Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle Analysis

Margaret Lucas

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, left many folio volumes in various prose genres. Natures Pictures contains a group of stories in prose and verse told around a winter fire; they are romantic and moralistic (disguises, abductions, wanderings, battles, reunions). The second part, a miscellaneous group of tales, has no framing device. Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668) reworks her views regarding physics and medicine developed in Philosophicall Fancies. Philosophical Letters (1664) analyzesThomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Thomas More. Several romantic comedies, published in Plays (1662), have plot elements similar to the tales. The duchess herself appears in such figures as “Lady Contemplation” and “Lady Sanspariel.” The duchess’s most effective prose, and one of the century’s finest biographical works, is The Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1667). Equally lively and clearly written is “A True Relation of the Birth, Breeding and Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Written by Herself,” included in Natures Pictures. The Worlds Olio (1655) contains epistles on the branches of learning and the pleasures of reading, on the passions, fame, and education. CCXI Sociable Letters (1664) contains many interesting observations on manners and literary taste.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

As one of the first women who not only composed but also published their verses, Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, anticipated the disdain that she would receive and so attempted to create a persona, as did other Cavalier poets, that would help readers understand what she was doing. She developed the concept of “fancy,” and the “harmless mirth” it produced, arguing that it was a woman’s as much as a man’s pursuit. Her poems envision the world as guided by a benevolent goddess, Natura. They movingly express humanitarian sentiments and focus on responses by women to loss of love, misfortune, and death. She used many genres and themes of earlier seventeenth century poetry: the pastoral, the verse treatise, the elegy, and the verse narrative. She is at her best when she is guided by the traditional emblems and images of lyric and narrative verse.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Battigelli, Anna. Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Battigelli’s meticulous scholarship brings Cavendish alive, creating a compelling portrait of her intellectual and creative life. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Clucas, Stephen, ed. A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. Contains a three-essay section on her poetry, which looks at Hobbesian allegories in her work and Poems and Fancies.

Cottegnies, Line, and Nancy Weitz, eds. Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. Collection of essays examines Cavendish’s use of genre. One essay explores the “poetics of variety.”

Mendelson, Sarah Heller. Margaret Cavendish. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2009. Biography of Cavendish that provides substantial critical analysis of her works.

Rees, Emma L. E. Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. This biography of Cavendish contains an entire chapter on Poems and Fancies and examines numerous other works.

Sarasohn, Lisa. The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy During the Scientific Revolution. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Examines Cavendish’s natural philosophy, including atomism, which is featured in some of her poetry.

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, 2003. This biography notes how Cavendish dared to write as a woman despite the resulting scandal. Later generations termed her “Mad Madge,” but Whitaker demonstrates Cavendish’s merit as a writer.