Margaret Cavendish Essay - Critical Essays

Cavendish, Margaret


Margaret Cavendish 1623–1673

English poet, playwright, biographer, and essayist.

One of the pioneering women writers in the seventeenth-century, Margaret Cavendish occupies an important position in the female literary tradition. Chiefly known for her contribution to the genre of biographical writing in A True Relation of the Birth, Breeding, and Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1656) and The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle (1667), Cavendish was also a prolific writer of philosophical essays and an active participant in the scientific speculations of her time. During her lifetime Cavendish published books in a variety of genres ranging from poetry and fiction to philosophical treatises and orations, leaving an impressive oeuvre which continues to attract scholarly attention.

Biographical Information

The youngest child of Thomas Lucas and Elizabeth Leighton, Cavendish was born at St. John's Abbey, Colchester, Essex in 1623. Raised by her widowed mother, she received a traditional education that provided her with the rudimentary accomplishments prescribed for women in the seventeenth-century. In 1643, Cavendish joined the court of Queen Henrietta Maria as a maid of honor and accompanied her into exile in Paris in 1644. In Paris she met William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, whom she married in 1645. The Marquis encouraged Cavendish to further her intellectual development and prompted her interest in the philosophical and scientific debates of the day. Her first two works, Poems and Fancies and Philosophicall Fancies (both 1653), are marked by an imaginative response to contemporary speculative sciences. Both works were completed and published in England, where Cavendish was attempting to raise some funds to relieve the financial constraints imposed by a life of exile. Undaunted by their dismissal as insignificant curiosities by her contemporaries, Cavendish returned to France and proceeded to publish three more works. In 1660, Cavendish and her husband returned to England, and finding no favor at the court, retired to their country seat at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. She expanded her interest in social issues, especially those related to gender, and addressed them directly in her Orations of Divers Sorts (1662) and CCXI Sociable Letters (1664). At the same time, Cavendish's continued interest in scientific speculation resulted in three more philosophical treatises, and in 1667 she was honored by the Royal Academy for her

scientific achievements. Cavendish spent the last years of her life revising her previous works and publishing final versions of her philosophical and literary texts before her death in 1673.

Major Works

Prior to the writings of Cavendish, the literary output of female writers in Britain was primarily restricted to occasional devotional or religio-political tracts. Cavendish's works, with their wide variety of genres, thus occupy an important place in the history of English literature. Her chief subjects of interest were philosophical speculations and social issues specifically, particularly those concerning women's position in society. Beginning with Philosophicall Fancies, Cavendish wrote six volumes of philosophical and scientific treatises. Her later works, such as Philosophical Letters (1664) and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), actively participate in contemporary debates concerning the relative merits of speculative philosophy and experimental science. The terms of Cavendish's scientific theories are imaginatively illustrated in The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), a Utopian fantasy that brings together Cavendish's philosophical speculations, political beliefs, and social concerns. Cavendish was also constantly challenging the conflicts between her own literary aspirations and the traditional ideal of the "silent woman," and in The Blazing World she explores her fantasy of female power through the creation of a brilliant heroine who is taken to a world where she is made Empress, and participates in philosophical discussions with learned men. In her narrative poems and plays, however, Cavendish is more ambiguous in her representations, placing strong intelligent women next to quiet retiring heroines, and undermining her proto-feminist critique of the institution of marriage by employing the trope of marriage at the end of a number of her plays. Her two biographical works—The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle and A True Relation of the Birth, Breeding, and Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle—also illustrate the conflict faced by Cavendish, who was both a wife and a writer. While the former is a glorified and loving portrayal of William Cavendish by his devoted wife, the latter embodies Cavendish's desire for independent recognition as a writer. This tension, found in all of Cavendish's major works, makes her writings interesting documents of social history as well as significant landmarks in feminist literary history.

Critical Reception

Cavendish's early critical reception was marked by a tendency to trivialize her literary productions as the curious result of an uncontrolled, overactive imagination. Samuel Pepys's judgment of Cavendish as a "mad, conceited, ridiculous woman" whose husband was "an asse to suffer her to write what she writes to him and of him" is characteristic of the criticism of her contemporaries. However, three years after her death, her husband published a collection of poems and letters eulogizing the Duchess's work, which indicates the presence, even during her lifetime, of some recognition of her merit as a writer. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Cavendish's reputation consistently improved, as writers such as Charles Lamb and Isaac Disraeli praised her untutored genius and traced her influence on the works of poets such as Milton. This reputation has been superseded in recent criticism by a sociological interest in Cavendish that views her works as important representations of seventeenth-century social, political, and philosophical ideologies. As a result, there has been a renewed interest in the content of Cavendish's philosophical works and an attempt to place her within the historical context of philosophical ideas. The major part of Cavendish scholarship in the latter half of the twentieth century, however, focuses on her works precisely as the literary productions of a female writer. As one of the pioneering women writers who actively sought publication in order to achieve lasting recognition, Cavendish occupies a very significant position in any feminist history of English literature.

Principal Works

Philosophicall Fancies (essays) 1653

Poems and Fancies (poetry) 1653

The Philosophical and Physical Opinions (essays) 1655

The World's Olio (essays) 1655

Natures Pictures drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, to which is added A True Relation of the Birth, Breeding, and Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (short stories and autobiography) 1656

Orations of Divers Sorts, Accomodated to Divers Places (orations) 1662

Playes (drama) 1662

CCXI Sociable Letters (letters) 1664

Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy (essays) 1664

Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, to which is added The Description of a New Blazing World (essays and fiction) 1666

The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (fiction) 1666

The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle (biography) 1667

Grounds of Natural Philosophy (essays) 1668

Playes, Never Before Printed (drama) 1668


Virginia Woolf (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "The Duchess of Newcastle," in Collected Essays, Vol. III, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1925, pp. 51-8.

