transcript for Cavendish 15

Hello everyone and welcome to ***

Last time we heard about the publication of Margaret’s most famous book, the Blazing world and the story of the height of her celebrity during her lifetime, and her visit to London and the Royal Society in 1667. This, I must warn you, is the very last episode; it will be spent largely in domestics I am afraid to say, though she does have a few more books in her. And we will also end with a piece of original music writing, inspired by one of her poems on Natural Philosophy, ‘What Atoms Make Life’.

When Margaret arrived home, it seems that she began to make good the promises she’d made to William all those years ago when they’d returned from exile; that she’d busy herself in managing the estate. This will be a theme of the last years of her life; and it will bring her no great joy, or thanks from her step family.

There is a bit of a theme to the Cavendish’s story, about which I have found myself to be relentlessly 21st century for which I apologise. That is to say that I have had little sympathy for their debt and financial worries, given their enormous wealth. Of course at the time they would have seen the world differently, and although it does not matter a fig to Margaret and William, dead many centuries, but I apologise for my lack of sympathy. I admit that it is a failing.

Margaret and William certainly behave as though there is a problem. We heard about the bargaining with Charles II about the £10,000 debt, and Margaret now begins to assume direct management of the estates; partly the reason for this is that William develops Parkinson’s disease. He was still very much involved, and corresponded constantly with Henry his son, who is his agent in London. But Margaret gets very much more hands-on. It was reported that Margaret

Hath all the power to manage his Grace’s estates

She behaves as though money is too tight to mention, and rather in the idiom of her mother and family. That is to squeeze every penny from the tenants, and keep all servants and managers on a tight leash. She was on the eye out for dishonesty, writing

For there is an old true saying ‘the master’s eye makes the horse fat

She demanded more detailed accounts from the steward, but she continued to give Francis and Elizabeth Topp growing authority, and her absolute trust. The Topps were flourishing, getting far more than just the basic £50 salary with all kinds of favours; For example, they formed a flourishing lead and coal mining company on the Cavendish estates. So much so that the Topps purchased a baronetcy, which would once have been way above any reasonable expectations they could have had.

Margaret and William both pursued an increasingly popular policy at this time among the landed classes; the development of waste land. Some of this was positive in the sense of draining marshes to bring more land under the plough; sone of it was more conflicted, such as the felling of established woodland; some of it was downright exploitative, such as the enclosure of common land, designed to maximise the Cavendish’s income but often depriving villagers of essential resources. The surviving estate papers suggest that they insisted strictly on their rights, just as Mama Lucas had done. Rents were raised, and tenants unable to pay either had property distrained to make good, or were simply evicted. Tenants were required only to use the Cavendish mills, for which they were charged over the odds. Disputes were energetically pursued in law.

William in particular had a reputation for losing his rag when baulked by tenants; the  commissioners reported William’s

High displeasure as he went into a great passion, both with us and the tenants

Meanwhile Margaret was determined to cut down and sell large swathes of woodland for timber and cash; Henry Cavendish fought this tooth and nail, but in the end, Margaret had her way.

The thing about this is that they were most certainly not short of a bob or two. Their trips to London cost a small fortune; the short 3 month trip to London in 1665 cost £2700, the equivalent of £300,000 today. Lord knows what the 1667 trip cost. Meanwhile they both had a passion for building. Margaret directed projects at her Dower house of Bolsover Castle, they’d spent a lot on fitting out Newcastle house in London at Clerkenwell. William became known for his liberal hospitality, though fair dos both he and Margaret were of the traditional paternalistic frame of mind that included entertainment for both rich and poor. Margaret’s view on her responsibilities to the poor she described as being required to:

Know and find out those that do truly and not feignedly want; neither must their gifts make the poor idle, but set the idle awork; and as for those that cannot work…as the old, sick decrepit and children, they must be maintained by those that have means and strength

It’s not entirely clear who Margaret was thinking of when she wrote of those that have means and strength; but there are some records of her charitable donations.

Meanwhile, Margaret was taking close interest in her own wealth, and making sure she would be sufficiently looked after if William should die, which given that William was into his seventies now and after all this time was still 30 years younger than Margaret, this seemed a thoroughly sensible thing to do. She secured several extra grants from William – the house at Clerkenwell, lands within Sherwood forest, and in 1670 extra estates in Northamptonshire.

