Wife of William Cavendish, the 1st Duke.
Wife of William Cavendish, the 1st Duke.
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Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623 – 15 December 1673) was an English aristocrat, a prolific writer, and a scientist. Born Margaret Lucas, she was the youngest sister of prominent royalists Sir John Lucas and Sir Charles Lucas. She became an attendant of Queen Henrietta Maria and travelled 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 criticised as a unique and groundbreaking woman writer. She rejected the Aristotelianism and mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth century, preferring a vitalist model instead. She criticised and engaged with the members of the Royal Society of London and the 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.
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 relates Cavendish’s lineage, social status, fortune, upbringing, education and marriage. Within the memoir, Cavendish also details her pastimes and manners and offers an account of her own personality and ambition, including her thoughts on her extreme bashfulness, contemplative nature and writing. Cavendish also shares her views on gender (appropriate behaviour and activity), politics (parliamentarians versus royalists) and class (the proper behaviour of servants).
Cavendish's memoir also details the lives of her family as well, this includes a short biography of her brother Charles Lucas, one of the best Civil War Cavalier cavalry commanders who was executed by the Parliament for treason during the Second English Civil War. Cavendish also addresses 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 death.
Cavendish's father, Thomas Lucas, was exiled for a time 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 recounts that she spent a great deal of time with her siblings. She was trained by tutors, although she suggests that the children paid little attention to those tutors, who were "rather for formalitie than benefit." The family was one of relative means and Cavendish indicates that despite being a widow, her mother chose to keep her family in a condition "not much lower" than when her father was alive; the children had access to "honest pleasures and harmless delights."
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, for the first time, away from her family. 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 excuses her behaviour and states 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 notes that her husband liked her bashfulness. She also states 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 believes these to be attributes that will hold people together, even through misfortune. She further credits 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 makes a point to note 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 Cavendish left England to be with her husband.
Cavendish asserts 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 manifest itself in a reluctance to talk about her work in public spheres, but it is something that she satirises and reconceptualises 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, or erratic gestures.
In her memoir, Cavendish expresses that she enjoyed inventing herself through fashion. She states that she aimed for uniqueness in her dress, thoughts and behaviour, and remarks that she disliked wearing the same fashions as other women. She also expresses her desire to achieve fame. Several passages of her memoir remark upon her virtuous character, and she states that while she acknowledges the goodness in others, she thinks it acceptable that she should hope to be better than they are. Cavendish states that she hopes to have everlasting fame. Cavendish also notes that she expects to be criticised for her decision to write a memoir. She responds by stating that she wrote the memoir for herself, not for delight, but so that later generations will have a true account of her lineage and life. She says that she felt justified in writing her memoirs as it has been done by others, such as Caesar and Ovid.
Poems and Fancies is a collection of poems, epistles and some prose written by Cavendish on a variety of themes. Topics addressed in Cavendish's poetry include 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 take the forms of poetical fiction, moral instruction, philosophical opinion, dialogue, discourses and poetical romances. Poems and Fancies also includes 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 upcoming publications.
Cavendish concludes the collection by stating that she is aware that she does not write elegantly and that her phrasing and placement of words will likely be criticised. She expresses that she had difficulty creating rhymes that could communicate her intended meaning. In short, Cavendish states that she strove to keep her meaning at the expense of elegance, as her aim was to successfully communicate her ideas. She also notes that she expects her work will be criticised for not being useful. In response, she states that she writes not to instruct her readers in the arts, sciences or divinity, but to pass her time, asserting that she makes better use of her time than many others. Cavendish returns to these assertions throughout her epistles and poems.
Like authors such as Aphra Behn and William Wordsworth, Cavendish reveals 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 are 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 uses the epistles as a means to instruct readers in how they ought to read and respond to her poetry, most often by inviting praise from supporters and requesting silence from those who do not like her work. Cavendish commonly uses the epistles to call attention to and excuse potential weaknesses in her writing. The epistles are directed to specific audiences and vary 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 compares writing poetry to spinning and describes poetry as mental spinning. She notes that while it is commonly thought to be more appropriate for women to spin than to write, she herself is better at writing. This is one of several occasions wherein 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 employs metaphors to describe her writing in terms of stereotypically feminine tasks or interests, such as spinning, fashion and motherhood. While Cavendish criticises her work, she asserts that it will seem better than it is if Sir Charles Cavendish looks favourably upon it. Cavendish often appeals to the reader to applaud her work, asserting that if it is well received it will actually be somewhat improved. She concludes by complimenting Charles' charity and generosity.
In her epistle to noble and worthy ladies, as in many of her epistles, Cavendish straightforwardly expresses her desire for fame. Cavendish states that she is not concerned that the best people like her writing, as long as a great many people do. She justifies this by linking fame to noise and noise to great numbers of people. Cavendish often assumes a defensive position in her epistles, here justified by her assertion that she expects 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 argues that women who busy themselves writing will not act inappropriately or gossip. Though she anticipates criticism from females, she calls for female support so that she may gain honour and reputation. She closes by stating that if she should fail, she would see herself as being martyred for the cause of women.
