Last week we heard about Margaret and Charles varying experiences with the Committee of Compounding at Goldsmith’s Hall in London; and about Margaret’s experiences on the very changed social scene in London. Margaret may have been relatively shy in society, but in a short time she had acquired a sympathetic story, but also a reputation for flamboyance and eccentricity. Now she was set to shock them some more; because in 1653 she decided that she would become a published author.
Now then, then are a few things about this idea. The nature of publishing was very different in 1653 to the culture we have now – and not just in a technology sense. Firstly, the very idea of women publishing. One the one hand, it wasn’t unheard of; and the numbers of women publishing had increased since the start of the civil wars so that’s all good. But the subject of that writing was overwhelmingly religious, where women were confidently asserting their equality in matters of conscience. Mary Cary’s writings combined religious revelation with the desire for parliamentary victory to bring on the rule of the saints; Jane Turner wrote also about religious revelation, and 45% of women’s works were by Quakers. There was another vaguely acceptable female genre, which was mothers’ advice books – from mother to children; Brilliana Harley wrote one.
Also, increase in numbers though there might have been, the numbers were still tiny; 80 in the first 40 years of the century, less than 1 percent of the total. And books by upper class women were vanishingly rare – just 9 in the first half of the century.
What they didn’t do, almost at all, was write books on poetry and philosophy the kind of things Margaret produced in her first published titled – which is called Poems and Fancies. The very idea was an outrage. This was the province of men; even in the supposedly more relaxed atmosphere of 1700 a critic would write fiercely
“What a Pox have the Women to do with Muses?
So there’s that. Margaret was presuming to write in genres thought not suitable for women, and I guess that won’t come as a great surprise to you all, the misogyny of previous centuries is quite well known. But the other thing I wasn’t aware of, was that even if women did write that was one thing – but they didn’t publish them usually, didn’t have them printed; they might just produce them in manuscript form and copy a few for friends or family; but not printing – no. Indeed that’s not just a female thing – many poets, including Dryden, produced their works in manuscript form – these things were not for the masses who couldn’t possibly understand. Also there was a censorship thing, if you had anything scurrilous or racy to say. Because the censors only looked at printed works, so manuscript was a nice way round it. Margaret may well have met Katherine Philips while in London, and she who would produce poetry in the 1650s’ – but only in manuscript.
So we are moving through barriers to Margaet’s plan here; very few women wrote books; if they did they wrote on defined topics, religion and domestic ones. If they did so, they wrote in manuscript, not print. We are getting very near the end of the funnel now, but there’s one more rule; the tiny number who defied all of that, and printed, well – no woman would be brazen enough publish under their own name. Nope – you would publish anonymously. Margaret planning to be multiply brazen therefore – she would publish on male topics – poems and treatises; she would publish and print; and since fame was the objective, she would do so with her name attached – she,. Female and high status.
Margaret would of course have been fully aware what she was walking into – and indeed Poems and Fancies is full of pre-emptive justifications. In 1621 Lady Wroth had published a romance – and had to refuse to reprint because of the storm about supposed snide references to living people. Margaret had one other precedent; Amelia Lanyer in 1611 had published a book of poems.
So Margaret’s decision to print and publish in the way she did in 1653 – the content, format and under her own name – was not just unusual, it was almost unprecedented. For society as a whole it offended the basic demands placed on women for modesty and even chastity. The royalist poet Richard Lovelace was crystal clear about society’s link between women producing poetry and sexual promiscuity
Powders a Sonnet as she does her hair, Then prostitutes them both to public Aire.
OK, so what’s in Poems and Fancies then? Well it’s eclectic and wide ranging. It uses often a device called the epistle, a sort of formal flowery letter about some point of discussion. There are poems too, and she uses the device of debates or conversations between fictional characters – such as between earth and darkness, or oak and the tree cutter. The subjects include moral instruction, philosophical opinion, dialogue, discourses and poetical romances – so all sorts.
