a Library publication

Library Catalog No. DTB1990
(reissued 21 August 2012)

An Early Challenge to the Precepts and Practice of Modern Science: The Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673). PhD diss. University of California, San Diego, 1990. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990. 9023994.
(Item 6 of 12: Chapter 3)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990


Chapter 3

The “Triangular Countenance” of Discourse<1>

3.1   Publication as Power

Cavendish frequently claimed that she wrote only “to passe away idle Time.”<2> But elsewhere she admits that writing and publishing were a compulsion. She could not — would not — stop. “I cannot for my Life be so good a Huswife, as to quit Writing,” she confesses in her 1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions (a2r). Each time when faced with the decision of whether or not to publish, Cavendish resolved to “venture an indiscretion” — even severe public censure — “rather than Bury my Opinions in Oblivion” (Poems and Fancies A4v, 1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions b1r). Even more shocking to a seventeenth-century audience than Cavendish’s refusal to cease from public discourse was the immense egotism that fueled it. Cavendish broke the cardinal rule of women’s publishing in her frank pursuit of power through print. She wrote not in order to further the cause of religious devotion, nor for her own salvation, for her children’s instruction, to record family history, or for a limited — either friends, family, or female — audience, but to transcend her oppression as a woman.

Cavendish aspired to divinity and immortality. Likening herself to “Nature, or the Gods of Nature,” Cavendish hoped to “do some Work, wherein I may leave my Idea, or Live in an Idea, or my Idea may Live in Many Brains”; thus, “I shall live as Nature Lives amongst her Creatures, which onely Lives in her Works, and is not otherwise Known but by her Works” (Orations 159, Sociable Letters). In her quest “to Resemble God and Nature” and attain to divine-like powers of creation and immortality, Cavendish seized on publication. Her “Book” became, in a popular metaphor of the period, her “Childe,” a living testament to her own generative powers as “Authoress” of new worlds and realities, of herself, and of her own future.<3>

At the same time, her “Book” was Cavendish’s bid for immortality, serving as the repository of her name and subsequent fame. Like nature, “my memory in my own Works may lye,” she wrote (1662 Playes A12r). The stress here lay in the “my own.” For Cavendish, the lasting fame garnered by a book-child was “the more particularly a mans own, then the Child of his loines; for Fame is a child of his merit, which hath no compartner in it, and many times the child of his loines deceived the parent, and instead of keeping his fathers fame, brings him an infamy” (Worlds Olio 1). Cavendish’s own childlessness was perhaps partly responsible for this accolade to print over flesh. But it was also a carefully-considered opinion that echoed conventional masculine thinking on the subject.<4> In her reliance on the printed word as a means of authenticating and immortalizing self and experience Cavendish was not at all unusual. Lennard Davis has noted a “growing interest in the preservation of an individual life by typography” during the seventeenth century (143). He cites, for instance, Joseph Glanvill’s comment that through publication one avoids “eternal silence and oblivion” (qtd. 140). I would add that a preoccupation with authorial control/creation and immortality was pervasive in the New Science movement. Gerard’s Herball (first published in 1633, and probably the most extensively read reference work of the period) explains “To the well affected Reader and Peruser of this Booke” that within the “Schoole of Science,” one lacking “great titles and degrees” may “confidently account of, at the least, his name to be immortall” (sig. ¶7v). Later in the century, Sprat remarks even more tellingly: “This desire of glory, and to be counted Authors; prevails on all, even on many of the dark and reserv’d Chymists themselves” (74). The stated attractions of print continued to lure those seeking honor, place, fame, and immortality to scientific publication well through the eighteenth century (Rousseau 200). From Bacon’s detailed description in the New Atlantis of statues honoring all important inventors, to the many bitter arguments concerning the right of first discovery (embroiling, for example, Newton, Hooke, Huygens, Leibniz, and countless defenders), to the popularity of ciphers for privatizing new discoveries and ideas (a favorite technique of Hooke’s, for example), the “I” as acknowledged author was an integral part of New Science praxis.<5>

Cavendish’s supreme, unforgivable arrogance was in appropriating for a woman these very “masculine” privileges of publication. In open defiance of gender, Cavendish claimed for herself the immortalizing effects of a “masculine” fame over those of children and posterity. She candidly sought elevated, deific status among men. And she unabashedly preempted the authorial function — triumphantly proclaiming her new status as “Authoress” — in place of woman’s allotted (i.e., passive) generative function. Repeatedly, her childlessness and her “Book” were enlisted in an unseemly bid for power on male terms.

3.1.1 Political Power

Cavendish was an avid believer in the power of the pen, arguing more than once that “the Pen doth more mischief than the Sword” (Orations 63). The profusion of incendiary pamphlets and other writings during the early decades of the seventeenth century amply attested to this. Margaret believed, along with her husband, that mass literacy and the spread of learning among the lower orders was in great part responsible for the upheavals of the Civil War and Commonwealth years. As William succintly phrased it in his letter of advice to Charles II, “the Bible In English under Every weavers, & Chamber maids Armes hath Done us much hurte” (Advice 19). Margaret restated this position numerous times, adding such totalitarian nuances as: “all Books of Politics, State-affairs, or National Histories should be Burnt, and none suffered to Write any more Books of that Nature; otherwise, not only every Writer, but every Reader will pretend to be States-men, which will bring an infallible Ruine to the Common-wealth” (Orations 64).

