Our book today is the sprightly, weirdly honest wish-it-were-longer memoir of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who’s near the top of a list of those oddball historical personages I’m always surprised to find isn’t better known. Better known in this case would be a distinct improvement over totally un-known, which is the current state of affairs with this remarkable woman, who in her own day was a trailblazer noteworthy even in an age of trailblazers.
It isn’t just that she was brought up by her loving mother in a family atmosphere of trust, support, and encouragement – although that was still a rarity in 17th century England; and it isn’t just that she intended to cut a dash in her life quite independent of the men around her – although she did indeed do that, designing her own unique style of clothes, fashioning her own unique style of speech, and cultivating her own unique brand of personality entirely separate from her powerful, equally vibrant older brothers or her easy-going husband, William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle; and it isn’t just that she was impatient of the second-class restrictions put on women in all walks of life – although she was, even going so far as to be the first woman to attend a proceeding of the Royal Society. No, the superlative that concerns us today regarding Margaret Cavendish is bookish, as she would have liked it to be: she poured herself into an endless stream of books, at a time when even the most educated women dared not parade that fact.
She was born Margaret Lucas in 1623 to a wealthy royalist Essex family, and she was writing scenes, monologues, and fantasies from the moment she could first make her letters (a moment postponed perhaps a bit by the rather lax emphasis her delightful mother put on drilling children in their lessons against their will – her mother’s first question in virtually any situation was “Well, what would you like to do?”). When Civil War broke out in 1642, young Margaret volunteered her services as a lady in waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, and two years later she went with the queen into continental exile, where she met William Cavendish and fell in love.
He fell in love with her as well, although not for her looks – despite what worshipful portraits might want to sell you, Margaret Cavendish was a short, homely woman with a pug nose, an underbite, and stringy brown hair – but rather for her leaping, darting, restless mind, and for a fact that most men are too stupid to prize: life with her was never boring.
As soon as Charles II was restored to his throne, the couple returned, reclaimed the bulk of Newcastle’s seized estates, and promptly retired to the countryside of Nottinghamshire to write and read and talk with each other. Margaret disliked the superficial frenzy of the court, and she and her husband very much liked the quiet, invigorating routine they developed. During her time in exile, Margaret had already begun publishing works of wildly varying natures under her own name, gaining just exactly the mixture of cheering fans and serial deriders such public figures have always had. Her Poems and Fancies and Philosophical Fancies were fresh, effusive, often silly, ultimately invigorating – and provocative, because she readily admitted she was no scholar (although she resented the inevitable speculation that her husband guided her hand while she wrote – there’s a hot denial of that innuendo in virtually all of her works).
That’s the trail she blazed that interests us today: she was the first woman in modern times – indeed, one of the first writers of either gender in modern times – to make herself not just the narrator of her various intellectual investigations but also the subject of them; she dramatized her own process of perpetual inquiry, never for a moment doubting that it was of intrinsic interest to her readers. For some reason, it’s hugely gratifying to see how often, how happily, she makes reference in her various works to “my readers.” There’s a particular quiet pride that comes with being able to say that, and surely for most of her life Margaret was the only woman in England who would say it (needless to say, if she were alive today she would be blogging to beat the world). Even the redoubtable Aphra Behn only followed in her wake.
All her works contain threads of fascination (not nearly enough such fascination, if you listen to her most illustrious critic, Virginia Woolf – or too many threads), but perhaps the most fascinating thing of all is her brief memoir, in which she openly divulges all kinds of personal quirks and habits of her own and, in the what has since become the grand tradition of memoir writing (although you could make a case that it started here), she lies her face off on virtually every page. It’s an indelibly charming work, as precipitate and immediate as anything Pepys ever wrote.
Typical of the woman and typical of the time, she spends a good portion of the memoir’s scanty page-count defending its very existence against anticipated charges of willful flightiness:
I desire all my readers and acquaintances to believe, though my words run stumbling out of my mouth, and my pen draws roughly on my paper, yet my thoughts move regular in my brain for the several tracks or paths that contemplation hath made on my brain, which paths or tracks are the several ways my thoughts move in are much smoother than the tongue in my mouth, from whence words flow, or the paper on which my pen writes: for I have not spoke so much as I have writ, nor writ so much as I have thought …
A good line, but the book scarcely bares it out – those acquaintances of hers would not have recognized a Margaret who placed any control on what she spoke, writ, or thought. Her sentences often mirror the endless cascade of talk she could be in person, sometimes rambling for entire pages without a single breath of a period:
As for my breeding, it was according to my birth, and the nature of my sex; for my birth was not lost in my breeding, for as my sisters was or had been bred, so was I in plenty or rather with superfluity; likewise we were bred virtuously, modestly, civilly, honourably, and on honest principles: as for plenty, we had not only for necessity, conveniency, and decency, but for delight and pleasure to a superfluity; ‘tis true we did not riot, but we lived orderly; for riot even in the kings’ courts and princes’ palaces, brings ruin without content or pleasure, when order in less fortunes shall live more plentifully and deliciously then princes, that live in a hurlieburlie, as I may term it, in which they are seldom well served, for disorder obstructs; besides, it doth disgust life, distract the appetites, and yield no true relish to the sences; for pleasure, delight, peace, and felicitie, live in method and temperance.
She could pause and be quiet when it suited her; the memoir’s sweetest, softest notes are sounded when she’s remembering her mother:
Her beauty was beyond the ruin of time… one might think death was enamoured with her ,for he imbraced her in a sleep, and so gently, as if he were afraid to hurt her …
But this is definitely the Margaret Show, and her protestations are everywhere, for the gullible to believe:
… whatsoever I was addicted to, either in fashion of cloths, contemplation of thoughts, actions of life, they were lawful, honest, honourable, and modest, of which I can avouch to the world with a great confidence, because it is a pure truth.
Modesty seldom entered into things with her, but one part of this is most certainly pure truth: her dialogue was conducted with the world. And the world listened – often hooting in derision, but listening just the same, and buying her books as fast as she could issue and re-issue them. Penguin Classics used to make a slim volume of those books, but it didn’t include the memoir; some enterprising publisher ought to craft a tiny, gorgeous (and fully annotated, of course) edition of just that one remarkable work, so people could bring the Duchess everywhere they go.