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.
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 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."
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, 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.
Extreme Bashfulness and Health
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 reticence to talk about her work in public spheres, but it is something that she satirises and re-conceptualises 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.
Fashion and Fame
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 (1653)
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's Authorial Intent
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.
The Pursuit of Fame
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.
Defence of Writing and Fame
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.
Language, Knowledge and Error
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.
Writing to Pass the Time
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.