ELH 68.2 (2001) 335-358
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Pamphilia's Cabinet: Gendered Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania
Pamphilia--prototype for female authorship in Lady Mary Wroth's The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621), daughter of the king of Morea on the Greek peninsula, and eventually queen of the kingdom of Pamphilia in Asia Minor--appears throughout Wroth's long prose romance as a contained woman writer divorced from the political movements that occupy her beloved Amphilanthus, Prince of Naples, King of the Romans, and ultimately Holy Roman Emperor. 1 In an exemplary scene of writing, Pamphilia, who is caught in one of the many love triangles that motivate the interwoven plot of the Urania, retreats to her chamber "taking a little Cabinet with her"; this cabinet contains her collected works, she "being excellent in writing" (U, 62). She reads her verse, writes some more, re-reads what she has written, and "[t]hen tooke shee the new-writ lines, and as soone almost as shee had given them life, shee likewise gave them buriall" (U, 63). 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). 2 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. 3
As numerous critics have noted, women writers during the English Renaissance were bound by the triple injunction to chastity, silence, and obedience reiterated in contemporary religious sermons, legal codes, educational tracts, and imaginative literature. 4 Analogously situated within a milieu that equates female virtue with silence and female heroism with endurance, Pamphilia is required to conceal her songs and [End Page 335] sonnets at the core of the concentric circles--from garden to chamber to closet to cabinet--that define her identity as an exemplar of the Renaissance woman writer. Nonetheless, as Margaret Ferguson demonstrates in her essay "A Room Not Their Own: Renaissance Women as Readers and Writers," the apparently inviolable triad of chastity, silence, and obedience depends upon a series of potentially volatile contradictions: most fundamentally, the counterintuitive extension of an economically motivated demand for chastity in elite women, who functioned as conduits for property exchanges amongst the landed aristocracy, to "all women, irrespective of their class status"; the corresponding ideological contradiction asserts the non sequitur of female silence as "a necessary sign of the (invisible) property of female chastity." 5 The final contradiction, the strained conflation of women's speech and writing, provokes Ferguson's incisive question: "Could not writing be construed in opposition to public speech rather than in conjunction with it?" 6
Mary Ellen Lamb makes precisely this argument for Renaissance women's writing in Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle, taking special note of Lady Mary Wroth's ongoing negotiation of her contradictory class and gender positions. Lamb lists five strategies employed by Renaissance women who aspired to become writers in a culture that demanded their textual silence as proof of their chastity and obedience. Women writers could represent themselves as impelled to write, and even to publish, by outside forces (eager friends or divine intervention), and thereby retain their aura of appropriately chaste passivity. They could act as translators, thus effacing their authorial agency by functioning as conduits for authoritative men's words (although Lamb notes that "[i]n a time when religion was inextricably connected to politics, translating religious works was often a political act," and hence less an effacement than a...