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Behind the gift to Penn’s library of a very rare 17th-century book lies the moving story of an alumna scholar’s groundbreaking research and untimely death.

By Samuel Hughes


The ink by now is rust-colored. The words, penned in a fine, cursive italic, appear mostly in the margins, which are browning at the edges. The hand belonged to the book’s author, Lady Mary Wroth, who made her notations soon after The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania was published in 1621.

Most of the changes are minor: a he to a she, an antiquity to an ambiguity. But some are substantial—and intriguingly autobiographical.

Even without the handwritten annotations, the Urania fascinates on several levels. True, it’s a long, hard slog: more than 1,000 pages of convoluted plot and rococo prose; more than 300 incestuously entwined characters. But it is the earliest prose romance—novel, if you will—written by a woman in the English language, and a serious work of literature from a time when women were expected to stay away from such things.

The Urania was conceived in scandal. Wroth—“unworthily maried on a Jealous husband” (as her friend, the playwright Ben Jonson, put it)—bore two children to her lover, the rakish third Earl of Pembroke, who happened to be her first cousin. When she found herself cast out of Queen Anne’s small circle of friends, she threw herself—and her passions—into her epic prose romance. But the Urania was more than just a roman à clef about the entanglements of love. It also dealt with simmering social and political issues—and volatile personalities. Its thinly disguised sketches of certain powerful courtiers so enraged them that Wroth was forced to write to an influential friend of King James I to say that she was recalling all copies of the book.

There is no evidence that she ever did; yet the fact remains that just 29 copies of the Urania are known to have survived. Only one has Wroth’s handwritten annotations; it is now in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department of Van Pelt Library. It was given to Penn last year by Dr. James F. Gaines Gr’77, professor of French at Mary Washington College, in memory of his late, beloved wife, Dr. Josephine Roberts Gr’75. And therein hangs a tale.


Dr. Josephine Roberts

They were reading Marivaux’s La Surprise de l’Amourwhen Jim met Jo met in the summer of 1972. The two young graduate students were taking Ron Rosbottom’s 18th-century French literature seminar, which assembled in Williams Hall. Roberts was an attractive redhead from Virginia, brimming with energy and intelligence. Gaines, the bright son of working-class parents from Massachusetts, had come to Penn from Michigan State to do his graduate work in French literature, and was increasingly drawn to the 17th-century world of Moliére. 

She first noticed him when he was cleaning out his wallet—in class—as preparation for an upcoming trip to Dijon, where he would be lecturing. He doesn’t remember much about their initial conversation, but he doesn’t have any trouble remembering his first impressions.

“There was definitely a wonderful chemistry there,” says Gaines. “She was from Virginia, which was a bit exotic for me, being from Massachusetts. I was very intrigued by her.”

At the time, Roberts was also working in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library at Van Pelt, where she welcomed visiting scholars and looked after the rarities. Within a couple of weeks Gaines was stopping by the library after classes, and the two would head out to La Terrasse or an Indian restaurant for a bite. 

They had plenty to talk about. Roberts was working on her dissertation on Philip Sidney, author of the Arcadia; it was later published under the title Architectonic Knowledge in the New Arcadia (1590): Sidney’s Use of the Heroic Journey. Sidney, incidentally, was Lady Mary Wroth’s uncle—and one of the characters in the Arcadia was a shepherdess named Urania. One thing soon led to another.

“Jo was already acquainted with the Urania, and thinking about it,” recalls Gaines. “Well before she left Penn, she was mentioning this wonderful field of study that relatively few people had gone into, and she was already collecting bibliographical references and talking about visiting England and all these castles to track down some of the literature and references that were fuzzy or lost.”

By the time they were married in 1975, Roberts had received her Ph.D. from Penn and Gaines had finished the course requirements for his. Despite the dismal mid-seventies job market, Roberts had a number of offers from universities around the country, and finally accepted a tenure-track position at Louisiana State University. Gaines took a job at a local high school teaching geography and sociology while he worked on his dissertation on “Social Structures in Moliére’s Major Plays,” then landed a position at Southeastern Louisiana University, some 50 miles away.

