Now then ladies and gents, welcome to the shedcasts, and the start of another biography. And for my subject I have chosen one Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Ask me who? And now ask me why? But before I do answer your clever and well designed questions, let me just mention that before you start this series, you should make sure that you have listened to the episode on the History of England, where Professor of Literature Margaret Oakes talks with me about Cavendishs’ life a times. She has wonderful insights, and it’ll give you a great overview to start off with.
So, back to your questions then. Margaret Cavendish was born Margaret Lucas of Colchester in Essex in about 1623, and she will live to the not-particularly-ripe-but nonetheless-not-unusually-young-age of 51, when her clogs are removed in 1671. Margaret acquired some celebrity, I think it is fair to say, or possibly notoriety, as a poet, a playwright and a natural philosopher, and something of an fashion exhibitionist in Restoration London; and let me tell you, earning a reputation as an exhibitionist in Restoration London was quite an achievement – there was after all a good deal of exhibitionist competition. There are exhibitors all over the shop, coming out of your ears. A woman who was published in the 17th century is remarkable enough; one who also traded intellectual blows with the like of Hooke, Boyle and Hobbes is reasonably stratospheric I would say.
Well that’s who – though we’ll get into who a bit more of the who over the next whatever number of episodes; now the why. Well. The simple answer is that I was told to, by a member of this parish one Margaret Oakes, of the aforementioned and highly recommended interview episode, and I am good at being compliant, it is a personal character flaw. But there are other good reasons why exploring Cavendish’s life is worth a whirl; and whirl is the word in this way. Margaret will live through some turbulent times.
So by talking about Peg’s life, we will get to hear about the chaos of the civil wars and how a royalist gentry family manages to cope with it – or not as the case may be. Margaret’s family get caught up in the Stour Valley riots, which have already had a mench on the podcast. Margaret goes off to spend some QFT with Queen Henrietta Maria so we can talk about court life instead of park life, and also HM’s rather turbulent times. QFT by the way, stands for Quality family Time which is what our children called it when we insisted they talk to us. Possibly with an edge of sarcasm, I was never quite sure. Anyway – QFT.
Margaret will marry well, to someone with high aspirations, expectations, heels and bank balances and so we can hear about la vie en Rose of the rich and famous, although it starts in relative penury in the exiled royalist community in fact. But most of all we will get to hear about Margaret’s work; we can decide if she really was a proto feminist, or not a feminist – I’ll have to leave that to you to decide;, not sure about the definition. We can hear about the early days of Science and the Royal Society of blessed memory. And we can also hear about Samuel Pepys and his views on Margaret’s dress sense. So it is a smorgasbord of delights.
I do have two worries though, so let me start with an apology, now that we’ve had the explanation. My first worry is having to talk about the misogyny of early modern life from a female perspective; although I will be led by Peg’s biographers, I am almost certain to say something stupid at some point – so I am sorry for that. Secondly I am going to talk about literature, and let me promise you my opinions will be second hand because I have the tinniest of tin ears for literature. There is no poetry in my soul, so sorry.
There has actually been quite a lot written biography about our Margaret Cavendish, should you be interested, and there’s a historical novel to boot by Danielle Dutton called Margaret the First. The title of Danielle’s novel comes from a quote by Margaret herself, when she wrote of her ambition – and make no mistake, she was ambitious, she wanted her name to live forever, for busy, gnome-like podcasters to labour in their sheds to sing her praise and speak of her glory. And yet she recognised this was much harder to do as a woman than it was for a bloke
Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First.
She wrote. A worthy ambition. However, there are multiple biographies dating from 1957 I deem, but the two on which I am going to principally rely are ‘Pure Wit’, by Francesca Peacock, a book so new the ink is still wet, and Katie Whittaker whose excellent 2003 biography is called Mad Madge.
Mad Madge. now, therein lies a tale. Francesca Peacock speaks most warmly of Katie’s book, but cannot resist an expression of rather censorious regret at the title of her book – Mad Madge. Because it is a tag that was indeed attached to Margaret Cavendish. Back in the 17th century, they had not yet invented the phrase ‘as mad as a box of cheese’, but if they had, they’d have used it. Views of Margaret Cavendish were, I’m afraid to say, not entirely positive.
It is partly simply because Peg, as her husband called her, broke the rules. Some stats for you. She published a total of 23 volumes of work in her lifetime, ranging across a spectrum that would make a rainbow look sheepish. In the first 40 years of the century n which she was writing, fewer than 80 books in total had been published by women. In 1653 she published Poems and Fancies and that, my friends, was the first book of English poetry to be published by a woman under her own name; you can spot some clever caveats to get to a number one there, but the point is that although women wrote, modesty forbid that they should publish; they might circulate their work amongst their friends but publish? No No. Under their own names rather than anonymously? Good lord, and oh dearie me no, that would be most unfortunate and not quite the thing.
We can talk more about all of that when we come to it, but we should start, as is traditional, with reputations, how history has treated Margaret. Just to set the context Margaret published in poetry, she wrote plays, she wrote sort of social comment in the form of epistolatory works, fairy stories, and she published works of natural philosophy, at the time of the early Royal Society; she publishes what some see as one of the first works of Science Fiction. She also published a life of the man she loved with a passion and who loved her right back, the cavalier and poet, William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle – and for quite a while that was her most famous book. So she was a polymath.
To her immediate contemporaries Margaret was something of a force of nature – a rule breaker, wearing outlandish costumes she designed herself that revealed significantly more than her granny would have considered prudent, a celebrity. Bathsua Makin, the essayist and teacher who argued for the rights of women for a better education, wrote of her that
“The present Dutchess of New-Castle, by her own Genius, rather than any timely Instruction, over-tops many grave Gown-Men.”
