Margaret Cavendish:

Texts and Contexts for understanding Health & Wellness in Sociable Letters & Grounds of Natural Philosophy

Vim, Ph.D.
16 min readSep 1, 2021

Hello. I’m Vimala Pasupathi, your Associate Dean in the Honors College and an Associate Professor of English Literature. My areas of expertise are 16th and 17th century English literature with specialties in drama, print history, and also women’s writing. And so, it is my great pleasure to be talking about Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, this morning! She’s a figure whose dramatic works I’ve studied and published on multiple times over the course of my academic career, but this is the first time we’ve been able to share her works in C&E. I’m also happy to be sharing the stage today with my colleague Dr. Terry Godlove, because it allows us to approach her from the vantage points of two different scholarly disciplines. I have a lot to say about her on my own, in part because she was an extremely prolific author, and in part because she lived during a time that I have devoted much of my research time to in the past two decades, and that is the period in which England fought two civil wars and waged war on its sometime-neighbors, sometimes-subjects in Scotland and Ireland.

Dates for the Wars of Three Kingdoms & Cavendish’s dates

The English Civil Wars, and their aftermath, are an important context for understanding Cavendish’s life and writing. Towards the end of the second of these wars, her brother Charles Lucas became something of a martyr for the Royalist party — that is, those who supported and took up arms on behalf of King Charles I over the armies raised by the Parliament’s to oppose him.

The Loyall Sacrifice (1648), a Royalist text about Charles Lucas’s death by firing squad. Lucas was Margaret’s brother.

At the conclusion of a long siege at Colchester, Lucas and another soldier were captured and then shot by a firing squad, leading to public outrage and the publication of political tracts like this one (image of title page to the left) condemning the conduct of the parliamentary army. It also led to poems like the one on your handout by Hester Pulter, another woman who wrote during this period that provides an interesting comparison and contrast to Cavendish.

Both Pulter and Cavendish were prolific writers of secular literature, and, more specifically, their works demonstrate that women not only paid attention to political and military affairs, but were producers of literature and commentary on those topics. But unlike Cavendish, who published her works and saw them circulated in mass quantities, Pulter’s works were likely read in smaller social circles in manuscript form only. Both women wrote about the death of Charles Lucas, one as a royalist sympathizer and the other as a mournful sibling.

Two female-authored poems about Charles Lucas

But well before the execution of her brother, the war had great impact on Cavendish’s life. For its inception occasioned the exile of the English Queen, Henrietta Maria, who, for her safety returned to her native France, where she, her ladies in waiting, and many other members of the English court passed the time as the wars raged on English soil. Margaret Cavendish was among those ladies as a minor figure, and while in exile with the Queen and other important people at the relocated court, she had the opportunity to meet the man who would become her husband, William Cavendish, then Earl of Newcastle. Newcastle had been a Captain in the Royalist army, but fled to the continent in 1645, after his armies suffered a major defeat in the battle of Marston Moor.

Prior to the outbreak of war, William Cavendish was well known as a patron of the arts, and more specifically, the dramatic arts. He bankrolled a number of popular playwrights, primarily ones you might not have heard of, but were just as popular then as Shakespeare remains now. They include Ben Jonson and James Shirley, the latter of whom also helped Newcastle write plays himself. These included one published in 1649, but written in 1641, just before the civil war began, called The Country Captain.

This play is a comedy in which he mocked men like himself: country aristocrats who preferred reading Shakespeare, hunting, and riding horses to soldiership.

When he arrived in Paris at the age of 52, Newcastle was a widower with already grown-up daughters, one of them two years older than Margaret.

Picture of a manuscript page of a play, The Concealed Fancies, by Elizabeth Brackley and Jane Cavendish, daughters of William
(possible) portraits of William’s two daughters & their play, The Concealed Fancies, in Manuscript

It’s worth noting that these Cavendish women also wrote plays, including this one in manuscript on the left, The concealed Fancies, with a plot involving two daughters who hold down a castle and fend off suitors while their father is called away to war. Their relationship with their 20-something step-mother Margaret was, unsurprisingly, somewhat strained; but it is also by the same token unsurprising that Newcastle would become a most ardent supporter of his new wife’s writing.