Life was different in Baton Rouge—where even Roberts was seen as coming from “up North”—but unquestionably good. Even after they moved to the eastern edge of town, Gaines still had a 40-mile drive to SELU, but Roberts’ commute was a relatively easy one across town, mostly along Interstate 10. And in case their lives weren’t full enough, they added a baby boy to the mix in 1982. They named him John Manley Roberts Gaines, honoring both of their fathers.

Roberts, who would be named the William A. Read Professor of English Literature, was becoming a very popular professor at LSU, both at the undergraduate and the graduate level.

“She really was beloved,” says Gaines. “She had a very strong following, both among her undergraduate and her graduate students. She got several awards at LSU for her teaching and research. Unofficial ones, too—one of her undergraduate English classes got together and gave her a plaque all on their own.”

“Jo was a great mentor to me,” recalls Dr. Mary Villeponteaux, who chose Roberts to be her dissertation director at LSU and now teaches early modern English literature at the University of Southern Mississippi. “She gently kept me on track; she helped me refine and develop my ideas; and she really never stopped helping me, even after I graduated. I think she was that way with all her students. She didn’t just help you with your academic work; she helped you with your life.

“I knew her quite well for several years,” adds Villeponteaux, “and in all that time I never once heard her say anything negative about anyone. If you know English departments, you know how rare that is!”

For all her quiet modesty, Roberts was also a rising star as a scholar. In 1983 LSU Press published her landmark collection of Wroth’s poetry—The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth—complete with a lengthy critical introduction that included a short biography of Wroth. As she put Wroth on the literary map, Roberts was doing the same for herself.

“She seemed to me then, as she does now, the perfect scholar, one who is not driven by a desire for fame, but by a true love of the subject,” wrote Dr. Sigrid King, a former graduate student and research assistant of Roberts’, in Pilgrimage for Love: Essays in Early Modern Literature in Honor of Josephine A. Roberts. The fact that King (now an associate professor of English at Carlow College) undertook such a book speaks volumes about its subject.

One of the best sources of Wroth’s work is the Newberry Library in Chicago, which had several copies of the published First Part of the Urania, not to mention the only manuscript of the unpublished Second Part. Roberts spent a good deal of time there, often joined by her husband and, later, her son. Jim Gaines would sometimes help her decipher Wroth’s handwriting and spelling, and otherwise aid in her scholarly detective work. Once, when Roberts was baffled by a reference in the Urania to “the island now called Robollo”—which didn’t appear on any maps, new or old—he tapped an unlikely source of knowledge.

“I liked the James Bond movies,” he recalls, “and I was watching For Your Eyes Only, part of which takes place in the Aegean. At one point Bond has a snack with a character who turns out to be the villain, and they’re eating caviar and crab or something, and the villain says, ‘May I suggest a white Robolo … ’”

Gaines soon discovered that Robolo (also known as Robola) was a wine once made by Venetian monks on the island of Cephalonia, and was well known in Wroth’s day. Scholarship works in mysterious ways.

Roberts was also making a name for herself in feminist-scholarship circles. “She became increasingly interested in feminist studies, especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” recalls Gaines, noting that her interests were widespread, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen in the Middle Ages to Virginia Woolf and other 20th-century British writers. “Had her career gone on longer, she might very well have done something in that area,” says Gaines. “She was reading very widely and was beginning to cast out her critical tendrils and develop bibliographical lines.”

But for now, she had her hands full with Lady Wroth. And the heart of Wroth’s work was the Urania.


The Urania is not for the intellectually faint-hearted (which may explain why this writer still has not finished it, and probably never will). Nor does it lend itself to quick summaries. At the heart of it, though, is what Roberts called the “intense, ambivalent passion” of Pamphilia—queen of a country by the same name—for Amphilanthus, whose credits include King of Naples, Holy Roman Emperor, and the first to teach Pamphilia the art of poetry. There is a lot of Lady Wroth in her portrait of Pamphilia, which means “All-Loving,” and a lot of William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, in Amphilanthus, whose name translates to “the lover of two.”

