The Transgressive Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
By Francis Booth | On February 21, 2023 | Comments (0)
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623 – 1673) was a British poet, philosopher, scientist, and fiction writer. Like some of her predecessors, the eccentric Lady Margaret Lucas Cavendish wrote for an exclusively female audience and was angry at men:
Men are so Unconscionable and Cruel against us, as they Endeavour to Bar us of all Sorts or Kinds of Liberty, as not to Suffer us Freely to Associate amongst our Own Sex, but would fain Bury us in their Houses or Beds, as in a Grave; the truth is, we Live like Bats or Owls, Labour like Beasts, and Die like Worms. (To All Noble and Worthy Ladies)
This essay is excerpted from Killing the Angel: Early British Transgressive Women Writers ©2021 by Francis Booth. Reprinted by permission.
Virginia Woolf called Cavendish a “giant cucumber” which “had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.”
Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies of 1653 begins:
Noble, Worthy Ladies, Condemn me not as a dishonour of your Sex, for setting forth this Work; for it is harmless and free from all dishonesty; I will not say from Vanity: for that is so natural to our Sex, as it were unnatural, not to be so. Besides, Poetry, which is built upon Fancy, Women may claim, as a work belonging most properly to themselves.
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The Blazing World
Cavendish asserts here that poetry is the natural realm of women’s imagination. In the introduction to her proto-science fiction novel The Blazing World, she also addresses a female audience and asserts her right to write whatever she pleases; if the present world is not to her taste she has the right to invent one that is and to be the mistress of it.
And if (Noble Ladies) you should chance to take pleasure in reading these Fancies, I shall account myself a Happy Creatoress: If not, I must be content to live a Melancholy Life in my own World …
I am not Covetous, but as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which is the cause, That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.
Cavendish transgressively published under her own name not only fiction, which is ‘built upon fancy,’ and may ‘belong properly to women,’ but ventured into the male preserve of scientific and philosophical works, including many short pieces on the natural sciences, and especially about the atom, written in verse …
“… because I thought errors might better pass there than in prose – since poets write most fiction, and fiction is not given for truth, but pastime – and I fear my atoms will be as small pastime as themselves, for nothing can be less than an atom.”
Cavendish’s short prose work The Contract, 1656, is about a young woman Deletia who is brought up by her older uncle; he has very similar ideas on the education of girls to his author.
When she was seven years of age, he chose her such books to read in as might make her wise, not amorous, for he never suffered her to read in romancies, nor such light books; but moral philosophy was the first of her studies, to lay a ground and foundation of virtue, and to teach her to moderate her passions, and to rule her affections.
The next, her study was in history, to learn her experience by the second hand, reading the good fortunes and misfortunes of former times, the errors that were committed, the advantages that were lost, the humour and dispositions of men, the laws and customs of nations, their rise, and their fallings, of their wars and agreements, and the like.
The next study was in the best of poets, to delight in their fancies, and to recreate in their wit; and this she did not only read, but repeat what she had read every evening before she went to bed.
Cavendish personally knew philosophers and scientists like Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes and in 1667, she was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, which did not admit women until 1945.
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Subject to harsher criticism than male writers
Like several other early transgressive writers, Cavendish assumes that as a woman she will be subjected to harsher criticism than a male writer, not just by men but by women too. Her short apologia To All Noble and Worthy Ladies ends:
I imagine I shall be censured by my own sex, and men will cast a smile of scorn upon my book, because they think thereby women encroach too much upon men’s prerogatives. For they hold books as their crown and the sword as their sceptre by which they rule and govern.
… Therefore pray strengthen my side in defending my book, for I know women’s tongues are as sharp as two-edged swords, and wound as much when they are angered. And in this battle may your wit be quick and your speech ready, and your arguments so strong as to beat them out of the field of dispute.
So shall I get honour and reputation by your favours, otherwise I may chance to be cast into the fire. But if I burn, I desire to die your martyr.
Unlike Joan of Arc and the thousands of European ‘witches,’ and unlike Anne Askew, Cavendish was not literally burned at the stake and unlike the French writer Olympe de Gouges she was not sent to the guillotine; she stayed out of politics and though she was hardly the “Angel of the House.” she mostly stayed out of trouble.
Cavendish was however accused by many of promoting vice, an accusation she countered in the preface to her 1664 Sociable Letters:
I have heard, that some do Censure me for speaking too Freely, and Patronizing Vice too much, but I would have them not to be too Rash in Judging, but to Consider, first, whether there be a sufficient Reason that may move them to give such a Censure, for truly I am as much an Enemy to Vice, as I am a Friend to Virtue, & do Persecute Vice with as perfect an Hatred, as I do Pursue Virtue, with an Entire, and Pure Love, which is Sufficiently Known to those that Know me; and therefore, it is not out of Love to Vice that I Plead for it, but only to Exercise my Fancy, for surely the Wisest, and Eloquentest Orators, have not been Ashamed to Defend Vices upon such Accounts, and why may not I do the like?
For my Orations for the most part are Declamations, wherein I speak Pro and Con, and Determine nothing; and as for that Part which contains several Pleadings, it is Fit and Lawful that both Parties should bring in their Arguments as well as they can, to make their Cases Good; but I matter not their Censure, for it would be an Endless Trouble to me, to Answer every ones Foolish Exception; an Horse of a Noble Spirit Slights the Bawling of a Petty Cur, and so do I.
“To All Writing Ladies”
Like several early women writers, although she did not encourage them to take up vice, Cavendish was keen to stir women to action, to make the best of themselves and ignore men’s efforts to keep them down. She published a piece called To All Writing Ladies, which ends (the word effeminate here means female):
There will be many Heroic Women in some Ages, in others very Prophetical; in some Ages very pious, and devout: For our Sex is wonderfully addicted to the spirits. But this Age hath produced many effeminate Writers, as well as Preachers, and many effeminate Rulers, as well as Actors.
And if it be an Age when the effeminate spirits rule, as most visible they do in every Kingdom, let us take the advantage, and make the best of our time, for fear their reign should not last long; whether it be in the Amazonian Government, or in the Politic Common-wealth, or in flourishing Monarchy, or in Schools of Divinity, or in Lectures of Philosophy, or in witty Poetry, or anything that may bring honour to our Sex: for they are poor, dejected spirits, that are not ambitious of Fame.
And though we be inferior to Men, let us shew ourselves a degree above Beasts; and not eat, and drink, and sleep away our time as they do; and live only to the sense, not to the reason; and so turn into forgotten dust. But let us strive to build us Tombs while we live, of Noble, Honourable, and good Actions.
Cavendish’s statement that “we be inferior to Men,” may be ironic, she was clearly not one for humility. Nevertheless, in the introduction to the 1622 edition of her plays, she did compare herself unfavorably in “reading, language, wit,” with earlier male playwrights but then slyly implied that this makes her – and by application other female writers – more original, not copying earlier models but writing from her “own poor brain” and building “upon my own Foundation.”
But Noble Readers, do not think my Plays,
Are such as have been writ in former days;
As Johnson, Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher writ;
Mine want their Learning, Reading, Language, wit:
The Latin phrases I could never tell,
But Jonson could, which made him write so well.
Greek, Latin Poets, I could never read,
Nor their Historians, but our English Speed;
Nor could not steal their Wit, nor Plots out take;
All my Plays Plots, my own poor brain did make:
From Plutarch’s story I ne’er took Plot,
Nor from Romances, nor from Don Quixot,
As others have, for to assist their Wit,
But I upon my own Foundation writ.
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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938; High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.
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