’d by art”70.

31Whether as erasure or torture, acts of writing are a privileged site of conflict.The precariousness of writing throughout the Urania may reflect Lady Mary Wroth’s own precariousness as author. The Urania offers a highly ambivalent view of the female writer, which mirrors Wroth’s own ambivalence as an author. It is through the self-effacement of her female characters as writers that Wroth makes possible her own assertion of authorship. This may be the central paradox of the Urania: in highlighting the obstacles to, and sometimes the impossibility of authorship, Wroth demonstrates its possibility.

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Notes

1 Lord Denny’s verses are reproduced in Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, p. 32-33.

2 Ibid., p. 34.

3 Margaret Ferguson, “Renaissance concepts of the ‘woman writer’”, in Women and Literature in Britain, 1500-1700, Helen Wilcox (ed.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 145.

4 For the sake of convenience, all subsequent references to The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania will appear in the text as Urania I. The references to the unpublished manuscript, The Second Part of The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, will appear as Urania II. For Urania I, all quotes are taken from Josephine A. Roberts’ edition of The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1995. For Urania II, all quotes are taken from The Second Part of The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, edited by Josephine A. Roberts and completed by Suzanne Gossett and Janel Mueller, Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999.

5 “Wroth’s creation of herself as a writer only added one more item in her catalogue of transgressions against the behavior expected of an aristocratic woman in the Renaissance.” In Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, p. 149

6 The letter is reproduced in The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, p. 236.

7 See the very beginning of the introduction by Josephine A. Roberts to The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1995.

8 Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, Nendeln, Liechtenstein, 1979 [1964].

9 Helen Hackett, “‘A book, and solitarines’: Melancholia, Gender and Literary Subjectivity in Mary Wroth’s Urania’”, in Gordon McMullan (ed.), Renaissance Configuration: Voices /Bodies / Spaces, 1580-1690, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1998, p. 64-85.

10 Urania I, Book I, p. 2.

11 Urania I, Book I, p. 92.

12 Urania I, Book III, p. 386-7.

13 Urania I, Book III, p. 391.

14 Urania I, Book III, p. 499.

15 Urania II, Book II, p. 279.

16 Urania I, Book II, p. 318. See also the article by Jeff Masten, “‘Shall I turne blabb?’: Circulation, Gender and Subjectivity in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets”, in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, (eds.), Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Jeff Masten argues that Pamphilia’s poetic production is closely linked with retirement, with self-containment.

17 Urania I, Book II, p. 318.

18 The name Lindamira can be read as a anagram of Ladimari, hence a pun on Lady Mary, and another figure for Lady Mary Wroth herself.

19 Urania I, Book III, p. 499.

20 Urania I, Book III, p. 502.

21 Urania I, Book III, p. 501-502.

22 Urania I, Book II, p. 325.

23 The Queen of Naples is also described as most “rare in Poetry” (Urania I, p. 489); she too writes a poem which is included in the narrative (Urania I, Book III, p. 490).

24 Urania I, Book III, p. 490.

25 On the topic of secrecy in writing and the Urania as a “roman à clef”, see the introduction by Josephine A. Roberts to The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, pages lv to xcviii, as well as her introduction to The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, p. 29-36. To give only one example, the quarrel which erupted between Edward Denny, Baron of Waltham, and Lady Mary Wroth, shortly after the publication of the first part of the Urania in 1621, was due to the resemblance between on the one hand, the episode of Seralius and his father-in-law, and on the other hand, Lord Denny’s brutal attitude toward his daughter, Honora, unhappily married to James Hay in 1607.

26 Bernadette Andrea, “Pamphilia’s Cabinet: Gendered Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania” in ELH, 68.2 (2001) p. 335-358.

27 Another reference to the cabinet as a box is found later in the Urania: when the enchantment in the Theater ends, only a book is left to disclose the secret story of Urania and Veralinda (Urania I, Book III, p. 455-456). During this episode, Veralinda, speaking to Leonius, alludes to the box which protects her story: “then opened she Cabinet wherein she found a writing in the Shepherds hand… ” (Urania I, Book III, p. 456).

28 Urania I, Book 1, p. 62.

29 Urania II, Book II, p. 270-271.

30 See Bernadette Andrea, op. cit., “Pamphilia’s choice of the sonnet for her poetic compositions, a form conventionally defined as a room, thus reinforces her cabinet as the privileged site for women’s subversive writing as ‘objects that speak’ in the romance.” (p. 347)

31 Urania I, Book II, p. 295.

32 C. Luckyj, A Moving Rhetoricke, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002.

33 C. Luckyj, op. cit., p. 136.

34 Urania I, Book II, p. 212.

35 Urania II, Book I, p. 40-41.

36 A lot of criticism has already been written on Antissia as a female writer and on her association with madness and indecency so I will not dwell on this topic in this paper. See especially the book by Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

37 See above footnote 16.

38 “The jealous and despightfull Melinea, when dancing did begin, of purpose let the paper fall, but so as Selinea must bee next to take it up, which soone she did, and opening it, discerned it was my hand, and that the subject of those lines was love, which was most true, but alas falsly held from her, to whom they, and my firmest thoughts, were onely bent and dedicated, with affections zeale, and zealous love.” (Urania I, Book II, p. 187)

39 Urania I, Book II, p. 187.

40 Jeff Masten, “‘Shall I turne blabb?’: Circulation, Gender and Subjectivity in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets ” in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, (eds.), Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

41 “I gaind the conveying of that letter to, as I had dunn of som of his beefor of most import. And soe I had of yours, butt kept them….” (Urania II, Book II, p. 387)

42 Urania II, Book II, p. 412.

43 Urania II, Book II, p. 411.

44 Urania was the first romance written by an Englishwoman.

45 This line by Lord Denny is reproduced in Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, p. 33.

46 See Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1993, p. 336.

47 Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle, Madison, The university of Wisconsin Press, 1990, p.190.