Actually, Wroth created a number of more-or-less autobiographical characters in the Urania, and those “multiple self-portraits” indicate a “continuing struggle for self-representation, in which the author seeks to assert and justify her behavior in the face of a disapproving public,” wrote Roberts. They also suggest a “progressive attempt to fashion an image of a woman and author who refuses to accept defeat”—and who is willing to subvert conventions, literary and otherwise. No wonder Roberts admired her.

“Jo came to see her as a kind of exemplary woman in many ways,” says Gaines. “She was very self-sufficient, as much as a woman could be at that time. Although she came from an illustrious family, her own family disintegrated during her life, and she really had to fend for herself. I think Jo identified with the strength of Wroth in her struggles.”

Wroth’s family was as literary as it was aristocratic. In addition to her famous Uncle Philip (a soldier and statesman as well as writer), her aunt and godmother, Mary Sidney, was a poet, translator, and “the greatest patronesse of witt and learning of any lady in her time,” in the words of Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Her father, Sir Robert Sidney, was a minor poet; her cousins included Sir Walter Raleigh; and her friends and literary admirers included the likes of Ben Jonson and the Scottish writer William Drummond.

Then there was her handsome first cousin, the third Earl of Pembroke, Sir William Herbert. Pembroke (as he is usually referred to) was a literary man himself, being Jonson’s chief patron and one of those to whom Shakespeare dedicated his first folio. (In a way that was fitting, since as a statesman, Pembroke had a reputation as a Hamlet.) While he was “immoderately given up to women,” he was fascinated not so much by physical beauty as by “those advantages of the mind, as manifested by an extraordinary wit, and spirit, and knowledge, and administered great pleasure in the conversation.” Or so said his biographer, the Earl of Clarendon. But Pembroke had already had an affair with the courtier Mary Fitton (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), who found herself pregnant with his child in 1601. He admitted to being the father but refused to marry Fitton, which prompted Queen Elizabeth to toss him into Fleet Prison for a month, then banish him from court. Only after the accession of King James I in 1603 was he allowed to return.

No one knows exactly when he and Mary, who had known each other since childhood, became lovers. Roberts raises the possibility that they may have entered into a private, de praesenti marriage with each other, but since such marriages were based on oral agreements only, they are even harder to prove now than they were when the lovers were alive. In the Second Part of the Urania, Pamphilia and Amphilanthus exchange vows in a private ceremony with five witnesses, but although the narrator states flatly that such a vow “can nott bee broken by any lawe whatsoever,” it didn’t stop both characters from marrying others—to their mutual sorrow. In an essay titled “‘The Knott Never to Bee Untide,’” Roberts noted that Wroth raised pertinent questions for women about “exclusively monogamous relationships and how widely such unions need to be acknowledged.”

Whatever Wroth’s agreement was with Pembroke, she tied her legal knot with Sir Robert Wroth in 1604. It was a bad match. One of the groom’s few literary accomplishments was that somebody dedicated a treatise on mad dogs to him, and one of Mary’s servants once described another man as “a true imitation of Sir Robert Wroth”—in that he was the “foulest Churle in the world” and “seldom cometh sober to bedd.”

Around the time that Mary Sidney became Mary Wroth, Pembroke gave in and married a wealthy heiress named Mary Talbot. But he “paid much too dear for his wife’s fortune,” his biographer noted, “by taking her person into the bargain.”

Behind the scenes lurked one Hugh Sanford, a secretary and tutor who apparently acted as an intermediary in arranging the marriages of Mary Wroth and Pembroke—and in hindering their relationship with each other. Wroth would later paint a caustic portrait of Sanford in the Urania through a fictional character who, on his deathbed, admits to Pamphilia that he had tricked Amphilanthus into believing that she had married another man, thus laying the groundwork for Amphilanthus to marry someone else. He begs her to pardon him “for the most treacherous and most deserving-torterous punishment, if hell fire, that ever man deserv’d.”

Robert Wroth did have one thing to offer: his friendship with King James, which gave the well-born Mary further entrée to the Jacobean court. In Queen Anne’s first masque—The Masque of Blackness, designed by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones—Wroth was given a plum role, joining the queen and 11 of her friends “in disguising themselves as black, Ethiopian nymphs,” as Roberts noted. That and other elaborate masques would find their fictionalized way into the Urania.