For Cavendish, public discourse of any type was an exercise of power and influence over humankind. Poetry, for example, has “as great an influence upon the Natures, Dispositions, and Humours of men, as the Stars, & Planets in the Heavens have” (1662 Playes 658). Poets “not onely move passions, but make passions”; so great is their “Power ... as to make the Minds of Men to believe Feignings for Realities” (Worlds Olio 10, Sociable Letters 235). With such attitudes about the influential role of public discourse, it is not surprising that Cavendish herself turned to the power of the pen. As a woman, Cavendish was denied any visibly pivotal role in determining the course of human events: “a Woman is not imployed in State Affairs, unless an absolute Queen” (Philosophical Letters 47). As a royalist expatriot during the Commonwealth years, and as the wife of an aging, impoverished cavalier no longer favored at court or privy council upon restoration, Cavendish was continually locked out of the centers of political power. Publication offered the only real alternative. “[T]hough I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second,” she wrote, “yet, I will endeavour to be Margaret the First,” becoming “Mistress of a World” through print (Blazing World A4v). The power to comment publicly on key social and political issues, the power of influence and reprisal — each was to some degree accessible through writing. Hence, when “Kings and States most commonly receive the service, and forget th[e] reward,” as Margaret bitterly expostulated concerning William’s unhappy fate, it was fair to attempt redress through publication, and in so doing, remind those who have wronged you — as well as “after Ages” — of their duty (Worlds Olio 1). Ironically, Cavendish’s own need to wield the power of the pen impelled her to push for the democratization of learned discourse. Her rhetorical and scientific methods pointedly relied on “natural” gifts — e.g., the powers of observation, imagination, reason, and understanding — that “are general to mankinde” (Worlds Olio E2v). In proclaiming her own right, as a woman, to discourse publicly on heretofore male-only topics, Cavendish also proclaimed the right of “every human Creature” to become “a Creator,” a dreamer, an author (Blazing World 97, 96).

3.1.2 Power of Self-Definition

Publication also conferred on Margaret a certain power of self-definition usually denied women of her day. Simon Shepherd has noted that the seventeenth-century woman “was trapped by language, a victim of talk”: “a woman’s ‘value’ ... derived from what the ‘world’ said about her. Her reputation depended rather more upon other people’s verbal assessments of her than upon her own capabilities” or character (11–12). As Dorothy Osborne well knew, “talk” was to be avoided at all costs. Writing in 1653 to her lover, William Temple, Osborne defended her heedfulness of “Reputation” with reference to Margaret Cavendish:

I never knew any soe sattisfied with theire owne innocence as to bee content the worlde should think them Guilty; some out of pride have seem’d to contemme ill reports when they have founde they could not avoyde them; but none out of strength of reason though many have pretended to it; noe not my Lady New Castle with all her Philosophy; therfore you must not Expect it from mee.... (138)

Osborne’s own concessions to “Reputation” and custom were many. “[I]f one could bee invisible I should choose that,” she wrote, in order to better guarantee “the worlds Esteem.” Reputation was one of the “certaine things that custom has made Almost of Absolute necessity.” Although willing to buck family and friends to secure a marriage of choice, Osborne would do nothing that encouraged others to speak “ill” of her, “whither Justly, or Otherwise” (138).

In refusing “invisible” status to so flagrantly “goe abroade,”<6> Cavendish assured for herself a ruined reputation. Like Caprisia in The Comedy named the Several Wits, Cavendish paid an enormous price for claiming the right of public discourse.<7> What Cavendish referred to as “a malignant Contagion of Gossiping” continually threatened her consuming efforts at self-definition (Sociable Letters 180). But publication also tipped the scales in her favor. A reputation beholden to whimsy and gossip, no matter how distressing during her lifetime, was not the “self” that Cavendish passed on to after-ages. Publication allowed Cavendish to forge an “ethos” for herself that extended far beyond the persona circumscribed by “talk.” In the end, Cavendish could not overwrite the “Reputation” that hounded her even in death; but then neither could the “talk” of her contemporaries cancel the “I” that Cavendish published for history to know and judge.

3.2   Breaking the Bounds of “Sociable” Discourse

3.2.1 The Dilemma

Cavendish had an extremely sophisticated understanding of how public speaking — what she termed “sociable” discourse — favored men. Defined within a patriarchal framework, sociable discourse promoted a linguistic double standard whereby men alone had true “liberty of conversation” (Worlds Olio A5r). In marked contrast, the feminine speech ideal promulgated under the guidelines of sociability imprisoned women in a never-ending spiral of accommodation. Women’s speech was not to transgress certain bounds, but those bounds were continually shifting, and women were to anticipate and shift along with them to properly accommodate changing conversational contexts. It is no accident that Cavendish employs martial imagery to describe women’s “sociable” conversation: “there requires as much skill, care, and conduct in a woman’s ... discoursing, as to a Commander in Mustering, Training, Intrenching, Besieging, Imbattelling, Fighting, and Retreating” (1662 Playes 660).

As recognized by Cavendish, the feminine speech ideal of self-effacing rather than self-promoting talk was impossible in actuality. To attempt it meant to stifle women’s self-expression, such that language catered always to “other” and ensured an asymmetric balance in communication between the sexes. In Cavendish’s The Comedy Named the Several Wits, Caprisia is rebuked by her mother for her “bitter discourses,” for refusing to feminize (tame, circumscribe) her “triangular” speech in conformance with “the smooth paths of civility” (1662 Playes 92). In defending herself, Caprisia exposes the contradictions inherent in the feminine speech ideal:

Mere. You cannot speak without crossing.... But you might live so, as to gain every bodyes good opinion, if you would palliate your humour, and sweeten your discourse, and endeavour to please in conversation.
Capris. Which do you mean, Mother! either to please my self, or the company?
Mere. Why, the company.
Capris. That is impossible, for in all company, there is diversities, and contrarieties of humours, passions, appetites, delights, pleasures, opinions, judgements, wits, understanding, and the like ... But howsoever, for the soothing of any bodies humour, I will never take the pains, for why should I make my self a slave to the several humours of mankind ... and why may not I think, or desire to be flattered, and humoured, as well as others....
(1662 Playes 100–101)

Caprisia’s line of argument is repeated in the Wits Cabal when one female character lectures another that “Women that love the Courtship of men, must change themselves into as many several humours as Protheus shapes.” By the end of their conversation it has been decided that women “rather lose than gain” in taking “such pains to transform themselves so often” (1662 Playes 249). Despite her belief in the “changeling” nature of women, Cavendish found such relentless adaptation to the unnamed and non-delimited rules binding women’s conversation terrifying because expected and yet impossible to achieve. Caught in this contradiction of patriarchal discourse, she reverted to silence.

As an unmarried woman, Cavendish was “bound with the Chains of Bashfulness” and “manacled with the Irons of self mistrust,” the result of her excessive fear of producing “rude or wanton” discourse (Worlds Olio 89, A True Relation 286–7). Bashfulness, she tells us, is a “Virtue Vice” that “proceeds from too great an apprehension of Misdeameanours” and “looks as thorow a Perspective-glass, searching into obscurities” for any hint of possible error or condemnation (Worlds Olio 88). This immoderate bashfulness plagued Cavendish throughout married life as well. Her much remarked-on silence during the historic visit to the Royal Society testifies to this. So too does her experience at Parliament, where bashfulness prevented her from speaking at committee for the allowance due her by law from the sale of William’s estate, forcing Margaret to have her brother petition for her (see A True Relation 299–300).

