|Intro||English aristocrat, a prolific writer, and a scientist|
|Is||Activist Writer Philosopher Scientist Poet Essayist Feminist|
|From||England United Kingdom|
|Type||Activism Literature Philosophy Science|
|Death||15 December 1673, Kingdom of England|
See Margaret Cavendish (1661–1717) for the later Duchess of Newcastle of this name.
Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623 – 15 December 1673) was an English aristocrat, philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction-writer, and playwright during the 17th century. Born Margaret Lucas, she was the youngest sister of prominent royalists Sir John Lucas and Sir Charles Lucas, who owned the manor of St. John's Abbey in Colchester. She became an attendant of Queen Henrietta Maria and traveled with her into exile in France, living for a time at the court of the young King Louis XIV. She became the second wife of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1645, when he was a marquess.
Cavendish was a poet, philosopher, writer of prose romances, essayist, and playwright who published under her own name at a time when most women writers published anonymously. Her writing addressed a number of topics, including gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her utopian romance, The Blazing World, is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. She is singular in having published extensively in natural philosophy and early modern science. She published over a dozen original works; inclusion of her revised works brings her total number of publications to twenty-one.
Cavendish has been championed and criticized as a unique and groundbreaking woman writer. She rejected the Aristotelianism and mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth century, preferring a vitalist model instead. She was the first woman to attend a meeting at Royal Society of London in 1667 and she criticized and engaged with members and philosophers Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Robert Boyle. She has been claimed as an advocate for animals and as an early opponent of animal testing.
A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding, and Life (1656)
Cavendish published her autobiographical memoir A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding, and Life as an addendum to her collection Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, in 1656. The memoir related Cavendish’s lineage, social status, fortune, upbringing, education, and marriage. Within the memoir, Cavendish also described her pastimes and manners and offered an account of her own personality and ambition, including thoughts on her extreme bashfulness, contemplative nature, and writing. Cavendish also shared her views on gender (appropriate behavior and activity), politics (Parliamentarians versus Royalists) and class (the proper behavior of servants).
Cavendish's memoir also detailed the lives of her family including a short biography of her brother Charles Lucas, one of the best Civil War Cavalier cavalry commanders who was executed by the Parliamentarians for treason during the Second English Civil War. In addition, Cavendish addressed the economic and personal hardships she and her family faced as a result of war and political allegiance, such as the loss of estates and bereavements.
Cavendish's father, Thomas Lucas, was exiled after a duel that resulted in the death of "one Mr. Brooks"; he was pardoned by King James and returned to England in 1603. As the youngest of eight children, Cavendish recorded that she spent a great deal of time with her siblings. She did not have a formal education but had access to scholarly libraries and tutors, although she intimated that the children paid little attention to the tutors, who were "rather for formality than benefit". At an early age, Cavendish was already putting her ideas and thoughts down on paper since during this time period it was not common or accepted for women to be publicly intelligent. She kept her intellectual endeavours within the privacy of her home. The family was one of relatively significant means and Cavendish indicated that despite being a widow, her mother chose to keep her family in a condition "not muych lower" than when her father was alive; the children had access to "honest pleasures and harmless delights."
Maid of Honour to Queen Henrietta Maria
When Queen Henrietta Maria was in Oxford, Cavendish successfully appealed to her mother for permission to become one of her Maids of Honour. Cavendish accompanied the Queen upon her exile and moved to France. This took Cavendish away from her family for the first time. She notes that while she was very confident in the company of her siblings, amongst strangers she became extremely bashful. Cavendish explains that she was afraid she might speak or act inappropriately without her siblings' guidance, which would go against her ambition to be well received and well liked. She spoke only when absolutely necessary and, consequently, she came to be regarded as a fool. Cavendish excused her behaviour by stating that she preferred to be received as a fool rather than as wanton or rude. Regretting that she had left home to be a Maid of Honour, Cavendish informed her mother she wanted to leave the court. Her mother, however, persuaded Cavendish to stay rather than disgrace herself by leaving and provided her with funds that, as Cavendish notes, quite exceeded the normal means of a courtier. Cavendish remained a Maid of Honour for two more years until she was married to William Cavendish who was, at the time, Marquis of Newcastle (he was later made Duke). Cavendish noted that her husband liked her bashfulness. She also stated that he was the only man she was ever in love with, loving him not for title, wealth or power, but for merit, justice, gratitude, duty, and fidelity. She believed these to be attributes that would hold people together, even through misfortune. She further credited such qualities as assisting her husband and her family to endure the suffering they experienced as a result of their political allegiance.
