Margaret Cavendish Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.