Bashfulness (silence) was a constant theme in Cavendish’s works. Notably, some of her heroines (like the insufferable Sanspareille in Youths Glory, and Deaths Banquet) are the spellbinding public speakers Cavendish so wished herself to be.<8> More often, Cavendish’s texts faithfully record the trials and traumas of intelligent women rendered stupid or stuttering by “sociable” discourse.<9> Even the brightest and wittiest among women are disadvantaged in speech. In the Philosophical Letters Cavendish recounts for a friend how “Yesterday I received a visit from the Lady N.M. who you know hath a quick wit, rational opinions, and subtil conceptions; all which she is ready and free to divulge in her discourse.” N.M. and Cavendish are soon engrossed in examining the mysteries of the number three when their edifying and witty discourse is interrupted by the appearance of

... a Sophisterian, whom when she spied, away she went as fast as she could; but I followed her close, and got hold of her, then asked her, why she ran away? She answer’d, if she stayed, the Logician would dissolve her into nothing, for the profession of Logicians is to make something nothing, and nothing something. I pray’d her to stay and discourse with the Logician: Not for a world, said she, for his discourse will make my brain like a confused Chaos, full of senseless minima’s; and after that, he will so knock, jolt, and jog it, and make such whirls and pits, as will so torture my brain, that I shall wish I had not any: Wherefore, said she, I will not stay now, but visit you again tomorrow. (494–5)

In The Comedy Named the Several Wits Volante, like many of Cavendish’s heroines (and Cavendish herself), must interact with men who come “to hear me speak, and prove my wit” (1662 Playes 97). The strain of this tells in her discourse. For all their bravado, the characters Volante and Caprisia are at times timorous, at other times labored and tedious in their conversation. They are never blissfully unaware of their twin burdens of proof and femininity. Cavendish knew well this dilemma. Unnerved by accusations that she was not indeed the true author of her works — a proof for this being that she did not interpolate her conversation with passages from her publications — Cavendish was also trapped into distorting her speech so as to accommodate a no-win situation. The unhappy result:

I have spoken more of [my works] than otherwise I should have done, though truly I condemn myself; for it is an indiscretion, although I was forced to that indiscretion, and I repent it both for the disfiguring of my works, by pulling out a piece here, and a piece there, according as my memory could catch hold; also for troubling, or rather vexing the hearers with such discourses as they delight not in....
(A True Relation 269)

Other texts document the painful struggle of forcing oneself to speak, all the while knowing “I do not speak so well as I wish I could, yet it is civility to speak” (Worlds Olio E4r). The end result of such forced civility was oftentimes speech delivered “impertinently, improperly, untimely, or tediously” (1662 Playes A7v). Mary Evelyn’s unflattering commentary on Cavendish’s talk — “as airy, empty, whimsical, and rambling as her books, aiming at science, difficulties, high notions, terminating commonly in nonsense, oaths, and obscenity” (qtd. Mendelson Mental World 97–8) — confirmed Cavendish’s own worst fears of inadequacy.

3.2.2 Escape through Writing

To escape the many entrapments of sociable discourse, Cavendish determined that “the Wisest way for me is, rather to Write than to Speak” (Sociable Letters 451). As she explains in Natures Pictures: “Good language they express in black and white, / Although they speak it not, yet well they write” (55). Ideally, writing allowed Cavendish a controlling voice in “sociable” discourse. Most important, it permitted her a means of discoursing with men from a safe physical distance. This meant real freedom from the pressures of interactive dialogue with men. The lessons of observation and experience ingrained in Cavendish a belief that a woman’s resolve must always eventually crumble in the face of man’s powers of discourse, especially when language encoded male dominance as sanctioned by law and culture:

... men are apt to corrupt the noble minds of women, and to alter their gallant, worthy, and wide resolutions, with their flattering words, and pleasing and subtil insinuations, and if they have any Authority over them, as Husbands, Fathers, Brothers, or the like, they are apt to fright them with threats into a slavish obedience....
(1662 Playes 593)

For Cavendish, the most effective escape from male control and intimidation through language was physical distance. In the two 1662 plays that fantasize situations wherein women conquer sociable discourse (Bell in Campo and The Female Academy), their triumph is achieved only by the enforced physical separation of the sexes. The Lady Victoria is quite clear on this point. The last rule for army conduct inscribed on the brass tablets prohibits all interaction with men while “this Effeminate Army” is “in Arms or Warlike actions,” unless by special permission of Victoria. Because the women’s army requires intelligence about its competitor army, it is resolved that “the most inferiour of this Female Army” be sent as spies into the men’s camp to report on their strategy and tactics. But because these women have fraternized with men, they are separated from their sister soldiers when they return to camp. It is simply assumed that intercourse with men has persuaded them to the masculine point of view (Bell in Campo, 1662 Playes 588).

Estranged from men by print, Cavendish felt able to converse with them on her own terms.<10> She pursued her own agenda in public discourse. She set her own rules concerning content and form. She indulged the slow, gradual discovery of her own “voice,” articulated in language true to her individual “sense and reason,” rather than catering to “sociable” ideals. The problem of feminine accommodation did not disappear, of course. As an uneducated woman publishing with feminist aplomb in masculine-designated registers on masculine-designated subjects, Cavendish would never please a mainstream, predominantly male seventeenth-century audience. Despite the dramatic rise in female literacy (in London especially) towards the end of the seventeenth century,<11> the number of male readers in England easily exceeded the number of female readers. “Any woman who wrote for publication was therefore uneasily aware that she was addressing herself to a largely male audience” (Crawford, “Women’s Published Writings” 216). This audience could be expected to be at best, only patronizing, and more often than not, downright hostile. At one point Cavendish despairs:

I Know not how to Please All, that are pleased to Read my Works; for do what I can, Some will find Fault; and the worst is, that those Faults or Imperfections, I accuse my self of in my Praefatory Epistles, they fling back with a double strength against my poor harmless Works, which shewes their Malice and my Truth.
(Orations a2r; also Worlds Olio A3v)

But audience hostility towards her discourse was less immediate, less controlling, from the distance in space and time imposed by print.<12> Cavendish was never as diffident towards reader recriminations as her prefatory bravadoes put on.<13> Nonetheless, Cavendish wrote primarily to accommodate herself and not society: “Neither can their Dislikes Deterr me from Writing, for I Write to Please my Self, rather than to Please such Crabbed Readers” (Orations a2r). This in itself was an exercise of voice unthinkable as public utterance at close quarters.