As a scholar who is interested in constitutional crises and military conflict, I approach Cavendish’s work in my scholarship primarily in terms of what she has to say about the complex politics of her time. But, as the recipient of a PhD in English, and as a member of the English Department at Hofstra, I chart these positions in Cavendish’s career by examining various kinds of texts that she wrote, especially those we identify as Literature. As one half of the faculty introducing her in C&E today, I want to leave with you a sense of the great number of works she wrote a published so that you have a sense of the remarkable, expansive thinker she was. Like Murasaki Shikibu, she was incredibly prolific, producing thousands of pages of writing. Like Marie de France, she was both a relative outsider and insider of the court. Like Hildegard, she wrote texts that defy generic conventions and borders, and on topics that we might too easily assume that women in her time did not know or care about.

Engraving of Cavendish at her desk and the dedicatory letter to professors from Sociable Letters
Engraving of Cavendish / dedicatory letter from Sociable Letters

If you did the reading for today, you know that she begins her Sociable Letters with an apology to people like my male colleagues — the professors at universities who are learned in a way that she herself could never be. Of course, had I lived in her time, I couldn’t have been a professor either. Women weren’t even admitted to university in England until more than 200 years later — with some attending a teaching college for women only as early as 1840 and nine being admitted to the University of London in 1869.

That’s not to say that women did not have any knowledge of the subject we’ve been studying all semester, and before I turn to Cavendish’s works I want to quickly give you a sense of the roles that women could play in early modern medical culture in their homes and in birthing chambers across England.

Various images of female hands in receipt books, recipe books, and medical treatises, from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Wellcome Library, and Early English Books Online

In scores of diaries and household notebooks created and kept by women, we find recipes and various kinds of remedies; women read, wrote their names in, and also published books about herbs and their medicinal qualities, those texts about plants that we’ve heard about since the very first lecture this semester.

Women across the social spectrum also held important roles as midwives, solely responsible for maternal and natal health as long as men were prohibited from accessing women in labor. We know quite a bit about their work from a variety of historical records, including copies of their oaths like the one on your handout; licenses granted to them to perform this office; as well as court records, and images like these from various texts. We also have as evidence manuals about the practice that circulated in print, like this one written by Mrs. Jane Sharp, whose title page touts her experience serving in that capacity for three decades by its printing in 1671.

Joan Sharp’s Midwives Book (1671)
title page and sample pages from Jane Sharp’s Midwives Book (1671)

Margaret Cavendish was not a midwife, and the births she witnessed were akin to those described by Diotima in Plato’s Symposium: that is, the written works she saw into being. You probably noticed that she refers to the Ground of Natural Philosophyin her dedicatory letter as her “beloved child of her brain.”

excerpts from various books in which Cavendish’s front matter uses the metaphor of books as children (or baby birds)
excerpts from various books in which Cavendish’s front matter uses the metaphor of books as children (or baby birds)

This books-as-children motif appears in the dedicatory material in many other texts she published. In many ways, she was exceptional in the number of metaphorical children she created and saw into print. But, she was like most women of her time and class in that she would have only received private instruction at home, and probably only in music, dancing, writing, and needlework.

Although she did not grow up a very wealthy, land-owning aristocrat like her husband, she was not without privilege and increasingly had it after her marriage, despite the losses he incurred over the Republic; after her marriage, she had access to some of the best libraries in the country, including her husband’s, but also those at the various residences where they lived in exile: at one point, they lived in Antwerp in the home of the great painter Peter Paul Rubens, whose wife allowed the Cavendishes to rent it after her husband’s death.

Neither Margaret nor William took up painting, but they were also far from idle there; William opened up a riding schooland their home became something of a salon for the European intelligensia and English expatriates.

In an engraving representing this school and the so-called Cavendish circle, you can see Margaret and William in the center and the names of other prominent members of European society.