In her epistle to Mistress Toppe, Cavendish states that her main reason for writing is her desire for fame. Again, Cavendish acknowledges her writing as a digression from accepted gender norms and asks for acceptance. While Cavendish often speaks of her writing in metaphors of domestic or stereotypically feminine activities, here she attempts to excuse her desire for fame by distancing her ambition from the feminine. She describes her ambition as a quest for glory, perfection and praise, which, she states, is not effeminate. Further, she points out that even while writing and pursuing fame she has remained modest and honourable and notes that she has done nothing to dishonour her family. Cavendish attributes her confidence in what she describes as a time of censor to her belief that there is no evil, only innocence in her desire for fame. As to her writing without permission, Cavendish excuses herself by stating that it is easier to get pardon after the fact, than to obtain permission prior. She privileges writing over gossiping, which she treats as a common and negative female activity. She considers writing to be a comparatively harmless pastime. She credits her books as tangible examples of her contemplation and contrasts her self-proclaimed harmless ideas with wild thoughts which, she states, lead to indiscreet actions.
A response from Mistress Toppe follows this epistle in Poems and Fancies, in which Toppe praises Cavendish and her skill in poetical fiction, moral instruction, philosophical opinion, dialogue, discourses and poetical romances.
Cavendish also includes a prefatory letter to natural philosophers. Cavendish states that she does not know any languages besides English, and that even her knowledge of English is somewhat limited, as she is familiar only with "that which is most usually spoke." In other words, she is downplaying her knowledge of the technical vocabulary used by natural philosophers. Thus, she says, she lacks knowledge of the opinions and discourses which precede her own. She then dismisses any errors she may make as trivial, asserting that she does not mean for her text to be taken as truth. Rather, Cavendish states, she wrote simply to pass time and expects that her work may be read for the same purpose. This epistle is also the site of her explanation for writing in verse. She states that poets are thought to write fiction, and that fiction is aligned with pastime, not truth. Verse, then, is expected to contain errors. Cavendish laments that her work is not more entertaining and advises readers to skip any part of the book that they do not like.
In her epistle to the reader, Cavendish states that with no children and, at that time, no estate, she has had a lot of spare time. Cavendish, therefore, does not engage in housewifery, but fills her time with writing. She states that good husbandry in poetry is well ordered fancy composed of fine language, proper phrases and significant words. Cavendish excuses any errors that may be found in her work as due to her youth and inexperience, and explains that she wrote only to distract herself from thoughts of her husband's and her own hardships. Comparing her book to a child, she states that the book/child is innocent, young, well-behaved, bashful and sensitive, and requests that the reader blame her, the author/mother, not the book, if they do not like it. If, however, the book is well liked, she makes it clear that she expects fame.
In her epistle to the poets, Cavendish notes that as women seldom write, her own act of writing may be ridiculed, as the strange and unusual seem fantastical, the fantastical seems odd, and the odd seems ridiculous. She requests that her work be judged by reason, not prejudice. She then excuses any weaknesses in her poetry by stating that she writes only to get away from melancholy thoughts and to fill idle time. She employs a food/feasting metaphor and states that her poems are not ripe, but that applause and praise will make them pass as a 'general feast' to those of vulgar taste who take quantity over quality. As is typical to Cavendish, applause is welcome and criticism censored, as she advises those who do not like her poetry to keep silent. She also states that hers are poems of fancy and thereby require study. She recommends 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 draws a distinction between poets (able judges of poetry) and rhymers (faulty judges of poetry) and advises people not to say that her book is nonsense or poorly constructed out of their own ignorance and malice. Returning again to her desire for fame, Cavendish notes that if an honest poet, who is not envious, judges her work, it will receive applause.
Cavendish asks that the reader read her fancies (poems) slowly and pay attention to every word because every word is a fancy itself. She warns that if readers lose their place or miss lines, they will miss the meaning of the entire work.
Cavendish follows some of her epistles with poems that instruct the reader in 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, suggest 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, expresses excuses for any errors that may be found in the poet’s work and begs for praise. In the poem, the poet states 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 states that she wrote without thought to how her work would be received by critics. The poet then recalls how she was visited by Reason who advised her to stop writing. Reason told the poet 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 as to avoid causing the printer to lose money. Reason also informed the poet that there are already too many books and that she should burn what she has written and spare the world. The poet notes her angry response and states that she sent her book to press before she could be persuaded not to. Hindsight, however, has made the poet regret her actions. Informing the reader that she feels shamed by her writing, the poet tells the reader to pity her and wipe away her tears with praise.
In The Poetresses Petition, the poet compares a negative reception to her books as their death. If the books must suffer such a death (criticism), the poet requests silence and that they be forgotten, without altar or inscriptions, and left undisturbed unless new merit is 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, the poet compares her book to a child and compares the book/child and author/parent to birds. The book, she states, is like a baby bird just going on its own. The author, like a parent bird, is unsure whether or not the book/baby bird will be safe and writes/chirps in an attempt to protect it.
