Heather Wolfe. Elizabeth Cary Lady Falkland: Life and Letters. Cambridge: Renaissance Texts from Manuscript no. 4 and Tempe: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies vol. 230, 2001. 544pp. RTM ISBN 1 903092 03 5. MRTS ISBN 0 86698 272 8.
Marie-Louise Coolahan
National University of Ireland, Galway

Coolahan, Marie-Louise. "Review of Heather Wolfe. Elizabeth Cary Lady Falkland: Life and Letters." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 11.1-6 <URL:

  1. Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland (1586-1639) is one of the best known women writers of the seventeenth century. The works on which her reputation rests span a variety of genres: her drama, The Tragedie of Mariam, was published in 1613; her prose history of the reign of Edward II, originally attributed to her husband, was published in two different editions in 1680, and her translation of a theological treatise by the French Catholic Cardinal Perron, A Reply to … the Answeare of the King of Great Britaine, was published in 1630. In addition to these surviving works (and the eighteen letters and petitions included here), Cary reportedly translated the remainder of Perron's works, Seneca's Epistles, some works of Ludovicus Blosius, and engaged in theological controversy by contributing her own reply to her son in the printed debate between Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland, and the Catholic Walter Montague. She apparently also wrote a verse history of Tamburlaine, an advice letter to her eldest son and daughter, a quantity of verse on the Virgin Mary, and the lives of three female saints--none of which are known to survive. She was evidently a most learned and literary woman: her daughter tells us that she learnt French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, Irish and Transylvanian to varying levels of competence during her life.

  2. However, Cary is equally well known for the sensational circumstances of her life. She married Sir Henry Cary in 1602, and travelled with him to Ireland, where he served as Lord Deputy from 1622 to 1629. In 1625, Elizabeth Cary returned to London, and she became a high-profile convert to Roman Catholicism in 1626. Her conversion cost her the support of her husband, who sought a separation from his wife, and she led the remainder of her life in some poverty in London, seeking both financial redress and custody of their children. The drama of her life has often led to a strong biographical emphasis in criticism of her work, and it is with the documentation of the life that this edition is concerned.

  3. The Lady Falkland: Her Life is a biography of Cary, written primarily in the hand of her daughter Lucy, with corrections in the hands of her daughter Mary and son Patrick, and an unidentified fourth hand. The circumstances of the Life's composition are compelling in and of themselves--four of Cary's six daughters became Benedictine nuns at Cambrai, while her two youngest sons also professed in French religious houses, but returned to Protestantism later in life. Its composition in the monastery of Our Lady of Consolation, Cambrai, clearly colours its biographical agenda, and Wolfe's new edition pays ample and justified attention to the Life as a hagiographical text in itself, rather than as a tool for interpreting Cary's surviving writings.

  4. Wolfe usefully locates this new edition in relation to existing editions, which have tended to emphasise either Cary's Anglo-Catholicism, or the biography as a literary-critical tool. She makes a good case for this edition as the pre-eminent version, not least due to its meticulous transcription practice (extending to the faithful transcription of struck-through punctuation marks). The syntax itself is hard to follow in places, in which case Wolfe provides elucidatory notes.

  5. Most usefully, this edition presents the life alongside a large number of letters written by and concerned with the various lives of Elizabeth Cary, her husband and children. Thus, we get a fuller account of this failed seventeenth-century marriage and its consequences. This narrative is dominated by financial and religious concerns: Elizabeth Cary's post-conversion poverty is placed within the context of her husband's complicated legal suits and pursuit of payments due to him from the crown. A number of clearly defined voices are brought to bear on the events surrounding the family. We can cross-reference the Life with the epistolary documents: for example, the episode recounted in the Life in which Elizabeth Cary arranged for her sons Patrick and Henry to be kidnapped from her eldest son's home, and transported to Catholic Europe, is substantially enriched by the reproduction of four reports of the King's Bench and Star Chamber examinations of their mother on the same events. The inclusion of these documents also highlights the European context for English Catholics: her children's various affiliations with religious houses in France and Italy, with English ambassadors to Spain, present us with a broader picture of the English Catholic experience at the time, extending the already established narrative to embrace succeeding generations. The letters of 1650, for instance, juxtapose the overlapping narratives of Cary's son Patrick as he seeks advancement in Europe, and her grandson Henry, fourth Viscount Falkland, who emerges as something of a wild child, encouraged to remain travelling in Europe until a time when his advisors trust that he will be capable of maintaining, rather than dissipating, his English estates.

  6. This edition of the Life and Letters, then, presents us with a comprehensive, scholarly, and thoroughly researched picture of a seventeenth-century family, split by matters of religion, which is of great benefit to Cary scholars and historians of the period alike.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).