A few years after her marriage, Cavendish and her husband's brother, Sir Charles Cavendish, returned to England. Cavendish had heard that her husband's estate (sequestrated due to his being a royalist delinquent) was to be sold and that she, as his wife, could hope to benefit from the sale. Cavendish, however, received no benefit. She pointedly noted that while many women petitioned for funds, she herself only petitioned once and, being denied, decided such efforts were not worth the trouble. After a year and a half she left England to be with her husband again.
Extreme Bashfulness and Health
Cavendish asserted in A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life that her bashful nature, what she described as "melancholia", made her "repent my going from home to see the World abroad." This melancholic nature manifested itself in a reluctance to talk about her work in public spheres, but it was something she satirised and reconceptualised in her writing Cavendish both defined and administered self-cures for the physical manifestations of her melancholia, which included "chill paleness," an inability to speak, and erratic gestures.
Fashion and Fame
In her memoir, Cavendish explained her enjoyment in reinventing herself through fashion. She said that she aimed for uniqueness in her dress, thoughts, and behavior, and that she disliked wearing the same fashions as other women. She also made her desire to achieve fame public. Several passages of her memoir remarked upon her virtuous character, and that while she acknowledged goodness in others, she thought it acceptable that she should hope to be better than them. Cavendish said her ambition was to have everlasting fame. She also expected to be criticized for her decision to write a memoir. She responded by stating that she wrote the memoir for herself not for delight, but so that later generations would have a true account of her lineage and life. She said that she felt justified in writing her memoirs since it had been done by others, such as Caesar and Ovid.
Poems and Fancies (1653)
Poems and Fancies is a collection of poems, epistles, and some prose, written by Cavendish on a variety of themes. Topics included natural philosophy, atoms, nature personified, macro/microcosms, other worlds, death, battle, hunting, love, honour, and fame. Her poems at times take the form of dialogues between such things as earth and darkness, an oak and a man cutting it down, melancholy and mirth, and peace and war. As noted by Mistress Toppe (see below), formerly Elizabeth Chaplain and Cavendish's maid, Cavendish's writings took the form of poetical fiction, moral instruction, philosophical opinion, dialogue, discourses and poetical romances. Poems and Fancies also included The Animal Parliament, a prose piece consisting largely of speeches and letters. The collection concludes with Cavendish's thoughts on her writing and an advertisement promoting one of her future publications.
Cavendish's Authorial Intent
Cavendish concluded the collection by stating that she was aware that she did not write elegantly and that her phrasing and placement of words could be criticized. She said she had difficulty creating rhymes that could communicate her intended meaning. In short, Cavendish stated that she strove to keep meaning at the expense of elegance, as her aim was to successfully communicate her ideas. She also noted that she expected her work to be criticized for not being useful. In response, she stated that she wrote not to instruct her readers in the arts, sciences or divinity, but to pass her time, asserting that she made better use of her time than many others. Cavendish returned to these assertions throughout her epistles and poems.
Like authors such as Aphra Behn and William Wordsworth, Cavendish revealed much about her intended audience, writing purpose and philosophy in her prefaces, prologues, epilogues and epistles to the reader. Cavendish wrote several epistle dedications for Poems and Fancies. The epistles were most often justifications of her writing both in terms of her decision to write at a time when women writers were not encouraged and in terms of her subject choice. Cavendish used the epistles to instruct readers how they ought to read and respond to her poetry, most often by inviting praise from supporters and requesting silence from those who did not like her work. Cavendish commonly used the epistles to call attention to and excuse potential weaknesses in her writing. The epistles were directed to specific audiences and varied accordingly.
The following is an account of several of Cavendish's epistles from Poems and Fancies.
In her epistle dedication to Sir Charles Cavendish, her brother in law, Cavendish compared writing poetry to spinning and described poetry as mental spinning. She noted that while it was commonly thought to be more appropriate for women to spin than to write, she herself was better at writing. This is one of several occasions where Cavendish calls attention to stereotypical gender roles, such as the belief that women should spin and not write, and then expands upon her reasons for not adhering to them. As in this epistle, Cavendish often employed metaphors to describe her writing in terms of stereotypically feminine tasks or interests, such as spinning, fashion, and motherhood. While Cavendish criticized her own work, she asserted that it would seem better if Sir Charles Cavendish looked favorably upon it. Cavendish often appealed to the reader to applaud her work, asserting that if it was well received it would actually be somewhat improved. She conclude by complimenting Charles' charity and generosity.
