BORN: 1623, Colchester, England
DIED: 1673, Welbeck, England
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction, drama
Poems, and Fancies (1653)
Philosophicall Fancies (1653)
The Worlds Olio (1655)
The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle (1667)
Margaret Cavendish. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Margaret Lucas Cavendish, first Duchess of Newcastle, remains one of the most remarkable authors of the midseventeenth century. Praised by the influential philosophers and university faculty of her day, ridiculed by contemporary literati and later biographers, she published thirteen separate volumes of poetry and prose between 1653 and 1668, seeing most of her books through two or more revised editions during the same period. Although her works range from poetry, plays, and prose fiction to letters, orations, and natural philosophy, she has been noted most often as the writer of her husband’s biography. Some three hundred years after her death, the range and complexity of Margaret Cavendish’s writings are being reconsidered, especially in the context of social history, and she is being acknowledged as an important and underrated figure in the history of English literature.
Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish, Margaret, photograph. © Bettmann / Corbis.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up Royalist. Records of the birth of Margaret Lucas were lost during the English Civil Wars in the 1640s, but she was probably born in 1623, just outside Colchester. She was the youngest in a family of eight children, consisting of three sons and five daughters. Her father, Thomas Lucas, died when she was two; the most formative influence upon her, therefore, was her mother, Elizabeth Leighton Lucas. Within the family, relationships were warm and loving, but strangers were kept at arm’s length, perhaps because the Lucases were Royalists, whereas most of their neighbors supported Parliament. Royalists were those who supported the rightful rule of King Charles I of England; during the 1640s, a growing number of dissatisfied British citizens— mostly Puritans, a religious denomination the king sought to eliminate—favored the removal of the king and the establishment of a commonwealth. This eventually occurred in 1649, when King Charles I was executed and England came under the rule of Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell. Possibly as a result of her family’s unpopular Royalist background, Margaret grew up to be afflicted by a terrible bashfulness that left its mark on both her practice and her theory of rhetoric. She received what little education she had at home from a governess and visiting tutors. Not a keen student, she greatly preferred to amuse herself by writing—scribbling, as she called it—and by designing her own clothes.
Flight and Exile. Margaret’s happy family life was violently disrupted in 1641, when the British political situation reached a crisis: never popular with their Puritan neighbors, the Lucases were attacked in their family home. In 1642 Margaret and her mother fled to Oxford, where King Charles held his court in exile; in 1643 Margaret became maid of honor to Queen Henrietta Maria, whom she accompanied in 1644 when the queen escaped to France. There, in the spring of 1645, she met William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, whom she married in December of that year. Her husband was a great influence on her throughout her life. He encouraged her to write, supplemented her scanty education, paid for the publication of her books, and above all gave her confidence. He was himself a patron of the arts and sciences, and his brother Charles was a noted scholar. Childless, and without a great house and estate to care for, Margaret Cavendish amused herself in the early years of her marriage by writing, first in Paris, later in Rotterdam, and finally in Antwerp. The turning point of her career, however, was a visit to England begun in 1651. She had returned, escorted by her brother-in-law, to try to claim a portion of her husband’s sequestered estates. During the eighteen months she spent there, she wrote constantly and also arranged for the publication of her first two books, Poems, and Fancies (1653) and Philosophicall Fancies (1653).
Cavendish returned to her husband in Antwerp early in 1653. She completed work on her rhetorical theory in The Worlds Olio, published in 1655 but begun before her departure to England at the end of 1651. It is a curious work, rather like an informal conversation, flitting from one subject to another in disconnected fashion, with no serious sustained discussion of any issue.
Return and Last Years. In 1660, with the onset of the Restoration—the return of the traditional English monarchy, as well as those nobles who had also been exiled—Margaret Cavendish and her husband were finally able to return to England. For a while they lived in London, but they soon found the court of Charles II uncongenial and before the end of 1660 had retired to their estate at Welbeck. Once settled there, Cavendish resumed her life as a writer, publishing material she had worked on during her exile. She also made a serious effort to improve her overall education, studying philosophy and revising her philosophical works in the light of her new knowledge.
In The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle (1667) Cavendish’s love and admiration for her husband shine clearly through her prose, which is simple, direct, and sincere. In the preface she lays out what would now be called her methodology and her preference for the simple truth. This preface also makes it clear that even toward the end ofher life Cavendish was still ambivalent about rhetoric—admiring of its power to adorn, suspicious of its power to deceive—and above all, unhappy about her own lack of training in it.
Margaret Cavendish’s last years were clouded by disputes with her husband’s children and false accusations from his servants. She died suddenly on December 15, 1673, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on January 7, 1674. Her husband was not well enough to attend her funeral and two years later was interred with her, on January 22, 1676. Before he died, however, he collected all the letters and poems written to celebrate her and arranged to have them published as Letters and Poems in Honour of the Incomparable Princess, Margaret, Dutchess of Newcastle, which demonstrated that universities, philosophers, and gentleman poets had showered her with flattering words, even as peers had ridiculed her in private letters and diaries.
Works in Literary Context
Gender Issues. Cavendish’s first collection of plays, though written during her exile, was not published until 1662, the original manuscript having been lost at sea. The prefatory material includes a discussion of gender: here, as in The Worlds Olio, Cavendish shows a clear recognition of the difference between masculine and feminine styles and their different uses. She does not suggest that women are naturally inferior. She argues that because discourse must be adjusted to particular audiences and circumstances, one cannot expect the orator to use the same style in private conversation as in public speech. On the relationship between speaking and writing, she asserts that the best writers are not usually the best speakers; and women cannot be good writers because they talk too much.
