In a certain neighborhood of Baton Rouge, word began to spread of a mysterious investigation. It was called Project Urania, and according to the rumor’s perpetrator—a very young man named John Gaines—it involved nothing less than a “top-secret NASA mission.” John’s mother, Jo Roberts, documented that story with considerable amusement in her acknowledgements section of the First Part of the Urania, which was published by Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies in 1995.

Project Urania was an immense undertaking, and an important one for Renaissance scholars. Until Roberts came along, the only way to read the Urania was to track down one of the 29 surviving copies from the 1621 print run. Even then, you could only read the First Part, since the Second Part existed only in Wroth’s handwritten manuscript at the Newberry.

“As feminist scholars and Renaissance scholars, Josephine Roberts and I felt it was a hugely important project to get the Urania published,” says Dr. Mary Beth Rose, the former director of the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies.

Roberts’ original idea was to edit only the Second Part, using the handwritten manuscript, since “requests to see the manuscript were becoming frequent, and the manuscript itself is fragile,” notes Dr. Suzanne Gossett, a member of the editorial board overseeing the project. Roberts applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—which turned it down on the grounds that it was “illogical” to edit the Second Part but not the First, Gossett recalls. Roberts then reapplied for a grant to edit both parts, and in 1989, the NEH came through with a $130,000 grant, the largest in the history of LSU’s English department.

“This was indeed a project of enormous ambition—genuinely Renaissance, outsize dimensions—dictated by a unique combination of circumstances,” says Dr. Janel Mueller, another member of the editorial board. “No wonder Jo Roberts found her Wroth project becoming her life’s vocation—it would have been that even if she had been permitted a longer life.”

One of Roberts’ self-appointed tasks involved tracking down all 29 copies of the First Part of the Urania, a process she described as “an adventure, full of delight and frustration.” In 1989, she learned about a copy owned by Dr. Charlotte Kohler, former editor of The Virginia Quarterly, who had written her doctoral dissertation on “The Elizabethan Woman of Letters” in 1934. Kohler had bought the copy in 1948 from an Elizabethan bookseller in Waukegan, Illinois, and agreed to let Roberts see it.

Since Roberts had already examined 26 copies of the Urania by then, she had no reason to think that this one would contain anything unusual. “Imagine my surprise,” she wrote, “as I turned over the leaves and saw Wroth’s own distinctive italic handwriting in the margins!”

“She passed it to me,” recalls Jim Gaines, “and said, ‘Is this what I think it is?’”

Kohler was kind enough to let Roberts examine the copy for her project, and gave her permission to publish the manuscript corrections—of which there were hundreds, all incorporated into the new edition. While most were either misspellings or simple mistakes by the printer, some were substantial rewritings.

Kohler had one more contribution to make. On August 11, 1994, she presented it with the following inscription: “For Josephine Roberts/with love and gratitude/Charlotte Kohler.”

It was an “absolutely unexpected gesture,” says Janel Mueller. “Jo’s understated pleasure in telling the story gave me pleasure, because Kohler had clearly recognized that Jo was the volume’s ideal possessor, and then had the generosity to act on her recognition.”

The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania was published in 1995, and represented a “model for scholarly excellence,” in the words of Sigrid King. It bore the simple dedication: “For Charlotte.”

Kohler, now well into her 90s, is still living in Charlottesville, though she had not realized that the book had been given to Penn. “I’m not interested in it anymore,” she said when contacted by telephone in September. “Thank you for calling.”

Roberts now set her sights on the Second Part of the Urania. It was, in many ways, a far more difficult task than the First Part, given the difficulties of deciphering a 375-year-old handwritten manuscript. But Roberts wasn’t too worried about that.

“She would sometimes say, ‘If anything happens to me, make sure the edition of the Urania gets completed,’” says Gaines. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that it does.’”

August 26, 1996. Most people won’t remember what they were doing that day. Jim and John Gaines will never have the luxury of forgetting.

At LSU, the semester had just gotten under way. Roberts had gone to a meeting at the Office of Academic Affairs, and had taken John, then 13, with her. After the meeting, they began to drive back to their home at 464 Wilton Drive, heading east on Interstate 10. As they approached Jefferson Highway, a pickup truck with a flatbed trailer attached to the rear came barreling over the bridge at a high rate of speed. The hitch to the trailer was jolted loose, suddenly, violently.

There was no chance for evasive action. The trailer was on top of them almost instantly. But Roberts did have one split-second to prevent a head-on collision by jerking the wheel to one side. Had she not, both she and John would have been killed instantly. Had she turned it to the left, the trailer would have smashed into the side occupied by her son.

Instead she turned—hard—to the right.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

Strange Labyrinth
By Samuel Hughes

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