Figures in History: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Mary_Sydney_HerbertLady Mary Herbert, nee Sidney, was one of the foremost minds of Elizabethan England. More literary works in the period are dedicated to her than to any other woman, save only the Queen. She wrote and translated herself, and was perhaps the first female playwright in England; though her plays were never performed, one likely served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. When her brother, Philip Sidney, a famous courtier and poet, died in the war in the Netherlands, Oxford and Cambridge published elegies to him and refused to let her contribute — so she basically thumbed her nose at them, marched herself to a printer, and published them herself — in addition to completing Philip’s last great work and publishing it as “The Countress of Pembroke’s Arcadia”.

Lady Mary was part of a family of extraordinary women. Her mother, Mary Sidney, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth during her early reign, and in fact nursed the queen through smallpox in 1562. The queen survived, but Mary Sidney was badly scarred and never really appeared in public again. (The queen was less than gracious about this). Mary Herbert was also the aunt of the later English poet Lady Mary Wroth.

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Me at Ludlow, geeking out over imagining my heroine running around this castle as a little girl

Mary grew up at Ludlow Castle (the ruins of which I was lucky enough to visit this summer), most often inseparably in the company of her sister Ambrosia. Their mother reportedly dressed them alike, and when Ambrosia died young, Mary was very greatly affected by the loss. To help her in her grief (and perhaps finally feeling a bit of pity for her erstwhile friend Mary Sidney), Queen Elizabeth suggested that young Mary come to court. Not long afterwards, her uncle Leicester (yes, that Leicester) arranged a marriage for Lady Mary with the much-older Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. He probably had about thirty years on her, but this actually seemed to work out quite well for them. His first two wives had left him with no children, and then Mary popped out four in five years. He was so delighted with her over this that thereafter, he pretty much gave her whatever she wanted. Invite over poets and writers for readings? Sure. Write your own play and want your friends to come over and read it? No problem. Custom-made laboratory so that you can have botanists and chemists come work and study just because it interests you? Go right ahead.

We don’t have any letters or diaries that speak to the personal nature of their relationship, but those details suggest to me that Henry Herbert was utterly besotted with his clever young wife. When he died, his will left her a truly enormous sum of money on the stipulation that she not remarry — and she never did.

That brings me to really the only scandal anyone ever came up with surrounding the Countess of Pembroke. Truly, she was beloved at just an absurd level. The royal court of Elizabethan England was, at best, a petty and back-biting place, and at worst, downright cutthroat. Yet almost no one has anything bad to say about Mary. She was considered beautiful, gracious, talented, witty, and virtuous. The only teensy tiny little blot on that near perfect record is an implication that she might have started having an affair with a doctor sometime after 1600 — by which point she would have been in her 40s, past childbearing, and probably she would’ve married him if it hadn’t been for the loss of income that would’ve entailed. It’s also possible that the scandal-lite was being pushed by one of her own sons (who did not live up to their mother’s virtuous reputation) who wanted to force her to remarry so that they’d have more cash on hand.

Ultimately, her reputation in her own day is summed up in her epitaph:

Underneath this sable hearse,
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

If a female English-speaking writer were looking for a patron saint, you could do far worse than Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

Reading Recs for Women’s History Month

Fuse Literary (the agency that represents me) ran a reclist on Tumblr for Black History Month all through the month of February, and they’re looking to do so again in March for Women’s History Month. Since this is an area of personal interest and importance to me, I took up the challenge when they asked for some recs — and I thought I’d share them with y’all, too.

Admittedly my list cants towards medieval and Renaissance studies in England and western Europe, since that was the main focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies, with a hefty dose of the classics thrown in for good measure. I’m hoping that the recs I see this month will help me build a diverse to-read list! I need to expand my horizons past the bounds of what I focused on in school. And yes, not all of the historical fiction is perfect from the view of historiography (neither, for that matter, are some of the older nonfiction titles) — but that’s okay. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to serve the purposes of getting readers interested in the topic and of raising the visibility of women in history.  My rec doesn’t mean that the book is 100% flawless — it means I enjoyed it, I think others would, and I think it helps the cause of women’s history month.