But after Robert Wroth died in 1614, and their one son died two years later, much of the estate passed to her late husband’s uncle, and Lady Mary found herself deeply in debt. She would soon have other issues to contend with. One letter-writer said he had heard “whispering of a lady that hath ben a widow above seven years, though she had lately two children at a birth. I must not name her, though she be saide to be learned and in print.”

Those love-children by Pembroke cost Wroth dearly in the Court of Royal Opinion. One of her self-modeled characters in the Urania is described as having fallen from the queen’s favor after “fourteen years unchang’d affection,” and having been forced to retire from court, “her honor not touched, but cast downe, and laid open to all mens toungs and eares, to be used as they pleas’d.”

Wroth took solace—and some revenge—in writing The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, which she dedicated to her close friend and neighbor, Susan Vere Herbert, Countess of Montgomery, an independent-minded woman who could appreciate the world Wroth created. The role of women in society was just one of the charged issues explored in the Urania, which was written “at the height of the Jacobean debates concerning the nature and status of women,” as Roberts pointed out. Wroth was keenly aware of “how little voice women had in determining their own destinies or even choosing their life partners,” and the Urania’s “vast panorama of women characters” explored some unorthodox options. “In transgressing the traditional boundaries that restricted women,” Roberts noted, “Wroth ventured into a territory that offered rich possibilities for women to reshape Jacobean culture by addressing and representing it.”

That territory—and some of the men who inhabited it—proved to be hostile. Shortly after the Urania was published in 1621, Lord Edward Denny, who apparently saw more of himself in the book than he cared to, “charged that he and his family had been maliciously slandered in the work and that his personal affairs had been thinly disguised in the episode of Seralius and his father-in-law,” Roberts noted. Denny also wrote a furious poem in revenge, titled “To Pamphilia from the father-in-law of Seralius,” which began:

Hermophradite in show, in deed a monster
As by thy words and works all men may conster
Thy wrathfull spite conceived an Idell book …

Halfway through, Denny took nasty to a new level:

Yet common oysters such as thine gape wide
And take in pearles or worse at every tide.

Denny concluded by advising Wroth to 

… leave idle bookes aloneFor wise and worthyer women have writte none.

Wroth responded line for line with “Railing Rimes Returned upon the Author”:

Hirmophradite in sense in Art a monster
As by your railing rimes the world may conster
Your spitefull words against a harmless booke
Shows that an ass much like the sire doth look …
Take this then now lett railing rimes alone
For wise and worthier men have written none.

Wroth may have had the last word, but she was now in very hot water. She wrote to the powerful Duke of Buckingham, assuring him that she never intended the Urania to offend anyone and that she had already stopped sales of it. In fact, she added disingenuously, the books “were solde against my minde I never purposing to have had them published.” (This ignores the fact that she had already sent him his own personal copy.) She also requested the king’s warrant to recall copies of it—though no record of such a recall exists—and claimed to have had the remaining books withdrawn from sale and “left to bee shut up.”

Whatever the extent of Wroth’s efforts, she set aside “at least one copy in which she sought to correct the major errors in the text and to revise selected passages,” Roberts pointed out. “The meticulous care which she devoted to the task is one reflection of her determined dedication to authorship, even in the face of her society’s hostile reception.”

Even though the First Part was consigned to a sort of permanent exile, Wroth still churned out some 500 manuscript pages of the Second Part. But eventually she lost interest in it—perhaps in 1626, when Pembroke assigned his estate to his seven-year-old nephew, thus dashing Wroth’s hopes that he would provide for the two children he had fathered, one of whom she had named William Herbert. At that point, the romance was probably over.

Four years later, Pembroke died suddenly, and though Wroth lived on for more than two decades, she apparently wrote little during that time. When she passed away in the early 1650s, her literary name died with her. Almost.


In a certain neighborhood of Baton Rouge, word began to spread of a mysterious investigation. It was called Project Urania, and according to the rumor’s perpetrator—a very young man named John Gaines—it involved nothing less than a “top-secret NASA mission.” John’s mother, Jo Roberts, documented that story with considerable amusement in her acknowledgements section of the First Part of the Urania, which was published by Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies in 1995.

