Unlike her brother Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, did not attend a public school or university; instead, she was tutored at home in Latin, French, and Italian languages and literature. And at the age of fifteen, her family arranged her marriage to the wealthy Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (1538-1601), thus cementing their families’ already strong alliance. While she served her family’s political goals, Mary Sidney Herbert managed to develop her own interests within her private realms, the Pembroke estate at Wilton and Baynards Castle in London, where she shaped literary and scientific coteries. She further supported her family by sponsoring elegies to her brother Sir Philip Sidney who died in 1586 from wounds suffered at the Battle of Zutphen. “The Doleful Lay of Clorinda,” Mary Sidney Herbert’s first published work, appeared in a collection of elegies that included “Astrophil,” Spenser’s tribute to Sir Philip Sidney.
The genres in which she wrote revealed Elizabethan attitudes towards women, their scope and purpose within society. In the accepted role of “conduit,” she translated works by Petrarch, Robert Garnier (1544-1590), and Phillippe Duplessis Mornay (1549-1623), dedicated works and encomia to her sovereign (first Elizabeth I) and Queen Anne (wife of James I), and elegized Sir Philip Sidney. She took on the accepted role of relative being to Sir Philip Sidney, gaining fame and acceptance as his sister, by completing his unfinished works, and advocating his literary legacy. Her elegies to her brother were done in the pastoral tradition. Her translations from the French and Italian demonstrate the importance of Continental traditions to English literature. Her metric translations of Psalms 44-150, translations that introduced an astonishing array of metrical verse forms, demonstrate the Protestant influence on both sacred and secular expressions of faith. All her publications reveal Mary Sidney Herbert’s attitude toward herself as a writer in her own right, as she published her works under her own name.