Historical Fiction

  • Daughters-of-RomeKate Quinn’s Roman series: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City, releasing this week. A fascinating era of Imperial Rome in which the women behind the fasces played a hugely significant role. I’ve really enjoyed these books — they were a major influence a few years ago when I was deciding to write Aven — particularly because there are so many different women in them. No woman has to be Everything. They can be difficult, stubborn, manipulative, unlikeable. They can — and do — make mistakes. And, they’re part of a vibrant world, one in which women played a huge role, both in public and in private.
  • catherine called birdyKaren Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, a YA novel (maybe considered MG now? I have trouble with that boundary since as a kid I read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted) depicting 13th century England through the eyes of a knight’s daughter. One of my all-time favorite books. Catherine’s voice is so wonderful, and it’s a great thing when a historical book makes a nine-year-old reader see herself in it.
  • Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, about her niece Nefertari. I really enjoy these for how they speak to the interplay of political power and religion in ancient Egypt, and to the role that women played in the establishment of the pharaoh’s power and legacy.
  • Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra’s Daughter series, about Cleopatra Selene, the only child of Cleopatra to actually survive to full adulthood and make a life for herself. Michelle Moran also has a book on her. They’re quite different — Dray’s takes a slight historical fantasy angle, endowing Selene with the powers of Isis — but they’re both pretty revelatory for an interesting but often-overlooked figure in early imperial Rome.
  • Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, a novel about Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II. This book doesn’t shy away from the ugly things about the era, but it still represents Nell as a buoyant character, in spite of all the difficulties she faces.
  • DovekeepersAlice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers: the siege and fall of Masada through the eyes of four Jewish women. The narrative tone of this book is pretty different from a lot of historical fiction, but it’s an engrossing read.
  • Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History, a novel of Byzantine Empress Theodora, one of the greatest true rags-to-riches stories you’ll find. I wish it spent a bit more time on her later life, but it’s still great for opening the door to one of history’s all-time most-fascinating women.
  • Jean Plaidy. Just. All of it. She wrote a ton of books from the perspectives of notable women, mostly medieval and Renaissance, mostly but not entirely English and French. She makes them all the heroines of their own stories — even when they’re the villains in each others’. They’re older books, so the historiography approach isn’t, y’know, fully modern, but I still love these books for making the women of famous eras so visible.

Nonfiction

So — What are some of your favorite books about women in history, fiction or nonfiction? I only have about eight books sitting on my to-read shelf at the moment, so clearly I need some more. 😉

Pride and Profanity: On the history and application of foul language

I’d like to thank Mr. Mike Huckabee, self-appointed moral arbiter, for inspiring me to write this post. I’ve been meaning to for a long time, because it relates to one of my favorite facts about the development of the English language, but his most recent round of sexist nonsense prompted me to finally do it. It seems Mr. Huckabee is clutching his pearls over the fact that women, astonishingly, curse. Specifically, New York women, but as a born and bred Virginia belle, I’m afraid I have to break it to Mr. Huckabee that we Southerners, too, swear. Like fucking ladies. What’s more, this isn’t a recent development. Women didn’t start swearing at the same time they got all uppity with their whore pills and their wanting to vote. Women have been experts at the profane for pretty much as long as there’s been language.

1341798306124_7698241We English-speakers have the Dutch to thank for a lot of our profanity. A fair bit came from Germanic and Scandinavian dialects, but in the late 15th-century, we get an influx of new dirty words from the Netherlands. Why? Because swearing like a sailor is nothing new. See, in 1476, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, and it took off like a shot (particularly when Richard III eased restrictions on them during his brief reign). Printing presses need paper. The Dutch had a lot of it to trade. So English ships start spending a lot more time in Dutch ports. Literally and, we must suppose, figuratively. The English sailors, while picking up paper from the Netherlands, also pick up precisely the words you’d expect them to learn in taverns and brothels. They bring the words back to England, where they proliferate, not just mouth-to-mouth, but on that very paper, which helped English-speakers learn all sorts of new vocabulary — the nice and the naughty.

