Last time we heard about Margaret’s marriage and elevation to the highest reaches of the peerage, and her admittance to the ranks not just of a social elite, but an intellectual one also. During the period between her marriage in 1645 and 1651, Margaret lived through one of the happiest periods of her life, in exile in Paris and the Low Countries; plagued by money troubles and some bouts of poor health to be sure, but nonetheless, very happy. It is a period where she had the time and opportunity to scratch the inch of her curiosity, and to meet a wider circle of people that introduced her to new ideas.
One source of her happiness was in her marriage. Margaret has a rather polarised view of marriage; as I think we’ve already covered, her writings are peppered with descriptions of the disadvantages of women in marriage. I can’t remember quite how much I’ve talked about it, so let’s nail it here shall we? In one of her many literary ‘funeral orations’, she will write the reasonably uncompromising statement that
death is far the happier condition than marriage.
Not to put too fine a point on it. By and large she seems to blame biology; socially Margaret was quite traditional and conservative in her view of how men and women should behave, and was very much a traditionalist in terms of morality – particularly adultery; which she saw as a heinous sin in women, and well, not so bad in men. Although she certainly rails against gender roles in her writing, which we’ll come to in the future. But she mainly blames nature rather than starting a campaign to change the nature of society, which I suppose is why there’s a question about whether or not she should be called a feminist. So she writes at one stage
… Nature seems both unjust and cruel to her female creatures, especially women, making them to indure all the pain and sickness in breeding and bringing forth of their young children
Whomever is to blame. Francesca Peacock notes that all her plays involve women who are unhappy with marriage or feel swindled into a life which is less than it should be. So in a general sense she’s clear – women are at the mercy of whom they marry and it’s deeply unfair, so avoid it if you can.
On the other hand she is in a relationship with William which is extremely supportive, loving, and her writings are full of the admiration she has for her husband, to the point of hero worship. Her writings are full of his
Sweet, gentle and obliging nature
A kind husband a loving father, a generous master, and a constant friend
She had always very much admired and adored her family; now she did the same for William, and it does have to be said that William also wrote her love poetry all the time, which I would guess is nice, though does rather show the rest of us up.
So despite her general views about the dangers of marriage, and the sheer pot luck of it all for women – i.e. you had to put up with what you landed with – Margaret was also very sensible that she had lucked out, big time, and wrote plenty also on the benefits of a successful marriage
Love crowns their lives with peace, and enrobes or enclothes them with happiness
So that’s all lovely, and it won’t go away or go sour through their lives; it gave Margaret a dollop of what she had lacked to now; a measure of self confidence and solidity, which seems at odds with their emigree existence, and a financially precarious one to boot.
Paris also gave the couple plenty of opportunity to socialise. There was a big English community as well as French; the poet laureate William Davenant, HM’s English courtiers like Henry Jermyn, the diarist John Evelyn; ballets and plays at the French court, masques at HM’s court at the Louvre. Like many other emigres, they toured the sights of Paris, the great houses of the French Aristocracy, saw the latest word in art. I have already spoken about Hobbes and his visit – apparently Hobbes was a witty conversationalist, with a
Pleasant facetiousness and good nature
– except when he was arguing with Descartes of course. So there are lots of opportunities for Margaret to be involved in conversations about the latest ideas, philosophy, opinions and styles. But it’s probably not that which made her happy. She was basically too shy to be comfortable in such public occasions, though she presumably learned to deal with it, but she struggled to keep up a conversation.
When I am to entertain my acquaintance…though I do not speak so well as I wish I could, yet it is civility to speak…the truth is I am neither eloquent by nature, nor art
No matter how witty he was, she wrote that
I never spake to Master Hobbes twenty words in my life
So although the social whirl was varied, busy, interesting and intellectually stimulating, it wasn’t really this that made this such a positive time for Margaret. That, came from the intellectual life she found at home with William, and with William’s brother Charles Cavendish. Both were enthusiastic intellectuals, and both seems to have been equally enthusiastic to share what they knew and involve Margaret fully. Their talents lay in different directions. William was very much about the classics, the arts, poetry, plays, and they talked about that. But they talked generally about any kind of subject under the sun, politics, war, history, the sort of heroines that fired their admiration as well as the great generals and so on, trade, exploration architecture – you name it they talked about it
When my lord admits me to his company I dance with the muses, feast with the sciences or sit and discourse with the arts
It does all sound like a rather nice life; I have to say. Though it is interesting just how traditional Margaret’s language is as regards their relationship – when he admits me to his company – and despite her ambitions for women and her demands that women should not be restricted in what they could do, she clearly sees herself to a degree as a junior partner in this relationship to her lord – in that, she ace[pts the mores of the time. She also has ideas about what is suitable for men and what for women; so for example she’ll write
It is more proper for a gentleman to be active in the use of arms than the art of dancing
Or possibly if I’m anything to go by, to be properly rubbish at both.
