Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Elizabeth Tanfield Cary

Elizabeth Cary, born 1585 in London, was an English Catholic author, poet and playwright who has been credited as the first English woman to write an entire play individually known as 'The Tragedy of Mariam'.[1] She was also a prominent figure in the English Catholic community, causing difficulties in her family later in her life. Much of what is known about Elizabeth stems from the work “The Lady Falkland: Her Life by One of her Daughters” written from perspective of her daughter, Lucy Cary.

Portrait of Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, during 1614-1618.

Early LifeEdit

Elizabeth Cary was born in 1585 in Oxfordshire to Elizabeth Symondes of Norfolk and Sir Lawrence Tanfield. At a young age, Elizabeth showcased great skills in education, particularly linguistics and was a confident and motivated child. It is stated that she would often stay up all night reading by bribing the servants for candlelight. Her parents were quick to encourage this passion and hired a French teacher for Elizabeth when she was 5 years old. In only one month, Elizabeth had mastered French. Her passion for language grew quickly after this and was followed by Elizabeth independently learning Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and Transylvanian.[2]

At 15 years old, Elizabeth was married to Sir Henry Cary. The arrangement was made by her father, to which Henry accepted based on Elizabeth’s title as an heiress. The two did not live with each other for some years, during which, Henry was titled Viscount and by proxy, Elizabeth, Viscountess. Elizabeth in the meantime began learning the art of playwriting and poetry and began to build a reputation as a successful playwright. At 17 years old, Elizabeth became the youngest English women to write an entire play by herself, but it wasn’t published in London until 1613, almost a decade later.[3] Despite the lack of focus on this part of her life in more recent biographies, it was an extraordinary achievement for a woman of the Renaissance’[4] After some years living apart, Elizabeth eventually moved in with her husband, Henry. There she was exposed to her mother-in-law, who forbade her from reading to which Elizabeth, instead turned to poetry.

Later LifeEdit

The couple remained together for over 27 years, during which Elizabeth gave birth to eleven children: Catherine (1609-1625), Lucius, later known as the 2nd Viscount Falkland (1610-1643), Lorenzo (1613-1642), Anne (1614-1671), Edward (1616-1616), Elizabeth (1617-1683), Lucy (1619-1650), Victoria (1620-1692), Mary (1621-1693), Henry (1622-unknown) and Patrick (1623-1657). Edward unfortunately died in infancy, and within months, her eldest child, Catherine died in childbirth - the possible motivator for her religious evolution.[1] The family moved to Dublin, Ireland in 1622 after Henry's promotion to Lord Deputy of Ireland, however would occasionally move between England and Ireland on trips. While unstable at times, Elizabeth sacrificed immensely for her marriage, damaging her relationship with her parents by using some of her inheritance to assist her husband’s land troubles in 1625. However, this resulted in the jointure being passed forward onto her eldest son, Lucius instead and as such, she was disowned financially from her parents. Up until her death in 1639, Elizabeth received no support from her family and society after her conversion to Catholicism, aside from her daughters and their eventual conversion. She would continue to translate works, particularly Catholic translations, as well as continue her writing her poems and plays into her later years.

CatholicismEdit

When Elizabeth and her family moved to Dublin for her husbands promotion, there Elizabeth was exposed to a large and dedicated Catholic community, particularly Catholic writers. This exposure, alongside the death of Elizabeth’s daughter, Catherine experiencing a specter of the Virgin Mary on her deathbed, led Elizabeth to finally convert herself to Catholicism, as well as her other children.

Although it is suspected she may have adopted Catholicism decades earlier privately, Elizabeth officially announced her conversion to Catholicism in 1626. Her devotion to the Catholic faith was apparent in that she went ahead with her conversion knowing how it would affect her marriage. Due to their differences in opinion about Elizabeth’s new religion, Henry attempted to divorce Elizabeth, to no avail. He did, however, gain custody of her children just a year later. When Henry died in 1633, Elizabeth was able to regain custody of her kids, including: Anne, Mary, Lucy and Elizabeth where they were eventually converted to Catholicism under the guide of John Fursdon. This was reported to Kind Charles 1, which saw the children removed from Elizabeth’s custody and into the home of Elizabeth’s eldest son, Lucius.

