The many worlds of Margaret Cavendish

  • Themes: History

A new exploration of the extraordinary life and remarkable mind of the seventeenth-century polymath, written with lucidity and verve.

A portrait of Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623-1673), the 17th century English aristocrat, philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction-writer, and playwright. Peter Lely, 1665.
A portrait of Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623-1673), the seventeenth-century English aristocrat, philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction-writer, and playwright. Peter Lely, 1665. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

Pure Wit: the Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Francesca Peacock, Head of Zeus, £27.99

‘All I desire is fame,’ wrote Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in the preface to her first book, a collection of poetry, in 1653. ‘Fame is nothing but a great noise… therefore I wish my book may set a-work every tongue.’ As a statement of the workings of celebrity it is remarkably modern. But it was also a statement of intent. Cavendish always knew how to make an entrance, even on the page.

In Restoration London, she was notorious. She arrived at the premiere of her husband’s play The Humorous Lovers – according to one man’s overheated account – in a carriage pulled by eight white bulls; the neckline of her bodice plunged so deeply it left ‘her breasts all laid out to view’ and displayed her ‘scarlet trimmed nipples’, he wrote. She designed her own clothes, which is to say she set her own fashions, as she did in all things. Her plays – written to be read, not performed – are full of puissant women fighting wars, despairing of their marriages, living in happy, man-free utopias. She picked fights in print with the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Robert Hooke.

If some of this sounds frivolous, for Cavendish the fight for attention, for a space to think and a space to be heard, was anything but. She dazzled contemporaries in ways that sometimes puzzled and bemused them; ‘the whole story of this lady is a romance’, Pepys wrote. But they took her seriously, too. The newly-formed Royal Society opened its doors to her, the first time they had done so for a woman; they would not elect a female fellow for close to three hundred years. After her death in 1673, her reputation faded. Virginia Woolf wrote that her work was ‘congealed in quartos and folios that nobody ever reads’. If that was true a century ago, it is not so now. She is back in print; some of her dramas have been staged; whole books are dedicated to expounding her philosophy. In Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish, her debut work, Francesca Peacock is here to tell us why.

Peacock stresses that Cavendish wasn’t born into the aristocracy, but she was from a wealthy and prominent family of Essex gentry; not everyone had the status to host Maria de Medici, mother of Henrietta Maria, Charles II’s queen, as her family did in 1638. Margaret’s father, Thomas Lucas, had died in 1625 when she was two, and her mother ran both the family estates and its business interests. The family’s women were close. Even after they married, Cavendish remembered, her older sisters ‘had no familiar conversation or intimate acquaintance with the families to which each other were linked to by marriage’, but went about ‘in a flock together’. Perhaps her utopias, like her politics, were nostalgic, too. Margaret received little intellectual education and was something of an autodidact. Perhaps relatedly, she regarded the mind as the one place a woman could be free, reigning without reference to men or their social strictures. ‘My mind is become an absolute monarch, ruling alone’, she later wrote.

The civil wars broke the family, as they did the nation. In August 1642, their home was ransacked by a Parliamentary mob. Livestock was slaughtered, the house looted, the family vault broken into, its coffins desecrated. Margaret’s mother was paraded through the streets; someone attacked her with a sword. It seems likely Margaret was present, although the evidence is inconclusive. The following year, she fled one women-centred world for another, leaving Colchester for the royal court, then based in Oxford, and a role as maid of honour in the private chambers of Henrietta Maria. When the queen went into exile in France in 1644, Margaret went, too. While in exile, the family house would be raided again: soldiers broke into the tombs of her mother and a sister, recently dead, cut the hair from the corpses and made merry with the wigs they made. Two of her brothers, both royalists, died in the war, one of them summarily executed by firing squad.

In 1645 she married William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, leader of the defeated royalist forces at Marston Moor, some thirty years her senior and a widower, too. He was, Henrietta Maria thought, a ‘fantastic and inconstant’ man; the marriage would have its problems – it was childless – but they were well matched. Charles II made William a duke after the Restoration, and there is no escaping the importance of privilege to Cavendish. One of her late title pages hails her as ‘Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent PRINCESS, the Duchess of Newcastle’. Even that wasn’t enough. ‘My ambition is not only to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole world,’ she wrote in The Blazing World, her remarkable 1666 utopian fiction. Social status was key to her identity; it was also key to her philosophical vision. Cavendish was a devout royalist who believed the pre-war social order was the right and natural state of society. Even in her groundbreaking discussion of atomism, as Peacock notes, it is ‘factious atoms’ that make ‘all go wrong’.

Cavendish’s devotion to monarchy far outpaced her religious feelings. ‘It is better, to be an Atheist, than a superstitious man,’ she wrote. She probably wasn’t an atheist. But she was far from conventional in her theology. This is a theme with Cavendish. Her capacity to confound expectation persists. Peacock rightly wants to claim her as a radical thinker and a proto-feminist, but that emphasis jars with Cavendish’s firm belief in privilege and autocratic power, and with the centrality of order, balance and authority to her thinking.

It is this complexity, as much as her trailblazing, that makes Cavendish so fascinating. But Pure Wit is in part also a book about women’s agency in mid-seventeenth-century England. On this reading, Cavendish was both sui generis and part of a historical moment. Peacock considers her in the context of post-Restoration campaigners for women’s rights, such as Bathsua Makin, Mary More and Mary Astell. Cavendish ‘was the epicentre of a new wave of women’s writing, education, and thinking’, Peacock writes. While texts such as The Convent of Pleasure posited women-only spaces dedicated to serious pleasures of the mind – and, sometimes, of the body – others, such as the Philosophical Letters, were framed by what Peacock calls ‘a constructed community of female readers and writers’.

Peacock’s nuanced argument for Cavendish’s place in feminist history is one of the book’s strengths. Peacock also sees analogies, for example, between Cavendish’s work and twentieth-century writing by Leonora Carrington, bell hooks and Shulamith Firestone. That is not to say that she sees influence; rather she sees deep continuities in women’s experience of patriarchy. She notes, too, that the Cavendishes almost certainly owned a sumptuous illuminated manuscript of the works of the early fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan, now in the British Library. Peacock cites parallels between the former’s Book of the City of Ladies and The Blazing World, among other works. Those continuities of experience, of separatist thought, stretch both ways.

Pure Wit may not quite do Cavendish justice; her thinking can be dauntingly obscure and more space might have been given to elaborating it. Nevertheless, this is an alert, thoughtful, clear-sighted exploration of an extraordinary life and a remarkable mind, written with lucidity and verve. ‘Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second’, Cavendish once wrote, ‘yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First.’ That she was.


Mathew Lyons