Today’s post is a two-fer. Two-for-one. Margaret Cavendish is listed on my 2017 reading project, and this is Women’s History Month, so what better way to celebrate her life and work? You know the saying “well behaved women rarely make history?” Margaret’s life and work prove that that expression is not without merit. Despite having the title of Duchess, Margaret did not behave like the gentle, demure woman that society wanted her to be.
Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote and published a myriad of works during the Interregnum and Restoration eras. Cavendish’s works spanned many genres including poetry, essays, short fiction, autobiography, utopian romance, scientific essays that were largely critical of the new science, and even a biography of her husband, the Duke.
However, being born into a wealthy family and married to an aristocrat did not save her from receiving more than her share of harsh criticism. As an aristocratic woman venturing into the predominantly masculine territory of authorship and publication, her works garnered more derision than admiration. Being a woman with the desire to write was bad enough, but her works were deeply intimate and depicted her desires, opinions, personal circumstances, as well as her aspirations to fame and publication. To many people of that time this seemed disgraceful. Upon reading her account of her husband’s life Samuel Pepys stated that Cavendish was “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman, and he an ass to suffer her to write what she writes to him and of him.” These opinions were only further validated by her eccentric dress and her often peculiar behavior, including a trip to the all male Royal Society.
However, not all were as disparaging. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought well of her, and her work is admired by modern readers.
Reading my verses, I liked them so well,
Self-love did make my judgment to rebel.
Thinking them so good, I thought more to write,
Considering not how others would them like.
I writ so fast, I thought if I lived long,
A pyramid of fame to build theron.