So, if Mr. Huckabee is troubled by our goddamn dirty mouths, he can blame William Caxton.

I learned a lot of this while researching a paper on sexualized insults in grad school — and part of what I learned is that women in the early modern period swore as profusely and as creatively as men. How do we know? Thanks to court cases for slander and defamation, well-preserved in ecclesiastical records. Frankly, the words that passed their pretty little lips would blister poor Mr. Huckabee’s fucking ears. Some of my favorites:

  • gull snowted whore
  • hott arsed Bitch
  • saddlenosed whore
  • scurvie fatt arst quean
  • gouty legged whore
  • burnt-arse whore
  • tinckers truell
  • curtaile jade
  • And, in one instance of breathtaking verbal stamina, a woman reported being called: “Tinker whore, tinker’s bitch, whore, quean, drab and scold, dronkard, dronken whore, dronken quean, dronken harlot, dronken drab, and dronken scold, a noughtie, an evell and a bad and lewd woman.'”

You may notice that pretty much all of those terms have to do with attacking another woman under the context of sexual deviancy. (There’s also a weird association of tip-tilted noses with transgression, which I find a bit concerning on behalf of my own face). When political, economic, and social systems deny women true power, words are often the strongest weapons they have — and it’s generally easier to attack each other than to attack the men holding the power — and when your value as a human being has been socially linked to your sexual chastity, then attacking that is the easiest way to make yourself of superior worth to another woman. That hasn’t really changed in 400 years, sad to say. Unfortunately, a lot of the profanity women use today is still in the service of tearing each other down thanks to the burden of internalised misogyny.

There’s a lot to unpack about why people use the words they do, how language can help you to claim or cause you to relinquish power, how certain words get coded as appropriate or inappropriate, whether or not some derogatory terms are worth reclaiming, and so forth. And certainly, there’s a time and a place for formal and informal language, and part of being a grown human is knowing when and with whom you can talk in certain ways. There’s been a big discussion in the romance novel community over the past few years about the value of saltier terms for body parts versus the oft-mocked epithets (bratwursts, indeed), and a lot of genre fiction has to decide whether profanity enhances the tone or takes a reader out of the story (particular in historical and fantasy genres — as though no one cursed before the Industrial Revolution). What can you get away with? When is the use of a single word a hill worth dying on? And then there’s the fascinating evolution of which words are “worst”. Once upon a time in Western culture, religious-themed cussing was the worst, punishable by law, but now, “damn” and “hell” and invocations of deities are considered the mildest curses. Thanks to the Victorians, we’re much more squeamish about profanity related to body parts and functions, and, of course, of those, we’re most troubled by the ones about sex. The dirty words themselves haven’t evolved much in a while, but the weight we give them ebbs and flows.

Language isn’t just the tool we use to negotiate culture; it’s part of what we engage with, feel our way through, and trip over as well. But I’ll be damned as a tinker’s drab-tailed whore if some busybody dude with his head still lodged in a half-Victorian, half-Leave-It-To-Beaver fantasy of female delicacy gets to pass judgment on me and my words based on what he’s decided is “trashy”.

Fuck that noise.

If anyone wants to read my full paper “”Thou art an whore an errant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche’: The Language of Sexual Slander in Early Modern England”, which delves into more of the details of why early modern women used these terms, who they used them against, where they stood when they used them (and why that matters), and why that developed as a ground for power-play 400 years ago, then download away! If you want to learn more about the history and grammatical application of swearing, I highly recommend the blog Strong Language, which examines profane predilections from a solid linguistic grounding. (One of my favorite posts regards just how many fucks one can give). Go forth and cuss better-informed, my friends!