Women were only allowed to write religious pieces and translations; Mary translated and published work from French and Italian. Sister to Sir Philip Sidney, she published his sonnet sequence that created the vogue for sonnet writing. She is the first woman to publish a play in English (a closet drama) and the first woman to publish an original pastoral piece in English. She is also the first woman who did not apologize for publishing her work.
After her husband died, Mary fell in love with a younger man, who she thought for a while was having an affair with her own dark-haired, dark-eyed niece, a story that parallels the Shakespearean sonnets.
The First Folio, which went to press two months before she died, is dedicated to her two sons, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. The Folio’s dedicatory poem “to the memory of my beloved, the author,” was written by Ben Jonson, considered a protégé of Mary’s. In it Jonson calls the author the “Sweet Swan of Avon.” The white swan, which is mute until it dies, was a motif of Mary’s. Her final portrait shows swans tatted into her lace collar and wrist ruffs, she is holding a book she wrote, and the portrait is topped with a laurel wreath, symbol of a poet.
Mary Sidney died in 1621, one month shy of 60 (supposedly of smallpox), and is buried on the Avon River.