Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Elizabeth Cary, Poet and Playwright

Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, lady Falkland (20 September)

Elizabeth Tanfield Cary's birth and death dates are uncertain--suggested dates for her birth range from 1584 to 1586, and only the year of her death, 1639, is known. I am writing about her on 20 September because her eldest son, Lucius, died on this date in 1643. A bit of a stretch, I know, but it provides a reason for posting about Elizabeth Cary, lady Falkland, today.

Elizabeth Cary,
portrait by Paul van Somer
Elizabeth Tanfield was the daughter of Lawrence Tanfield, a wealthy Oxford lawyer who was to become "Sir Lawrence" and Lord Chief Justice of the Exchequer. Her mother was Elizabeth Symondes, the daughter of Giles Symondes. Elizabeth was the couple's only child. (After his first wife's death in 1629, Lawrence Tanfield remarried.)

Elizabeth Tanfield was exceptionally well educated--her tutors may have included the Renaissance poets Michael Drayton and John Davies, both of whom later praised her and her learning. Drayton suggest in a dedication to Elizabeth that he was a member of her father's household and had been one of her teachers, while Davies addressed her in a dedication as his "pupil."

According to a biography of Elizabeth Tanfield written by one of her daughters, the young Elizabeth knew French, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Latin--her daughter says that she spent so much time studying that her parents refused to provide her with candles.*

Elizabeth Tanfield's earliest surviving work is The Mirror of the World, a translation of Abraham Ortelius's geographical atlas, Le Epitome du théâtre du monde, a work she dedicated to Sir Henry Lee, Master of the Armoury for Queen Elizabeth. (Lee was Elizabeth Tanfield’s maternal great-uncle.)

In October of 1602, Elizabeth Tanfield was married to Sir Henry Cary who, in her daughter's words, "married her only for being an heir, for he had no acquaintance with her (she scarce ever having spoken to him) and she was nothing handsome" (but her daughter adds, "though then very fair").

For the first few years of her "marriage," Elizabeth Tanfield Cary remained in her father's home, while her husband spent the time at court or in his own father's house. Then, at least according to her daughter's biography, her husband's mother, Lady Katherine Cary, insisted that Elizabeth reside in the Cary household, although Henry Cary was at war in the Low Countries. Lady Cary "used" the young Elizabeth "hardly," confining her to her own chamber and denying her books. 

So, since she couldn't read, Elizabeth Cary decided to write: a tragedy set in Syracuse and dedicated to her husband (1604?); a second play, The Tragedy of Mariam (1604-1608?); and a verse life of Tamburlaine, the Mongol conqueror who had been the subject of two plays by Christopher Marlowe. Later, she would composes verses to the Virgin Mary; write the lives of St. Agnes, St. Elizabeth of Portugal, and St. Mary Magdalene; complete translations of Seneca; and write The History of the Life, Reign and Death of Edward II and The History of the Most Unfortunate Prince, King Edward II.

After 1606, when Elizabeth Cary and her husband began living together, she also began producing children--between 1609 and 1623, she gave birth to eleven children, six daughters and five sons.

In 1625, Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, now lady Falkland, converted publicly to Catholicism, earning the disapproval of her husband, her father (who disinherited her), and the king (Charles I put her under house arrest).

The king released her after six weeks, noting that he hadn't meant to imprison her for so long, but Cary's husband proved much less forgiving. He demanded a formal separation and refused her any financial support.

He also wanted his wife to return to her mother's household--unfortunately, Elizabeth Cary's mother was no more welcoming to her daughter under the circumstances than Elizabeth's husband, who seemed to think he could starve his wayward wife into obedience. As a result, Cary lived in the utmost poverty. After her husband's death in 1633, she sued to regain custody of her youngest children, who had been living with her oldest son, Lucius. She managed to get custody of her four daughters, but in 1636 she had to resort to kidnapping her two youngest sons. She sent her four daughters to live on the continent, where they could be instructed in the Catholic faith. Her daughters ultimately became Benedictine nuns, one son a Catholic priest. 

Elizabeth Cary died in 1639.

Elizabeth Cary is to be noted for being the first woman playwright to be published in English--Mariam was published in 1613, though her daughter says that the play had been "stolen" out of her sister-in-law's chamber and printed without Cary's permission. Her history of Edward II, written in 1626, was not published until 1680. A polemical piece, Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinal of Perron, a work of Catholic propaganda, was published in 1630. Cary's Mirror of the World was first published in 2012. The rest of her work appears to have been lost.

There are several editions of Elizabeth Cary's Mariam: the New Mermaids edition is very affordable, while Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson's edition includes the biography of Cary written by her daughter. Lesley Peterson's edition of Mirror of the World is expensive, but it is the first printed edition of Cary's earliest known work. 

*Lady Falkland, Her Life, written by "one of her daughters," was completed between 1643 and 1649, probably in Cambrai, where four of her surviving daughters--Anne, Elizabeth, Lucy, and Mary--had joined a Benedictine convent. (Elizabeth Cary's eldest daughter, Catherine, married.)