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Margaret Cavendish

From Women in European History

A Wiki Page by Kate Oppenheimer


Margaret Cavendish, born in 1623, grew up in a time when England was filled with controversy and civil unrest brought about by the English Civil War and the instatement of the Commonwealth in 1649. Known as “harmless [and] faintly ridiculous”[1] during her own time, Cavendish’s multiple books, essays, and plays have become more read and widely accepted as important and serious works of philosophy and social commentaries by modern day readers. As a woman writer during a time dominated by published works written by men, a royalist when Puritan politics held sway, a poor aristocrat dependent on creditors, and an English woman unable to reside in her country of origin, her life was dominated by outside influences.[2] In this way her writing may serve as a reflection of the political, social, and religious struggles at that time. An anomaly within the already small group of women writers – the vast majority of whose works were concerned either with religious subjects or with childrearing and other such gender dominated fields – Margaret openly admitted to writing for purposes of “pure self love” and fame.[3] This selfish urge to write is one which becomes much more common in later eras, indeed, Cavendish appears to have been born too soon for her idiosyncraticies to be accepted in her own time - yet she was a product of her time. Margaret Cavendish’s deep desire for fame and literary immortality stems from the political and social unrest during her lifetime and her inability to conform to the social norms and expectations for women holding sway in Europe at that time.


Contents

Childhood

Margaret Cavendish was born in 1623 near Colchester, England as the youngest of eight children of Thomas and Elizabeth Lucas. [4] In his childhood, Cavendish’s father made the social faux pas of entering into and winning a duel with a relative of Lord Cobham, a favorite at Elizabeth I’s court at that time.[5] The social shame brought about from the murder of a member of such a highly connected family resulted in his exile to France. Although later able to return due to the death of the Queen and the crowning of James I, this loss of social standing was further increased by a scandal left behind during his absence from England – a child born out of wedlock to then Elizabeth Leighton. Although he quickly married her upon his return, the child was “disbarred from inheritance”.[6] In 1625 Lucas died, leaving behind a wife and eight children– Margaret was merely two years old at the time.


While she had very few memories of her father, Margaret’s childhood was dominated and heavily influenced by the example of her strong and willful mother. Elizabeth proved herself quite competent with the family expenses and continued to play a large part in the running of the estate even after the eldest son John came of age. Margaret was reared in an atmosphere dominated by reason and logic where a woman held sway. Her mother “instead of [using] threats, [used] reason to persuade [the children]”.[7] The fall in the social standing of the Lucas family, as well as the stigma of a household run by a single woman, caused little Margaret to have a much insulated childhood with little contact with anyone besides her siblings. The neighbor's discomfort with such an unusually run household seemed to worry the Lucas clan very little, in fact, the Lucas family seemed to return this dislike with vigor, making very few attempts to repair the social rift. The lack of connections with neighbors by marriage or attempts to visit with other families was “almost aberrant” in a time dominated by such constant and complex social maneuvering.[8] This lack of experience in the social realm could be a reason for her immense social awkwardness as a young adult and in her later years.

Royalist

In 1642 Margaret traveled to Oxford with the rest of her family and became captivated with the idea of being one of the maids of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria, the French wife of King Charles I. She “had a great desire to be one of her Maids … hearing the Queen had not the same number she was used to have, whereupon [she] wooed and won [her] Mother to let [her] go.”[9] This was a bold move for nineteen year old Margaret as the English Civil war had already begun the year before. The Civil war was a time of bloody battle between the majority Catholic Royalists and the Protestant Parliamentarians. By becoming the companion to the queen, Margaret was picking sides in an irrevocable way which would affect the course of the rest of her life. However, soon after gaining permission, she began to regret her momentous decision to leave the bosom of her family. She was confused and bewildered by the complicated social cues easily followed by the rest of the queen’s court – not to mention her lack of French. The inability to “distinguish … the line drawn between honourable and dishonourable female behavior” caused the inexperienced Margaret to use silence as protection.[10] When upbraided for her lack of action through letters from her mother, Margaret passionately wrote in response, “I had rather chose to be accounted a Fool, then to be thought rude or wanton”.[11] However, it should also be noted that, although painfully shy, Margaret had a strong propensity for colorful, clashing, and low-cut clothing which did not help strengthen her already ridiculous reputation among her fellows.[12]Although wishing to return home, Margaret was persuaded by her mother to remain at court and moved to Paris in 1644 when the queen was exiled due to the gaining power of the Protestants in the Civil War.