WorksEdit

Cary’s most famous play, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry (1613), was in iambic pentameter, a rhythm popularly favoured by playwright William Shakespeare(d. 1616). Given that Cary lived at the same time as Shakespeare, it is fair to assume that he influenced her poetry. In these poems, she uses irony and writes in many forms such as sonnets and couplets. Not only was her play progressive because it was written by a woman, but it also contained core feminist ideas of divorce, female agency and revenge plotting. The Tragedy of Mariam was heavily influenced by Queen Elizabeth I and her career of challenging gender norms. An excerpt from the play reads,


"I will not to his love be reconcil'd,

With solemn vows I have forsworn his bed," (Cary, 1613, pp. III, iii,133-4)


This is a display of Mariam’s defiance and power. It is a ‘revolutionary act’[5] and the beginning of a new outlook on life. Most of its fame stems from the last half-century. It was a closet drama, which means it was not written for the stage, but to be read. Closet dramas are already less likely to be popular, and Elizabeth’s was controversial for her time. She knew this when she created it; the good thing about closet dramas is that you can take more risks and be more progressive. The designated audience was liberated women, of whom did not exist in large numbers. This recent buzz is the recognition of The Tragedy of Mariam as an early contribution to the feminist literature movement. However, it is also criticised for its orientalist discourse. Although difficult to apply Edward W. Said’s (d. 2003) Orientalism theory to an historic time, one can see where Elizabeth’s stereotypical character building came into play. One main character showcases this idea: Arabian Silleus, the ‘exotic and erotic lover/seducer’.[6] The recent re-discovery of the play has led to its presence on the stage even though it is a closet drama. It was performed for the first time in 1994 and has since been produced several times, all over England.

Death and LegacyEdit

Cary’s daughter Lucy (d. 1650) wrote a biography of her mother’s life, titled The Lady Falkland: Her Life by One of her Daughters. It has been updated by author Heather Woolfe more recently in 2001 as she collated a whole book based on Lucy's accounting. Another of Cary’s daughters, Anne (d. 1671), also became an author and became famous for publishing original translations, psalms and writings. Their mother was a significant influence of them, and it is because of her that women’s literature was so widely published after the 17th century.


Elizabeth Cary died of tuberculosis in 1639, at the age of 54.[7] Cary is known today as a literary hero who was convinced she had followed the religion she truly had faith in, Catholicism. In her daughter’s words, she passed ‘without any agony quietly as a child, being wholly spent by her disease’[1] (Cary, 1861).

Further ReadingEdit

Wolfe, Heather, "Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland Life and Letters", RTM Publications, Cambridge, 2001. Print.

Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. “Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland entry: Overview screen within Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2006.

GradeSaver. “Critical Reception: The Tragedy of Mariam Wikipedia.” GradeSaver.

Gutenberg, Project. “Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland.” Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing - EBooks | Read EBooks Online, 2008.

Rose, G. Kevin. “Dark Moon Rising: Reading the Psychology of The Tragedy of Mariam”. Oregon State University, Corvallis.

Twickenham Museum. “Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland Writer, Translator & Catholic Recusant 1585 - 1639.”

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b c Cary, Elizabeth; Wray, Ramona (2012). The tragedy of Mariam, the fair queen of Jewry (New ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare.
  2. Cary, Elizabeth, Barry Weller, and Margaret W. Ferguson. The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry / Her Life / by One of Her Daughters; Edited by Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson. Berkeley: University of California, 1994. Print
  3. Stephanie Hodgson-Wright, "http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4835 Cary, Elizabeth, Viscountess Falkland (1585–1639)]", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 15 November 2006.
  4. Pearse, Nancy Cotton. “Elizabeth Cary, Renaissance Playwright.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 18, no. 4, 1977, pp. 601–608. JSTOR.
  5. Rose, G. Kevin. “Elizabeth Cary (1584-1639): A Biographical Sketch”. Oregon State University, Corvallis.
  6. Hermes, Nizar F.. ““Consorting With The Base Arabian"; The Tragedie Of Mariam, Fair Queene of Jewry (1613), from discursive ambivalence to orientalist benevolence.” 2014.
  7. "Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland, writer, Translator & Catholic Recusant." The Twickenham Museum, the history centre for Twickenham Whitton, Teddington, and the Hamptons. The Twickenham Museum , n. d. Web. 12 March 2014.