Then there was William’s younger brother Charles. He makes it into the orbit of that great gossip John Aubrey who described him as
a little weake crooked man, and nature having not adapted him for the court nor campe, he betooke himselfe to the study of the mathematiques, wherein he became a great master’
Charles had a great collection of scholarly works, was part of a Europe wide network of correspondents, and was a great scientific experimenter. His talents and contacts helped turn the round of salons and parties in Paris into what was for a short time called ‘The Newcastle circle’.
Charles seems to have been almost equally enthused by Margaret’s company; she was involved in a range of experiments of optics, astronomy, chemistry, anatomy; everyone was fascinated by the odd behaviour of Mercury and so she wrote much about that.
He also helped direct Margaret’s reading and he collected the kind of books she would have needed. But there is an interesting point here – Margaret never managed to develop any knowledge of languages other than English. So her own reading was inevitably restricted, and quite severely; in 1650 Gassendi published a reworking of Greek Atomist theories – they were in Latin; Hobbes’ De Cive was also in Latin, although it would appear in English in 1651. Some of Descartes’ works were translated but not all. This does seem to me to be a feature then of Margaret’s following work; much of what she knew would have been mediated by William and Charles who read and communicated the ideas of the originals. She reflects this in something she wrote actually when she says that rather than being confined to the life of a scholar
I have studied upon observations, and lived upon contemplation, making the World my Book
University of Life sort of thing I suppose. Anyway, the long and short is, that here is the period 1645 to 1651, when Margaret was able to devote the vast majority of her time to reading and learning.
It was interrupted in the middle, in 1648 by a move to Antwerp in Flanders. They went for a couple of reasons; Charles II was wandering around in the Hague at this point, and a great revolution was planned against the Commonwealth with the help of the Scots. William and Margaret went north, but too late to take part on this occasion. The other was apparently money, so they took up in Peter Paul Rubens’ house; supposedly for economy, though seems hardly a big saving – no one would describe it as a two up two down. It was arranged on three sides around a courtyard, still is in fact, with a bunch of rooms and gallery, semicircular museum at one end, various servants quarters, Great Chamber and space for a ball. So I remain sceptical about the Poverty word, but the bite of money troubles will soon head bum-wards it has to be said.
The social circle in Flanders seems to have been a bit more restricted, albeit Antwerp was a riot of different nationalities and commerce. But there was a tradition of encouraging the intellectual and artistic work of women, and Newcastle had an intro to this world through a distant relation called Utricia Swann, who also introduced them to the circle of the Duchess of Lorraine. So they joined another round of Salons.
The author Kate Whittaker sees a lot of relevance in this time in forming Margaret’s ideas and range of interests. At the salons everyone used to play a game, called ‘sports of Wit’. The Duchess of Lorraine would preside; she might instruct people to make up dreams, and someone would pipe up and be the ‘diviner’ who made witty interpretations of them; or someone might devise riddles, and an ‘oracle’ would try to answer them. Sounds like living hell, all very courtly, but at these events Margaret became friendly with an English Catholic lay priest and poet, dramatist and musician, Richard Flecknoe; though apparently Flecknoe is mainly known for being the butt of mocking satires by both Dryden and Marvell, whether deserved or not I am not qualified to judge.
Anyway, Whittaker’s point is that much of Margaret’s writing is influenced by the feminine conversation and literary games of this salon culture. These might be things like ‘Wonders’ – surprising paradoxes; or allegories. Portraits were very popular – so literary descriptions of great men and women. At which point I can reveal that Margaret Cavendish was a Riccardian, setting up the lad as a great king who made good laws, and dissing Henry VII as a tyrant. Plus sa change, eh?
