R.E. Pritchard, ed. Lady Mary Wroth: Poems. A Modernized Edition. Staffordshire: Keele UP, 1996. xvii+222 pp. ISBN 1-85331-169-3 Cloth.
Joyce Green MacDonald
University of Kentucky

Joyce Green MacDonald. "Review of Lady Mary Wroth: Poems. A Modernized Edition." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May, 1997): 12.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_mac1.html>.

  1. That a modern-spelling edition of the poems of Lady Mary Wroth has appeared, 13 years after Josephine Roberts' first collected Poems, indicates the continuing vitality of contemporary teachers' interest in introducing Renaissance women writers to their undergraduates. That it should be Wroth whose poetry is the occasion of such a handsomely produced modernized edition perhaps suggests not only that women writers are finding steady places on 16th and 17th century curricula even outside specifically Renaissance classrooms, but that--in the wake of the 1995 appearance of Roberts' monumental edition of the first part of the Urania and of Naomi Miller's Changing the Subject (1990), the first book discussing Wroth's entire output--we are in the middle of something like a Wroth boom.

  2. These strike me as welcome possibilities, possibilities which bring with them the opportunity to pay detailed attention to how processes of canonicity operate in the case of early modern women writers, to the extent that they may. Why Wroth? And why now? Pritchard's editorial practices may offer some clues to answering these questions. For one thing, that Pritchard's Poems appear in modernized spelling and punctuation indicates that its primary use--at least in North American settings--will be undergraduate rather than graduate classrooms; the book, complete with brief glosses on word meanings and contexts within Wroth's oeuvre printed at the bottom of the page, is aimed at getting Wroth out there rather than at facilitating professional study. From what I have been able to gather from my colleagues who teach Wroth, most classroom attention is devoted to the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus and sometimes there only to its corona; this seems due largely to the time pressures of teaching a semester-long survey course, which admittedly is not as institutionalized in classrooms outside the United States as it is within it. Having more Wroth more conveniently available than photocopies from Roberts or from the Brown University Women Writers Project might well move my American colleagues not only to teach wider selections, but also to integrate her more fully across undergraduate course offerings. Pritchard's Wroth is a volume in the Renaissance Texts and Studies series produced by the British Northern Renaissance Seminar Text Group, which has designed its texts "for both students and the general reader," according to its book jacket. The publishers are bold to assume that there is a general audience for Wroth's poems, but their assumption might work to effect a productive disruption of the disciplinary boundaries inhibiting integrated studies of the early modern period.

  3. Acknowledging the democratic potential of a modern-spelling Wroth (to the degree that a volume priced at 25 is truly accessible enough to alter course-design practices), however, I must also consider what Pritchard's Wroth does not do. For one thing, it does not offer a truly complete Wroth. Neither did Roberts' Poems, which includes all the lyrics from Urania, including the sonnet sequence, as well as songs from the middle three acts of Wroth's pastoral drama Love's Victory. Because she based her text of the Love's Victory songs on the shorter Huntington manuscript of the play rather than the Penshurst manuscript, more than 500 lines longer, Roberts does not include some poems which are available only in Penshurst. Pritchard bases his text of the poems on Roberts, borrowing her helpful numbering system for locating individual works within the sonnet sequence and the two versions of Urania, but omits the Love's Victory lyrics altogether and without comment. Moreover, his modernized version of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus passes over Roberts' convictions about the significance of differences in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and word division between its 1621 appearance in the published Urania and Wroth's autograph copy of the sequence. Granted, a volume aimed at "general readers" is not likely to include a full discussion of textual variants (Pritchard's notes indicate some of them), and the introduction remarks that 1621 should not necessarily be considered authoritative in every detail, but I do wish that an editor intending to export Wroth to the most broadly conceived notion of what constitutes Renaissance studies had taken a little more of Wroth's textual complexity along for the ride.

  4. One of the unspoken implications of a modern Wroth is that there is a stable canon of works which defines her. According to Pritchard's edition, reading Wroth means reading Urania, since his volume includes nothing which does not originate from its two parts; and yet, of course, Urania is absent. The lyrics are a body of work which can be extracted and modernized for wide contemporary circulation, but having them be all of Wroth that appears in a semester may run the risk of misrepresenting the nature of her literary accomplishment by neglecting the prose narrative which provides their context. I also wonder whether thinking of Wroth solely in terms of her elegant songs, or even of the sonnet sequence, with the writerly tour de force of its corona, may not lead students into premature assumptions of her possession of a certain formalist quality and thus her suitability as the subject of a revival of an old historicism, comfortingly denuded of attention--say--to class or race. After all, much existing criticism of Wroth's work dwells either on the cultural glamour of her birth family or on recuperating her as a kind of heroically exemplary writing Amazon who committed the rare act for an early modern woman of publishing her work, in defiance of well-known strictures toward chastity, silence, and obedience. In this scenario, Wroth's consciousness of genre becomes a tool for arguing her membership in the mainstream of Renaissance literature, not the tributary marked "women writers" (see, in this connection, Margaret Ferguson's thoughtful review essay in Feminist Studies). The fact that more poems survive to be reprinted from the published Urania than from its unpublished manuscript continuation may also allow to pass unquestioned the modernist assumption that publication is what separates the sheep from the goats--the professionals from the dilettantes, the men from the women--among early modern writers. Is Wroth a candidate for contemporary revival of interest in her work primarily because she published such a massive, unquestionably booklike artifact as her romance--because, that is, Urania is indisputably a real book and so its female author must be a "real" writer? If so, following Roberts' lead and thinking about the differences between 1621 and the holograph Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, in light perhaps of Arthur Marotti's or Elizabeth Hageman's recent discussions of Renaissance manuscript culture, may be necessary prerequisites to resituating Wroth as a seventeenth-century writer, instead of as a version of Virginia Woolf's self-supporting woman novelist before her time. Love's Victory may offer chances for similar alterations in what I skeptically fear is an emerging over-normalized view of Wroth the writer; it hearkens back as firmly as does the Urania to literary styles of the past but, unpublished and unperformed, it does so within markedly different circumstances of audience reception.

  5. I think it is a good thing for students to get their hands on Wroth's poetry, and Pritchard's modernized edition is an appealing alternative for readers who have no compelling reason or desire to engage with seventeenth-century spelling, word division, or punctuation. As much as it pains me, I must admit that such students exist and get on with the job of teaching them about early modern women writers. What matters now, in the midst of this Wroth boom or boomlet, is not to let her early modern particularities of gender and genre get homogenized away in the name of recirculating standardized versions of her poems.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1997, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(May 5, 1997)