Question: What do AbFab and 16th Century Greek Tragedy have in common?
Answer: Joanna Lumley!
No, not that one, her Elizabethan namesake.
The year is about 1550, yeah dates are hazy. A young noblewoman named Joanna Lumley translates Euripides’ play ‘Iphegenia’ and in doing so achieves two major firsts in history:
💜 Becomes the first woman to write a play in the English Language.
💚 First translation of a Greek play into English by anyone. Male or female. Ever!
So what do we know about her?
Well, not much beyond her surviving letters and Latin verses. Most of the facts about her the people who wrote the history books thought worth recording aren’t actually about her at all – they’re about the men in her life, (surprise, surprise)! What we do know is …
💜 She is known to have personally owned at least 15 books. (Which is a lot for a woman in the sixteenth century when the majority of women couldn’t read)
💚 It appears her translation was in direct response to a piece of work by her husband.
💜 She didn’t translate directly from the Greek, she used Erasmus’s Latin version.
And those bloke-related facts:
💚 Daughter of the Earl of Arundel.
💜 She married John, Lord Lumley in 1549 (which would make her about 12!)
💚 Lord Lumley is reputed to have the largest private library in Elizabethan England. Including the inherited library of Thomas Cranmer.
💜 He spent 18 months in prison suspected of being involved in Mary, Queen of Scots Plots against Elizabeth I.
💚 In 1575-6 was the recipient of an illuminated manuscript from the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Nicholas Bacon which he sent to her “at her desire”. *No, pull your mind out of the gutter * it is assumed she was friends with his wife.
So what else, besides what appears to be her young age, makes this all so special?
Well, the plays heroic subject. Iphegenia becomes the hero by sacrificing herself for safe passage to Troy, when Agamemnon wavers. It has also been posited that the format of a play (multiple points of view, no clear authorial voice) provided a protective mask for a woman writing in the 1500s. Sadly, she didn’t keep the playwrighting up 🙁
🖼: Steven van der Meulen
HER FULL STATS: Born in 1537.
Died on 27th July 1578. She is buried Lumley Chapel in Durham.
As for her full name, Wikipedia claims she’s called Jane, but she’s referred to as Joanna in a couple of books I’ve read, I went with that. I mean why wouldn’t I link her to a classic British sitcom?
Do you like what you’ve read? If you agree with me and think more people should know about this female playwright, why not share the following graphic with your followers on Pinterest. Let’s get the word out!