These were, at the time, all literary forms from a stereotypically ‘feminine’ salon culture. But given the amount of time she spend with William and Charles, Margaret’s writing from this time also covers topics that were considered masculine, like politics and war. This puts me in mind of an anecdote from a friend of mine’ who’s grandmother did basically everything as far as we good see, in the household, while her husband seemed to spend most of his time in the pub with his mates. When quizzed on this and asking whether the husband in question shouldn’t be a bit more helpful around the place rather than hanging out at the boozer, she looked rather shocked and said that oh no, what she did was very trivial washing ad cleaning and stuff – HE was discussing the important things, like whether we should declare war on Russia, that sort of thing. Always made me laugh. Not sure why.
Anyway, the point is that Margaret’s range will be unusually wide, and that is one of the reasons why she became controversial. And she will not be slavish to the opinions she learns from William and Charles, she’s perfectly capable of making up her own mind, and in fact a feature of her work is its originality and independence. So for example, she was also a dyed in the wool Anglican like William; but she nonetheless wrote a piece in opposition to his assertion that French Monasticism was a bad and wasteful thing.
With all this under her belt, in 1650 she does indeed start writing, starts getting all this stuff onto paper, these portraits and allegories and ideas and games. Her melancholy and depression had been banished for the moment, this invigorating intellectual life had allowed her, as she wrote
To settle my mind of the ground of peace
However, the outside world does begin to intrude. Firstly, there’s a deal of politics around, in terms of the hopes and fears for the royalist cause. It’s at this time that Charles II does make a play to regain his kingdom. William was on the king’s privy council, and the talk was all with the Scottish Covenanters who were heartily hacked off that the English Commonwealth had not only gone soft on the idea of introducing the Scottish Kirk into England, but had rather rudely cut off the head of their king, without so much as a ‘by your leave.’ Which you can see would be annoying.
William was on the king’s Privy Council; he hated the idea of Charles working with the Covenanters – for starters, Charles would be required to actually sign the Covenant, something his dad had stubbornly refused to do. Charle I did stubborn though in a big way, it was his jam, and Charles Junior was a good deal more flexible and he said ‘sure, go on then silly not to’, and as a result the Scots agreed to launch a war into England to put him back on the English throne. William was livid, protested violently, and was told off by the stern Covenanters for
‘his customary swearing’
As a result, when Charles sailed off in June 1650 to seek his fortune, William stayed at home because the Scots wouldn’t have him.
Back in Antwerp then, the royalist emigrees were desperate for news of the venture. You can see it can’t you – gathering around and talking and speculating, chewing over the lasts snippet of news. And they’d be joined next year by Edward Hyde, as it happens, who becomes great friends with Charles Cavendish in particular. Bits of information dribbled back – letters, newsheets, verbal reports of the old country from newcomers. As it did, the emigres poured over it all
Every letter and book of news we gravely deliver our opinions thereof, but first wipe our mouths formally with our handkerchiefs, spit with a grace, and hem aloud, and then say little to the purpose. Then we shake our heads and shrug our shoulders with prudence, saying time will produce more
I rather like the image of these emigres desperate for news, and desperate for good news that their time of torment and exile was over. Not quite sure what all the spitting was about, but there you go. The worst of it was that the emigres quickly realised that everything they knew or plannung, the Commonwealth knew as well within days or hours; their intelligence network was superb. So much so that in 1651 Cavendish’s sons Henry and Charles were briefly arrested, accused of plotting with Charles in exile.
Anyway, then the news came back that Charles and the Scots had made a pig’s bottom of the whole thing, Charles’ arse had been kicked by Cromwell at Worcester and he was on the run, from oak to oak, his whereabout unknown.
William Cavendish had a talent for self control and calmness, but now Margaret wrote that his head exploded. Well she didn’t quite say that, she wrote that he
Fell into so violent a passion that I verily believed it would have endangered his life
Not until November did the news finally arrive that Charles was back, safe and sound, and back in France. Margaret recorded her husband’s relief:
Never any subject could rejoice more than my lord did
Which was nice – Cavendish was a loyal servant of the Stuarts. But of course this meant exile must continue. And that exile was suddenly looking much less comfortable, and financially alarmingly precarious, as news came from England.