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Pembroke, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of (1561–1621) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

sidney’s writers literary brother

Mary Sidney was born in 1561, the second of four children who survived infancy. Her grandfather was the duke of Northumberland, her uncles the earls of Leicester and Warwick, yet as the daughter of their sister Mary Dudley and of Sir Henry Sidney, the queen’s deputy in Ireland and Wales, she belonged to the gentry. While this fact dogged the careers of her brothers, Philip Sidney* and Robert Sidney,* Mary’s marriage in April 1577 to Henry Herbert, 2d earl of Pembroke, would have represented for her parents their most conspicuous success. She received a fairly broad humanist education at home (for languages she learned, at the least, Latin, French, and Italian), as well as training in such expected accomplishments as music and needlework, but in 1575, after the death of her younger sister Ambrosia, she attracted the attention of the queen, who took her under her wing at court. Her marriage to Pembroke was primarily a political match, cementing the loose Protestant faction formed by the collective interests of her father, uncles, and new husband. Yet it seems to have been a happy marriage, perhaps because of the prompt appearance of healthy male heirs, and to have allowed her a measure of freedom. In 1586, she lost first her parents and then her brother Philip, but in the years between her marriage and this turning point, she and Philip Sidney seem to have spent much time together at Wilton, Pembroke’s main country residence. To this period belongs all of Sidney’s surviving writing, and it is likely that it was done, as Sidney describes his writing of the Arcadia , “most of it in your presence, the rest, by sheetes, sent unto you, as fast as they were done.”

After her husband’s death in 1601 her public profile was substantially reduced, and less is known of her activities. She seems to have expended much energy administering her properties and dependencies and late in life to have traveled on the Continent, staying at Spa. She died in 1621 and did not live to see the publication that year of the Urania of her niece Mary Wroth.* But between 1586 and 1601 she rose to an unprecedented position as a patron, as writers who might have looked to Sidney for reward learned to offer their works to his sister. It is likely that, to some extent, she encouraged her depiction in works dedicated to, or mentioning, her as the “learned” sister of Sidney and inheritor of his muse. She received a stream of dedications from the likes of Abraham Fraunce, Nicholas Breton, and other actual or would-be clients of her husband, as well as more speculative addresses from writers with no personal connection to her. Some authors spent time at Wilton, though in most cases they were employed by the family in some other capacity—as tutor or secretary. She may have had some close dealings with Spenser. More important, she seems to have taken Samuel Daniel under her protection after the publication of his Delia (1592) and to have had some direct involvement in his play Cleopatra (1594). Daniel moved on to other patrons but returned finally to the countess and addressed the last book (1609) of his Civil Wars directly to her.

The countess of Pembroke is primarily remembered for her role in the publication of Sidney’s works. She conceived the composite 1593 Arcadia , which succeeded Greville’s unfinished 1590 edition; she probably acted to suppress a pirated edition of Astrophil and Stella ; and in the 1598 folio she assembled texts of all his works, including the Defence of Poetry and the unpublished Certaine Sonnets . While these editorial labors are seen as encouraging and legitimating her own writing—the completion of the Arcadia “out of the author’s own writings” forms an obvious analogy to her own completion of Sidney’s Psalmes —it is worth remembering that her only substantial printed work appeared in 1592, before the appearance of those editions of Sidney for which she was responsible.


Criticism of the countess of Pembroke has always been dominated by the myth of her brother. During her life she was seen primarily as a patron and praised as Sidney’s heir; the Psalmes , on which her contemporaries said her fame would rest, were known only to those with access to a manuscript copy. Since then, her writings have been dismissed as a minor contribution to the plan credited to her of reforming English letters through careful patronage; in addition, that most of her works existed only in manuscript made serious attention unlikely. Since Rathmell (1963) and Waller (1977) a more considered assessment has been possible, but the terms of this remain problematic. For earlier literary historians, the countess’ literary endeavors, as author, editor, and patron, were entirely a memorial to her brother. Elements shared by her works and those dedicated to her were traced back to Sidney’s writings. She was seen as basing her perceived tastes on a simplistic reading of Sidney’s agenda as presented in the Defence and of upsetting the natural evolution of English letters by prescriptiveness. The most stubborn version of this approach found evidence—in Daniel’s* dedication to his Cleopatra and in references in Breton, Sweeper, and, later, Aubrey—that she attempted to set up at Wilton a kind of college of writers, all busy writing neo-stoic closet dramas and quantitative verse. Her influence was imagined as extending to most major Elizabethan writers, but the result of this inflation of her aims was the myth of a consequently splendid failure to halt the golden age of English literature in its tracks. She may be the second most popular nonroyal female patron in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, but to receive a dedication is not to commission a work. Writers she may or may not have known dedicated to her the sort of works they thought she would, or should, reward; the connection to her own writings is, with one exception, tenuous. From the endless hexameters of Abraham Fraunce to the penitent meditations ventriloquized by Nicholas Breton, writers constructed an image of her—conventional and exaggerated—that critics have perhaps still not escaped.

While accepting that she would not, and probably could not, have written without the model of Sidney (the Psalmes are frequently described as a process of self-education), many recent critics have nevertheless found him a stumbling block. Where literary history had circumscribed the countess by the more substantial political and literary successes of her brother and sons—seeing her as the misguided and obsessive literary executor of Sidney and the fading mother of Jacobean England’s most important patron—modern critics have tried to discover a character and a writer who can be understood in her own terms. These efforts are hampered by the fact that it was possible for her to act in the public sphere only precisely by espousing the limiting view of her as dutiful sister and mother. Where the focus is on the dynamics of early-modern womanhood, this paradox is precisely the interest, but recent studies of the countess have tried to combine such a perspective with more traditional author-centered readings, and here it is a hindrance. A case in point is the authorship of the “Dolefull Lay.” Either she wrote a Spenserian poem because decorum allowed her no other way to print an elegy for her brother; or Spenser wrote a piece of ventriloquy; or, again, they collaborated. We cannot know which is the case because the result is the same: a woman’s voice failing to ring true in a male setting. It is quite likely that she was a capable politician in a man’s world and a brilliant creator of tapestries in a woman’s world, but history has limited her visibility and hence her perceived value in both. Biographies accordingly can find what they expect and approve in a woman of the period—be it piety or feistiness—yet the only substantial traces of her are her works, and most of these are translations. Attention has been paid to the significance of her achievement in the Psalmes primarily in formal terms—for in this overall “fore-conceit” (her brother’s term) one sees a vision that is hers alone—but most recently attempts have been made to prize from the choices she made, when translating or imitating the words of others, some essence—or voice—that can be called independent or self-assertive, personally and politically. The recognition of the bounds of this endeavor leads to the subtlest criticism of the writings and image of the countess. But inevitably, her critics reach a point of frustration that her response to the limits imposed on her is not the same as ours. As is not the case with her niece, Mary Wroth,* she created a space for herself as a literary figure by managing never to challenge the decorum of gender. The construction of the countess of Pembroke in the image of her reader that went on in the 1590s continues to this day.

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