A few things to pick out; she has a lot to say to women. She askes them to support her against her male critics, and make common cause. She argues this is their time, that women were becoming increasingly vocal – puritan preachers, actors in masques, and on the continent even women actors. And that women are truly artistic and imaginative; she was arguing that women’s poetry was anything but a violation of the traditional values of modesty, chastity and silence; it was an honourable act, even a moral and religious duty.
There are also sections on what would have been called the preserve of the masculine – natural philosophy being one. Margaret espouses the ideas of the ancient Greek authors of Atomism, the idea that the world is composed of indivisible components of matter called Atoms. She’s not the first to do this by any mean, it was a matter of contemporary debate, and I have already mentioned Gassendi. But she has a very original approach and theory; she attributes some sort of innate life to atoms, almost like sort of fairies. Now to support theories of the pagan Greeks was always a bit suspect, and so she describes the creation of the world as a wholly scientific process – God doesn’t even get a mench. Together with her slightly despairing proclamations that death was a complete obliteration – so, no going to sit in God’s Glory for her – there came to be a slight whiff of the Atheist about her and her work.
Anyway, natural philosophy was men’s work. As was her foray into Politics with the Animal Parliament. She describes her beliefs in a very moderate, royalist sort of position; the state is unthinkable without a king. But moderate, because the king must act within careful limits for the greater good.
So there we go – radical and a bit shocking. Honestly it’s all ringed around with self deprecatory justifications; she doesn’t make pompous claims for this work, she says she’s writing to pass the time, she’s not asserting truth, just raising discussion points to pass the time – very much in the spirit of that salon culture we spoke about. She’s also very self effacing about the quality of her writing style, and her poetry. Though she does rather spoil the effect by warning people not to skip, because if they miss a word they’ll lose the whole sense, and not to read stuff they can’t understand. It’s a dizzying mix of the self confident and self deprecatory. A person of contradictions.
There’s an interesting discussion to be had about why she decided to print and publish. Because it’s not a straightforward process, she has to find and approach a publisher, arrange it all. It used to be thought that printing was in the doldrums under the Commonwealth what with all its supposedly puritanical and tyranny stuff, but in fact publish was in fine fettle. The numbers of publishers grew enormously after 1640, it is a time of innovation in form and in content.
So, Margaret probably sent the ever loyal Elizabeth Topp out to the centre of English publishing – Paternoster Row and St Paul’s Churchyard. And there, under the sign of the Bell, she would have found John Martin and James Allstree. They were not new to the game, were very well connected, and very much on the rise – they would become publishers to the Royal Society in 1660.
Allstree and Martin knew an opportunity when they saw it. There is nothing fancy about publishing at the time, just the same as now, publishers might have preferences as to what they would publish, or areas of specialisation like the Calvinist tracts of Elizabeth Calvert for example, but profit was the thing. As Richard Baxter, the Black Country Calvinist minister put it, if authors were not commercial,
“the Booksellers would silence us…. For none would Print them’
Publishing therefore threw up some very strange bedfellows in the search for profit. One delightful example are the tracts about the martyrdom of King Charles. They were published by a team, which included Levellers, champions of the people and equality; and royalists, champions of arbitrary absolutist power and hagiography. Hopefully they both used long spoons.
Allstree and Martin had a very, very unusual proposition in front of them; a named publication from an upper class female author, so upper class they don’t get much more up. No doubt they welcomed Elizabeth Topp with open arms.
Dorothy Osborne was a contemporary of Margaret, who has become well known because of the letters she wrote during her courtship with Lord William Temple, which I am told on good authority are witty and rather brilliant, and I’m going to take that on trust. In her letters to her beau, William, she was absolutely all agog at what was going to published her, because news spread like fire, wild and domestic, and absolutely gasping to get her hands on it. From the wilds of Bedfordshire – and there can be few places wilder, surely – she demanded of William
“Let me ask you if you have seen a book of poems newly come out, made by my Lady Newcastle? For God’s sake if you meet with it send it me they say ’tis ten times more extravagant than her dress.”
