The ink by now is rust-colored. The words, penned in a fine, cursive italic, appear mostly in the margins, which are browning at the edges. The hand belonged to the book’s author, Lady Mary Wroth, who made her notations soon after The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania was published in 1621.

Most of the changes are minor: a he to a she, an antiquity to an ambiguity. But some are substantial—and intriguingly autobiographical.

Even without the handwritten annotations, the Urania fascinates on several levels. True, it’s a long, hard slog: more than 1,000 pages of convoluted plot and rococo prose; more than 300 incestuously entwined characters. But it is the earliest prose romance—novel, if you will—written by a woman in the English language, and a serious work of literature from a time when women were expected to stay away from such things.

The Urania was conceived in scandal. Wroth—“unworthily maried on a Jealous husband” (as her friend, the playwright Ben Jonson, put it)—bore two children to her lover, the rakish third Earl of Pembroke, who happened to be her first cousin. When she found herself cast out of Queen Anne’s small circle of friends, she threw herself—and her passions—into her epic prose romance. But the Urania was more than just a roman à clef about the entanglements of love. It also dealt with simmering social and political issues—and volatile personalities. Its thinly disguised sketches of certain powerful courtiers so enraged them that Wroth was forced to write to an influential friend of King James I to say that she was recalling all copies of the book.

There is no evidence that she ever did; yet the fact remains that just 29 copies of the Urania are known to have survived. Only one has Wroth’s handwritten annotations; it is now in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department of Van Pelt Library. It was given to Penn last year by Dr. James F. Gaines Gr’77, professor of French at Mary Washington College, in memory of his late, beloved wife, Dr. Josephine Roberts Gr’75. And therein hangs a tale.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

Strange Labyrinth
By Samuel Hughes

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