The Countess of Pembroke

Mary SidneyIf I could save two of my books from a conflagration, one of them would be Persuasion by Jane Austen. One of the greatest novelists of the 19C and an unsurpassed prose stylist and satirist. Although Austen used her own name, there are numerous instances of famous women novelists writing under a pseudonym throughout the history of the novel, many at the top of the tree in whichever category you want to assess them.

Why are there no women playwrights in the theatre explosion at the end of the 16C? With a woman on the throne,  one of Europe's greatest intellectuals to boot, there should be a good candidate amongst creative Elizabethan women. And there is.

Mary Sidney Herbert, 2nd Countess of Pembroke, sister of Sir Philip Sidney, lived at the right time. She turned Wilton House into a salon of the arts causing one visiting poet to compare it to the court of Urbino in Italy. Wilton was a hub of artistic activity with all the 'University Wits' and the poets of the day, the whole 'Pride of the Golden Age' turning up to dance attendance. Praise already beyond any bestowed on the Earl of Oxford.

Without appearing to transgress the strictures against women's writing, she composed a sizable body of work, evading criticism by focusing on religious themes and by confining her work to the genres thought appropriate to women in translation, dedication, elegy, and encomium. Poetryfoundation

Like Oxford then, a poet, careful about publication. More justification for a pseudonym, certainly.

Mary Sidney's poetry was more widely admired and her connections to other artists, both socially and through patronage, were in every way stronger than the Earl's. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of her:

She never apologizes for, or even mentions, her role as a woman writer, unlike the many early modern women writers who strewed their work with apology. Her surviving works demonstrate not only her protestant faith but also her erudition, her skill with rhetorical figures, and her witty wordplay.

There's no direct connection to Shakespeare's work, of course, so she has that in common with Oxford, but we don't have to rely on unspecific shards of flattery from satellite observers like Francis Meres to establish Mary's credibility as an artist. The great John Donne himself does the heavy lifting here, much more specifically and much more enthusiastically. If anything of the sort could be found for De Vere, we'd hear the Oxfordian church bells for days.

Calling Philip and Mary Sidney ‘this Moses and this Mariam’ he says that, while once the Psalms were ‘So well attyr'd abroad, so ill at home’, the Sidneys have equalled continental psalters such as that by Marot and Beza:

They shew us Ilanders our joy, our King,
They tell us why, and teach us how to sing

thus providing a model for English religious verse.

The best female poet of her day just has to be a contestant in the race that authorship questioners are running.

I like her. Oxfordians like her too. And politicworm, every Oxfordian's favourite blog, likes her the most.

It’s impossible to say which of my Lady Worm’s pronouncements is silliest, but I’m awfully fond of “Mary Sidney used her coachman’s name, John Webster; everything published as by Webster is by Mary Sidney.”

Elsewhere, Hughes does say “coachmaker” not “coachman”—though in her fantasy, he’s still in Sidney’s service.  In her list of “writers ... published under false names” she includes “Oxford as his secretary Lyly, Mary Sidney as her coachmaker John Webster, etc.”  Consciously or not, she’s demoted him from the son of a craftsman with an independent business to a mere servant, a convenient mask.  In Hughes’s strange Elizabethan/Jacobean world, commoners exist only to wait on her aristocrats, and provide them with allonyms.  She’s erased the whole class from which real playwrights arose.  Those maggots in her brain—the genius of the aristocracy, the biographical purpose of all art, as if Hamlet were a series of selfies, and The Duchess of Malfi a mirror—drive her on.

While Webster the coachmaker’s son has next to nothing to offer in the way of a biography, the plays that bear his name reflect Mary’s own story in ways that once revealed, cannot be denied.

You may read her Mary Sidney fantasia at length in The Oxfordian (2003).  Her reasons for dismissing Webster as the author of his work are ludicrously thin:  “In a twenty-year career, Webster left less published work than Marlowe, who died at twenty-nine, or Sidney, who died at thirty-two...”

Notoriously so.  Webster knew damned well how slowly he wrote, and famously defended his snail’s pace in his preface “To the Reader” in The White Devil:

To those who report I was a long time in finishing this Tragedy, I confesse I do not write with a goose-quill winged with two feathers, and if they will needes make it my fault, I must answere them with that of Eurypides to Alcestides, A Tragicke Writer: Alcestides objecting that Eurypides had onely in three daies composed three verses, whereas himselfe had written three hundreth: Thou telst truth, (quoth he) but heres the difference, thine shall onely bee read for three daies, whereas mine shall continue three ages.

Webster’s personality—prickly, thin-skinned, proud, and self-defensive— comes through vividly here.

“...while all but three of his plays were collaborations with four, even five, other writers.”

I’d love to know how she imagines that the Countess of Pembroke came to collaborate with lowlifes like Dekker.  The playwright himself esteemed his peers: 

For mine owne part I haue euer truly cherisht my good opinion of other mens worthy Labours, especially of that full and haightned stile of Maister Chapman. The labor'd and vnderstanding workes of Maister Iohnson: The no lesse worthy composures of the both worthily excellent Maister Beamont, & Maister Fletcher: And lastly (without wrong last to be named) the right happy and copious industry of M. Shake-speare, M. Decker, & M. Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light.

