Cavendish, Margaret (1623–1673)
CAVENDISH, MARGARET (1623–1673)
CAVENDISH, MARGARET (1623–1673), duchess of Newcastle, English poet, playwright, natural philosopher, biographer, feminist utopianist, and eccentric. Margaret Cavendish was born Margaret Lucas, the youngest child of Thomas Lucas and Elizabeth Leighton Lucas of Colchester, Essex. The death of Thomas in 1625 left the Lucas estate in the hands of Elizabeth Leighton, who had a penchant for land management and advancing her children's fortunes beyond the confines of the local county. Educated at home, Margaret spent much time in philosophical contemplation and daydreaming. Alienated socially from the Essex gentry, the Lucases were High Church royalists whose Essex manor was looted during an antiroyalist riot of 22 August 1642. In late 1642 Margaret was sent from home to serve as maid of honor at Queen Henrietta Maria's temporary court at Oxford. Shy and conversationally ill at ease, Margaret asked, but was refused, permission to return home. With the defeat of the royalist forces in the English Civil War, the queen and her court went into exile in Paris. In 1645, maternal foresight paid off when Margaret caught the eye of fifty-one-year-old William Cavendish, marquis of Newcastle. A womanizing aristocrat and royalist military commander, Cavendish came to Paris to repair his relations with the queen after his disastrous military defeat by parliamentary forces at Marston Moor. With savvy, Margaret managed a short courtship, marrying William Cavendish in December 1645.
Plagued by financial insecurity, ill health, and the failure of royalist aspirations during an extended exile in Paris and then Antwerp, Margaret sought solace in writing. Inspired by the scientific interests of her brother-in-law, Sir Charles Cavendish, and encouraged by her husband, she published verse on natural philosophical atomism in Poems and Fancies (1653). A second collection of poetry, Philosophicall Fancies (1653), a philosophical treatise, Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655), and two prose miscellanies, The World's Olio (1655) and Nature's Pictures (1656), followed shortly thereafter. With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Cavendishes returned to England. William was granted the title of duke, and Margaret, thereafter duchess of Newcastle, tried her hand at a variety of literary forms, including drama, poetry, romance, epistles, orations, biography, and autobiography, as well as natural philosophic reflection. The utopian scientific narrative Description of a New World, called the Blazing World (1666) is her best-known literary work.
Clearly conscious of the limitations that marriage and social conventions placed on women, Margaret Cavendish sought a name for herself by playing the eccentric in public—dressing androgynously and behaving outlandishly. But she also sought fame in intellectual circles by debating the ideas of prominent male philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Robert Hooke in print. Strongly influenced by Hobbes's materialism, she rejected atomism in 1655 because it represented the world as intrinsically disordered—a viewpoint that conflicted with her political conservatism. Instead, she drew upon Neoplatonic and materialist ideas to construct a philosophical monism or vitalism that conceived all matter to be endowed with elements of reason and spirit. An epistemological skeptic at heart, Cavendish criticized the Royal Society's reliance on empirical experimentalism, its misplaced faith in the accuracy of our fallible senses. Instead, she believed that natural philosophic inquiry could best proceed through rational and imaginative conjecture. She explained some of her antiexperimental ideas in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), in which she also took aimatRobertHooke's Micrographia for its misguided enthusiasm for optical instruments. Cavendish's eccentricity, intellectual eclecticism, and gender led many of her contemporaries to discount her philosophical thought, although twentieth-century feminist scholars have revived interest in her work.
Cavendish, Margaret. The Blazing World & Other Writings (1666). Harmondsworth, U.K., 1992.
——. The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe (1668). Edited by C. H. Firth. London, 1886.
——. Poems and Fancies (1653). Menston, U.K., 1972.
——. Sociable Letters (1664). Menston, U.K., 1969.
Batigelli, Anna. Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind. Lexington, Ky., 1998.
Julie Robin Solomon