Slide featuring horsemanship & Margaret and William at the center spectating with other members of the court

At Paris and in Antwerp, Cavendish would have heard debates among the most learned men of science, at this time called “Natural Philosophy,” and looked through one of the newly developed telescopes, purchased by William on credit and by way of a loan from Thomas Hobbes.

And she also did quite a bit of writing.

During the 1650s, when England was governed as a military republic, some of this writing was sent from the Continent back home to England, where it would circulate freely, unlike she and her husband, who, as former supporters of the executed king, were unwelcome there and had no access to their estates. While they lived in exile in France and Antwerp, English presses brought forth Poems and Fancies (1653), a book of poems and short essays that would be reprinted again in1664 and 1668; the poem I assigned, “Nature’s Cook,” appears in that volume alongside numerous poems about a topic that I’m sure has inspired us all to write poetry: Atoms!

And just to give you an idea of how many poems she wrote about atoms, here’s a quick look at the table of contents:

Read these poems by logging on to the Hofstra Library Databases and doing a title search on Early English Books Online!

The same volume also includes poems that can be understood as advocating environmentalism and animal rights, such as “a Dialogue between an Oak and a Man cutting him down,” and “On the hunting of a hare.”

Two poems representing Cavendish’s ecological interests

The same year she also published Philosophical Fancies (London, 1653), a work with short pieces contemplating the planets, sky, sea, animals, spirits, shapes, light, and many other things. This work was followed by Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655, 2nd edition, 1663), The Worlds Olio (1655), and Natures Pictures (1656, 2ndedition 1671), with two of the four of these printed in second editions in subsequent decades. Nature’s Pictures included another work appended to it titled A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life,” a short autobiography that offers us great insight not just into who Cavendish was, but who she wanted to people to think she was.

Frontispiece of Cavendish in imperial style

Her presentation of her life and writing is alternately boastful and humble, self-deprecating and yet also extremely self-promoting. These same qualities were probably evident in the dedicatory material preceding both the excerpts you read for today. [This very important book addresses Cavendish’s status and presentation as a writer, as well as her labor as a reader!] And you can see the last of these traits in particular in some of the frontispieces that preceded these texts, presenting her as an Empress in full imperial style.

In my years studying Cavendish, I’ve been able to see many of the original editions of these works in archives in the US and UK. But the cool thing is that you don’t need to have access to fancy rare book rooms to see them much as Cavendish’s readers would have seen them. In one of the PDFs we assigned, you were able to see Ground of Natural Philosophy in this way, and you actually have the same access to all of the works by her I will mention today.

Early English Books Online is available at the link below with your Hofstra login.

Above, I’ve inserted a screen shot from a Database that Hofstra’s library subscribes to, Early English Books Online. It doesn’t have scanned copy of every book ever published between 1400 and 1900, but it has a couple hundred thousand of the printed works that survive, including 25 works by Cavendish. If you visit the Library’s electronic databases, look for EEBO and you can access Cavendish’s works in a facsimile of the editions that circulated among her readers during her lifetime.

A number of her best known works were printed after 1660, a year notable in English history for a variety of reasons; for the royalist Cavendishes, it meant returning home at the advent of the Restoration of the Stuart Dynasty, and the installation of Charles II as the King. Charles II restored the lands that had been sequestered by the Parliament during the wars and republic, and he also gave William a new title, Duke of Newcastle, which made Margaret a Duchess. Over time, she saw several additional works printed, including two of my favorites: Orations of Divers Sorts (1662, 2nd edition 1663) and Plays(1662).

Different occasions for orations in Orations of Divers Sorts (1662)

The first is a really fascinating book of speeches composed as if she imagined herself or others speaking in a courtroom,on a battlefield, at a funeral, before the king, and in a marketplace or public square, debating the particular concerns of the day. Among all the topics covered in the speeches, I feel compelled to highlight the series of “female orations,” and speeches debating female liberty and autonomy and entertaining questions about whether women could serve in government or continued to be solely among the governed.

