Mary Sydney – the Swan of Avon?

Mary Sydney Herbert (1561-1621), Countess of Pembroke, writer, translator and editor, and leader of a famed literary circle. 

Shakespeare wrote rich and complex parts for women which have never been surpassed – is it possible that they were written by a woman? Mary Sydney was the most brilliant and well-educated woman of her time, second only (perhaps) to Queen Elizabeth herself. She was a writer, translator and editor of renown, and the first English woman in history to gain a significant literary reputation. Her name should be better known – two hundred years before Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the first wave of great women writers in the nineteenth century, culminated by literary parity in the twentieth. It is remarkable that two hundred years after Mary Sydney’s lifetime, women writers were still disguising their gender by using male pseudonyms. 

Mary Sydney’s grandfather, John Dudley Duke of Northumberland, had been put to death by Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s infamous predecessor and half-sister, commemorated for all time as ‘Bloody Mary’, and the family’s lands confiscated. Under Elizabeth, however, the Sydneys were restored to wealth and favour. Mary and her sisters were given a superb education, on a par with anyone in the country. She was trained in rhetoric and music, deeply read in in classical literature and scripture, and fluent in French, Italian, and Latin, with some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

She married into a powerful family, becoming Countess of Pembroke at the age of 15. The Pembrokes’ had a country seat at Wilton House, quite close to the Wiltshere River Avon (about three and a half miles), as well as Baynard Castle and many other properties in London.

At Wilton Mary Sydney made herself the doyenne of a famous salon of writers, artists and musicians, including some of the most famous writers of her day, such as Edmund Spenser and Michael Drayton and of course her famous younger brother, Sir Philip Sydney. Mary herself was a talented musician and poet.

When Philip died on the battlefield in 1586 at the tragically young age of thirty-one, fighting to free the Holland from Catholic Spain, Mary entered a period of intense mourning. As a woman she could not participate in Philip’s magnificent funeral in Oxford or have her elegies included in the books dedicated to Philip which were published by the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Leiden, Holland.

In 1588, Mary Sydney re-entered public life as the Countess of Pembroke in a procession through London to resume her place at Court. Between 1588 and 1601 she became a public literary figure, serving as patron to all those writers who had honoured her brother, including Edmund Spenser, and taking up the task of finishing, editing and publishing her brother’s literary works, including  the Arcadia, and a verse translation of the biblical psalms which was widely circulated and influenced important later writers including John Donne. At this time she also published her own eulogies and elegies to her brother. As a woman, convention prevented her from publishing independent works of the imagination under her own name, so all we know ‘officially’ about her writing is the collaborations with her dead brother, her eulogies and her major translations. It is extremely unlikely that this is all she wrote, and therefore a legitimate object of inquiry to look for traces of other work published anonymously or under a pseudonym. Her unattributed works are likely to be extensive, and it is possible that we already know some of them under other names. In discussing the identity of any writer at this time we have to bear in mind that anonymous or pseudonymous publication was the norm, not the exception, during the turbulent first thirty years of Elizabeth’s reign, contemporaneous (paradoxically) with the flowering of the English literary renaissance. In the case of a female writer (and Mary Sydney was not the only one), the layers of concealment will be even deeper. 

Mary Sydney had four children including William Herbert, later the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, and Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery. The First Folio of Shakespeare’s works was dedicated to these two brothers, and the sonnets to ‘Mr W H’. The Pembrokes intermarried with the de Veres (see Candidate 3) and became leading patrons of the London theatre.

After the death of her husband in 1601, Mary Sydney lived the rest of her days somewhat reclusively, remaining in London.

Mary Sydney’s best-known portrait shows her wearing a ruff with a swan motif. 


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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