And if The White Devil were indeed the ultra-precious closet work of Mary Sidney, I’d love to know why it opened—and flopped—at that notorious fleapit, the Red Bull, how it

“came to be acted in so dull a time of Winter, presented in so open and blacke a Theater, that is wanted (that which is the onely grace and setting out of a Tragedy) a full and understanding Auditory:  and that since that time I have noted, most of the people that come to that Play-house, resemble ... ignorant asses.”

“This”—she sniffs—“looks more like the career of a dilettante than a professional.”  Observe that “dilettante,” to Hughes, is high praise and clean hands, and “professional” means “whore.”  Really?  Webster may not have made a living as a theatre poet, but his work was thoroughly professional.  He collaborated.  He patched Marston’s The Malcontent for the King’s Men, adding a whole new character, the fool Passarello, designed to showcase Robert Armin, and a meta-theatrical Induction in which Will Sly, A Tyre-man, Sinkclow, Dick Burbidge, Harry Cundale, and John Lewin all played themselves.  Would the Countess of Pembroke have deigned to cobble Marston’s shop-soiled work?   Could she have carried off the theatrical in-joke?  Did she know these men?  As for “dilettante”—two of those plays are magnificent, devastating, and the Duchess, transcendent.  Beats a handful of halting verses in The Paradyse of Daynty Devises.

To Hughes, no one who works can have genius.  No commoner excels.

This is not to say that Webster’s background in any way prevented him from becoming a writer; but getting born, attending a school where Latin plays may have been performed ...

Couldn’t possibly have helped, now could it?  Other great writers who studied at Merchant Taylors’  School included Thomas Kyd, Edmund Spenser, and Lancelot Andrewes.  Those Elizabethan grammar schools bred playwrights.  To my mind, for a nascent dramatist, practice in performance—in how to hold and move an audience—would be worth any number of Sir Thomas Smith’s libraries, and grounding in rhetoric, a thousand aristocratic births.  As Mary Sidney’s brother Philip wrote, “Mooving is of a higher degree then teaching ... For as Aristotle sayth, it is not Gnosis, but Praxis must be the fruit.”

Not that Webster wasn’t also very well taught.  Hughes has had to ignore his training at the New Inn and the Middle Temple, since the playwright is particularly noted for his knowledge of the law.

“... marrying and eventually dying, is evidence only of a life, not necessarily one devoted to writing fiction.”  Says one who had devoted her life to writing fiction.

If Webster the coachmaker’s son was also Webster the playwright, there should be at least minimal anecdotal information of the sort we have for Thomas Lodge, for instance, a writer from almost the same level of London society.

There is.  There is even a notorious literary flame-war, there for the reading.

Did Hughes even bother to look at Webster’s life?  Of course not.  “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”

The earlier racy exchanges in the war, being anonymous, are the less evidential, but they’re useful and amusing backstory.

In 1615, John Stephens, of Lincoln’s Inn, published a collection of Satirical Essayes, with a jibe at the “Common Player,” a deadbeat, a rogue, and a lowlife.

Webster wrote a furious riposte, breaking into his high praise of “An Excellent Actor” (described as a painter-player like Burbage, who had just appeared as his Ferdinand) with nine lines of scurrility: 

...but the itche of bestriding the Presse, or getting up on this wodden Pacolet [magical horse], hath defil’d more innocent paper, then ever did Laxative Physicke.

Oh yes, that sounds just like “Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.”

In the second edition of the Satirical Essayes, both Stephens and his fellow John Cocke ramped up the attack, jibing at their attacker’s “hackney similitudes,” his sentences “dressed ouer with oyle of sweaty Post-horse.”  Webster’s family not only built equipages, but hired them out: 

                                                           Perchaunce,
                                    A Hackney was thy whole inheritance.
                                    For you perhaps deny that any Asse,
                                    Or stumbling Coach-horse your soules lodging was

At last in 1617, John Stephens’s friend and fellow Henry Fitzgeffrey mocked John Webster by name in his Satyres: and satyricall epigrams with certaine obseruations at Black-Fryers.  His “Notes from Black-Fryers” are essentially a gossip-column:  he looks about the playhouse, picking out characters.   Look!  Over there is the foppish (Fantasticke)—

BVt h'st! with him Crabbed (Websterio)
The Play-wright, Cart-wright:

This could hardly be plainer.  Webster belongs to both trades, both low.  Fitzgeffrey was one of the earliest to copy Ben Jonson’s disparaging coinage, “play-wright”:  a writer of stage plays is merely a rude mechanical, one of the “Crew Of common Play-wrights.”  Jonson himself had been twitted on his old trade:  “The wittiest fellow of a bricklayer in England.”  Here Webster builds plays as his family builds—not even coaches here but the lowliest of wheeled conveyances.  Whores are carted; so is dung.   

“The Play-wright, Cart-wright: whether? either!”  Same difference.  

And before Worm gets excited by (Websterio), Fitzgeffrey uses italics and parentheses to introduce each new personage, much as a later gossip columnist might say, “My Lady W*** was seen with ‘Woggles’ at the 17 Club, at a table for two.  Just good friends?”