Examples of speeches in Orations (1662) advocating for and against “the Liberty of Women”

The speeches are pretty even in advocating for and against women living autonomously and outside of the control of fathers and husbands. I also feel compelled to caution you against championing her anachronistically as a “feminist” invested in equal rights and pay, or even describing her as a proto-feminist. Her assessments about gender were complicated and ambivalent, and it is rarely implied from what she says that she would have advocated for women’s equality with men or with one another even.

Remember how Dean Frisina cautioned you about religions early in the semester, noting that no religion says no one thing about anything? Cavendish’s assessments of gender — though always binary for her — were all over the place in her works, and though she was preoccupied throughout her life with imagining what women were capable of doing in different contexts, she rarely promotes their abilities as an underclass class without adding caveats that undermine a sense of solidarity amongst women.

For example, take what she says in The Worlds Olio, admittedly one of her earlier works, but you can see clearly the extent to which she had internalized the teachings of patriarchy:

See the description caption for the text of this quotation
“…and if it be as philosophers hold, that the Moon hath no Light but what it borrows from the Sun,” she posits, “so Women have no strength nor light of Understanding, but what is given them from Men; this is the Reason why we are not Mathematicians, Arithmeticians, Logicians, Geometricians, Cosmographers, and the like; This is the Reason we are not Witty Poets, Eloquent Orators, Subtill Schoolmen, Substracting Chimists, Rare Musicians, Cu∣rious Limners; This is the reason we are not Navigators, Archi∣tectures, Exact Surveyers, Inventive Artizans; This is the reason why we are not Skilfull Souldiers, Politick Statists, Dispatchfull Secretaries, or Conquering Caeasars; but our Governments would be weak, had we not Masculine spirits and Counsellors to advise us.”

She then goes on to ask rhetorically,

See the image Caption for the complete text of the quotation
“What Women ever made such Laws as Moses, Lycurgus, or Solon, did? what Woman was ever so wise as Salomon, or Aristotle? so politick as Achitophel? so Eloquent as Tully? so demonstrative as Euclid? so inventive as Seth, or Archimedes? It was not a Woman that found out the Card, and Needle, and the use of the Loadstone; it was not a Woman that invented Perspective-Glasses to peirce into the Moon; it was not a Woman that found out the invention of writing Let∣ters, and the Art of Printing; it was not a Woman that found out the invention of Gunpowder, and the art of Gunns. What Women were such Soldiers as Hannibal, Caesar, Tamberlain, Alexander and Scanderbeg?What woman was such a Chymist as Paracelsus? such a Physician as Hipocrates or Galen? suth a Poet as Homer? such a Painter as Apel∣les? such a carver as Pigmalion? such an Architect as Vitruviuss? such a Musician as Orpheus? … what ever did we do but like Apes, by Imitation? wherefore Women can have no excuse, or complaints of being subjects, as a hinderance from thinking; for Thoughts are free, those can never be inslaved, for we are not hindred from studying, since we are allowed so much idle time that we know not how to pass it away, but may as well read in our Closets, as Men in their Colleges.”

But it’s also true that despite such comments she was nonetheless engaged often in creating textual worlds in which women could do anything — in both implausible and plausible ways. For instance, in a work I’ve written about in a few cases, a two-part play called Bell in Campo, or beauty in the camp, civil war breaks out and several wives decide to accompany their husbands to war. Members of the army don’t want the women distracting them, so they send them off to a garrison town, which makes the women angry and gives them an opportunity to organize. The female protagonist, Lady Victoria, forms them into an army of Amazons, and gives them some rigid discipline so that they transform themselves from soft wives to hard-bodied soldiers.

Scene from Bell in Campo, in which two Gentlemen discuss the rewards granted to the Female Army for their crucial role in win
Scene from Bell in Campo, in which two Gentlemen discuss the rewards granted to the Female Army for their crucial role in winning the war with Faction.

I’ve reproduced some of those rules on your handout for your reference and I hope you read it later, but here I’ll just add that they save the day in a key battle and are rewarded for it later by the King, who not only treats them to a military parade in London, but also gives the female soldiers an opportunity to petition the king with their desires and demands.