The relationship between the effects of religion versus politics upon Margaret’s choices is one unusual for her time. Although there are some mentions of the Lord in her autobiography,A True Relation of the Birth, Breeding, and Life, Margaret was not an extremely religious woman. Her choice to side with the Royalists seems to be one of politics rather than one stemming from a strong propensity for Catholicism. “Piety was not to Margaret’s taste. And even if there were to be a heavenly resurrection, it did not offer Margaret sufficient compensation for the loss of this world”.[13] In a world where one’s political loyalties were generally dictated by religious affiliations, Margaret was once again an early outlier for a later trend. This detachment between politics and religion was to become more prevalent as Royalist women in exile, sick of the religious conflicts scarring their country and their lives, began to rebel against the “religiosity“ that remained an important value for numerous women, even after 1660.[14]

Marriage to William Cavendish

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle and born in 1593, was also a fierce Royalist, spending several years in military service to Charles I of England. Despite mixed success in battle everyone conceded his courage although rumors at Court painted him as “too vain to subordinate himself to any other commander, to the detriment of royalist strategy”.[15] Having already sired five children from a previous marriage to a wealthy widow, William was also somewhat of a womanizer – although still an eligible matrimonial prospect.[16] After two years of painful service to the queen, Margaret was introduced to the Duke when she was twenty-two and the two were immediately drawn to each other, despite the thirty-year age difference.[17] Perhaps enchanted by her unique mix of outrageous dress and extremely modest demeanor, her “naiveté and uncritical admiration”, or shared intellectual values, the couple married in December of 1645 and the newly named Margaret Cavendish finally escaped the confusing mores of court life.[18] After moving in with her new husband, she was introduced for the first time to her new brother-in-law Charles Cavendish, a man who was to greatly influence her early published works.

Financial and Personal Insecurity

Although happy in matrimony, the second half of the 1640s for the newlywed couple were a time of “deep personal grief, dispossession, financial insecurity” although they were also to be a time of a “flourishing intellectual milieu”.[19] William, aware of his lack of funds, began a clever, yet reckless, cycle of borrowing large sums from friends, lavishly decorating his home, and than using this appearance of wealth to obtain credit from locals. Benefiting from this decedent lifestyle, Margaret nevertheless “lived in continual fear that [her husband] would be carted off to prison for debt”.[20] To add to his burden, Cavendish was also affected by her inability to become pregnant, the death of her mother in 1647, and the execution of her brother in 1648 for his continued support of the royalists.[21] Also in these two grief-filled years, Henrietta Maria requested that William join the now Prince Charles I in another royalist campaign. However, the prince had already departed by the time William arrived in Rotterdam, causing Cavendish to waist six months attempting to gather an army of his own.[22] Following this failed attempt at military success, the Cavendish family was uprooted to Antwerp, Belgium, where they remained till the Restoration. In 1651, Charles I was beheaded, thereby severing any hopes for increased fortunes as Cavendish’s estates were seized by the Commonwealth, and he was declared a traitor. As the creditors became more persistent, William sent Margaret and his brother, Charles, to petition for monetary reimbursement for the loss of land.[23] After her petition was rejected in 1651, Margaret spent almost a year-and-a-half in England, away from her husband. During this time she “became very Melancholy, by reason [she] was from [her] Lord, which made [her] mind so restless”.[24] Perhaps in an attempt to distract her, Charles spend much time talking to her about his interests and research in math, atomism, and current scientific topics.[25] Having excess time on her hands and filled with exciting new ideas, she threw herself into her writing.[26] By the time she returned to her husband 1653, she had published two works, Poems and Fancies and Philosophical Fancies.[27]

Life Reflected in Writing

Cavendish's experiences and interactions with preexisting notions of society are almost inseparable from her writing. In this way seventeenth century Europe will always be peeking out between Margaret's words .Her unusual upbringing, political choices, and marriage are reflected in the content, style, and sheer amount of her published works.


Despite the existence of women writers before Cavendish's time – the vast majority of this small group having written for either religious reasons or in a desire to pass on information to children in case of death during childbirth - Margaret was an anomaly nonetheless, largely due to her motivations for writing. [28] From early in Margaret’s childhood, it is clear that such reasons were never to become the source for her immense collection of writings. Within a childhood isolated from her neighbors, Margaret was also without familial playmates due to the large gap between her herself and her siblings. As her brothers were educated away from home and three out of her four sisters already married by Margaret’s twelfth year, she had much time to herself – along with an education lax in its role of teaching “basic female requisites”.[29]. Instead of learning needle work or spinning, she spent many hours reading and writing what she later referred to as Baby Books”[30] After her marriage to William, who strongly encouraged her writing throughout the entirety of their relationship as he was a published writer himself. Margaret once again had much leisure time on her hands. Without the political upheavals during her marriage, Cavendish may not have had the opportunity to write, much less publish. However, the lack of an estate for her to run – due to their exile – and her inability to bear children became a useful excuse for continued writing. Along with the lack of womanly duties that would have kept a normal wife busy, Cavendish also frequently blamed her lack of education within that sphere as another reason for increased freedom as she believed it silly to attempt success within a role she was unprepared for whereas others were better suited.[31]


