Heather Wolfe, ed. The Literary Career and Legacy of Elizabeth Cary, 1613-1680. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. xiv+258pp. ISBN 978 1 4039 7016 9.

Daniel J. Cadman
Sheffield Hallam University

Daniel J. Cadman. "Review of Heather Wolfe, ed. The Literary Career and Legacy of Elizabeth Cary, 1613-1680. Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/cadmcary.htm>.


  1. Slender though it may be, the corpus of Elizabeth Cary’s literary works, or at least those works attributed to her, has provoked a large and varied range of critical responses. As Heather Wolfe comments in her introduction to this collection of essays, Cary’s former image as ‘a nearly forgotten playwright and eccentric Roman Catholic convert’ has been replaced with a fresh evaluation of her status as an accomplished ‘Renaissance woman historian, playwright, translator, and poet’ (1). After a lengthy period of obscurity Cary has provoked a remarkably robust range of criticism in a relatively short space of time to which this collection of essays represents a significant contribution.

  2. The book is divided into four sections, each focusing upon a specific work or a certain aspect of her literary legacy. The subject of the essays in the first section is Cary’s most famous work, the neo-Senecan closet play, The Tragedy of Mariam. Written during the first decade of James I’s reign, Mariam is noted as the first printed example of an original dramatic work written by a female author. The first chapter, by Ilona Bell, looks at the way in which the play is influenced by contemporary traditions of lyric poetry, particularly the Petrarchan sonnet. As Bell points out, ‘Cary’s play is writ “all in verse” and in rhyme. The iambic pentameter lines, quatrains with alternating rhymes, are punctuated by occasional couplets that produce sonnets, or truncated sonnets, throughout the play’ (17). Of particular interest to Bell is the way that the appropriation of poetic forms interrogates social conventions, especially relating to the social status of women. The second chapter, by Erin E. Kelly, examines Mariam’s status as Christian martyr, which, as Kelly acknowledges, has become ‘a critical commonplace’ (35), although ‘no one has discussed how Cary’s depiction of Mariam fits into the complex history of martyrology’ (35), an imbalance Kelly seeks to redress. She argues that Mariam diverges from the typical image of female martyrs through her failure to conform to contemporary models of feminine behaviour yet, paradoxically, it is this subversive non-conformity that seals her status as a martyr. In the third and final chapter of this section, Alison Shell looks at the relationship between Mariam and its principal source, Thomas Lodge’s translation of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, focusing primarily upon the view of history advanced by the preface rather than the play’s fidelity to the source.

  3. The second, and longest, section of this volume is dedicated to Cary’s prose history, Edward II, written during the 1620s but not published until 1680. The first two entries in this section concentrate on the political aspects of the text beginning with Curtis Perry’s reading of it against the culture of favouritism, particularly that which he labels ‘the Buckingham phenomenon’ (71). Mihoko Suzuki also considers the political aspects of Edward II, particularly the way in which it was influenced by, and participated in, a Machiavellian tradition of political writing which included the works of John of Salisbury and John Fortescue.  The final two chapters examine the history of the text in print. Jesse G. Swan considers the critical reputation of the octavo version which, he argues, has been unjustly marginalized in favour of the longer folio version. Swan argues that the octavo text can effectively be considered as a separate work with an agenda independent to that of the folio text. Margaret Reeves examines all four versions of the text and presents convincing evidence that they can all be linked to Cary and that the textual history of the work suggests that ‘for Cary, rethinking and rewriting the history of Edward II was an ongoing process’ (139).

  4.   The third section considers a set of works that have often been overlooked in Cary scholarship. The first of these is her influential translation of Jacques Davy du Perron’s The Reply to the most illustrious Cardinal of Perron (1630), which Karen L. Nelson argues was a means for Cary to engage in the religious debates provoked by the growing number of influential Catholics in England, emblematised by Charles I’s French queen, Henrietta Maria. Such debates also emerge in the following chapter by R. W. Serjeantson, which considers a lost treatise by Cary criticising the Protestant faith. Serjeantson speculates about the possible contents of this work and the impact it might have had upon her son, Lucius, and the circle of like-minded Protestant thinkers he had established. The final chapter in this section by Nadine N. W. Akkerman examines Cary’s authorship of two poems to commemorate the death of Buckingham. The elegy and the epitaph in question have a number of common features and were often coupled together in poetic miscellanies. Akkerman also considers the elegy and epitaph in relation to other poems on the subject and the culture of miscellany in general, as well as the links to the concerns relating to the culture of favouritism addressed in Edward II.

  5. The final section contains two essays examining Cary’s influence and literary legacy. Deana Rankin’s chapter looks at the period that Cary spent in Ireland from 1622 until 1626, when, on a return visit to London, she converted to Catholicism, making her official role as wife to the Lord Protector untenable. Rankin comments that this period has been so marginalized in Cary studies that it can be likened to Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’. Cary conversed and associated with many Irish and old English Catholics, including Richard Bellings who dedicated to Cary his prose work, A Sixthe Booke to the Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia. The final chapter by Marion Wynne-Davies considers the influence Cary had upon the writings of her children. With reference to the writings of Lucy, Anne, Patrick, and Lucius Cary, she argues that the overarching influence upon them was their mother’s attempts to convert them to the Catholic faith. Wynne-Davies argues that in these works the ‘investment in faith and spiritual conversion is paramount. Like their mother, Lucy, Anne, and Patrick (in his devotional poems) espouse Catholicism, while Lucius offers a sharp, but mirroring focus upon Protestantism’ (237-8).

  6. The essays in this collection are uniformly lucid and engaging and show that Cary scholarship remains decidedly healthy. The essays that focus upon Mariam and Edward II in the first two sections shed new light upon these oft-studied texts, while the items in the final two sections examine aspects of Cary’s life and work that have often been marginalized in existing studies. This collection therefore represents an invaluable contribution to Cary scholarship and will also prove most useful to scholars with interests in women’s writing and the position of women in the early modern era.


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

© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).