Project Urania was an immense undertaking, and an important one for Renaissance scholars. Until Roberts came along, the only way to read the Urania was to track down one of the 29 surviving copies from the 1621 print run. Even then, you could only read the First Part, since the Second Part existed only in Wroth’s handwritten manuscript at the Newberry.

“As feminist scholars and Renaissance scholars, Josephine Roberts and I felt it was a hugely important project to get the Urania published,” says Dr. Mary Beth Rose, the former director of the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies.

Roberts’ original idea was to edit only the Second Part, using the handwritten manuscript, since “requests to see the manuscript were becoming frequent, and the manuscript itself is fragile,” notes Dr. Suzanne Gossett, a member of the editorial board overseeing the project. Roberts applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—which turned it down on the grounds that it was “illogical” to edit the Second Part but not the First, Gossett recalls. Roberts then reapplied for a grant to edit both parts, and in 1989, the NEH came through with a $130,000 grant, the largest in the history of LSU’s English department.

“This was indeed a project of enormous ambition—genuinely Renaissance, outsize dimensions—dictated by a unique combination of circumstances,” says Dr. Janel Mueller, another member of the editorial board. “No wonder Jo Roberts found her Wroth project becoming her life’s vocation—it would have been that even if she had been permitted a longer life.”

One of Roberts’ self-appointed tasks involved tracking down all 29 copies of the First Part of the Urania, a process she described as “an adventure, full of delight and frustration.” In 1989, she learned about a copy owned by Dr. Charlotte Kohler, former editor of The Virginia Quarterly, who had written her doctoral dissertation on “The Elizabethan Woman of Letters” in 1934. Kohler had bought the copy in 1948 from an Elizabethan bookseller in Waukegan, Illinois, and agreed to let Roberts see it.

Since Roberts had already examined 26 copies of the Uraniaby then, she had no reason to think that this one would contain anything unusual. “Imagine my surprise,” she wrote, “as I turned over the leaves and saw Wroth’s own distinctive italic handwriting in the margins!”

“She passed it to me,” recalls Jim Gaines, “and said, ‘Is this what I think it is?’”

Kohler was kind enough to let Roberts examine the copy for her project, and gave her permission to publish the manuscript corrections—of which there were hundreds, all incorporated into the new edition. While most were either misspellings or simple mistakes by the printer, some were substantial rewritings.

Kohler had one more contribution to make. On August 11, 1994, she presented it with the following inscription: “For Josephine Roberts/with love and gratitude/Charlotte Kohler.”

It was an “absolutely unexpected gesture,” says Janel Mueller. “Jo’s understated pleasure in telling the story gave me pleasure, because Kohler had clearly recognized that Jo was the volume’s ideal possessor, and then had the generosity to act on her recognition.”

The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania was published in 1995, and represented a “model for scholarly excellence,” in the words of Sigrid King. It bore the simple dedication: “For Charlotte.”

Kohler, now well into her 90s, is still living in Charlottesville, though she had not realized that the book had been given to Penn. “I’m not interested in it anymore,” she said when contacted by telephone in September. “Thank you for calling.”

Roberts now set her sights on the Second Part of the Urania. It was, in many ways, a far more difficult task than the First Part, given the difficulties of deciphering a 375-year-old handwritten manuscript. But Roberts wasn’t too worried about that.

“She would sometimes say, ‘If anything happens to me, make sure the edition of the Urania gets completed,’” says Gaines. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that it does.’”


August 26, 1996. Most people won’t remember what they were doing that day. Jim and John Gaines will never have the luxury of forgetting.

At LSU, the semester had just gotten under way. Roberts had gone to a meeting at the Office of Academic Affairs, and had taken John, then 13, with her. After the meeting, they began to drive back to their home at 464 Wilton Drive, heading east on Interstate 10. As they approached Jefferson Highway, a pickup truck with a flatbed trailer attached to the rear came barreling over the bridge at a high rate of speed. The hitch to the trailer was jolted loose, suddenly, violently. 