The Pursuit of Fame
In her epistle to noble and worthy ladies, as in many of her epistles, Cavendish straightforwardly expressed her desire for fame. Cavendish stated that she was not concerned that the best people like her writing, as long as many people did. She justified this by linking fame to noise and noise to great numbers of people. Cavendish often assumed a defensive position in her epistles, here justified by her assertion that she expected critiques from males and females not only on her writing, but on her practice of writing itself, as women writers were not encouraged. To this Cavendish argued that women who busy themselves writing will not act inappropriately or gossip. Though she anticipated criticism from females, she calls for female support so that she might gain honour and reputation. She closed by stating that if she should fail, she would see herself as being martyred for the cause of women.
Defence of Writing and Fame
In her epistle to Mistress Toppe, Cavendish stated that her main reason for writing was her desire for fame. Again, Cavendish acknowledged her writing as a digression from accepted gender norms and asked for acceptance. While Cavendish often spoke of her writing in metaphors of domestic or stereotypically feminine activities, here she attempted to excuse her desire for fame by distancing her ambition from the feminine. She described her ambition as a quest for glory, perfection, and praise, which, she stated, was not effeminate. Further, she pointed out that even while writing and pursuing fame she had remained modest and honourable and noted that she had done nothing to dishonour her family. Cavendish attributed her confidence, in what she describes as a time of censor, to her belief that there was no evil, only innocence in her desire for fame. As to her writing without permission, Cavendish excused herself by stating that it was easier to get a pardon after the fact than to obtain permission before. She privileged writing over gossiping, which she treated as a common and negative female activity. She consided writing to be a comparatively harmless pastime. She credited her books as tangible examples of her contemplation and contrasted her self-proclaimed harmless ideas with wild thoughts which, she stated, led to indiscreet actions.
A response from Mistress Toppe follows this epistle in Poems and Fancies, in which Toppe praised Cavendish and her skill in poetical fiction, moral instruction, philosophical opinion, dialogue, discourses and poetical romances.
Language, Knowledge and Error
Cavendish also included a prefatory letter to natural philosophers. Cavendish stated that she did not know any languages except English, and that even her knowledge of English was somewhat limited, since she was familiar only with "that which is most usually spoke." In other words, she downplayed her knowledge of the technical vocabulary used by natural philosophers. Thus, she said, she lacked knowledge of the opinions and discourses which precede her own. She then dismissed any errors she might make as trivial, asserting that she did not mean her text to be taken as truth. Rather, she wrote simply to pass time and expected that her work would be read for the same purpose. This epistle was also the contained her explanation for writing in verse. She stated that poets were thought to write fiction, and that fiction was aligned with pastime, not truth. Verse, then, was expected to contain errors. Cavendish lamented that her work was not more entertaining and advised readers to skip any part of the book that they did not like.
Writing to Pass the Time
In her epistle to the reader, Cavendish stated that with no children and, at that time, no estate, she had a lot of spare time. She, therefore, did not engage in housewifery, but filled her time with writing. She stated that good husbandry in poetry was well ordered fancy composed of fine language, proper phrases and significant words. Cavendish excused any errors that might be found in her work as due to her youth and inexperience, and explained that she wrote only to distract herself from thoughts of her husband's and her own hardships. Comparing her book to a child, she said that the book/child was innocent, young, well-behaved, bashful and sensitive, and requested that the reader blame her, the author/mother, not the book, if they did not like it. If, however, the book was well liked, she made it clear that she expected fame.
Instruction on Comprehension and Judgement
In her epistle to the poets, Cavendish noted that since women seldom wrote, her own act of writing might be ridiculed, as the strange and unusual seem fantastical, the fantastical seems odd, and the odd seems ridiculous. She requested that her work be judged by reason, not prejudice. She then excused any weaknesses in her poetry by stating that she wrote only to get away from melancholy thoughts and to fill idle time. She employed a food/feasting metaphor and stated that her poems are not ripe, but that applause and praise would make them pass as a 'general feast' to those of vulgar taste who take quantity over quality. As was typical in her writing, applause was welcomed and criticism censored, as she advises those who did not like her poetry to keep silent. She also stated that hers are poems of fancy and thereby required study. She recommended that as one with a troubled conscience ought to look to a minister for guidance, so should the reader ask a poet for help in understanding her poems. Attempting once again to guide the reader to a positive reception of her book, Cavendish drew a distinction between poets (able judges of poetry) and rhymers (faulty judges of poetry) and advised people not to say that her book was nonsense or poorly constructed out of their own ignorance and malice. Returning again to her desire for fame, Cavendish noted that if an honest poet, who was not envious, judged her work, it would receive applause.
