My early modern reading…

has been neatly divided between reading Interregnum/Restoration poetry and bios and Elizabethan plays (and criticism about Elizabethan plays). I like both things a lot, but I miss my Jacobean and Caroline drama.

I think I’m probably going to continue reading Margaret Cavendish work for a bit though. I read Blazing World, Poems and Fancies, and The World’s Olio in comps year. But encountering a brief account of Cavendish in a history text afterwards I was a bit confused by discrepancies in the way she was characterised from the way she appears in her writing — as a madwoman. So far it seems that Cavendish is often portrayed as mad because 1) she dressed eccentrically and was shy; 2) she was a lady and wrote about natural philosophy (so not mad at all really).

But she is terrifically complex. She was the first woman to really write ‘professionally’, and she and William Cavendish were quite radical in their defense of her right to do so (183-7). And she’s famously regarded as the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. But in other ways she and William Cavendish were staunchly conservative: loyal Royalists with troubling classist beliefs. William believed that the civil wars were caused by the lower classes learning to read and think (obviously James and Charles’s excessive spending, controversial wars, and stormy relations with Parliament had nothing to do with the civil unrest, right?) (116-17); meanwhile Margaret wrote an autobiography that completely overwrote her family’s exploitative relationship with their tenants (194).

So Cavendish (or the Cavendishes, because there’s no separating Margaret and William) are both radical and Royalist, and many other things besides. And I’m going to go back and read more of their works once I’ve finished this bio.

26 November 2014

Works Cited

Whitaker, Katie. Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Post script. I just looked ahead and it seems like the nickname ‘Mad Madge’ was a 150-year belated invention and that now people mostly think she was a bit a bit eccentric, which seems entirely fair, and confirms my sense that that one historian’s portrayal of her is off the mark.


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