Mary Wroth’s Urania (London, 1621) poses profound problems for feminist critics; here we have the first major full-length work of fiction in English by a woman and it contains some of the most graphically sadomasochistic scenes of male domination and female submission that the seventeenth century has to offer. ‘What, then, to make of this … ?’ (Helen Hackett, ‘The Torture of Limena’, in Kate Chedgdzoy et al., eds, Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing, Keele, Staffs, 1996, pp. 93–110; p. 95). The last twenty years or so have seen a profusion of attempts to deconstruct Wroth’s apparent collusion in the gratification of the male gaze, ranging from interpreting it as an attack on arranged marriage (Sid Ray, Holy Estates: Marriage and Monarchy in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, Cranbury, NJ, 2004, pp. 53-75) to seeing it as a ‘celebration of a distinctively feminine heroism’ – an integration of ‘previous models of romantic heroines who die for love, Christian martyrs and Stoic heroes’ (Hackett, ‘The Torture of Limena’, p. 97) – and as encoded political commentary: ‘the relentless scenes of feminine anguish, humiliation, and torture in the Urania indicate the extent to which idealized equations of love and suffering can compel subjects to assent to their own abuse’ (Melissa E. Sanchez, ‘The Politics of Masochism in Mary Wroth’s Urania’, English Literary History, 74.2, 2007, pp. 449–78; p. 450).
Compelling and valid as these approaches are, they all acquiesce perhaps a little too readily in a narrative of female submission; even Hackett’s ‘feminine heroism’ has its locus in enduring suffering, in submitting to the will and power of a (masculine) other. Miller, commenting on the fact that Philargus, finally repenting of his torture of Limena, makes his (somewhat redundant) dying wish for Limena and Perissus to promise to marry, asks, ‘can conclusion ever truly bear the signature of a woman, or is she compelled to inscribe it always as compliance with masculine desire?’ (Jacqueline T. Miller, ‘Lady Mary Wroth in the House of Busirane’, in Patrick Gerard Cheney and Lauren Silberman, eds, Worldmaking Spenser: Explorations in the Early Modern Age, Lexington, KY, 1999, pp. 115–24; pp. 123–4) and Wagner defines the Urania’s ‘major complementary themes’ as ‘subjugation of the female body through betrayal in love and politics, and resistance to such subjugation via the appropriation of romance conventions that formerly valorized a masculinist social formation of the female body’ (Geraldine Wagner, ‘Contesting Love’s Tyranny: Socially Outcast Women and the Marginalized Female Body in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania’, English Studies, 87:5, 2006; pp. 577–601; p. 579).
However, the Urania, like all romance and most literature, deals in complicated ways with themes of dominance and submission, of tormentors and victims. It cannot simply be deconstructed as a tale of violent, treacherous men whose women either stand bravely and defiantly or cower pitifully before them, and the subjugation of women in the novel needs to be balanced, first, by its gender-reversed counterparts, and secondly, by the narratives of female empowerment interwoven with the scenes of subjugation.
For example, the Albanian prince Selarinus is a gender-reversed parallel to the victimization of Limena. Selarinus is captured while sleeping and taken as a prisoner to the queen of Epirus, who is determined ‘to manifest hate, scorne and contempt’ towards him. However, ‘seeing his sweetnesse, and louelynesse, his tender youth, his modest countenance’, she softens. Observing how ‘shame to see those braue armes fetterd, and bound, brought some blood into his face, which … made his beauty appeare more delicate’, her compassion is aroused, his flushed face serving ‘as if of purpose to purchase his libertie; thus was hee forced to be beholding to that womanish part, to restore his manly power to liberty.’
This episode is but one of many in which the feminization of the male, the erotic portrayal of the male body, and the subjugation of the male to the female are central features. The queen keeps Selarinus captive, but in a ‘maruellous rich roome’, to which she comes at night and tells him that, if he will ‘yeeld’ to her, she might crown him ‘with the title of a King’. He is already in love with another, and frets at the thought of having to betray her, but two days later, without having forced this issue, she sends for him with another purpose, commanding him to fight Terenius, an unwanted suitor. He has no choice but to agree, but when the time comes Selarinus and Terenius, engaging in a bit of homosocial bonding, stage the fight in such a way that they are both able to escape the princess’s clutches (pp. 255-60).
Urania with begins with a theme of male tyranny – the apparent death of Limena at Philargus’s hands – but this is a tale told second hand (and which the shrewd reader, therefore, will know not to take at face value). All the vividness and immediacy of these opening pages of the novel are overwhelmingly in a narrative of female power, a power which sweeps before it Perissus (whose grief for Limena is dismissed by Urania as ‘woman-like complaints’, and whom she converts from sorrow to a course of bloody revenge), the shepherd lads who dote on Urania, and the wild youths who offer themselves as her servants. There is a single line of descent from the goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome to Wanda in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz (Stuttgart, 1870), and it passes through Urania, the embodiment of a fantasy of womankind as at once consummately wonderful and terrible, its cruelty a casual by-product of its glorious, untrammelled – and always, it seems, essentially southern – nature.
(Adapted from Part Three, ‘Suffering and Gender’, Chapter 7, ‘The Erotics of Suffering and Cruelty’. This chapter is not available for previewing.)