Margaret Cavendish

Biography

Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)

With more than twenty published works to her name, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, is considered to be one of the most prolific female playwrights in Restoration England. Her publications range from poetry to essays about philosophy and science to novels. Cavendish’s most popular publications are her biography of her husband The Life of William Cavendish (1667) and The Blazing World (1668), which is often credited as one of the first science fiction novels.

While she was not the first woman to publish a novel or play in England, Cavendish was the first Englishwoman playwright to publish folio collections of her plays—Playes (1662) and Plays, Never before Printed (1668). Folio collections were crucial to the “emerging seventeenth-century hierarchy of playwrights” and “central in establishing reputations”[1] but, unlike William Shakespeare or Ben Jonson who have had their folio collections published five or six times, Cavendish’s collections have never been published a second time.[2]

Born in 1623, to Sir Thomas Lucas and Elizabeth Lucas, Cavendish lived a life surrounded by aristocracy, both from the intellectual and royal elite. She was the youngest of eight children and grew up near Colchester at the family estate, St. John’s Abbey. Cavendish never attended school as a child and was, instead, taught how to read and write from “an ancient decaying gentlewoman.”[3] She was also taught singing, dancing, music, and needlework out of necessity rather than benefit[4]. As a child, she loved to read and write and would go to London to see plays, but idyllic life at the family estate ended at the start of the English Civil War in 1642. Due to numerous attacks on St. John’s Abbey and her brothers joining the king’s army, Cavendish and her mother, Elizabeth, moved to the king’s court in Oxford. There, she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria; when the queen fled to Paris in 1644, Cavendish accompanied her.[5] After marrying William Cavendish (Newcastle), then the marquis of Newcastle, in 1645 (they would not become the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle until 1665), she moved to Antwerp and began a more formal education under her husband’s tutelage, studying politics, philosophy, literature, and science.

During this time, Cavendish’s love of writing was rekindled; after a short visit to England from 1652-53, she began writing plays, stating that she was inspired by Newcastle who had also started to write drama.[6] While her husband was optimistic about his plays being produced, Cavendish was less so about her own. In a letter included in the introduction of her book, Cavendish expresses the frustrations she faces as a woman writer: “I shall be censured by my own sex, and men will cast a smile of scorn upon my book because they think thereby women encroach too much upon their prerogatives, for they hold books as their crown and the sword as their scepter, by which they rule and govern.”[7] Nevertheless, Cavendish kept writing, and—two years after her permanent return to England in 1660, upon the restoration of King Charles II—she published her first collection of plays.

Cavendish was met with mostly negative criticism, and was overlooked both because of her gender and because she would not adhere to neoclassical strictures in drama.[8] Samuel Pepys, a diarists and member of King Charles II’s court, called Cavendish “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman” and her drama “the most silly thing that ever came upon a stage. I was sick to see it…”[9].

Up until her death in 1673, Cavendish spent the remainder of her life travelling between London and Welbeck Abbey, the Newcastle estate. She published much more poetry, plays, and philosophical essays, many of which advocate for the equal education of women and access to higher education. She cites the barring of women from higher education as the primary, institutional cause of the subjugation of women. Sharon L. Jansen states, in her introduction to The Convent of Pleasure, that Cavendish “is afraid that women ‘grow irrational as idiots’ because of the ‘careless neglects and despisements [sic] of the masculine sex to the female thinking it impossible [women] should have either learning or understanding, wit or judgement, as if [they] had not rational souls as well as men.’”[10] Cavendish’s advocacy of empowerment through women’s education is reflected in many of her published works, including her plays.

Margaret Cavendish is buried at Westminster Abbey in London, and she is remembered—after three hundred and fifty years of obscurity—as an early feminist icon, inspiring such writers as Virginia Woolf, and her plays a topic of interest to performance studies and gender theory scholars.

 

[1] Romack, Katherine, and James Fitzmaurice, eds. Cavendish and Shakespeare: Interconnections. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub., 2006., 9

[2] Cavendish, Margaret. The Convent of Pleasure. Edited by Sharon L. Jansen. Saltar's Point Press, 2016., 5

[3] Cavendish, Margaret. CCXI Sociable Letters Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, the Lady Marchioness of Newcastle. London: William Wilson, 1664. Early English Books Online., 367

[4] Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish. The Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, to Which Is Added the True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life. Edited by C. H. Firth. 2nd rev. ed. London: G. Routledge, 1906., 157-58

[5] Cavendish, Margaret. The Convent of Pleasure. Edited by Sharon L. Jansen. Saltar's Point Press, 2016., 10-12

[6] Ibid., 21-22

[7] Ibid., 13

[8] Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish. The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays. Edited by Anne Shaver. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999., 10

[9] Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Edited by Braybrooke, Lord. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation.

[10] Cavendish, Margaret. The Convent of Pleasure. Edited by Sharon L. Jansen. Saltar's Point Press, 2016., 19

Her Works