[A British novelist, essayist, and short story writer, Woolf is considered one of the most prominent literary figures of twentieth-century English literature. Concerned primarily with depicting the life of the mind, she revolted against traditional narrative techniques and developed her own highly individualized style. In the following essay, Woolf paints a sympathetic portrait of Margaret Cavendish as an intelligent though untutored woman attempting to leave a mark in a world that mocked any display of intellectual activity by women.]

' … All I desire is...

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B. G. MacCarthy (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Biography," in Women Writers: Their Contribution to the English Novel, 1621-1744, Third Impression, Cork University Press, 1946, pp. 70-121.

[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1944, MacCarthy traces the conflicting opinions about Cavendish's literary abilities and contends that her genius, evident in her biographical works, was unappreciated by her contemporaries.]

Of the many women whose intellectual powers were rendered ineffectual by a want of education, the Duchess of Newcastle is an outstanding example. Like other well-bred women, she had had her tutors, who were paid to give a semblance of schooling, but who were not even supposed...

(The entire section is 1599 words.)

Douglas Grant (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The Voyage of Fancy," in Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957, pp. 151-70.

[Below, Grant focuses on Cavendish's early works written during the years of her exile, emphasizing the broad range of Cavendish's literary output and tracing the source of her highly imaginative literary creations to her own life experiences and aspirations.]

I desire all my readers and acquaintance to believe, though my words run stumbling out of my mouth, and my pen draws roughly on my paper, yet my thoughts move regular in my brain.

One of the...

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Patricia A. Sullivan (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Female Writing Beside the Rhetorical Tradition: Seventeenth Century British Biography and a Female Tradition in Rhetoric," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, March/April, 1980, pp. 143-60.

[In this essay, Sullivan compares Cavendish's Life of William Cavendish with Thomas Sprat's "Life of Cowley, " highlighting the influence of gender on the form and style of biographical writing. She asserts that Cavendish's use of extensive detail, heightened emotional pitch, and temporally sequenced narrative creates a human "life story " that contrasts with Sprat's objective analysis of his subject's contribution to society.]

The historical...

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Sylvia Bowerbank (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Spider's Delight: Margaret Cavendish and the 'Female' Imagination," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 392-408.

[In the following essay, Bowerbank views the controversial "eccentricities" of Cavendish's literary productions as reflections of what the author considered to be her "true wit," her femininity, and her philosophy of nature.]

The world arose from an infinite spider who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels.

(Brahmin Teaching)

Recently Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), was remembered in the popular [The...

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Lisa T. Sarasohn (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminism and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, pp. 289-307.

[In this essay, Sarasohn discusses Cavendish's writings on atomistic cosmology and natural philosophy, and her development of an original speculative philosophy, which Sarasohn associates with Cavendish's feminism.]

In Margaret Cavendish's play Love's Adventures, the heroine dons male clothes, saves her intended and the Republic of Venice from the Turks, and lectures the College of Cardinals on theology to universal acclaim. This literary echo of the famous "world turned upside down"...

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Sidonie Smith (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Ragged Rout of Self: Margaret Cavendish's True Relation and the Heroics of Self-Disclosure," in A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 84-101.

[In the following essay, Smith traces Cavendish's conflicting depictions of herself in her autobiography to the tension between the traditional ideal of feminine silence and Cavendish's desire to give voice to her own life-story.]

When the rumour spread that the crazy Duchess was coming up from Welbeck to pay her respects at Court, people crowded the streets to look at her, and the curiosity of Mr. Pepys...

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Sophia B. Blaydes (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Nature is a Woman: The Duchess of Newcastle and Seventeenth-Century Philosophy," in Man, God, and Nature in the Enlightenment, Donald C. Mell, Jr., Theodore E. D. Braun, and Lucia M. Palmer, eds., Colleagues Press, 1988, pp. 51-64.

[Here, Blaydes reacts against the dismissal of Cavendish's philosophical works as eccentric and fanciful, emphasizing their importance to the history of philosophy, and placing her in the tradition of rational materialism proclaimed by such eminent philosophers as Descartes and Locke.]

Margaret Lucas Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623?-73), often reminded her readers that women were part of God's creation. On one occasion,...

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Linda R. Payne (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Dramatic Dreamscape: Women's Dreams and Utopian Vision in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle," in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1991, pp. 18-33.

[In this essay, Payne argues that Cavendish's flouting of the rules of dramatic composition in her plays is a deliberate rejection of masculine structures rather than a failure of her artistic talent. She also contends that Cavendish 's portrayal of modest and dutiful women illustrates the conflict she faced between social expectations and her own aspirations.]

Margaret Lucas Cavendish,...

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Rachel Trubowitz (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Reenchantment of Utopia and the Female Monarchical Self: Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World" in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 229-45.

[In the following essay, Trubowitz views Cavendish's Blazing World as an attempt to redefine the conventions of the Utopian genre from a female perspective.]

Margaret Cavendish, the first Duchess of Newcastle, stands out in English literary history as the first woman author not only to write but to publish profusely. In the tumultuous fifteen years between 1653 and 1668 Cavendish published (in folio) thirteen strikingly eclectic volumes of fiction, poetry, plays, essays,...

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Further Reading


Haynes, Alan, " 'The First Great Lady': Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle." History Today XXVI, No. 11 (November 1976): 724-33.

Biographical discussion of Cavendish focusing on her life and literary career.

Jones, Kathleen. A Glorious Fame: The Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673. London: Bloomsbury, 1988, 192 p.

Extensive literary biography that praises Cavendish as a pioneer of the female literary tradition in the seventeenth century.


Fitzmaurice, James. "Fancy and the...

(The entire section is 290 words.)