Margaret Lucas Cavendish Dutchess of Newcastle

Literary Biography

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Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was born the 8th and final child of Sir Thomas Lucas and his wife Elizabeth. Due to a loss of birth records during England’s Civil War, the exact date and location of her birth is unknown, but it is suspected she was born in 1623 near Colchester (Sutherland).

Taught by an elderly gentlewoman, Margaret developed a desire to be known for her wit and made several attempts at writing, works which she later referred to as her Baby Books (Cooley). Due to her gender, she received no formal education at a University.

Raised by a family of devout Royalists – supporters of the monarchy as opposed to England’s parliament – Margaret fled with her family to Oxford, where the King, Charles I was being held in exile. Here, she became a maid-of-honor to Queen Henrietta Maria with whom she later fled to France. There, she met William Cavendish First Duke of Newcastle and the two were married in 1645. Supportive of her desire to learn science and philosophy, William and his brother gave her informal lessons that inspired her writings, primarily the works present in “Observations on Experimental Philosophy, ” (1663).

She returned to England in late fall of 1651. There, she began writing her first book, a work to be titled “Poems and Fancies”. Published two years later, the book caused a bit of an uproar; met with mixed criticism and praise, Maragret Cavendish was primarily criticized for her poor spelling and misuse of grammar. In response, she claimed that it was “against nature for a woman to spell right" (Cooley). She then further stated: "[I am] unable to understand grammar and the little [I know is]enough to make [me] renounce it" (Cooley).

She is known to have been an eccentric woman, as evidenced not only through her poems and books – in which she often inserted herself as a character – but through her many correspondences. Sutherland specifically notes Letter 66 which recounts an instance when Margaret wrote down all the virtues of an acquaintance on one piece of paper and all her faults on another. Having accidentally sent her acquaintance the paper containing her faults, Margaret begs another friend to speak on her behalf. Sutherland comments, “The incident demonstrates Cavendish's passion for ‘philosophizing,’ her sincerity, her good-heartedness, her social ineptness, and her naiveté” (Sutherland).

Due to her tendency to self-insert in her works, it is near impossible to distinguish between Margaret the Poet and Margaret the Person. It is speculated that her lack of a formal education is reason for this. “To understand her relationship with rhetoric, for example, one must recall that she first learned about it not in school but from her brothers, and later from her husband and her brother-in-law—all men who were considerably older than she and who had been educated according to high Renaissance principles” (Sutherland). For this reason, Margaret carried a certain ambivalence toward rhetoric throughout her life, and even apologized for having the audacity to write (Cooney).

As a female writer, she was an anomaly. Aware of this, she often took to including themes of gender into her writing. In one of her later works, “Philosophical Fancies” she included “To the Two Most Famous Universities of England, ” a letter dedicated to Oxford and Cambridge. In this letter she expressed a desire for universities to accept female students.

In one of her more impassioned moments, she wrote: “Most learned, I present to you this philosophical work… for the good encouragement of our sex, lest in time we should grow irrational as idiots, through the careless neglects and despisements of the masculine sex to the female, thinking it impossible we should have either learning or understanding, wit or judgment, as if we had not rational souls as well as men and we out of a custom of dejectedness think so too, which makes us quit all industry towards profitable knowledge, being employed only in petty employments, which take away not only our Abilities towards arts, but higher capacities in speculations, so as we are become like worms, that only live in the dull earth of ignorance…” (Whitaker) .

Works and Reception


Her brashness was uncanny for women of her time period. Her desire for learning and her outspoken nature gave her critics plenty to feed upon. They often called her “mad, conceited, and ridiculous” (Cooley). Despite these comments, her prolific body of work marked her a pioneer of women’s fiction. Mixed reception did not dissuade Margaret from writing. She produced another twenty-one works in her lifetime that focused on a myriad of topics from gender, philosophy, science, romance to the scientific method. Her book “The Blazing World” is known as one of the earliest works of science fiction despite many romantic elements.This ‘fire’ is particularly apparent in her sequence of verses dedicated to the idea of worlds within this world. This sequence, known by the modern literary world as her “Atomic Poems,” appears in her first published work, Poems and Fancies.

In this sequence, she philosophizes about the atoms (which she spelled ‘atomes’) that create the world. The description of atoms are nearly concurrent with earlier theories of the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. In a poem titled “What Atoms Make Vegetables, Minerals and Animals,” she describes the particles as follows: “THE Branched Atomes Formes each Planted thing, / The hooked points pull out, and makes them spring, / The Atomes Round give Juice, the Sharpe give heate; / And those grow Hearbs, and Fruits, and Flowers sweet (1-4).” Here we see a very basic knowledge of Greek philosophy but a distinct lack of the forward thinking abilities a higher education would have brought her. In addition, it is known that what little schooling she received from her brothers, her husband and his brother was likely grounded in traditional beliefs and thus unaware of more forward scientific theory (Cooley).

She often philosophized about alternate earths. Her poem “Of Many Worlds in this World” is something of a forerunner to Dr. Seuss’s “Horton Hears a Who,” except written without a clever moral or central metaphor. Cavendish wonders: If Atoms Four, a World can make, then see / What several Worlds might in an Ear-ring be: / For, Millions of those Atoms may be in / The Head of one small, little, single Pin. /And if thus small, then Ladies may well wear / A World of Worlds, as Pendents in each Ear” (11-6). Given these few lines, it is easy to see why critics used words like “naïve,” and “ridiculous,” especially compared to other writers of her time, most of which were educated men. What modern readers must keep in mind is her “authentic fire:” her spark of imagination, her unique personal philosophy and the sharp integrity and dedication to assert herself into a predominantly male industry. Had she been allowed into Oxford or Cambridge, we may be reading an entirely different set of work today.

Unfortunately, little is known about the death of Margaret Cavendish Dutchess of Newcastle. She died suddenly on December 15th 1673 at the age of fifty.

Bibliography


1. “British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660: Second Series.” Ed. Edward A. Malone. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 281. Detroit: Gale, 2003. From Literature Resource Center.
2. Cavendish , Margaret. Atomic Poems of Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, from her Poems, and Fancies, 1653, an electronic edition. n. pag. Emory Women Writers Project. Web. 30 Mar 2011. <http://womenwriters.library.emory.edu/toc.php?id=atomic>.
3. Cooley, Ron and Brecken Hancock, Kristen Kenyon, Annette Lapointe, Joan Morrison, Barbara Palmer, and Lawrene Toews. “As One Phoenix: Four Seventeenth Century Women Poets.” Saskatchewan, Canada: University of Saskatchewan, 1998.
4. Haubold, Hans; Mathai, A.M. (1998). "Microcosmos: From Leucippus to Yukawa". Structure of the Universe. http://www.columbia.edu/~ah297/unesa/universe/universe-chapter3.html. Retrieved 2011-03-28.
5. Sutherland, Christine Mason. "Margaret Lucas Cavendish." British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660: Second Series. Ed. Edward A. Malone. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 281. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.
6. Whitaker, Katie. Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic. New York, NY: Basic Books Publishing , Print. 2003.
7. Image: http://www.ils.unc.edu/~wootk/writers/cavendish.jpeg
8. Poems from: Luminarium.org. <http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/cavendish/cavendishbib.htm>.


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