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Mary Wroth's prose romance, The Countess of Mountgomeries Urania, closely compares with her uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, 1593 edition The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Wroth was undoubtedly following her uncle's lead by trying to emulate Astrophil and Stella. Astrophil and Stella and Pamphilia to Amphilantus are both about being in love and they both have over one hundred sonnets and songs.
After rereading both pieces, I was struck not by their similarities but by their differences. For example, Stella is assertive and Pamphilia is passive. Stella is truly bound by her love for Astrophil while Pamphilia cannot break herself free from the love she feels forAmphilantus. Sidney creates a female beauty that retains her voice and speaks, whereas Wroth allows her woman to remain inactive and vulnerable. However, Wroth no longer allows the female to be the object. She gives the female a voice and she is now the speaking subject. Pamphilia remains inactive and unfulfilled but very patient.
A good question for the reader to ask oneself is why would Wroth not establish a strong female speaking subject like the one she was trying to imitate? Wroth was the first woman writer in England to publish a romance and a sonnet sequence. She was by no means conservative or cared about what people thought of her, which has been proved by the antics of her personal life. So why not establish that same woman character/speaking voice in her prose? I would like now to look at the similarities and differences of Stella and Pamphilia.
First, Philip Sidney and his female character Stella. Stella has a voice and does speak, however, she speaks in the songs and not the sonnets themselves. We see in the first two lines in each stanza of the Eleventh Song, Stella speaking and Astrophil answering her.
Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?
It is one who from they sight
Being (ah) exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.
Because she is not granted a sonnet, the standpoint that women are not allowed a voice has some truth to it. Another standpoint is the way the women are viewed. Women are viewed by their physical aspects. For example, in sonnet 7, the speaker states:
When Nature make her chief work, Stella's eyes
In color black why wrapped she beams so bright?
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Would she in beamy black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest luster, mixed of shades and light?
Black is also noted in lines10 and 11, "That whereas black seems beauty's contrary, / She beauty even in black doth make all beauties flow?" The beauty of Stella's eyes, black is beauty's contrary, and even if she is in a black, she is still beautiful. These are all physical aspects of Stella. However, Stella is more than just an object of affection and becomes a well-founded human being who can put forth her own human rights. She gains respect because Asrophil does not fall in love with her immediately, but, as suggested in the second sonnet, "But known worth did in mine of time proceed, / Till by degrees it had full conquest got." In the start of the sequence, Stella's "worth" has become the most important factor, not her physical beauty.
Stella is neither serious nor a symbol, but rather an individual. We see her individuality develop in sonnet 41. For example, Astrophil is at some sort of horse tournament and he wins the prize. We see Astrophil giving her credit for his prize because he is in love with her and she is there watching him and his "horsemanship". The beams are love and he did not win because of nature or skill, but, because she loves him. The concept of behind every good man is a great woman falls into place here. Astrophil states in lines 10 through 14,
The true cause is,
Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.
Astrophil individualizes Stella and she is humanized.
She also returns Astrophil's love by giving him a kiss which in turn justifies human feelings.
The impression of Pamphilia is that she is a victim. She has to tolerate the inconsistency of Amphlanthus and finds her only peace by withdrawing from the outside world. In the first sonnet, we see emotional pain. For example, in lines 9 through 14,
But one heart flaming more than all the rest
The goddess held, and put it my breast.
Dear son, now shut," said she: "thus must we win."
He obeyed, and martyred my poor heart.
I, waking, hoped as dreams it would depart:
Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.
The gloom that this sonnet starts out with sets the tone of the sonnet sequence. Pamphilia sees sleep as "death's image" and the arrow that the son shot through her heart as wounding her emotionally.
However, Pamphilia is not as truly wounded as we think. She does display some inner strength by tolerating the acts of betrayed love. To me though, this is a very passive act unlike the individualized and very assertive Stella. Pamphilia as taking the initiative to control her own life and because she withdrawals from the world, she is freeing herself from love and male domination. In sonnet 77 lines 9 through 14:
Then let me take the right-or left-hand way;
Go forward, or stand still, or back retire;
I must these doubts endure without allay
Or help, but travail find for my best hire.
Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move
Is to leave all, and take the thread of love.
Pamphilia is making choices about whether to still love Amphilanthus or get on with her life. This is the point, I think, where she makes it clear that she is moving forward with her life. She is moving forward but she is taking love with her.
Pamphilia withdrawing from love and the world to free herself from male domination has truth to it. For example in sonnet 16 lines 10 through 14,
Must we be servile, doing what he list?
No, seek some host to harbor thee: I fly
They babish tricks, and freedom do profess.
But O my hurt makes my lost heart confess
I love, and must: So farewell liberty.
Pamphilia brings some assertiveness to this. In line 10 she asks the question why women have to obey "he"? He represents love. Instead of obeying a love she retreats from the world and into her own space that is free from love and possibly male domination. She does still love Amphilanthus, so she is willing to give up her freedom.
So, I am now back to the question as to why Wroth did not portray her speaker as a strong, assertive female, like herself, and like the speaker her uncle portrayed? Because back in these times, Wroth was not concerned with making her character/speaker a strong, assertive female like we as twentieth century readers believe it should be.
Although a strong, assertive female and gender itself is not an issue, it does put forth consequences on the reader. We sympathize with the female speaker (Pamphilia) in Wroth a lot of the time because she is the most pathetic and the male lover has rejected her.
The male speaker (Astrophil) in Sidney makes the woman weak and puts in our mind that she is the one that suffers, which then in turn portrays the speaker of any sonnet as a victim. Stella, at times, becomes a victim when Astrophil berates her. All sonnet speakers are victims of love. They are either in love, are loved, or have been betrayed by love.
Wroth, through Pamphilia, takes us through the emotional pain of being in love and not having it returned. She loves to be in love but cannot stand to be so pregnable. We can definitely see Wroth's personal life in this sonnet sequence. She knew what it was like to have to suffer from the infidelities of a lover.