In which Elizabeth Cary, the Lady Falkland, is impressive on all counts

ElizabethCaryOver the past semester, I spent a great deal of time working on a piece about this Lady (and, yes, that’s Lady with a capital “L”).

Elizabeth Cary, the Lady Falkland (1585-1639).  Noble wife, closeted playwright, occasional poet, language aficionado, baby mama to nearly a dozen children, and Catholic convert in a post English Reformation society.  Elizabeth Cary has the unique distinction of being the first Early Modern woman to have her own biography, written by one of her daughters (a Catholic nun).

While it’s clear that The Lady Falkland: Her Life was written for the #1 purpose of relaying Cary’s Catholic conversion story, it’s also an compelling account of what it was like to be an intellectually gifted woman whose life was somewhat overcome by her wild ride on the motherhood train.

Cary gave birth to eleven children, only one of which died shortly after birth.  Yes, that’s eleven children, y’all, in a fifteen-year time span (1609-24).

Once the eleventh was fresh out of the oven, Cary publicly announced her conversion to the Old Faith and was shunned by her family and many of her friends. Although she eventually regained custody of her children, her husband barred her from seeing them once she converted.  It was a rough split, but (because this is Early Modern England) not a divorce: she and Henry Cary, the Mister, never reconciled.  (Her daughter-biographer borderline comically accounts for why the two spouses never again lived together: “…for the better commodity of her exercising her religion.”)

Although I wouldn’t call The Lady Falkland: Her Life a standout specimen of literary accomplishment, I think some of its greatest value comes from the way the biographer depicts Elizabeth Cary’s struggle to see herself both as an intellectual-spiritual being and as a mother.  The Life does a fairly good job showing Cary’s emotional ups and downs with her pregnancies. (Remember? Eleven.)  But it does an even better job showing how attracted she was to an academic life in spite of how busy she became with childbearing and nursing.

Her mind never stopped working, and the Life makes that very clear.

She can be tricky, too.  Listen to this beautiful spot of poetry that she gives to the evil King Herod  in her play The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry (1613) :

Deep sorrow, Joshua-like, the season stays,

But when I am with Mariam, time runs on.

Her sight can make months minutes, days of weeks;

An hour is then no sooner come than gone

When in her face mine eye for wonders seeks. (4.1.16-20)

Doesn’t this preoccupation with “time” sound faintly similar to Old Willy’s sonnet 116:

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

The difference, I suppose, is that even though King Herod seems genuine (and the lines are, you know, pretty), his love for Mariam is almost entirely defined within the confines of time.  Sweet William’s “Love” is above it.   I’m a little curious what undergraduates would think of Cary, especially The Tragedy of Mariam.  It’s a dense play, never meant to be performed.  But the fact that it was written by a woman, has a female protagonist/title character (in a tragedy, no less), and gives a very conflicted view of a woman’s rights within a marriage is fascinating.  Lisa Gim in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s Othello suggests teaching Mariam alongside Othello and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.  Probably the biggest thing students would see reading Cary alongside Shakespeare is how driven Shakespeare and all the Wits were by commerce.  Cary writes for very few outside of herself (the Life claims that Mariam was published without her full permission)…what kind of literature would we have if Shakespeare had that privilege?