This play is pretty amazing, but more amazing is that Bell in Campo constitutes just two of about 25 plays, published in this and a second volume published in 1668, Plays never before Printed. In between these two drama anthologies came collections of fictional letters, CCXI [221] Sociable Letters (1664) and Philosophical Letters (1664).

Title pages of Cavendish’s published works between 1662 and 1668
Title pages of Cavendish’s published works between 1662 and 1668

You have read only a handful of the former, and the subjects within them are, as I hope you now expect, quite diverse. One of them is noteworthy because it considers Shakespeare and other playwrights from the period, and is considered the first work of literary criticism by a woman. The Philosophical Letters address some of what she saw discussed by people she met abroad while in exile, including Descartes.

A lot of the work she would go on to write after this was linked to another key aspect of the Restoration of Charles II, which is his establishment of The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, now basically the Royal Academy of Science. Unsurprisingly, this Society did not allow women to be fellows until 1945, but Margaret Cavendish was intrigued by the news of experiments being conducted there, and in 1667, she became the first woman to be invited to visit it. Its members’ work informed many of her publications that appeared just before her visit and shortly thereafter, include the work for which she is best known, A Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), the first work of science fiction by a woman.

The Description of a New World Called The Blazing World (1668) & SNL Club Kid, Stefon

In addition to a society of scientists, this text has everything: imagined zombie armies, submarines, fire-rain used as a weapon of war, and spirits who serve on command.

Its heroine starts out as a damsel in distress who outlasts her kidnapper and would-be rapist in an inhospitable arctic environment, and then goes onto become an Empress in this new, Blazing world.

You may have noticed that the title page of this works refers to Cavendish as a thrice noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, even though she was not at any point in her life considered to be royalty. But when you are empowered to make your own world, you can be what you want, and she addressed her potential haters in the opening letter:

see the caption description for the full text of the quotation
“For I am not covetous, but as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which makes, that though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavor to be Margaret the First; and although I have neither power, time nor occasion to conquer the world as Alexander and Caesar did, yet rather than not to be Mistress of one, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made a World of my own: for which no body, I hope, will blame me, since it is in everyone’s power to do the like.”

This is an stunning quotation, not least because it illustrates a point that Dr. Bhogal made early on about perceived relationships between imperialism and language and Western Thought. Here, Cavendish reinforces the point that these acts are all connected elsewhere as well, in the in the text of The Blazing World itself: At one point, her Empress has amassed so much knowledge that she asks some spirits to provide her with a scribe to help her write it all down.

image of the quoted portion to the right, in which Cavendish’s heroine asks for a Soul to be her scribe.

Toward that end, the Empress requests “the Soul of some ancient famous Writer, either of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, Epicurus, or the like. The Spirits said, That those famous Men were very learned, subtile, and ingenious Writers; but they were so wedded to their own opinions, that they would never have the patience to be Scribes. Then, said she, I’ll have the Soul of one of the most famous modern Writers, as either of Galileo, Gassendus, DesCartes, Helmont, Hobbes, &c. The Spirits answered, That they were fine ingenious Writers, but yet so self-conceited, that they would scorn to be Scribes to a Woman. But, said they, there’s a Lady, the Duchess of Newcastle; which although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious, yet she is a plain and rational Writer.”

The fictional empress is then visited by the soul of the writer who created her, and, we are told, “their meeting did produce such an intimate friendship between them, that they became Platonick Lovers, although they were both Females.”

Here, we see Cavendish implicitly responding to the Bhogal query as revised by Dr. Welch: Notice how she finds a highly imaginative way to carve out a space that is denied to women in foundational Philosophical texts like The Symposium. Notably, however, that space is not for all women to enter — just women like her. In fact, literally just her.

I hope you enjoy chatting about this issue and health and wellness in the Sociable Letters in your sections! And with this segue, I’ve reached the perfect place to handoff the baton to my colleague in Philosophy!



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.