48 This association of writing with erasure may have been inspired by Wroth’s uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, in Arcadia, for instance, when Philoclea sees Zelmane writing verse with a willow stick, in a sandy bank: “And as soon as she had written them, a new swarm of thoughts stinging her mind, she was ready with her foot to give the new-born letters both death and burial.” (Book 2, Chap 17, p. 326, (ed.), Maurice Evans, Penguins Books, 1977). There is a similar example in sonnet 50 from Astrophel and Stella: “So that I cannot choose but write my mind, / And cannot choose but put out what I write, / While those poor babes their death in birth do find: / And now my pen these lines hath dashed quite”, yet ultimately Sidney does not destroy his verse as they contain Stella’s name: “But that they stopped his fury from the same, / Because their forefront bare sweet Stella’s name.”

49 Urania 1, Book I, p. 63.

50 See Bernadette Andrea, op. cit., “I shall return to the poem Pamphilia simultaneously births and buries, a poem Wroth pointedly preserves by embedding it in the narrative structure of the Urania (by contrast, Amphilanthus’s poetry is merely described, and none of it is transcribed, in the published romance). For now, however, I wish to stress the central paradox our introduction to Pamphilia as poet foregrounds: even as her poem is preserved at the metanarrative level, thus preventing her erasure as the Urania’s prototypical woman writer, the local narrative framing her poem reinscribes the contained position of the woman writer in the romance (and, by extension, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English culture). She may write, but only from the limits of her own room; she may preserve her writing, but only within the confines of her own mind.” (p. 335-358).

51 Susan J. Wiseman, “What Echo says: Echo in Seventeenth-century Women’s poetry” in Renaissance Configurations: Voices, Bodies, Spaces, (ed.), Gordon McMullan, New York, Palgrave, 2001.

52 Urania I, Book I, p. 1

53 Urania I, Book II, p. 272.

54 Urania I, Book II, p. 273.

55 Urania I, Book II, p. 273.

56 Urania I, Book IIII, p. 533-534.

57 in Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, p. 32.

58 Urania II, Book I, p. 80.

59 See above Urania I, p. 63.

60 We find the same pun based on the anagram of “worth” and “wroth” in Josuah Sylvester’s sonnet to her, appended to his funeral elegy for her brother William Sidney (1613), in which he refers to Lady Wroth as “Al-Worth, Sidneides, / In whom, Her Uncle’s noble Veine renewes.”

61 Urania II, Book I, p. 22.

62 Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance, Cornell UP, Ithaca and London, 1993, p.1.

63 Urania I, Book I, p. 87. The emphasis is mine.

64 Urania I, Book I, p. 92.

65 Urania I, Book I, p. 92.

66 Urania I, Book IIII, p. 583.

67 The image of the wounded, bleeding heart may also have been inspired by Spenser’s 1st sonnet in the Amoretti: “and reade the sorrowes of my dying spright, / written with teares in harts close bleeding book”.

68 Shannon Miller, “Constructing the Female Self: Architectural Structures in Mary Wroth’s Urania” in Renaissance Culture and the Everyday, (eds.), Patrician Fumerton and Simon Hunt, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999: “The act of writing, the act of expressing the female self, thus causes that very self to splinter into the figure of the writing woman who his punished and the figure of a woman who participates in, even constructs, this scene of violence. Wroth’s attempts to create and express her position as an autonomous, speaking subject threaten to erase that very self constituted by the act of writing.” p. 156-157.

69 Urania I, Book IIII, p. 655.

70 In Josephine A. Roberts (ed.), The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, P9, ll. 3-4, p. 90.

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Laëtitia Coussement-Boillot, « “Then tooke she a knife, and in the rine of an Oake insculped a sypher”: acts of writing in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 21 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2012, consulté le 23 août 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/410 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.410

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Auteur

Laëtitia Coussement-Boillot

Laetitia Coussement-Boillot is Lecturer at the University Paris 7-Denis Diderot, where she teaches British literature. She has co-edited Richard II: lectures d’une œuvre (Nantes, édition du Temps, 2004), with Gilles Bertheau, Coriolan: lectures d’une œuvre (Nantes, édition du Temps, 2006), with Charlotte Coffin, and “Silent rhetoric, dumb eloquence: the Rhetoric of Silence in Early Modern England” (Paris, Cahiers Charles V, Université Paris 7-Denis Diderot, n° 43, 2007), with Christine Sukic. She has published a book on William Shakespeare, Copia and Cornucopia: la rhétorique shakesperienne de l’abondance, Peter Lang, 2008. She is currently working on women writers in England in the 16th and 17th centuries and more particularly on Lady Mary Wroth.

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