There was no chance for evasive action. The trailer was on top of them almost instantly. But Roberts did have one split-second to prevent a head-on collision by jerking the wheel to one side. Had she not, both she and John would have been killed instantly. Had she turned it to the left, the trailer would have smashed into the side occupied by her son.

Instead she turned—hard—to the right.


Jim Gaines was at Southeastern Louisiana, teaching. After class, he went back to his office. A grim-faced secretary thrust a piece of paper into his hand: Go to Our Lady of the Lake hospital at once. At the bottom was an even more ominous note: See the chaplain.

“I was in a very disturbed state of mind,” he says, convincingly. “I was trying not to drive so fast that I would get into an accident myself.” Then, as he began to cross the bridge over Jefferson Highway, he saw a car on the other side of the road, horribly mangled. It was Jo’s.

“I tried not to think about what the possibilities were,” he says. “Then I got there and went to the emergency room. The ER doctors were hovering there and pulled me aside.”

Roberts was dead on arrival. She had died from massive injuries there in the car, while her son, dazed and bleeding from his own serious wounds, watched helplessly. John was in the intensive-care ward: but he was expected to survive.

“She took the hit,” says Gaines quietly. “I think she was deliberately trying to protect John. Her whole side of the car was crushed in.”

Jim spent some time alone with the body of his wife, saying goodbye. They had been together for 24 years, since that first class in Williams Hall when they read La Surprise de l’Amour. She would have turned 48 that November.

Finally he pulled himself together and went to see his son, who had a ruptured spleen (fortunately still encapsulated) and multiple lacerations, but was otherwise in stable, if groggy, condition.

“He was able to talk about it,” says Gaines. “He handled it pretty well; he didn’t like to go over it, but he didn’t clam up and internalize it. He stayed there until his spleen was OK, and then he was able to go back after a few days.”

Roberts’ LSU colleagues and church congregation poured out sympathy, food, and general assistance. The English department immediately put up a memorial website, which listed many of the funds, seminar rooms, dissertation awards, and festschrifts named in her honor. Around the country and beyond, the community of Renaissance scholars mourned.

“I was so horrified I couldn’t even talk about it,” says Suzanne Gossett. “This was a youngish woman in her 40s, driving with a 14-year-old child on what was probably a simple local errand.” 

“Josephine’s death was so terrible; nothing can replace her,” says Mary Beth Rose. “She had a husband and son who adored her and whom she adored. She was also a kind and wonderful person. I miss her, and I am still shocked and saddened.”

“The world of Renaissance studies has lost a pioneering scholar and a gentle, loving person,” the memorial page concluded. “She leaves the world an emptier place, yet having been blessed by her gracious presence.”


Life—somehow—went on for Jim and John Gaines. So did Project Urania, as Gossett and Mueller suddenly found themselves in the difficult position of having to finish the Second Part themselves. It would prove to be, in Mueller’s words, “one of the most challenging and solemnly satisfying tasks we have encountered in our professional lives.”

The details are probably best left to the article Gossett wrote titled “The Ethics of Post-Mortem Editing”; suffice it to say that it was a huge job, made more complicated by the fact that Gossett and Mueller occasionally found minor mistakes in Roberts’ interpretations of the text but weren’t sure if a final version of her interpretations existed—somewhere. Wroth’s handwriting, Gossett has noted, is “very difficult,” and certain parts of the manuscript had suffered “extensive bleed-through, making it harder to decipher.” Furthermore, she adds, “Lady Mary’s concept of punctuation is not ours.”

Equally daunting was the fact that Roberts had not yet written the textual introduction or the five-part critical introduction she had planned.

Back in Baton Rouge, Jim Gaines was dealing with the devastating loss of his wife and his son’s mother. But he had promised her that the Urania would be completed, and though it took him nearly a year, eventually he organized and sent boxes of notes, paper files, and a disk copying a series of Urania files from the hard drive of the computer they had used together. Considering what had happened to him, says Gossett, “this was a heroic effort.”

There was one other thing that Roberts had not been able to do before her death: provide a dedication for the Second Part, which was published in 1999. Gossett and Mueller knew what they had to do. The book bears a simple dedication: “For James F. and John Gaines.”


