Three hundred and fifty years after her death, Lady Mary Wroth is part of the canon. It hasn’t always been that way.

“The whole shift in the ability to study women in the early modern period as if they were creators, rather than passive recipients as readers of male literature, is a change since I was in graduate school,” says Dr. Daniel Traister, curator in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department at Van Pelt and an adjunct professor of English. “Now all of this has changed, because of the work of people like Jo Roberts.”

“Wroth is now perhaps the most—certainly one of the most—studied of all early modern English women writers,” says Suzanne Gossett. “But without the editions of her poems and of the Urania that Jo Roberts published or started, this would be impossible.”

Furthermore, points out Mary Beth Rose: “The availability and subsequent interpretations of the Urania will alter our view of women writers in the Renaissance. Just think of Virginia Woolf’s assertions in A Room of One’s Own that women in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t write. It will enrich gender studies in all of the centuries.”

Dr. Maureen Quilligan, former professor of English at Penn and now chair of the English department at Duke University, recently finished a book titled Incest and Agency in Elizabeth’s England, which will be published next year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. It takes the Urania as its central text, and Quilligan freely acknowledges that she could not have written it without Roberts’ work. She also notes that the insights she gained from it were enormously helpful to her understanding of other English Renaissance writers—including Shakespeare. “I think [women writers like Wroth] are absolutely crucial for a far more historically accurate understanding of what everybody was doing at the time,” she says. “Reading the women makes us understand how badly we’ve read the men.”


Jim and John Gaines soon left Louisiana and its memories. Jim accepted a position at Mary Washington College in Virginia, where he is chair of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages. John is now a student there—majoring in English literature.

“Time passes, and you have to adapt and carry on,” says Jim. He pauses for a moment. “One of the things Jo made me promise is that if anything happened to her, I would remarry—which I have not done.”

Having done his part to get the Second Part of the Urania finished, he had one more matter to deal with—what to do with the annotated copy of the Urania. He knew that Jo wanted it to go to a good research library, where it would be available to scholars in the field. She had given one original copy of the book to LSU, and another deserving candidate, the Newberry Library, already had an abundance of Wroth texts, including published and manuscript versions of the Urania. Finally, after thinking about it a lot, and consulting with a number of her colleagues, he concluded that Penn was the right place for it to go. It was there that she first became interested in Wroth. It was there that she and Gaines had fallen in love. The rare-books department had been “extremely encouraging and helpful,” he says, especially Dan Traister, who had been the point person from the beginning, and who had made him feel “very welcome” when he came to deliver the volume last year.

In Traister’s eyes, the choice made good sense even beyond the intense emotional connection. Penn already has a “truly wonderful collection of English Renaissance literature,” he says, and the Urania “is therefore something that, at Penn, has a context: it’s not an isolated object.” That literature is also “avidly studied at Penn, by undergraduates, graduates, and by some of the finest scholars of the English literary renaissance at work in the field today.”

Furthermore, he says, a number of Penn scholars are deeply interested in the “material ways—the physical manuscripts, the physical printed books—in which this body of literature has survived.” That includes the various ways in which the books have been marked and written in by their owners. “And for us to have the physical copy of one of those books, which turns out to be an extraordinarily useful book for students of early modern literature and early modern women’s literature, in the copy annotated by its own author—rare is putting it mildly. Its importance for the people who care can’t be overestimated.”

“For Penn to have it is fabulous—spectacular,” says Maureen Quilligan. “I mean, having an author correcting their own printed text—this is a unique experience. I’m sure there are others, but I don’t know of any. To get an author’s second thoughts and revisions, to see how the mind continues to work, is staggering. Even though Jo Roberts has given it to you in the notes, having it in the physical text can tell you so many things that a modern edition can’t, however well-edited. And that’s the sort of thing that [history professor Roger] Chartier does at Penn, and [English professors] Peter Stallybrass and Margreta de Grazia. It’s perfect to have it there.”

I ask Jim Gaines if Jo would be pleased by the choice.

“I hope so,” he says. “I think she would. I feel good about it. I’m sure that’s exactly what she would have done with it.”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

Strange Labyrinth
By Samuel Hughes

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