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Mary Sidney

Countess of Pembroke

1561 -1621

Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke is acknowledged as the most educated woman in England at the time, comparable only to Queen Elizabeth. She was trained in rhetoric, scripture, the classics, law, music, geography, hawking, hunting, needlework, and history. She studied medicine and alchemy, having an active interest in spiritual magic; she was close with the leading “magicians” of the day, including John Dee and Giordano Bruno, and had her own alchemy laboratory.

She was fluent in Latin, French, and Italian, probably Greek and Spanish, and was politically involved and outspoken. Mary Sidney’s life was devoted to the art and craft of writing. She developed the most important literary circle in English history; for two decades she led the Wilton Circle and encouraged fellow authors to write in English.

Women were only allowed to write religious pieces and translations; Mary translated and published work from French and Italian. Sister to Sir Philip Sidney, she published his sonnet sequence that created the vogue for sonnet writing. She is the first woman to publish a play in English (a closet drama) and the first woman to publish an original pastoral piece in English. She is also the first woman who did not apologize for publishing her work.

After her husband died, Mary fell in love with a younger man, who she thought was having an affair with her own dark-haired, dark-eyed niece, a story that parallels the Shakespearean sonnets. The First Folio, which went to press two months before she died, is dedicated to her two sons, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. The Folio’s dedicatory poem “to the memory of my beloved, the author,” was written by Ben Jonson, considered a protégé of Mary’s. Jonson calls the author the “Sweet Swan of Avon.” The white swan, mute until it dies, was a motif of Mary’s. Her final portrait shows swans tatted into her lace collar and wrist ruffs,

Mary Sidney died in 1621, one month shy of age 60 (supposedly of smallpox), and is buried on the Avon River not far from Fulke Greville.

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