Rhetoric and Speech. Cavendish emphasizes the relationship between thought and speech, or ratio and oratio, in the terms of Latin rhetoric used then. Like many of her contemporaries, she regards rhetoric as the art of expression only; she is contemptuous and, indeed, suspicious of it. The business of rhetoric is merely to dress thought; she compares the rhetorician to the tailor. Yet, dress and rhetoric have their own importance and must be appropriate to the occasion; and she acknowledges that ‘‘want of eloquence’’ can conceal or misrepresent the truth.
She rules that passionate speeches must be delivered in a tenor or even a bass voice, not a treble, to give due weight and solemnity. She even gives advice about the use of lips, teeth, and tongue to achieve the desired effect. Her dislike of the artificial style extends to a horror of the pedantic, the fussily correct: she even states that ‘‘it is against nature for women to spell right.’’ A good style has ease and simplicity, which are more important than mere accuracy.
Works in Critical Context
Cavendish’s works were not well received in her own day. Two celebrated diarists made fun of her: Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, who wrote a rude ballad about her visit to the Royal Society on May 30, 1667. She also had admirers, however: Mildmay Fane, Earl of Westmorland, wrote a poem in her honor on the flyleaf of his copy of Poems, and Fancies; in addition, John Dryden congratulated Newcastle on his wife’s ‘‘masculine style.’’ In the twentieth century Virginia Woolf valued her work, though she also made trenchant criticisms of it. Only in the latter part of the twentieth century, however, did Cavendish’s importance begin to be recognized. Many contemporary scholars are now engaged in studying her works, and there is a flourishing Margaret Cavendish Society.
Natures Pictures and the Female Role. A question that necessarily arises for contemporary scholars is whether or not Margaret Cavendish should be regarded as an early feminist. She certainly paved the way for the feminists who came later; however, she evinces little of that solidarity with other women that characterizes feminism. In fact, at the beginning of Natures Pictures she not only confesses to extraordinary ambition but also admits that she does not want to share her glory with other women: ‘‘I dare not examin the former times, for fear I should meet with such of my Sex that have outdone all the glory I can aime at.’’ An alternative approach is to see Cavendish in terms of the aristocratic culture of her own time, one that adopted an ideology of display. Hero Chalmers discusses Cavendish as an aristocrat in “Dismantling the Myth of ’Mad Madge’: The Cultural Context of Margaret Cavendish’s Authorial Self-Presentation’’ (1997). Diana Barnes reinforces this approach in ‘‘The Restoration of Royalist Form in Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters’’ (2001).
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Cavendish's famous contemporaries include:
Ben Jonson (1572-1637): English playwright most famous for Volpone and The Alchemist.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): Flemish Baroque painter at whose house Cavendish stayed during her exile.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): English political philosopher known for his book Leviathan.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Seventeenth-century French rationalist and the founder of Cartesian philosophy.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Cavendish was known for her preoccupation with rhetoric, with the idea of words and sentences as effective means of communication. Logic, law, and philosophy all rely heavily on rhetoric, and its practitioners have long been revered in Western culture. Here are some other works that explore the nature of communication and argument.
The Art of Rhetoric (fourth century BCE), a treatise by Aristotle. This famous work outlines the need for logos, ethos, and pathos in effective dialogue.
Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style (1512), a work by Desiderius Erasmus. A study of trends in style and an affirmation of the need for style in most writing.
Everything's an Argument (2006), a nonfiction work by Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz. This book identifies and discusses rhetoric in modern culture, with a special emphasis on the visual rhetoric used in current advertising.
Of Grammatology (1967), a nonfiction work by Jacques Derrida. A modern look at the functions and results of language and writing.
Responses to Literature
1. Take a look at some of Cavendish’s writing and determine whether or not she is a feminist. What makes you think this? What do you think a feminist is?
2. Why do you think Cavendish was ignored in her day? Was it only because she was a female writer?
3. Cavendish is decidedly un-Aristotelian. Research his rhetorical work and determine where they differ.
4. How do Cavendish’s royalist tendencies come into play in her writing and thinking? What do monarchs and aristocrats symbolize in her work?
Cavendish, William, ed. Letters and Poems in Honour of the Incomparable Princess, Margaret, Dutchess of Newcastle. London: Thomas Newcombe, 1676.
Grant, Douglas. Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673. London: Hart-Davis, 1957.
Perry, Henry Ten Eyck. The First Duchess of Newcastle and Her Husband as Figures in Literary History. London: Ginn, 1918.
Smith, Hilda L. Reason’s Disciples: Seventeenth-Century English Feminists. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Whitaker, Katie. Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Burges, Irene. ‘‘Recent Studies in Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1674); William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1593-1676); Elizabeth Cavendish Egerton (1627-1663); and Jane Cavendish Cheyne (1622-1669)’’, English Literary Renaissance 32 (Autumn 2002): 452-73.
Chalmers, Hero. “Dismantling the Myth of ’Mad Madge’: The Cultural Context of Margaret Cavendish’s Authorial Self-Presentation.’’ Women’s Writing 4, no. 3 (1997): 323-39.
Paloma, Dolores. ‘‘Margaret Cavendish: Defining the Female Self,’’ Women’s Studies 7, nos. 1-2 (1980): 55-66.
Sarasohn, Lisa T. ‘‘A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminism and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish.’’ Huntington Library Quarterly 47 (Autumn 1984): 289-307.
Stark, Ryan John. ‘‘Margaret Cavendish and Composition Style.’’ Rhetoric Review 17 (1999): 264-81.