‘…though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second…I endeavour to be Margaret the First’
Poet, philosopher, natural scientist and all-round trailblazer – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle cuts a sharp feminine silhouette across the intellectual landscape of the 17th century.
Her bold personality, persistent fame-seeking and insertion of herself into the male realm of academia caused controversy among her peers, yet in a time where women were expected to be silent and submissive, Margaret’s voice speaks loud and clear.
Born in 1623 to a large family of substantial wealth in Essex, Margaret was from the outset of her life surrounded by a strong female influence and opportunities for learning. Following her father’s death, her mother insisted on running their household with virtually no male help, and Margaret revered her as an immensely strong woman.
With a private tutor and vast library at her disposal, the young Margaret began cultivating her knowledge of the world, despite women being widely discouraged from doing so. She shared a very close relationship with all of her siblings and would discuss her reading with them, often asking her scholarly older brother to explain difficult texts and concepts when needed.
Her penchant for writing began at this early age too, in collections of work she called her ‘baby books’.
An exiled court
At the age of 20, she implored her mother to let her join the royal household of Queen Henrietta Maria. This request was granted, and at the reluctance of her siblings, Margaret left the family home.
In 1644 however, Margaret would be taken further from her family. As the Civil War intensified, the queen and her household were forced into exile at Louis XIV’s court in France. Though Margaret was confident and eloquent around her siblings, she struggled immensely whilst on the continent, developing a crippling shyness.
This may have been due to what she termed a ‘soft, melting, solitary, and contemplating melancholy’ – a condition that brought on a ‘chill paleness’, erratic gestures and an inability to speak in public.
‘…where I place a particular affection, I love extraordinarily and constantly’
She soon found a saving grace in courtier William Cavendish, Marquess (and later Duke) of Newcastle, who found her bashfulness endearing. Though she did ‘dread marriage’ and ‘shunned men’s company’, Margaret fell deeply in love with Cavendish and ‘had not the power to refuse him’ due to her affections.
Grandson of eminent Elizabethan lady Bess of Hardwick, Cavendish would become one of Margaret’s greatest supporters, friends, and mentors, encouraging her love of knowledge and funding her publications.
In her writing she couldn’t help but praise him, gushing over his ‘courage above danger’, ‘justice above bribes’ and ‘friendship above self-interest’. He was ‘manly without formality’, quick-witted and interesting, with a ‘noble nature and sweet disposition’. He was the only man she ever loved.
While their staunch Royalism preventing their return to England following the Civil War, the couple lived in Paris, Rotterdam and Antwerp mixing with intellectuals like René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. This circle would have a large impact on Margaret’s philosophical ideas, expanding her modes of thought outward.
Poet, scientist, philosopher
In her writing, Margaret tackled an immense number of concepts. Couched through the ‘fanciful’ medium of poetry, she pondered atoms, the motion of the sun and the physics of sound. She staged philosophical conversations between love and hate, the body and mind, an axeman and an oak tree, and even discussed animal rights.
Though she often insisted her works were no more than playful musings, the fact that she was engaged and contemplating such ideas is a feat in itself. Throughout all of her writing, she refused to use a pseudonym as was common with female writers, and ascribed her name to every word and opinion.
In 1667, her scientific interest was recognised when she was the first woman to be invited to watch the Royal Society of London’s live experiments. Though she had previously ridiculed the men conducting these experiments, hilariously likening them to ‘boys that play with watery bubbles, or fling dust into each others’ eyes’ she was highly impressed with what she saw.
Though it would appear she had her foot in the door, women would not be invited to join the society for nearly 300 more years.
The Blazing World
In 1666, Margaret published what is perhaps her most well-known work, a utopian novel called ‘The Blazing World’. This work combined her interest in science, with her love of fiction and strong female-centric attitude. It is often hailed as the earliest piece of science fiction, and depicts the existence of an alternate universe reachable via the North Pole.
In the novel, a shipwrecked woman finds herself Empress of this new world, populated largely by anthropomorphic animals, before forming an army and returning to wage war on her home kingdom.
Amazingly, in this novel Margaret predicts many inventions that would not come to pass for hundreds of years, such as flying aircrafts and the steam engine, and does so with a woman in the lead.
‘May your Wit be quick, and your Speech ready’
Through navigating these significantly male channels of work, Margaret often discussed gender roles and her deviation from them, vouching for the capabilities of women. At the outset of her 1653 publication, ‘Poems, and Fancies’, she addressed her fellow women asking that they support her work should she face criticism:
‘Therefore pray strengthen my side, in defending my book; for I know Women’s Tongues are as sharp, as two-edged swords, and wound as much, when they are anger’d. And in this Battle may your Wit be quick, and your Speech ready, and your Arguments so strong, as to beat them out of the Field of Dispute.’
Not one to hold back, in her ‘Female Orations’ she goes further as to scathingly attack the patriarchy:
‘Men are so Unconscionable and Cruel against us, as they Endeavour to Bar us of all Sorts or Kinds of Liberty…[they] would fain Bury us in their Houses or Beds, as in a Grave; the truth is, we Live like Bats or Owls, Labour like Beasts, and Die like Worms.’
Such boldness was uncommon in print by a woman. Though she expected to receive vast criticisms for her work, she saw it as vital in expanding the female horizon, stating: ‘if I burn, I desire to die your Martyr’.
With her wide-reaching ideas laid out for all to read, Margaret attracted a lot of attention. Many contemporary accounts depicted her as something of a mad woman, ascribing her the nickname ‘Mad Madge’. Her eccentric nature and flamboyant dress-sense furthered this image, to much critique.
Samuel Pepys referred to her as ‘a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman’, while fellow writer Dorothy Osbourne commented that there were ‘soberer people in Bedlam’!
‘For all I desire, is Fame, and Fame is nothing but a great noise’
Despite her bashful nature as young woman, Margaret had a tendency to revel in her fame, writing on many occasions that it was her life ambition to be renown.
At 33, she published her autobiography. Intended both to counter her critics and put her legacy to paper, it gave description of her lineage, personality, and political stance, and is a rich glance into the 17th century female psyche.
When considering the necessity of the work, she maintained that as Caesar and Ovid both wrote autobiographies, ‘I know no reason I may not do it as well’.
As such a lively and forward-thinking character, is it unfortunate that she is so unknown to the modern audience. Like many women in history who dared to speak their mind, or worse yet put it to paper, Margaret’s legacy has long been that of a delusional, bawdy woman, obsessed with vanity and of little consequence. Nevertheless, though she belonged to the ‘other’ of the 17th century, her passions and ideas find a home amongst modern women today.