Three hundred and fifty years after her death, Lady Mary Wroth is part of the canon. It hasn’t always been that way.

“The whole shift in the ability to study women in the early modern period as if they were creators, rather than passive recipients as readers of male literature, is a change since I was in graduate school,” says Dr. Daniel Traister, curator in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department at Van Pelt and an adjunct professor of English. “Now all of this has changed, because of the work of people like Jo Roberts.”

“Wroth is now perhaps the most—certainly one of the most—studied of all early modern English women writers,” says Suzanne Gossett. “But without the editions of her poems and of the Urania that Jo Roberts published or started, this would be impossible.”

Furthermore, points out Mary Beth Rose: “The availability and subsequent interpretations of the Urania will alter our view of women writers in the Renaissance. Just think of Virginia Woolf’s assertions in A Room of One’s Own that women in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t write. It will enrich gender studies in all of the centuries.”

Dr. Maureen Quilligan, former professor of English at Penn and now chair of the English department at Duke University, recently finished a book titled Incest and Agency in Elizabeth’s England, which will be published next year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. It takes the Urania as its central text, and Quilligan freely acknowledges that she could not have written it without Roberts’ work. She also notes that the insights she gained from it were enormously helpful to her understanding of other English Renaissance writers—including Shakespeare. “I think [women writers like Wroth] are absolutely crucial for a far more historically accurate understanding of what everybody was doing at the time,” she says. “Reading the women makes us understand how badly we’ve read the men.”


Jim and John Gaines soon left Louisiana and its memories. Jim accepted a position at Mary Washington College in Virginia, where he is chair of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages. John is now a student there—majoring in English literature.

“Time passes, and you have to adapt and carry on,” says Jim. He pauses for a moment. “One of the things Jo made me promise is that if anything happened to her, I would remarry—which I have not done.”

Having done his part to get the Second Part of the Uraniafinished, he had one more matter to deal with—what to do with the annotated copy of the Urania. He knew that Jo wanted it to go to a good research library, where it would be available to scholars in the field. She had given one original copy of the book to LSU, and another deserving candidate, the Newberry Library, already had an abundance of Wroth texts, including published and manuscript versions of the Urania. Finally, after thinking about it a lot, and consulting with a number of her colleagues, he concluded that Penn was the right place for it to go. It was there that she first became interested in Wroth. It was there that she and Gaines had fallen in love. The rare-books department had been “extremely encouraging and helpful,” he says, especially Dan Traister, who had been the point person from the beginning, and who had made him feel “very welcome” when he came to deliver the volume last year.

In Traister’s eyes, the choice made good sense even beyond the intense emotional connection. Penn already has a “truly wonderful collection of English Renaissance literature,” he says, and the Urania “is therefore something that, at Penn, has a context: it’s not an isolated object.” That literature is also “avidly studied at Penn, by undergraduates, graduates, and by some of the finest scholars of the English literary renaissance at work in the field today.”

Furthermore, he says, a number of Penn scholars are deeply interested in the “material ways—the physical manuscripts, the physical printed books—in which this body of literature has survived.” That includes the various ways in which the books have been marked and written in by their owners. “And for us to have the physical copy of one of those books, which turns out to be an extraordinarily useful book for students of early modern literature and early modern women’s literature, in the copy annotated by its own author—rare is putting it mildly. Its importance for the people who care can’t be overestimated.”

“For Penn to have it is fabulous—spectacular,” says Maureen Quilligan. “I mean, having an author correcting their own printed text—this is a unique experience. I’m sure there are others, but I don’t know of any. To get an author’s second thoughts and revisions, to see how the mind continues to work, is staggering. Even though Jo Roberts has given it to you in the notes, having it in the physical text can tell you so many things that a modern edition can’t, however well-edited. And that’s the sort of thing that [history professor Roger] Chartier does at Penn, and [English professors] Peter Stallybrass and Margreta de Grazia. It’s perfect to have it there.”

I ask Jim Gaines if Jo would be pleased by the choice.

“I hope so,” he says. “I think she would. I feel good about it. I’m sure that’s exactly what she would have done with it.”

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