3.3   Confronting the Dominant Patriarchal Tenor of
     Literary Expression

Cavendish’s strategic retreat to the written register only uncovered further antiwoman biases. Gilbert and Gubar use the phrase “the anxiety of authorship” in describing the plight of the female author confronting a male-dominated literary tradition. From the beginning, Cavendish was beset by anxiety. Always conscious of established standards of excellence for written discourse, Cavendish continually squirmed under the stigma of her discourse as non-standard. She more than once maligned her own writing because of her inability to switch registers and write fluently in the accepted “masculine” style, associated with rigorous discipline and management of discourse. She bemoaned her lack of formal training in the “masculine” style; at times, she worried that even with access to such training, she could never have mastered such a “disciplined” register. A recurring fear was that as a woman she would never exercise sufficient control over language: “women are no good managers of wit, for they spoyl all their tongue rides on, hackneys it out, untill it becomes a dull jade” (1662 Playes 92).

Concurrent with this, Cavendish openly rejected the very same Standard Language norms she at base felt compelled to measure herself against. She stated vehemently her objections to the “masculine” standard. She announced that she had no real desire to learn it, and even less desire to abide by it in her writings: “as for the nicities of Rules, Forms, and Terms, I renounce, and profess, that if I did understand and know them strictly, as I do not, I would not follow them: and if any dislike my writings for want of those Rules, Forms, and Terms, let them not read them.”<14> What she termed “my own Plain Way” was thus Cavendish’s method of choice, and not simply the unhappy outcome of restricted opportunities (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions b4v; see also Life liii).

Cavendish’s objections to the “masculine” register were numerous. It was, she complained, too constricting, citing how she and all nature “chafed” under the “Rules of Art” defining the written register. The requisite “hard and unusual phrases” were to Cavendish “like a constraint behaviour”: “it hath a set countenance, treads nicely, taking short steps, and carries the body so stiffe, and upright, as it seemes difficult, and uneasy” (Worlds Olio 14). She complained of feeling “hidebound” when forced to discourse within the confines of “nice and strict words, and set Phrases” (Worlds Olio O3v). The conventional scholar, she insisted, “is so bound up to Rules, as he gives himself no reasonable Liberty” (Worlds Olio 68). That was precisely the point and the price of “masculinity,” she observed — and it was a price she was not willing to pay. Instead, Cavendish exalted the “feminine”: “Women’s Natures being easie, free,” it was expected that “I affect Freedome and Ease, even in my Works of Writings” (Natures Pictures 73, Orations a2v).

Cavendish’s understanding of method as an instrument of patriarchal authority and control was very much couched in terms of a male-female power struggle. Grammarians erred, she believed, when they assigned to both art and nature the feminine pronoun: yes, she concurred, “nature” was a “she”; but “method,” as customarily construed, was most definitely a “he” (Sociable Letters 413). Cavendish held that “Nature’s unconfin’d ... Shee’s infinite, and can no limits take” (Philosophicall Fancies A2v). But the magnitude of such feminine freedom had, to Cavendish’s mind, been strenuously opposed by men in power throughout history. Thus, male intellectuals — including the majority of New Scientists — eagerly sought “to Confound Nature with Art, and to set Rules and Compasses to Infinite” (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions e2r–e2v). “Masculine” arts were designed not to work alongside, but to control and/or supersede, natural impulses; hence, “Method ... fetters Nature more often than it helps by its pretended Order” (Natures Picture A5r). For Cavendish, no great leap of imagination was required to connect nature’s struggle against masculine methods with her own struggle against “the Rules of Art.”

Spelling and grammar regulations (replete with sexual biases, as Cavendish was quick to point out) warranted particular mention. In a preface to her 1662 Playes, Cavendish charged:

I know there are many Scholastical and Pedantical persons that will condemn my writings, because I do not keep strictly to the Masculine and Feminine Genders ... as for example ... Love is the Masculine Gender, Hate the Feminine Gender, and the Furies are shees, and the Graces are shees, the Virtues are shees, and the seven deadly Sins are shees, which I am sorry for; but I know no reason but that I may as well make them Hees for my use, as others did Shees, or Shees as others did Hees. But some will say, if I did so, there would be no forms or rules of Speech to be understood by; I answer, that we may as well understand the meaning or sense of a Speaker or Writer by the names of Love or Hate, as by the names of he or she, and better; for the division of Masculine and Feminine Genders doth confound a Scholar more, and takes up more time to learn them, than they have time to spend. (A6v)

For Cavendish, the best method was neither difficult nor exclusionary, but natural and easy to all of us: “nature is easy: and art hard, and what resembles nature nearest, is most to the life: and what is most to the life, is best” (Worlds Olio 14). Hence, grammar should evolve “naturally” in keeping with each communicative context. Unlike her peers in the New Science movement (ref. B.2), Cavendish advocated “liberty ... of words” to accommodate diversity in rhetorical context. Where Royal Society statutes sought to impose univocality, Cavendish sought a profusion of voice and rule:

I do perceive no strong reason to contradict, but that every one may be his own Grammarian, if by his natural Gramar he can make his Hearers understand his sense; for though there must be Rules in a language to make it sociable, yet those Rules may be stricter than need to be, and to be too strict, makes them to be too unpleasant and uneasy. But Language should be like Garments, for though every particular Garment hath a general Cut, yet their Trimmings may be different, and not go out of the fashion; so Wit may place Words to its own becoming, delight, and advantage, and not alter Language nor obstruct the Sense; for the more liberty we have of Words, the clearer is Sense delivered.
(Worlds Olio O3v)

