Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Mad Madge" - Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

By Lauren Gilbert


 
Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, 
Lady Newcastle, from the frontispiece 
to her 'Poems and Fancies', 1653

I'm currently taking an on-line class and was recently introduced to a fascinating author whose work I had never read. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle was a prolific writer, and she was also known as "Mad Madge." I had to know more...

Margaret Lucas was born about 1623 at St. John’s Abbey, the youngest of 8 children of Thomas and Elizabeth Lucas, a wealthy family but not titled, according to her autobiography.  The family was of Royalist sympathies.  Her father died when she was 2 years old.  Margaret was educated at home: taught reading and writing, singing and dancing, needlework and music (lute and virginals).  As a child, she showed an interest in writing, composing what she called her “baby books”, 16 in all.   The family seems to have been somewhat aloof from their neighbours, an attitude attributed to their Royalist views. 

In 1640, the Civil War broke out.  At some point, Margaret’s family home was attacked by Parliamentarians and, by some accounts, the family tomb destroyed.  She and her mother fled to Oxford in 1642 when Charles I and his court were living to live with her married sisters.  Margaret became a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria and accompanied her to Paris in 1644.  This was her first real separation from her family.

In Paris, Margaret met William Cavendish, Marquess (later Duke) of Newcastle in the spring of 1645. A recent widower and fellow exiled Royalist who was about 30 years her senior, William apparently found her attractive and cast out lures.  Margaret, however, wanted marriage, even though some felt her status was too low to be worthy of the honour. Besides being an English peer (even though in exile), William was a patron of the arts, while his brother Charles was a scholar. He seems to have appreciated her mind and her talent, sharing her interest in literature.  She became his second wife in December of 1645. During their exile, they lived in Paris, Rotterdam and Antwerp, throughout which time Margaret wrote.  She also acquired a reputation for eccentricity: in addition to her writing, she designed her own clothes, cursed and flirted.  She became known as “Mad Madge” because of her unusual fashions and outrageous behaviour.

During her marriage, Margaret was a prolific author and, most unusually for a woman, published under her own name.  William encouraged her and paid for her publishing.  Her interests were wide-ranging: philosophy, rhetoric, poetry, science fiction, plays.   She also wrote a biography of her husband, and her own autobiography.   In November of 1651, Margaret returned to England and attempted to claim a portion of William’s estate.  While there, she published her first book POEMS AND FANCIES in 1653.  The book caused something of a sensation; praised by some for its originality, it was criticized by others for its shaky grammar and spelling.  Her second book, PHILOSOPHICALL FANCIES, was also published in 1653.  Margaret stayed in England 18 months and returned to Antwerp.

In 1660, William and Margaret returned to England with the Restoration and retired to their estate at Welbeck.  She resumed her writing and also studied philosophy and other subjects.  She published plays in 1662, and her book CCXI SOCIABLE LETTERS was published in 1664.  (This is the book I am currently exploring.)  In the guise of personal letters supposedly written between two women living in the country, she delivered candid, shrewd comments on daily life and personal relationships in a conversational tone.  I have only read a bit of this so far but am really enjoying it.  In her own time, although Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn made fun of her, others admired her and enjoyed her work then as well.

Margaret died suddenly at the age of fifty on December 15, 1673.  She was buried in Westminster Abbey.  William was too ill to attend her funeral.  Proud of her to the end, he died two years later and was buried with her at Westminster Abbey on January 22, 1676.

Sources include:
Cavendish, Margaret.  Sociable Letters.  James Fitzmaurice, editor.  2004: Broadview Editions, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada


The University of Notthingham on line.  Manuscripts and Special Collections.   "Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, c. 1623-1673."  https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/collectionsindepth/family/newcastle/biographies/biographyofmargaretcavendish,duchessofnewcastleupontyne%28c1623-1673%29.aspx   

Poetry Foundation.  "Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673).  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/margaret-cavendish   

Luminarium.org.  "Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)." by Ron Cooley et al.  1998.  http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/cavendish/cavendishbio.htm  

International Margaret Cavendish Society.  http://internationalmargaretcavendishsociety.org/resources.html   

Project Vox.   "CAVENDISH (1623-1673)  Margaret Cavendish [nee' Lucas], Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne."  http://projectvox.library.duke.edu/pg/?q=node/4  

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Lauren lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first published work is Heyerwood: A Novel, and a second book is due out later this year.  Visit her website at http://www.lauren-gilbert.com to find out more. 



8 comments:

  1. Nice post! William sounds like a really cool husband for that day and age. So supportive of her work in an era where women weren't supposed to do any of what she was doing.

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    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. From all I've read, Margaret showed some distinct feminist tendencies, and it was really nice to know she had a husband who supported her that way. Thank you for commenting.

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  2. Very interesting, her husband was a man before his time. Remarkable that she wasn't burned at the steak.

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    1. Thank you, Mary. He seemed to have a great deal of pride in Margaret's abilities, and was willing to show it, which does seem surprising for his time. I would like to have seen some of her eccentric clothing designs! Who knows what her lot might have been had she married differently?

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  3. Great post ! Thank you for sharing :)

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  4. Thank you for your charming short bio on Margaret! I was listening to the BBC and they just did a very nice 30 minutes about her. I'm a former adjunct professor for Chapman College in English (also taught briefly at SDSU and elsewhere) but somehow never came across the Duchess! So glad you did and have been fortunate to read some of her work! I'm a fan of Fanny Burney and EVELINA from the 18th century and George Eliot from the 19th. As a man I have always believed in full equality and opportunity for women. Very happy to find such a brilliant person as Margaret being able to express herself so eloquently in the Restoration era. Thanks again for sharing! Tony Heller

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  5. Thank you for your charming short bio on Margaret! I was listening to the BBC and they just did a very nice 30 minutes about her. I'm a former adjunct professor for Chapman College in English (also taught briefly at SDSU and elsewhere) but somehow never came across the Duchess! So glad you did and have been fortunate to read some of her work! I'm a fan of Fanny Burney and EVELINA from the 18th century and George Eliot from the 19th. As a man I have always believed in full equality and opportunity for women. Very happy to find such a brilliant person as Margaret being able to express herself so eloquently in the Restoration era. Thanks again for sharing! Tony Heller

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you for your charming short bio on Margaret! I was listening to the BBC and they just did a very nice 30 minutes about her. I'm a former adjunct professor for Chapman College in English (also taught briefly at SDSU and elsewhere) but somehow never came across the Duchess! So glad you did and have been fortunate to read some of her work! I'm a fan of Fanny Burney and EVELINA from the 18th century and George Eliot from the 19th. As a man I have always believed in full equality and opportunity for women. Very happy to find such a brilliant person as Margaret being able to express herself so eloquently in the Restoration era. Thanks again for sharing! Tony Heller

    ReplyDelete