Quite interesting also since news of her dress had even reached the Home Counties equivalent of the Amazonian Rainforest. Clearly, this was a publishing event of some significance. However, as the news and reviews spread through the grape laden vine, the response was not entirely as Margaret would have hoped. Dorothy’s next letter was rather different in tone
“You need not send me my Lady Newcastle’s book at all, for I have seen it, and am satisfied that there are many soberer people in Bedlam”,
Probably you are all aware that Bedlam was a notorious hospital for the insane? Here then is the first sign of the Mad Madge tag. While the main story is that Dorothy did not see much to value in Margaret’s first publication, it’s interesting that someone near her obviously shared her excitement, and had got hold of a copy. Many other comments would not be so harsh – though some would be. But either way – Margaret was the talk of the town.
One last question then – why did she print Poems and Fancies rather than just produce a manuscript for circulation? One reason, and I figure the main one, is the statement she very boldly actually put in the book – as she had written since a child in Colchester, she yearned for fame, for immortality. And that meant publishing under her own name. It was surely a difficult decision though; Margaret was, as we have hard, pretty conventional in terms of social mores – and there was nothing conventional about this decision. So her lust for recognition is powerful.
There is another explanation though, although these are not either or’s; although the evidence is not clear, there is no evidence that she paid the the costs of publication, which was quite common for wilder or more niche projects. So it is probable and even likely the publishers paid her for her work. So, maybe, like Afra Behn after her – she was one of the very earliest female authors who wrote for money. And the Cavendishes after all certainly felt they needed money at the time.
Well before this happened, Charles Cavendish had received an answer from the Committee of Compounding. And he learned that the Commonwealth had given him a clean bill of health, they declared him innocent, and he was free to take the income from his estates once more. He then went on a spending spree – to buy back as much of William’s estates as he could save from the sale process now going on – including buying Welbeck Abbey. It’s an enormous relief for them all – For the moment, now the Cavendishes had been saved from real penury. They are now poor by their standards, thoroughly loaded by almost everyone else’s.
Charles and Margaret seem to have become very close during their trip back home. Margaret Cavendish’s first publication is dedicated to him, and her praise and admiration is generous and heartfelt. There is even a possibility that Charles and Margaret had an affair. When she got back to Antwerp thee is a short period of angry poetry from her husband, which has led to this suggestion. But there’s nothing definitive, and Margaret is very conventional and has written strong words about the evils of women committing adultery so…who knows eh.
Despite their evident and string friendship, when it came time for her to leave in March 1653, Charles would not go with her; because by that time he had fallen ill. And in fact she would never see him again, because a year later in February 1654, Charles Cavendish died of an ague. Margaret was gutted, and wrote
He was nobly generous, wisely valiant, naturally civil, honestly kind, truly loving, virtuously temperate.
Anyway, Margaret was now launched as a writer. She arrived home at Antwerp to return to that box of writings she had locked away 18 months before; and had a book with her all ready to go which she’d wanted to add to poems and Fancies – but which had just missed the printer’s timetable. So – the floodgates were open. And from the gates would flood words, and print, and thought.
We’ll find out about some of that next time In Margaret’s story, and the return of the king of course. Until then folks, before I end can I remind you all that membership gives you multiple ways to access shedcasts and advert free versions of the History of England. Find how on the website, search for How to Download your shedcasts. If you want to listen to shedcasts in chronological order as they come out, you can use the podcatcher of your choice using the special URL provided. If you want to listen by series, my App or Patreon are your best bets. If you want the advert free history of England, it’s the App or a further special URL in the podcatcher of your choice. Find out all of this at thehistoryofengland.co.uk/members/howtodownloadshedcasts.
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