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Cavendish, Margaret aa. 1624–1673 English Writer

Cavendish, Margaret
ca. 1624–1673
English writer

Englishwoman Margaret Cavendish, the first Duchess of Newcastle, was one of the most notable women writers of her time. During her lifetime she received both praise and criticism for her writings, which focused largely on the role of women in society. However, her work did not gain serious scholarly attention until the late 1900s.

Born into a wealthy family in southeastern England, Cavendish never received any humanist* education. As a young woman she served at the court of Queen Henrietta Maria. When the English Civil War (1642–1646) threatened to destroy the English monarchy, Cavendish fled to Paris with the queen. There she married and began her writing career. Her first book, Poems and Fancies, appeared in 1653. In the years that followed, Cavendish produced many works, including plays, poetry, essays, and letters. Her writing spanned more genres* than that of any other female, and most male, writers of her time.

Cavendish held complex and sometimes contradictory opinions on the role of women in society. She criticized their inferior social and legal position and the fact that they seldom received serious education. However, she also portrayed women as weak and overemotional. She held similarly opposing views about the English monarchy, which she supported yet criticized in her letters and essays.

Cavendish had many critics, both during her lifetime and afterward. Many considered her writings unpolished. They also noted that she often wrote on subjects that she had little knowledge of, notably science. Many critics objected strongly to her views on the education of women. People of her own time often mocked her work, calling her "Mad Madge." However, supporters of Cavendish have pointed to the originality and quality of some of her work and her strong support for women's rights.

(See alsoEnglish Language and Literature. )

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* genre

literary form

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