The fury of the tenants at the harsh management of the estate, though, seemed not to be directed at Margaret and William but rather at the Topps; maybe rather along the lines of the king’s evil counsellors. William’s family were equally incensed by the continued rise of the Topps to wealth and fame, rather than their old estate managers; and they attributed this to Margaret’s evil influence over their father. The step children Jane and Frances in their letters resolutely refuse to use Francis and Elizabeth Topps’ titles, and refer to them simply as Mr and Mrs Topp.

Henry was particularly frantic; this land taken out of his father’s estate came from his inheritance; he had already complained bitterly to his father, but it had made no difference. The sale of the £16,000 worth of woodlands on Margaret’s orders led to the hideous incident I have referred to many episodes ago. In brief, Andrew Clayton, the erstwhile estate manager displaced by the Topps,  cooked up a series of false accusations against Margaret, quite possibly with Henry’s secret connivance. On the one hand William gave no credence to the accusations. However, Clayton was never prosecuted because he seems to have threatened revealing secrets and making them public  about the affair no one wanted; and though Francis Topp was not officially fired, he would leave Cavendish’s employment. None of this really reaches Margaret’s writing or her public utterances; but it must have been very painful.




Through it all, Margaret continued to write and improve her existing publications; she published new editions of the World’s Olio and Nature’s Pictures. But she had two new works to produce; a selection of unprinted plays; and her very last work, Grounds of Natural Philosophy. Partly, this was prompted by an occasion where Margaret’s work was indeed challenged, and no misplaced chivalry applied, by the rector in Bath, Joseph Glanvill. He objected to Margaret’s animism. He believed like others that there must be immaterial forces working on matter in the universe – since without it, there seemed to be no evidence of God’s existence and involvement in the world. He therefore supported the idea that witchcraft was real, which Margaret had very confidently and expertly refuted. They carried out a written debate, during with Glanvill sent her some of his books, and she returned the compliment and wrote at length critiquing his work, and so the debate continued. In Grounds of Natural Philosophy, she therefore reasserted her belief in animism.

Despite her lack of profile after her death, Margaret was now a successful published author and confident participant in the intellectual debates of the time. It is interesting to wonder how that would have developed if she had outlived William as expected.  She would have inherited a massive estate, and have been as free as the air to continue her work; though it is any body’s guess how she would have reacted to William’s death. However, we were never to find out, because in December 1673, Margaret died.

There seems to have been no warning of it’s coming. She’d never been in the best of health, and doesn’t seem to have had much interest at all in exercise; but despite periodic bouts of illness, there seemed to be nothing imminent, and there was no record of an extended illness. So the assumption seems to be something sudden, like a stroke or heart attack.

So it turns out that all that pain and anguish setting lands aside for Margaret were wasted; against all expectations, William would live on after her, and Henry Cavendish need not have worried. William of course would have been devastated by her unexpected death. There is no doubt they argued pretty frequently and often just one step down from plate throwing; but there’s equally no doubt they were made for each other and loved each other. I doubt Margaret could have chosen her husband more wisely, and William thoroughly admired his wife’s creativity, talent, individuality and courage. He was proud at having married someone who broke the mould.

He set about arranging a funeral fitting for her life; and managed to wangle a tomb at Westminster Abbey. There was a funeral procession with a host of family servants, all the way to Newcastle house in London. Then at dusk of 7th January there was a procession lit with torches to Westminster, where a company of nobility saw her into the vault William had arranged.

Sadly though, William was too ill and afflicted with Parkinsons to be there. Three years later, he would join her at the grand old age of 83, and a big old monument was built for the two of them, lying side by side. William was all decked out in armour, and I have to say with the most dramatically comic ‘tache you have ever seen in your life, I mean seriously. Margaret lies next to him with a book, pen and ink ready to use in the afterlife.