Similarly, Cavendish argued, formats for written discourse should be less artificial and constraining. For example, the conventional format for books of moral philosophy required an author to “divide the Passions so nicely, and command with such severity, as it is against Nature to follow them, and impossible to perform them,” making the subject “too tedious to learn, and too rigid to practise” (Natures Pictures 407, Sociable Letters 38). Also artificial, to varying degrees, were the formats for: plays (see 1662 Playes A5r–A5v, 1668 Plays a1v, Sociable Letters 40), “heroick poetry” (see Sociable Letters 257), histories (see Natures Pictures 703, Life liv–lv, 1662 Playes 335–6), letters (see Sociable Letters c2r), orations (see Blazing World 56–7), and romances (see Sociable Letters 161, 176). Worst of all, was the “Art of Logick.” Not only did it lead men to “contradicting each other ... making Sophismes, and obscuring Truth, instead of clearing it,” but it reduced discourse to “a Labyrinth whence they’l never get out” (Blazing World 57–9). Repeatedly Cavendish railed at the “chopt Logick” of syllogism and scholarship that “disorders my Reason, and puts my Brain on the rack” (Blazing World 58). In contrast she advocated a reliance on “natural reason,” on knowledge and truth obtained by way of free-form exploratory thought rather than by “the Rules of Art” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions B2r, Philosophical Letters b2r).

Largely because she perceived a gender bias in artistic standards and traditions, Cavendish veered away from them. Given her observations of women’s plight according to the rules of “sociable” discourse, Cavendish was unable to conceive of a situation where she might freely develop ideas and judgment in dialogue with male traditions and authors. The very real threat of subjugation loomed always in the background. Power relations under patriarchy ensured that women (as in the tradition of the querelle des femmes) always lost out in the dialogue of ideas with men. Like Lady Victoria of Bell in Campo or the heroines of The Female Academy (both 1662 Playes), Cavendish felt that woman’s voice was silenced, not empowered, through interactive dialogue with men on their terms. Too, she worried that close study of others’ opinions threatened independent thought. “Great scholars are Metamorphos’d or transmigrated into as many several shapes, as they read Authors,” she opined, thus losing themselves in the morass of voices (Worlds Olio 5). Lacking confidence in her own small voice, this prospect terrified Cavendish. In her own case especially, too much acquaintance with other authors would oppress memory, smother judgement under a multitude of opinions, and destroy natural wit “by the transplantings and ingraftings” of borrowed ideas through reading (Worlds Olio 68). This would ill serve Cavendish in her relentless quest for fame. After all, she published so “that my own fancies, and opinions might live in the world, rather then the fancies and opinions of other men in my brain” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions B4v).

To safeguard her voice and fame, Cavendish openly rejected learned traditions and promoted a radical revaluation of the non-standard in discourse. “Invention” not “imitation” was pronounced by Cavendish as the true path to divine glory and immortality. “He is more praise-worthy that invents something new, be it but rude and unpolished, then he that is learned, although he should do it more curious, and neater ... for an inventor is a kind of creatour” (Worlds Olio 26).<15> Thus measured by the yardstick of creativity, Cavendish’s certain deviation from “the path that hath been trod before” became a measure of success rather than failure. Accordingly, from frontispiece to finis, Cavendish’s texts each proclaim their originality. She is at great pains to prove that “the Principles, Heads and Grounds of my Opinions are my own, not borrowed or stolen in the least from any” (Philosophical Letters c1r). Even her methods were original. A number of correspondents stressed this point of mutual agreement, eager to acknowledge that her work “crosses the usual Methods of our Studies”; that traditional forms “of learning ... are not Rules to try the truth of your notions, nor means to clear them to us.... Who means to Improve, Madam, by your discoveries, must study them alone” freed “of the Pains of Grammar Rules, tedious Methods, and the Fallacies of unproved Maxims” (A Collection of Letters and Poems 81, 78–9). As her friend Walter Charleton prudently remarked (here echoing Margaret’s own comments in the Philosophicall Fancies B3r), “you walk not in beaten Paths, but decline even the rules and methods of your Predecessors” (A Collection of Letters and Poems 116).

The theme of invention versus imitation is also invoked to justify Cavendish’s reluctance to spend precious time editing her work. That she prefers the freedoms of “making” to the rigors of “mending” is a frequent claim (e.g., Worlds Olio A3v). Where “making” will bring her fame and glory, “mending” was little more than an attempt to placate hostile readers who in the end would never be satisfied. Cavendish argued that superficial errors of form impede the communication process only when “partial” readers wish to “carp at words” rather than open themselves up to the message of a text.<16> In contrast, the “ingenuous Reader” will never be deterred by surface errors, but will “interpret them to the best Sense; for they are not so Material, but that either by the context or connexion of the whole Discourse, or by comparing one place with another, the true meaning thereof may easily be understood” (Observations c2v). After all, “where one doth rightly understand the [picayune rules of grammar], a hundred, nay a thousand do not, and yet they are understood, and to be understood is the end of all Speakers and Writers; so that if my writings be understood, I desire no more” (1662 Playes A6v).

Cavendish was hardly the first author to reject learned traditions with appeals to “nature” over “art.” Cries assailing the bias, artifice, and counterfeit truth claims of received scholarship resonated at all levels throughout seventeenth-century society. Neither was Cavendish the first to protest the patriarchal tenor of intellectual traditions and standards. The feminist writers of the querelle des femmes were themselves quite diligent in this, and in promoting the “authority of experience” over accepted literary protocols as their preferred means of validating discourse. Of necessity, appeals to a “feminine” nature/experience and an accompanying rejection of “masculine” art forms were characteristic of most feminist writing during the early modern period. Cast in decidedly masculine terms and appropriated for males only, formal learning and its institutions were closed to women at this time.<17> Women like Cavendish who were not privy to the literary arts turned either to “natural” art forms or were silent.

3.4   “Natural Rational Discourse”<18>

In place of the controls and standards associated with patriarchal traditions of learning, Cavendish favored “natural rational discourse” (Blazing World 58). Her call for a naturalist rhetoric had mixed origins, foremost among them her own correlation of “feminine” (nature, herself, and her wit) with an urge towards freedom. Responding to unjust restrictions imposed on her body, mind, and spirit, Cavendish turned from patriarchal culture to an indomitable nature locked in a continual struggle with mankind. In nature, one could find unleashed the power and promise of the feminine.