After her death in 1671 the first writers who mention her, focus not really in her work, but on her role as the wife of the Duke of Newcastle; a slightly patronising view that ignored and marginalised her work, and focussed on her mutually supportive married relationship. Which isn’t simple actually, because although Margaret was deliciously aware of her own luck in love, boy did she have neggy things to say about marriage in general and the situation into which it placed women! But this emphasis for her reputation it was probably helped by the eulogaic series of letters and texts her grieving husband William published in the wake of her death. From 1719 the publishing of books that include her life starts, and her reputation falls into the track of a sort of romantic whimsical soul, going through the ups and downs of the civil wars, all a bit bonkers, talking about her output as having
“inconsiderable faults in her numerous productions”
Though offset in the minds of reviewers and anthologists by her originality. The legend of Mad Madge was being formed.
The image of the perfect wife for a husband who was also described as ‘having the misfortune to be a poet’, a rather delightful lament, continues through the ages; George Ballard wrote of her as
“truly pious, charitable and generous… and a perfect pattern of conjugal love and duty”.
Her writing is still being largely pushed aside, therefore, but the image of the good wife persists into the 20th century. Things get nastier, as a deal of ridicule creeps in, a story that speaks to her as wildly eccentric, with creativity, but creativity over which she isn’t really in control; Horace Walpole goes rather further, and wearily denigrates both her and her husband as the
“picture of foolish nobility”.
In 1844, Louisa Costello wades in with the description of her,
whose harmless conceit does but little injury, but is, nevertheless, a general annoyance, except to the tradesmen she employs to print and bind the countless volumes with which she delights to adorn her own library
It’s a variation on the same theme – nobility playing around at letters with an inflated sense of their own importance, building up a library of second rate kitsch. Others were beginning to be more complimentary, recognising her originality; for example Charles Lamb wrote that
“no casket is rich enough, no casing sufficiently-durable, to honour and keep safe such a jewel”
But in the late 19th century, the tone was much more censorious; one reviewer used the phrase
“dangerously far from sanity”.
Which I would describe as a little rude. The thing is though that the knife is really inserted between the 3rd and 4th rib by the undoubtedly authoritative Virginia Woolf, in The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s criticism is undeniably a little cutting, and she seems cross that she wasted her talents, or maybe sympathetic that she had talents and yet was born into a world where she had so many obstacles to developing and exercising them. “Crack-brained and bird-witted” she calls her, a “giant cucumber” in a rose garden who chokes the other plants; and she “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity”. Oh dear. Though I applaud, of course, Woolf’s seemingly negative view of the cucumber; me, Sam and Ginny, all together in the anti cucumber tendency.
But there’s more
her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull,
OK, Ok, enough already. But despite all this, yet there is admiration and love as well and the context is critical
One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and loveable personality, as it meanders and twinkles through page after page. There is something noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted, about her.
Basically context is important here – Woolf saw her brilliance and originality, and lamented that she had been forced to find it out all by herself, unguided, without formal education, and thus had not be able to make the most of her genius.
However, in recent years there has been something of a rehabilitation and re-assessment. Her work is much more readily available; her plays have been put on, The Blazing World used as inspiration for other works; and the most recent biographies are much more balanced, and put much of what she did – especially in science – into the context of a rapidly developing growth of a new knowledge.
So there we are an introduction to the story you are about to hear. Before we sign off, let’s introduce you to the Lucas family shall we? For of course Margaret wasn’t born married to the Duke of Newcastle, she was born in 1623 the eighth and youngest child of Thomas and Elizabeth Lucas, and they were well off; they’d been a notable local family since the 13th century, but another previous Thomas had made his pile and built their manor house from the profits of the law. The story of Margaret’s Mum and Dad – or her Dad more specifically is actually pretty scandalous, even by 17th century standards, when scandal was a higher bar than celebrities exposing their footballing friends digressions on social media.
Thomas Lucas senior had been born in 1571, and took himself off as soon as possible to dandy around in London, swishing his pantaloons, twiddling his ‘tache and sniffing his perfumed hanky and all that. At the age of 27, he’d met Elizabeth, a 13 year old daughter of a London merchant and got her pregnant. Blimey. By the time Elizabeth gave birth to their eldest, another Thomas, Lucas senior was no longer around. Why? Because he’d fought a duel and been exiled leaving the 13 year old, unmarried mother Elizabeth literally holding the baby and no doubt rivers of social shaming which reputation would hang around the family for a while, and circulate around Margaret’s youth.
Now fair dos when Thomas was pardoned in 1604 he at last did the decent thing, came back married and made happy families, but really, did you ever. His daughter Margaret though, would stoutly defend him; much of what we know or think we know about Margaret’s childhood comes from an autobiography she wrote, and would publish, called A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life, and in it she defended her Dad’s duel
“my father by honour challenged him, with valour fought him, and in justice killed him”.
And she draws a delicate veil over getting a 13 year old 14 years his junior pregnant. I suppose things were indeed different back then. Anyway sadly Thomas was really little more than a memory for Margaret since he died in 1625 when she was just two, and the household was run by Elizabeth.
And it is to Margaret’s childhood, family, education and the arrival of war to which we will turn next time. Remember this biography series will be in the now traditional format – a pryle of three short episodes, with an omnibus of all three published on the third week. I have no idea if this format works, I rather like the flexibility it gives me.