Mary Outten


In June, 2014, I attended a conference featuring many of the world's foremost experts on the Sidney family's literary works at the historic Penshurst Place Estate, in Kent, UK.

The conference, “Dramatizing Penshurst: Site, Script, Sidneys” was organized by Professor Alison Findlay, of Lancaster University.

Many of the papers presented at the conference focused on the work of Lady Mary Wroth (1587 – 1651). She was the daughter of Robert Sidney, who inherited Penshurst Place in 1587 after the death of his elder brother - the Elizabethan poet and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney. She was also the niece of Lady Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke*.
(The Sidney family have been in continuous ownership of Penshurst for more than 460 years.)
The papers presented ranged from detailed examinations of specific literary works associated with the Sidney family and Penshurst, to an exploration of the various architectural features of Penshurst Place itself.
The highlight of the conference was a staged reading of Love's Victory, the earliest surviving comedy drama by a British woman, written around 1620 by Lady Mary Wroth. This was more than likely the play's first public performance for centuries.
Professor Findlay, who worked on the drama project for two years, has long argued that Lady Mary Wroth composed Love's Victory at Penshurst Place, which once belonged to Henry VIII.
Professor Findlay asserts that “Love's Victory is crucial evidence of women's engagement with a dramatic tradition that is usually thought to be exclusively male. We don't know if it was ever performed at Penshurst, but I think it's the best play written by an early modern woman. It's got the most variety and spectacle." **
Wroth's pastoral play involves shepherds and shepherdesses whose path to love is complicated by the actions of Venus and Cupid.
The full five-act script of Love's Victory survives only in the Penshurst Manuscript, which has remained in the ownership of the Sidney family. The staged reading was presented with great energy by members of a traveling troupe from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. The setting for the event was the grand fourteenth century Baron’s Hall, at the very heart of Penshurst Place. With a soaring 60- foot ceiling made of chestnut beams, this space provided a very special venue for Love’s Victory. I particularly appreciated the Minstrels’ Gallery, added in the 16th century.  According to the Penshurst Place guidebook:
       “The Baron’s Hall was the focal point of the estate up to the end of the 15th century.

        It was where the servants lived; eating, sleeping, and eventually dying there.”***


*for more on Lady Mary Sidney, please see Songs & Sonnets page on this website.

**BBC News Entertainment & Arts, Tim Masters 6/6/2014
*** Penshurst Place & Gardens guidebook, Published 2013
                                                The Hon Phillip Sidney, Editor-in-Chief