Similarly, in a naturalist rhetoric the feminine perspective could finally be set free. Cavendish would no longer “be ty’d” by the “exact Rules” of male-biased discourse (Natures Picture A5r; see also Grounds of Natural Philosophy A2v). She would accept no delimiters on feminine wit. Her wit would be freed to follow its own natural course. “A perpetual motion, with continual changes and varieties,” wit was by nature “wilde and fantastical, and therefore must have no set Rules; for Rules Curb, and Shackle it, and in that Bondage it dies” (Worlds Olio 11, O3v). Within the framework of a naturalist rhetoric, discourse would showcase, not restrain, mother-wit.<19>

3.4.1 Nature as Text and Teacher

According to Cavendish’s naturalist rhetoric, discourse originated with a thinking self responding freely to a multiplicity of sense data and human experience. “I As the preacher of nature, do take my text out of natural observances, and contemplation” she wrote at the start of her 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions (a4v). Within this framework nature became head instructor with “art and education but the under-ushers, in the School of life”:

... though nature is too specious to be known, yet she is so free as to teach, for every straw, or grain of dust, is a natural tutor, to instruct my sense and reason, and every particular rational creature, is a sufficient School to study in; and our own passions and affections, appetites and desires, are moral Doctors to learn us....
(Worlds Olio E2r–E2v)


... there is a natural education to all, which ... comes easy and free through the senses; and grows familiar and sociable with the understanding, pleasant and delightful to the contemplation, for there is no subject that the sense can bring into the minde, but is a natural instructour to produce the breeding of rational opinions, and understanding truthes; besides imaginary fancies, if they will give their minde time as to think....
(Worlds Olio E2v–E3r)

When this thinking, feeling self was a woman — free to roam at will through the vortex of experience and process selected data by both rational and arational means — then the feminine perspective would be released. But even within the liberating framework of a naturalist rhetoric, patriarchal culture still impinged on women’s discourse. Cavendish notes that “I have had moderate liberty, from my infancy” to study the world; to this unusual liberty she attributes the ability to “have writ of so many things” and “had so many several opinions” (Worlds Olio H3r). Despite the allowances of Lucas family life and the exigencies of civil war, both of which propelled Cavendish into a wider range of experiences than she would perhaps otherwise have been privy to as a woman of her class, Cavendish was bitterly aware that she, like all women, had been restricted from certain “experiences of nature” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions B2v). Where possible, Cavendish achieved such experiences vicariously as “little parcels or crums from the discourse of my friends” and male family members — brothers, husband, brother-in-law (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 61). Once she had access to certain missing “parcels” of human experience, Cavendish could then “see it in my brain as perfectly, as if ... I were a witness thereof, or an actor therein,” and from such mental pictures, “my fancy will build discourse therefrom” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions B1r–B1v). As William remarks in a preface to Margaret’s 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions, by the time she had extensively reprocessed the accumulated data of male experience “in her own way,” she could rightfully lay claim to it as knowledge of her own (A3r).

3.4.2 Natural Language Model

Cavendish trumpeted “the natural and most usual way of speaking” over “the eloquence and elegancy of speech” associated with “Scholastical Rules, Methods or Tenses.” “Give me a Stile that Nature frames, not Art,” she writes (Natures Pictures c5v, 1662 Playes 663, Poems and Fancies 110). Like her cohorts in the New Science movement, Cavendish believed that the unstudied grace of natural language was better suited for the delivery of nature’s truths (1662 Playes 663). However, the natural language model advocated by Royal Society spokesmen such as Thomas Sprat was, as documented in appendix B, integrally tied to the “masculine” world of commerce and rigorously edited for its “feminine” forms (see B.2). The natural language model proposed by Cavendish (rooted in everyday speech patterns) was quite different. Like women and nature, it was “Easie, Free.” So-called “feminine” impulses for chaos and disorder were unregulated: “Give Mee the Free, and Noble Stile, / Which seems uncurb’d” and “runs wild about, It cares not where; / It shewes more Courage, then It doth of Feare” (Poems and Fancies 110).

Cavendish’s need to probe the mysteries of feminine potential resulted in an all-out indulgence of exploratory play at every level of her discourse. The result was “wild” and impulsive writing which threatened at its very core the self-censorship and carefully-constructed controls — over self, society, natural processes — of New Science discourse (see appendix B). It also ran counter to both male and female subcultures. Sara Mendelson has noted the frequent self-flagellation in women’s writings of the period directed against “an unfettered imagination” (Women in Seventeenth-Century England 176). And Robert Boyle’s life-long struggle against roving thoughts was likewise quite typical for “gentlemen” of the period (ref. B.5). Cavendish’s active indulgence of what her contemporaries referred to as “wandering thoughts” and her obvious delight in recording and publishing their chaotic flurry of activity was thus quite alarming.<20> As she early prophesied in the Philosophicall Fancies, “madness” was the ready explanation of a culture terrified of her ceaseless flirtation with the unbounded and uncharted:

[Reason speaking] Thoughts, run not in such strange phantastick waies,
•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •
The World will think you mad, because you run
Not the same Track, that former times have done.
Turn foolish Thoughts, walke in a Beaten Path,
Or else the World ridiculously will laugh.
[Thoughts speaking] Reason forbeare, our Study not molest,
For wee do goe those waies that please us best.
Nature doth give us liberty to run,
Without a Check, more swift far then the Sun. (B3r–B3v)

Such uninhibited mental play was not suited to the linear processing of experience traditionally associated with logical form. Indeed, Cavendish cared little about the logical presentation of ideas. Her discourse was instead a paean to thought itself — “what a rapture is thought!” marveled an amused Virginia Woolf after reading Cavendish’s corpus of texts (104). Rather than pre-digesting thought for her reader, Cavendish documented its arational and chaotic progress. In her texts, ideas are not excerpted from their context of discovery and then hierarchically ordered. Instead, all the ragtaggle paths and byways of cognition are explored, with discourse providing both a means for and record of the discovery process.

The type of “cumulative” syntax favored by Cavendish was well-suited to her pursuit of process. The placement of words and chapters was “according as I Writ them, without any Mending or Correcting,” Cavendish tells us (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions b4r). Lengthy right-branching sentences concatenate thoughts as they occur in real time, recording the hops, skips, and jumps of associative logic. As Cavendish explored the shifting contours of a thought, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs proliferated in strings: adding to, comparing, combining, and refocusing images ad nauseum.

