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Cary, Elizabeth (1586/1587–1639) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

mariam life falkland cary’s

Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, most famously the author of The Tragedy of Mariam , was born at the Priory of Burford in Oxfordshire in 1586 or 1587. Many of the   details of her life currently known are drawn from The Lady Falkland, Her Life , which was no doubt written by one of her four daughters in the 1640s. This narrative provides the major dates and events in Cary’s life, but the account relies heavily upon hagiographic anecdotes. Consequently, although we have much more information available to us about Cary than about many other female writers from this era, the individual stories about her may not be reliable. A subsequent biography, The Life of Elisabeth Lady Falkland, 1585–1639 , published by Lady Georgiana Fullerton in 1883, draws most of its material from the daughter’s text. Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson include a copy of The Lady Falkland, Her Life with their edition of The Tragedy of Mariam ; thus, it is now widely accessible.

The young Elizabeth Tanfield was apparently a voracious reader and talented linguist, despite the opposition of her mother. She reputedly convinced her servants to provide her with candles for reading, thereby running up a large debt to them, which she repaid upon her marriage. At the age of fifteen, she was married to Sir Henry Cary, later Lord Falkland. All indications suggest that this match grew solely from a financial arrangement between the families. Elizabeth and Henry had eleven children together, but their marriage seems to have been predominantly characterized by physical and emotional distance. The couple initially lived apart for several years, while Henry was engaged in military service, and Elizabeth spent much of this time unhappily with her mother-in-law. It is presumed that The Tragedy of Mariam was written during this period, c. 1602–8. The play was licensed at the Stationer’s Register in 1612, then published in quarto the following year. Also during this period Elizabeth secretly converted to Catholicism, although she did not make her conversion public until 1625.

Lord Falkland was appointed lord deputy of Ireland in 1622, a post he held until 1629. Elizabeth Cary remained in Ireland only until 1625, but she devoted much of her time to the Irish population, an unusual decision for an English resident in Ireland during this period. While there, she studied the Irish language and attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to provide schooling for the locals (Lewalski, 184). It is not clear whether Elizabeth Cary was sent back to England to get away from growing rebellion in Ireland or in response to her increasingly evident Catholic sympathies, but we know that she remained estranged from her husband until his death in 1633. The couple fought bitterly over finances during this final separation, with Elizabeth reportedly living on the brink of starvation.

Her religious problems continued even after her husband’s death, however. Although she successfully converted six of her children to Catholicism and helped them move to the Continent, where they joined religious orders, she continued to face the religious opposition of her eldest son, Lucius, the second Lord Falkland, who coincidentally was a friend of Ben Jonson,* another famous convert to Catholicism. Elizabeth Tanfield Cary died in 1639.


Critical responses to Elizabeth Cary reflect the concerns that dominate in the study of early modern women generally. Current scholarship is devoted in part to the dissemination and expansion of historical and textual knowledge about Elizabeth Cary and her writings. At the same time, critics are working to illuminate the significant issues represented in her works. Consequently, scholarship on Elizabeth Cary is found both in texts discussing women writers during this period and in books and essays that focus on literary subjects.

Many readings of Cary’s works posit intersections between the author’s life and her literary concerns. Tina Krontiris, for instance, uses examples both from Mariam and from Edward II to suggest that “Cary’s reluctance to support openly rebellious behaviour in her life carries over into her literary work” (81). Similarly, Betty Travitsky notes that while critics need to look at more than connections between authors’ lives and their texts, “one surely adds a dimension of interest and meaning to the reading of Cary’s play by remembering that it was written when her own efforts to subordinate herself to her husband were presumably at their height” (192). Margaret W. Ferguson separates most of her biographical treatment of Cary from her discussion of Mariam in her essay “The Spectre of Resistance” but remarks that the dramatic text probably included for Cary and her initial readers “something we might call the woman author’s signature ” (Ferguson, “The Spectre,” 239).

Less biographical treatments of Cary’s work include Catherine Belsey’s discussion of the character of Mariam as “the subjectivity which precedes and undergoes the conflict” (172) in a play that displays a “consistent unease about its heroine’s right to speak” (173) and Dympna Callaghan’s essay on The Tragedy of Mariam , which demonstrates that the “discourse of race” in the drama is “a vital mechanism for the construction and negotiation of difference” (177).

Since Weller and Ferguson’s modern edition of The Tragedy of Mariam has made Cary’s work and the details of her life readily available, it is likely that future scholarship will focus more on the literary and cultural implications of the drama and less upon issues of biographical concern.

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