Cavendish asked the reader to read her fancies (poems) slowly, paying attention to every word, because every word was a fancy itself. She warned that if readers lost their place or missed lines, they would miss the meaning of the entire work.
Poems: Excuses and Instructions
Cavendish followed some of her epistles with poems that instructed the reader how the poems came to be published and how they should be received. The proximity of the poems to the epistles and their similarity in subject and tone, suggests that they may be interpreted as being written from Cavendish’s own point of view.
The poem The Poetresses hasty Resolution, like many of Cavendish’s epistles, contained excuses for any errors that might be found in the poet’s work and begged for praise. In the poem, the poet stated that self-love influenced her judgement of her own poetry, which she found she liked so much that she was moved to continue writing in hope of fame. She said that she wrote without thought about how her work would be received by critics. The poet then recalled how she was visited by Reason who advised her to stop writing. Reason told her that her writing was a waste of time, that her work would not be well received and that she should not have her work printed so that the printer would not lose money. Reason also informed the poet that there were already too many books and that she should burn what she had written to spare the world from even more. The poet noted her angry response and stated that she sent her book to press before she could be persuaded otherwise. In hindsight, however, she regretted her actions. Informing the reader that she felt shamed by her writing, the poet told the reader to pity her and wipe away her tears with praise.
In The Poetresses Petition, she compared a negative reception to her books with their death. If the books suffered such a death (i.e. criticism), she requested silence and that they be forgotten, without altar or inscriptions, and left undisturbed unless new merit was found in them. Again, Cavendish would censor criticism and promote fame, instructing that only positive criticism should be voiced.
In An Apology for Writing So Much upon This Book, she compared her book to a child and compared the book/child and author/parent to birds. The book, she stated, was like a baby bird just going out on its own. The author, like a parent bird, was unsure whether or not the book/baby bird would be safe and wrote/chirped in an attempt to protect it.
Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666)
Cavendish’s Natural Philosophy
Eileen O'Neill provided an overview of Cavendish's natural philosophy and its critical reception in her introduction to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. O'Neill described Cavendish's natural philosophy as rejecting Aristotelianism and mechanical philosophy and favouring Stoic doctrines. She noted that while women rarely wrote about natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, Cavendish published six books on the subject. O'Neill pointed out that Cavendish herself was not formally educated in natural philosophy, though William Cavendish and his brother Charles shared an interest in the subject and supported Margaret's interest and study in the area. Cavendish might also have been influenced through social encounters with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. O'Neill believed that Hobbes (who had instructed Charles in philosophy) had significant influence on Cavendish's natural philosophy and noted that Cavendish was among the few seventeenth century supporters of Hobbes' materialist philosophy, which argued that incorporeal souls did not exist in nature. Beginning in the 1660s, Cavendish began to study the work of her contemporaries more seriously. O'Neill suggested that such study was intended to enable Cavendish to argue her own points better by contrasting them with those of other natural philosophers.
Critical Response to Cavendish's Natural Philosophy
O'Neill noted that Cavendish's natural philosophy, and writing in general, was criticised by many of her contemporaries as well as by more recent readers, such as Samuel Pepys, Henry More and Virginia Woolf. Cavendish's work has also received positive criticism and she was lauded by many for having written on typically male-dominated subjects, such as natural philosophy. Letters and poems of praise written by her husband were included in several of her published works.
Writing as an Honourable Disease
In her preface to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, Cavendish stated that she expected readers to say that her practice of writing prolifically was a disease. If so, Cavendish stated, then many others, including Aristotle, Cicero, Homer, and St. Augustine, had also been very ill of the same disease. She remarked that it was an honour for someone of great ambition (as she often identified herself) to share the disease of such wise and eloquent men. In these, as in her other writings, she asserted that she wrote for herself and that her writing was a harmless pastime when compared with those of many other women. She contradicted herself, however, by adding that she wrote for delight, which she had denied in her previous work. Also somewhat contradictory was her assertion that she would continue to write even if she had no readers, which is not in line with her desire for fame. Ultimately, Cavendish excuseed her criticism of and engagement with the theories of other natural philosophers as a necessary step in the search for truth.