The cornucopia of metaphor, simile, and analogy in her discourse was also part of this exploratory process. Sir Egerton Brydges bemoans Cavendish’s compulsion to “multiply images” rather than finding the one perfect phrase that “through the force of association in our ideas, calls up at once whole pictures!” (A True Relation 8). He attributes what Grant calls Cavendish’s “infatuation for similes” to her mistaken belief that poetic genius resides in wit rather than art. In this, Brydges is partly correct, but his focus on Cavendish’s “substandard” literary talent obscures the very real value of her accretionary technique. To Cavendish, there was seldom just one right way to see something. Unlike most other New Scientists, she deliberately pursued shifting rather than fixed meanings (see 3.5 through 3.5.4 below).

Prolixity was another hallmark of her unrestrainedly discursive style. Like Robert Boyle, Cavendish cultivated prolixity as an aid in explanation and information transfer<21>: “since I desire to be perspicuous in delivering my opinions, and to remove all those scruples which seem to obstruct the sense thereof, I have chosen rather to be guilty of prolixity and repetitions, than to be obscure by too much brevity” (Observations 188–9). In her works, prolixity correlates most often with the circuitous logic that leads her writing backwards as much as forwards, rerouting paragraphs back to their opening topic sentences and to chronic repetition of key questions and/or assertions.<22> Her science texts in particular rehash the same basic group of ideas over and over in varying explanatory contexts<23> or genres.<24>

Such habitual repetition corresponded with Cavendish’s obvious reluctance to finish a piece. To her mind, a subject was never closed; the process of investigation, understanding, and judgment was without end: “my Text ... is Sense and Reason, Life and Knowledge, Matter and Motion, which is Infinite” (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions e2v). Accordingly, her texts deny closure. The 1653 Philosophicall Fancies ends with a suggestive five-page list of topics that she could “have inlarged my Booke with” (72–77); the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions is spun from this list, and itself ends with suggestions for further dialogue on the subject of disease (174); this list is in turn reworked into a 152-page section in the 1663 revised version. Other works (e.g., Worlds Olio) seem simply to stop mid-process. Some, like her plays, sport the requisite ending, but with no real sense of closure. Endings are simply tacked on without any preparatory climactic build.

3.4.3 Random Sequencing Patterns

When she first began to write, Cavendish confides, “my Works” were “like Infinite Nature, that hath neither Beginning nor End, and as Confused as the Chaos, wherein is neither Method nor Order, but all Mix’d together without Separation, like Evening Light and Darkness” (Sociable Letters 267). Later, she refined and defended her free-form technique, stressing that she wrote naturally, “yet not loosly” (Natures Pictures A5r). As she noted for the reader, just because “I have not dress’d these Discourses with constraint fashions” did not mean that they lacked structure and coherence (Natures Pictures A5r).

With few exceptions, critics have been loathe to recognize this. More often, Cavendish’s works have been censured for their lack of logical ordering patterns. Perry tells us that her texts are “too disconnected, too episodic” — “strung together in the most casual helter-skelter way, without beginning, middle, or end” (251, 258). Perry’s obvious distaste for Cavendish’s random sequencing patterns is not unusual. Numerous others have chastized Cavendish for her stream-of-consciousness approach to narrative and drama in particular. Grant is representative when he argues that the closing narratives of Natures Pictures are but “scenes of a daydream” which

... succeed each other imperceptibly and have neither a beginning nor an end, so her tales are the contiguous scenes of a single story, loosely and uncertainly narrative. They move idly forward, repeating one another, stagnating for whole pages; and were only concluded, one imagines, when some outside interruption forced her to break off hastily her endless unravellings. (154)

Always, the implication is that Cavendish, as an uneducated woman, was unable to produce first-rate literature. Never has serious attention been paid to her rationale for doing literature differently.

Cavendish’s texts were additive, versus reductive, in keeping with her vision of the natural world as infinitely variegated and changeable, each part contextually-bound via a complex network of interrelations between part and whole (see chapter 4). One could isolate out pieces of the natural process for description and analysis, but never fully comprehend either the excerpted piece or the larger process. The idea of depicting a finite process in writing was absurd. Equally misguided was any emphasis on writing as a structuring force. Cavendish had no interest in setting bounds around that which she believed to be unbounded. It is thus not surprising that Cavendish’s writings resist analysis.<25> They do not readily lend themselves to précis, excerpt, or other forms of decontextualization. Cavendish herself was quite upset when contemporaries attempted to “break out of some of my Epistles some parts” and thus “to dismember my book.” To extract a piece from the whole was to distort both and to permit “misforming the truth with falshood” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions B1v; see also A True Relation 269).

Similarly, Cavendish’s anti-reductionist philosophy of nature condoned what Spacks calls “mingling the trivial with the important” (The Female Imagination 193). Brydges has admonished Cavendish for knowing “not what to obtrude, and what to leave out”: “She pours forth every thing with an undistinguishing hand, and mixes the serious, the colloquial, and even the vulgar, in a manner which cannot be defended” (A True Relation 8–9). But to Cavendish, the breakdown of taxonomies and mixing of categories depicted the pluralism of nature. This was defensible on grounds of verisimilitude, and was wrongfully edited out of most “art.” Her close friend, Walter Charleton (himself a careful reader who conversed with Margaret at length concerning her attitudes and intentions) recognized the value of her approach. In one letter to her he comments astutely that her “Moral Philosophy” is “not tied up ... to the laborious rules of Method, or the formality of a new Systeme in Ethics” but consists in “occasional Reflections upon the Actions, Manners, and Fortunes of Men” which are “dispersed” about “under various heads” throughout “your Writings.” Charleton presumed that Cavendish did this

... not for want of Skill to reduce your rules of life into the order of dependence and connexion; but with design, to shew your plenty, and surprize your Readers with good counsel even where they least expect it. ... like wise Husbandmen, you plant Fruit-Trees in your Hedge-rows, and set Strawberries and Raspberries among your Roses and Lillies. This, Madam, is a piece of no small art, though not obvious to common Eyes....
(A Collection of Letters and Poems 112–13)

The ceaseless variety of nature was Cavendish’s inspiration and her delight. With her writings, she sought to celebrate, not compartmentalize, the miscellany of nature. The world revealed to Cavendish under incessant scrutiny was, indeed, an “olio.” A kaleidoscopic view of the human condition and the natural world dominates all Cavendish’s texts, regardless of genre and generic protocols. Her plays offer a prime example of this.