Margaret's royalist and feminist tendencies are also not to be hidden but force their way to the forefront of numerous works. Within The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World – an early example of a science fiction novel where a lone girl discovers a new word, populated by animal-men, and becomes the Empress – one can find many examples of social, political, and philosophical commentary.[32] Just as Elizabeth I became the sole ruler of England, so too does Cavendish’s character rise to power within the Blazing World – becoming Margaret I in a fashion. After coming into power and reviewing the layout of her new world, she than enters into a “rhetorical dialogic narrative reminiscent of that between Hythlodaeus and More in Thomas Moore’s Utopia”.[33] Within this fictional story lies embedded a large portion of Cavendish’s scientific and philosophic theories scattered throughout other texts. Hidden within the first half of this tale in what may seem like a boring and confusing garble of a “bewildering variety of opinions”[34] is a highly up to date critique of the intellectual revolution of the seventeenth century.[35] Along with the necessary comparison with Moore – due the creation of an ideal society – she also discusses theories recently published by contemporaries such as Descartes, Hobbes, Hooke, and Bacon, to name a few.[36]


Due, in no small part, to the “intellectual contacts through her brother-in-law and her husband … she dined with both Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes” along with many others.[37] Although these intimate connections with the intellectual celebrities of her century in some ways increased her connection with their theories, so to was she occasionally alienated by their refusal to correspond with a woman. This awareness of her lack of reputation as a serious writer and philosopher is demonstrated by a speech made to her alter ego about her actual person within Blazing World, “ there is a lady, the Duchess of Newcastle, which although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious, yet she is a plain and rational writer, for the principle of her writings, is sense and reason”.[38] Indeed, Margaret felt that all of society’s wonderings in the nature of the world should be guided by reasonable discourse and an a priori approach[39] because she considered “knowledge derived via the senses … unreliable”.[40]


Although much of Margaret’s work is an interesting interplay between her painful social awkwardness, Hutton argues that she is “a witty mistress” who never feared to question social norms with “her tongue in her cheek”[41]. Often addressing her readers in the introductions of her works, Cavendish showed a self awareness for her audience, alternating between “stridently [critiquing] male attitudes” and “self-deprecation” where she warns the reader to pay no attention to her theories as she a merely a woman[42].

Yearn for Fame

Although the subject of her writing was unconventional, “the desire to pass the time during her exile” was a normal one for women of her time period. [Her] real break with convention was to print her work”[43] – all of which was published in England despite her exile. Yet, this desire is explainable with what has been shown of her life. Her general political and financial insecurity arising from the royalist loss of the English Civil War, along with a more than healthy fear of death – due to the death of most of her close family in quick and violent succession – and her inability to bear children all point Cavendish towards a desire to build a “Pyramid of Fame”[44] through her writing – as she was unable to do so orally. Whereas other women could look towards children to carry on their legacy, or similarly towards religion to bring them immortality, both paths were useless for Margaret. “Famously referring to her written words as surrogate babies”[45] Margaret spent much of her life attempting to become enough of a spectacle through her dress and her books so that she may be remembered or respected by later generations as she never was during her lifetime. Her gender, class, and education in relation to the changing times in which she lived always heavily influenced and overshadowed her identity as a writer. As she wrote in a Blazing World in a conversation between her wished persona, the Empress, and her actual self: “the shortest-lived fame lasts longer than the longest life of a man”.[46]