Learning versus Wit
In her epistle to the reader, Cavendish wrote that woman's wit may equal that of man, and therefore women might be able to learn as easily as men. She argued that wit was natural, whereas learning was artificial, and that, in her time, men had more opportunity to educate themselves than women.
Cavendish remarked upon her own experience reading philosophical works. She noted that many such works challenged her understanding, as they often contained difficult words and expressions that she had not previously encountered. It followed that Cavendish advised writers of philosophy to use appropriate language to aid their less expert readers. Cavendish defended her position by stating that philosophical terms ought to ease communication of one's thoughts. She believed that successful communication was possible in all languages and criticised those who complicated communication (particularly English writers) as aiming to gain esteem from those who admire writing simply because they did not understand it, without considering that it might be nonsense. In her own work, Cavendish stated, she had chosen not to use difficult terms, although she pointed out that she understood such terms. Her stated reason was that she desired her work to be accessible to people regardless of their education. Her aim was to communicate her ideas clearly. She requested that any errors that might be found within her work should be overlooked and that readers should remain focused on her main ideas. Here, as in many of her epistles, Cavendish instructed her reader how to approach her work and requested that readers should read her work in its entirety and withhold criticism until they have done so.
The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666)
Cavendish's prose tale was published in 1666 and again in 1668. Each time it was published with Observations upon Experimental Philosophy."
As noted by many, including Silvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson, this early version of science fiction criticized and explored such issues as science, gender, and power. It also examined the relationship between imagination vs. reason and philosophy vs. fiction. Cavendish wrote herself into the book, which detailed a fictional new world (not just a new continent but an entirely separate world) and its empress. She remarked in her epilogue to the reader that she herself was empress of the philosophical world. In fact, in Cavendish's epistle to the reader she remarked that, in much the same way as there was a Charles the First, she would be considered Margaret the First.
CCXI Sociable Letters (1664)
Published in 1664 by William Wilson, CCXI Sociable Letters (1664) is a collection of letters as if composed by real women. The organisation of the letters is similar to her other book The World's Olio (1655). The topics are as varied as the forms and length of the letters. Topics include marriage, war, politics, medicine, science, English and classical literature, and miscellaneous topics like gambling and religious extremism. Though some letters seem to indicate some characters are actual people, e.g., Thomas Hobbes may be the character in letter 173 and C. R. possibly stands for King Charles II, and some letters are addressed to real people Cavendish communicated with often, the majority of characters are fictional leading to a surprisingly vibrant and ongoing conversation and observation about contemporary life.
Plays (1662) and (1668)
Two volumes of Cavendish's dramatic works were printed. Plays (1662), printed by A. Warren (London) includes the following:
- Loves Adventures
- The Several Wits
- Youths Glory, and Deaths Banquet
- The Lady Contemplation
- Wits Cabal
- The Unnatural Tragedy
- The Public Wooing
- The Matrimonial Trouble
- Nature's Three Daughters, Beauty, Love and Wit
- The Religious
- The Comical Hash
- Bell in Campo
- A Comedy of the Apocryphal Ladies
- The Female Academy
Plays, Never Before Printed (1668) was published by Anne Maxwell (London) and contains:
- The Sociable Companions, or the Female Wits
- The Presence
- Scenes (edited from The Presence)
- The Bridals
- The Convent of Pleasure
- A Piece of a Play
Cavendish's views on God and religion remained somewhat ambiguous. From her writings, it is clear that she was a Christian but she did not explicitly address her religious orientation or directly mention a belief in God. Uncertainty regarding her theological viewpoints is unusual for a woman writer of her time period, considering that much of early modern women's writing was oriented around religion. However, Cavendish acknowledged the existence of God but she "holds that natural reason cannot perceive or have an idea of an immaterial being". She argued that “when we name God, we name an Unexpressible, and Incomprehensible Being.”
Cavendish also published collections of Philosophical Letters (1664), orations, as in her collection entitled Orations (1662). Many of her works addressed such issues as natural philosophy, gender, power and manners. Cavendish's plays were never acted during her lifetime, but a number of plays, including The Convent of Pleasure (1668) have been staged since. As noted, several of Cavendish’s works have epistles, prefaces, prologues and epilogues in which she discussed her work, philosophy and ambition while instructing the reader how to read and respond to her writing. Cavendish’s writing has been criticised and championed from the time of its original publication to present day.
Formal titles from birth to death
- Mistress Margaret Lucas (1623–1645)
- The Most Hon. The Marchioness of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1645–1665)
- Her Grace The Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1665–1673)