‘More Women: More Weeping’: The Communal Lamentation of Early Modern Women in the Works of Mary Sidney Herbert and Mary Wroth

Marion Wynne-Davies


This essay offers a textual comparison of Mary Sidney Herbert’s and Mary Wroth’s representations of female communities of mourning in a context in which communal, effusive female mourning was pejoratively allied to Catholicism, and all Protestants were expected to be moderate, rational and contemplative in their displays of grief. Influencing Sidney Herbert’s and Wroth’s depictions of female mourning were their actual participation in at least one such community; in the privacy of Wilton House, both women mourned the death of their relative Philip Sidney, having been excluded from the male-centred public memorialisations of his death. Closely examining the language and imagery of their writings, this article demonstrates the way these writers valorise female communal grief and challenge the legitimacy and validity of status-orientated male grief. Although scholars usually ignore Sidney Herbert’s translations, two of these, A Discourse of Life and Death and The Triumph, suggest her awareness of conventions that prescribed a quiet, calm and stoical acceptance of death for the dying individual and the mourner. In the latter text, however, she added a female community of mourners engaging in a scene of private grief; even more provocatively, in her elegy ‘The Dolefull Lay’, she presented a group of shepherdesses excessively and passionately mourning the death of Philip Sidney. Similarly, her translation of The Tragedy of Antonie contrasts the excessive mourning of the Egyptians, in particular Cleopatra and her servants, with the Roman’s primary concern with memorialisations associated with economics and fame. Read alongside Sidney Herbert’s translation of Psalm 49, these texts suggest her critique of the pomp associated with male grief as opposed to the genuineness of female mourning. In a similar manner, Wroth’s tragicomedy Love’s Victory features a community of female mourners who, in their commemoration of a supposedly dead couple, sidelines the male character, Philisses, and prioritises the female, Musella. In negating this male character’s concern with posthumous distinction, Wroth, going even further than her aunt -- whose Cleopatra turns away from her female companions to wallow in her grief -- underlines the importance not merely of all-female communities, but of the female bonds of friendship that constitute them.

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