So that’s it then the end of another biography, with thanks again to Margaret Oake for setting me off down this road; not my normal sort of game, and all the more interesting because of it. We’ve talk a bit about her afterlife; I suspect for most of it, Margaret would have been livid at the way her work has been dismissed, and I hope her recent rehabilitation has pleased her shades. It has been a bit tricky for me; I am not judge at all of good or bad literature so have had to take as gospel the words of Katie Whitaker, Francesca Peacock and to some extent, Jon Healey and James Fitzmaurice; though I found the Natural Philosophy very interesting, and that Cavendish’s ideas weren’t necessarily naïve or unfounded, that in fact she was in most things part of various schools of thought.

One of the things I found most interesting is also something about which I know practically zip, Margaret as a feminist writer, which generally if not a view people take, despite the ground that she breaks. Historians now are careful to place her in a context of writers. I was really interested in the tradition that women of the time certainly wrote, but for private  consumption only, such as her step daughters.  And in defying this convention, they disapproved strongly with Margaret’s publishing. Historians also mention her in the context of more famous literary names –  Bathsua Makin, Mary Astell, Mary More, and Jane Sharp are mentioned, and Katherine Phillips; but though they are also write about gender I don’t think they are described as feminist – the term not having been invented during their age anyway. But the relationship of the sexes seems to have been on many lips at the times. We focus with Margaret very much on the well heeled women, but in her time, puritans like Katherine Chidley were vigorously challenging gender rules in religious expression and matters of conscience, and the likes of Elizabeth Lilburne and Mary Overton in politics.

But though not termed a feminist, Margaret seems to have been as uncompromising a her more famous contemporaries; if Mary Astell wrote

If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?

Then Margaret wrote:

… now we Live and dye, as if we were produced from Beast rather than from Men; for Men are Happy, and we women are miserable, they possess all the ease, rest, pleasure, wealth, power, and Fame, whereas Women are restless with Labour, easeless with Pain, Melancholy for Want of Pleasures, Helpless for want of Power, and die in oblivion for want of fame

So why is she not more famous for feminist or proto feminist writing? I think Francesca Peacock puts her finger on it when she writes that Cavendish was a bit too equivocal in some ways. She tended to accept many traditional gender roles; she’s distinctly anti feminine in some ways, pouring scorn on women, childbirth and motherhood for example. Also she is very distinctly not radical in the way that folks like Chidley are, or more famously of course, much later with Mary Wollstonecraft; she’s thoroughly elitist, undemocratic, a stickler for re-inforcing traditional class roles, and that sticks in the modern throat a bit I think.

I think I personally found Cavendish a little difficult to like for those reasons; the pair of them moaning about money problems and screwing their tenants when they were so toweringly rich. But that enormous inequality and traditionally hierarchical world view is hardly new, nor restricted to the Cavendishes, so it’s a bit, or a lot unfair of me. The thing I found most extraordinary about her was this remarkable contrast between the brave and the retiring, the intellectually challenging and the socially awkward; but in the end its her courage that seemed the most remarkable. It doesn’t matter how well off you are; breaking social rules and putting your head above the parapet always takes guts. I did also love her rather childish admiration for famous figures of history – I try also to keep some of the childlike attitude in my relentless admiration for Richard the Lionheart, whatever the rights and wrongs.

Anyway, it’d be interesting to see what you thought of her; while I have resolutely kept the Mad Madge thing out of this, you’ve got to think she was eccentric, and so I think I should end with her determination to be famous, to be remembered, and be one of a kind; in her words

Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First.

However, that is not where I am going to end. I met Georgiann on the History of England tour and a very good time we had, and I learned that Georgian is a composer. So It was a real delight to learn that Georgiann had also been inspired by Margaret Cavendish’s work, and she’d selected one of her poems, ‘What Atoms Make Life. This goes like this:

All pointed atoms to life do tend,

Whether pointed all, or at one end,

Or whether they be set round like a ring,

Or whether long and rolled as on a string.

Those which are pointed, straight, quick motion give,

But those that bow and bend, more dull do live.

For life lives dull or merrily

According as sharp atoms be.

And thus the only cause why things do die

Or live, is as the mixèd atoms lie

Georgiann has composed a piece around that with which we will now finish. It is sung by Winchester Musica Viva – that’s Winchester Vermont, and is directed by Dr. Bryce Hayes.

That’s it then – thank you again for listening and for being members, and I hope you enjoy the music.

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