Notes


  1. Rees, Emma, “The 1650s: Genre and Exile,” In Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)pg. 26
  2. Ibid. pg. 32
  3. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987) pg. 30
  4. Capern, Amanda, Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)pg. 288
  5. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987) pg 12
  6. Ibid. pg. 12
  7. Cavendish, Margaret, Lives of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and His Wife, Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. (London: John Russell Smith, 1872) pg. 270
  8. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 14
  9. Cavendish, Margaret, Lives of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and His Wife, Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. (London: John Russell Smith, 1872)pg.277
  10. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 17
  11. Cavendish, Margaret, Lives of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and His Wife, Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. (London: John Russell Smith, 1872)pg. 279
  12. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 19
  13. Ibid. pg. 29
  14. Capern, Amanda, Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)pg. 281
  15. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 19
  16. Ibid
  17. Capern, Amanda, Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)pg. 288
  18. Rees, Emma, “The 1650s: Genre and Exile,” In Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)pg. 35
  19. Rees, Emma, “The 1650s: Genre and Exile,” In Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)pg. 36
  20. Ibid
  21. Capern, Amanda, Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)pg. 288
  22. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 27
  23. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 28
  24. Cavendish, Margaret, Lives of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and His Wife, Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. (London: John Russell Smith, 1872)pg. 294-95
  25. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 28
  26. Ibid
  27. Rees, Emma, “The 1650s: Genre and Exile,” In Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)pg. 37
  28. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 29
  29. Ibid. pg. 14
  30. Ibid. pg. 15-16
  31. Ibid. pg. 31
  32. Cavendish, Margaret, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. (New York: New York University Press, 1992)
  33. Capern, Amanda, Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)pg. 292
  34. Hutton, Sarah, “Science and Satire: The Lucianic Voice of Margaret Cavendish’s Description of a New World Called the Blazing World.” Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish Eds. Line Cottegnies et al. (Danvers: Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2003)pg. 164
  35. Ibid. pg. 166
  36. Ibid
  37. Rees, Emma, “The 1650s: Genre and Exile,” In Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)pg. 35
  38. Cavendish, Margaret, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. (New York: New York University Press, 1992)pg. 181
  39. Hutton, Sarah, “Science and Satire: The Lucianic Voice of Margaret Cavendish’s Description of a New World Called the Blazing World.” Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish Eds. Line Cottegnies et al. (Danvers: Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2003)pg. 163
  40. Ibid. pg. 162
  41. Ibid. pg. 161
  42. Ibid
  43. Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)pg. 34
  44. Ibid. pg. 28
  45. Capern, Amanda, Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)pg. 288
  46. Cavendish, Margaret, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. (New York: New York University Press, 1992)pg. 185

Annotated Bibliography and Other Sources


1. Rees, Emma, “The 1650s: Genre and Exile,” In Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)

In this book Rees makes a strong argument for the inseparable connection between Margaret Cavendish’s writings and the times in which she lived – as a woman writer in a time of men, a royalist in the time of Puritan politics, an aristocrat dependent on creditors, and an English woman unable to live in England. Yet, she also makes the argument that, far from being an unacceptable break from convention – as many at that time thought her to be, Cavendish actually harkened back to and employed much of the same ideas and methods as previous and contemporary writers and philosophers such as Plato and Hobbes.

2.Capern, Amanda, Historical Study of Women: England, 1500-1700. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

In this text, Capern explores the trend of exiled royalist women during the Commonwealth who break away from the religiosity of England and also start to recite personal experiences during the Civil War. Within the growing number of women beginning to write down theirs and others’ experiences is Margaret Cavendish – the second English woman to complete a biography of her spouse. Capern also ties together the feminist tendencies found within Cavendish’s plays to those found within Blazing World. Leading up to and following the individual chapter on Margaret Cavendish are many others chapters providing important historical background about other centuries and other women.

3.Cavendish, Margaret, Lives of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and His Wife, Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. (London: John Russell Smith, 1872)

This is the self written story of her husband’s life and a smaller novel on her own life. This text serves as an important trove of specific personal life details and an interesting perspective on how Margaret viewed herself and her husband – or perhaps the way she wished to be perceived as viewing herself. One can learn much just by looking at her words: her lack of correct spelling and very direct way of speaking straight to the reader indicate both a lack of formal education and a self awareness of her eccentricities that was probably unexpected at the time.

4.Mendelson, Sara, The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)

In this study, Mendelson discuss the political and SOCIAL pressures swirling around at the time of Cavendish and other English women. Found within the second half of the 17th century is the development of gender separation within the different spheres of male and female. Even the few women that managed to cross over into separate spheres, such as queens, had to become and present themselves as belonging the sphere they were utilizing – Queens had to present a masculine strong presence when acting as an authority figure and the opposite when returning back to femininity. Mendelson also discusses particulars of Cavendish’s childhood that had large effects upon her unique personality as an adult – such as a strong mother figure who used reason instead of force to enforce her authority. This text supports the thesis that Cavendish’s yearning for fame and literary immortality arises from the political unrest and upheaval during her life and her failure to become socially popular during her own time.

5.Hutton, Sarah, “Science and Satire: The Lucianic Voice of Margaret Cavendish’s Description of a New World Called the Blazing World.” Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish Eds. Line Cottegnies et al. (Danvers: Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2003)

Within this novel are several essays about Cavendish; however, the one focused upon above, by Hutton, analyzes concepts found within Blazing World specifically. Hutton emphasizes Cavendish’s tongue-in-cheek attitude towards social expectations and her willingness to appear as either an outspoken feminist or self effacing and harmless. She also points out the amazing amount of contemporary scientific thought almost hidden to modern day readers. Cavendish discusses, rejects, or approves theories by scientists and philosophers such as Harvey, Hobbes, Descartes, More, Hookes, and Bacon. The also essay discusses Cavendish’s apparent belief that all information gained through the senses is unreliable and that only reason can lead to the truth.

6.Cavendish, Margaret, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. (New York: New York University Press, 1992)

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