Eileen O'Neill offers an overview of Cavendish's natural philosophy and its critical reception in her introduction to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. O'Neill describes Cavendish's natural philosophy as rejecting Aristotelianism and mechanical philosophy and favouring Stoic doctrines. She notes that while women rarely wrote about natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, Cavendish published six books on the subject. O'Neill points 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 may also, as O'Neill notes, have been influenced through social encounters with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. O'Neill believes that Hobbes (who had instructed Charles in philosophy) had significant influence on Cavendish's natural philosophy and notes that Cavendish was among the few seventeenth century supporters of Hobbes' materialist philosophy, which argued that incorporeal souls do not exist in nature. Beginning in the 1660s, O'Neill notes, Cavendish began to more seriously study the work of her contemporaries. O'Neill suggests that such study was intended to enable Cavendish to better argue her own points by contrasting them with those of other natural philosophers.
O'Neill notes 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 is lauded by many for such reasons as 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.
In her preface to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, Cavendish states that she expects readers to say that her practice of writing prolifically is a disease. If so, Cavendish states, then many others, including Aristotle, Cicero, Homer and St. Augustine, have also been very ill of the same disease. She remarks that it is an honour for someone of great ambition (as she has often identified herself) to share the disease of such wise and eloquent men. Also common to her other writings is her assertion that she writes for herself and that her writing is a harmless pastime when considered in comparison with those of many other women. She does contradict herself, however, by adding that she writes for delight, which she had denied in her previous work. Also somewhat contradictory is 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 excuses her criticism of and engagement with the theories of other natural philosophers as a necessary step in the search for truth.
In her epistle to the reader, Cavendish writes that woman's wit may equal that of man, and therefore women may be able to learn as easily as men. She argues that wit is natural, whereas learning is artificial, and that, in her time, men have more opportunity to educate themselves than women do.
Cavendish remarks upon her own experience reading philosophical works. She notes that many such works challenged her understanding, as they often contained many difficult words and expressions that she had not previously encountered. It follows that Cavendish advises writers of philosophy to use language appropriate to aiding the understanding of those less expert than themselves. Cavendish defends her position by stating that philosophical terms ought to ease communication of one's thoughts on the subject. She believes that successful communication is possible in all languages and criticizes those who complicate communication (particularly English writers) as aiming to gain esteem from those who admire writing simply because they do not understand it, without considering that it may be nonsense. In her own work, Cavendish states, she chooses not to uses difficult terms, although she points out that she understands such terms. Her stated reason for this is that she desires her work to be accessible to people regardless of their degree of learnedness. Her aim, she states, is to clearly communicate her ideas. She requests that any errors that may be found within her work be overlooked and that readers remain focused on her main ideas. Here, as in many of her epistles, Cavendish instructs her reader in how to approach her work, requesting that readers read her work in its entirety and that they withhold criticism until they have done so.
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. Cavendish writes herself into the book, which details a fictional new world (not just a new continent but an entirely separate world) and its empress. She remarks in her epilogue to the reader that she herself is empress of the philosophical world. In fact, in Cavendish's epistle to the reader she remarks that, in much the same way as there is a Charles the first, she would be considered Margaret the first.
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 do 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.
Two volumes of Cavendish's dramatic works were printed. Plays (1662), printed by A. Warren (London) includes the following:
Plays, Never Before Printed (1668) was published by Anne Maxwell (London) and contains:
Cavendish also published collections of Philosophical Letters (1664), orations, as in her collection entitled Orations (1662). Many of her works address 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 discusses her work, philosophy and ambition while instructing the reader in 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.
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Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
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Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne (c. 1623-1673) with an image
Anent: a noted eccentric
The Duchess, quoting herself in 'The Blazing World':
"...for my nature is such that I had rather appear worse in singularity than better in the mode."
Not a bad read by the way.
This lady was daughter of Thomas Luca, esq. and sister of sir John, afterwards the first lord Lucas, and second wife of William Cavendish, duke of Newcastle. If her merit as an author were to be estimated from the quantity of her works, she would have the precedence of all female writers, ancient or modern. There are no less than thirteen folios of her writing; ten of which are in print: they consist chiefly of poems and plays. The life of the duke her husband, is the most estimable of her productions. This has been translated into Latin. James Bristow, of Corpus Christi college in Oxford, undertook to translate a volume of her philosophical works into the same language; but he was soon forced to desist from the undertaking. Such was the obscurity and perplexity of the subject, that he could not find words where he had no ideas. We are greatly surprised that a lady of her quality should have written so much; and are little less surprised that one who loved writing so well, has writ no better: but what is most to be wondered at, is, that she, who found so much time for writing, could acquit herself in the several duties and relations of life, with so much propriety. Ob. 1673.
---A Biographical History of England. J. Granger, 1775.
Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.