BVt h'st! with him Crabbed (Websterio)
The Play-wright, Cart-wright: whether? either! ho
No further. Looke as yee'd bee look't into:
Sit as ye woo'd be Read: Lord! who woo'd know him?

Crabbed, captious, uncomfortably observant, and unpleasant to know.  It’s a caricature, but a shrewd one.  Here he is in the very act of creation, fidgeting most unattractively:

Was euer man so mangl'd with a Poem?
See how he drawes his mouth awry of late,
How he scrubs: wrings his wrests: scratches his Pate.

His brain breeds monsters, and he labors hard to give them birth.

A Midwife! helpe! By his Braines coitus,
Some Centaure strange: some huge Bucephalus,
Or Pallas (sure) ingendred in his Braine,
Strike Vulcan with thy hammer once againe.

What’s monstrous here are not his characters, but his aesthetics, his baroque imagination.

And whatever he writes, he’s most damnably slow and pedantic:

This is the Crittick that (of all the rest)
I'de not haue view mee, yet I feare him least,
Heer's not a word cursiuely I haue Writ,
But hee'l Industriously examine it.
And in some 12. monthes hence (or there about)
Set in a shamefull sheete, my errors out.

As a critic, I identify entirely, having spent much patient labor on demolishing Oxfordian fantasies.  Call me crabbed (Whilk).  Here, Fitzgeffrey sees himself as cool, wielding his pen with an offhand, gentlemanly ease and negligence; Webster, as obsessive, geekish, overheated.  Someone is wrong on the Internet!

But what care I it will be so obscure,
That none shall vnderstand him (I am sure.)

As well as notoriously slow, Webster was a by-word for obscurity.  In Hugh Craig’s study, “Shakespeare's Vocabulary: Myth and Reality” (Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 53-74), he ranks the relative size of the vocabularies of thirteen early modern playwrights:  Webster comes top.  Shakespeare falls in the middle of pack.  After all, it’s not the number of different words he uses that’s remarkable, but the way he uses them.

http://www.dispositio.net/archives/501

Some years later, William Hemminge (the son of Shakespeare’s partner at the Globe) wrote an Elegy on Randolph’s Finger (c. 1632).  Thomas Randolph, a scapegrace playwright, lost a finger in a tavern skirmish, and Hemminge imagined a great train of grieving poets following its cortège to the Styx:

Ytt had byn drawne and wee In state aproche
but websters brother would not lend a Coach:
hee swore thay all weare hired to Conuey
the Malfy dutches sadly on her way

Isn’t it perfect that Malfi’s creator should spring from a family of hearse-makers?


It’s not as if this stuff is obscure.  All of the above is plainly treated in M.C. Bradbrook’s, John Webster, Citizen and Dramaist (Columbia University Press, 1980), which Hughes claims as a source for her Oxfordian piece, and clearly didn’t read.  All, at greater length, is discussed in Charles R. Forker’s much weightier study, Skull Beneath the Skin (Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), which she didn’t bother to consult; and in close detail in volume III of The Works of John Webster: An Old-Spelling Critical Edition, edited by David Gunby, David Carnegie, and MacDonald P. Jackon (Cambridge University Press, (2007).

If Hughes is going to dismiss a writer’s life and legacy, she could do him the courtesy of reading about it.

Share this post

Comments (8)

  • Hairy_Lime's picture

    Not to mention, the mother of William Herbert. Who not only gives us the mysterious "Mr. W. H." of the Sonnets, he was what the ever-helpful, ever-accurate wikipedia refers to as a person who "sponsored the printing of the First Folio of William Shakespeare's plays." Iron clad proof! When do you get to Florio?

    Jan 25, 2013
  • alfa-16's picture

    I think you've just discovered what the 'Add content' link is for . . . .

    Jan 25, 2013
  • Hairy_Lime's picture

    Outstanding!  Now all I need to do is find the "Add content" link.

    Jan 26, 2013
  • anon

    I don't get an 'add content' link visible. Am I, as an ordinary member, insufficiently privileged?

    Apr 05, 2013
  • alfa-16's picture

    I'm afraid so. Whilst I haven't met any of the other contributors, I've 'known' them online for some years and we plotted this site together. If you want to contribute articles, let me have the first couple by email and we'll go from there.

    Apr 05, 2013
  • anon

    Thanks, thats what I thought.

    As this site (hopefully) expands would it be helpful to have a who's who page to show who are the core contributors?

    Apr 05, 2013
  • alfa-16's picture

    The reason it's not obvious who wrote what is that I collected a lot of articles written by the others and posted them from my admin account, so making authors details visible wouldn't reliably tell you who wrote what. We're here for the long term, however, and the searches are starting to turn us up with some of the Oxfordian sites which have been around for years. Which is pretty much the limit of our ambitions. The 100 reasons need filling out so we'd be more than grateful for any help with those. There are quite a few unpublished (as in unwritten) stubs, if you'd like a list by email, let me know. [Edit after a check] The author's name does appear in the tables generated by the alphabetical classification in Index Pages you can get to from the Navigation Menu.

    Apr 05, 2013