In the 1662 Playes and 1668 Plays, Cavendish knowingly flouted “modern” and “ancient” rules of dramaturgy, supplanting the traditional focus on action with an amalgam of “Dialogues upon several Subjects ... order’d ... into Acts and Scenes” and presented as plays, “in spight of the Criticks” (1668 Plays a1v). Despite the noticeable “originality” of her plotlines, there was no emphasis on plot as an ordering or unifying force.<26> Events in Cavendish’s plays were, as Perry comments, “narrated not acted” (216). Nothing was allowed to foreground one set of actions over any other. Instead, events unfolded, as in realtime, without any of the significance imparted after-the-fact by historical reflection and patterning. Conceived in accordance with the randomness of human perception and experience, Cavendish’s plays present cross sections of the general and particular “practices of the whole World of Mankind” (1662 Playes A5r). Variety is her guiding principle as characters “unaccountably emerge and disappear like figures in a dream” (Grant 163). Most plays contain multiple storylines involving different sets of characters (sometimes only two, sometimes more). The characters of one group seldom interact with characters of another group. Storylines within a play do not cross, but are contiguous. Some storylines have no dénouement, and the characters involved simply disappear mid-play. The many frequent changes of scene make Cavendish’s plays unactable on the stage, as she herself acknowledged (1662 Playes A4v). Often, a single character will sweep on, speak a 20-second monologue, and then sweep off, completely disconnected in time and space from the action/dialogue of preceding and following scenes. In all her plays, Cavendish openly rebelled against the revered “three unities.” Thus she refused at play’s end to bring “in a flock together” all “the several persons presented” earlier in the play (1662 Playes A5r). To argue her case she invoked the usual appeal to nature:

... all these Varieties to be drawn at the latter end into one piece, as into one Company ... in my opinion shews neither Usual, Probable, nor Natural. For since the World is wide and populated, and their various actions dispersed, and spread about by each particular, and Playes are to present them severally, I perceive no reason they should force them together in the last Act.
(1662 Playes A5r)

As Cavendish pans and zooms in and out at random, the responsibility for thematic coherence is displaced onto the reader. Cavendish proclaims no ordering principle or moral:

I would have my Playes to be like the Natural course of all things in the World, as some dye sooner, some live longer, and some are newly born, when some are newly dead, and not all to continue to the last day of Judgment; for my Scenes, some last longer than othersome [sic], and some are ended when others are begun; likewise some of my Scenes have no acquaintance or relation to the rest of the Scenes, although in one and the same Play, which is the reason many of my Playes will not end as other Playes do....
(1662 Playes A5r)

There were definite advantages to Cavendish’s random sequencing techniques. Douglas Grant, while critical of her non-analytical approach to subjects in the majority of her texts, makes an exception for the Worlds Olio, which Cavendish herself described as “neither wise, witty, nor methodical, but various and extravagant, such as my Thoughts entertained themselves withall” (Worlds Olio T3r). Although Grant finds that “the disorder of the arrangement is extreme” and “the reader is usually whisked from one idea to another with surprising suddenness” in the Worlds Olio, he also admits that Cavendish’s “erratic procedure ... is hardly a disadvantage. The delight of the book lies in its kaleidoscopic revelation of character, in its artless juxtaposing of common sense and fantasy, of originality and banality, of wisdom and folly. One merit she always has: she never lapses from eloquence” (141). Similarly, Turberville is impressed by the net effect of Cavendish’s “outpourings” in the Life of her husband; here, he argues, a “haphazard and disjointed” delivery serves her well: “the inconsecutive method of following up narrative by a record of personal impressions, and that again by stray quotations from the Duke’s table talk, has the effect of creating a really vivid impression of his personality. In eschewing art the writer has accidentally achieved it” (1:196, 1:201).

While I do not wish to deny the obvious demerits of Cavendish’s naturalist rhetoric (tedium, primarily), I do wish to highlight the various strengths of her method that are all too often ignored. To begin with, Cavendish’s special discourse illuminated aspects of nature (e.g., process, variety, contextual dependencies, disorder, the arational) omitted from the discourse of institutionalized New Science. Furthermore, because Cavendish’s randomly patterned discourse was truer to the investigative process, it is arguably a preferable format under certain circumstances for discourse geared to information transfer. Like Cavendish, a number of scholars (and some scientists) have argued that an efficient “streamlined” processing of technical information does not accurately depict the scientific method and findings it purports to describe.<27> Cavendish’s process-oriented discourse also helped to demystify the process of intellectual production, rendering it more accessible to a broad base of readers. Depicting the context of struggle and debate from which ideas arise, Cavendish showed her readers how theories at all levels, and on all subjects, are created by people like herself, speculating freely on the pressing concerns of self and other, nations, cultures, and humankind. Finally, Cavendish’s naturalist technique encouraged a breakdown in customary hierarchical distinctions between authors and readers of published material. Her renouncing of discourse as a structuring tool — reveling instead in its heuristic value — meant that Cavendish ceded control over the reader. Her writing empowered the reader as a co-creator (rather than passive recipient) of meaning (see below, 3.8). As research in communications theory now indicates, increased reader involvement also enhances information transfer, which is, after all, the professed goal of most technical discourse (Barnett and Hughes 56, 57).

3.5   Vision of “Complementarity”

3.5.1 Rejecting the Logic of Either-Or

Constructing our world in terms of binary oppositions has such a long history in Western philosophical traditions that dualisms are popularly regarded as a universal property of the human mind (Cameron 58). Learned discourse in Western culture has accordingly favored structures associated with binary logic. The oppositional enthymeme was long considered a primary means for discovery and discourse of truth in traditional rhetoric, and was prevalent in New Science (as well as Old Science) writings (Zappen, “Aristotelian and Ramist Rhetoric” 88 ff.). Cavendish’s rejection of oppositional logic in her many publications was thus yet another radical departure from the norm.

Cavendish was an avid critic of the exclusionary bias of binary thinking, contending that the either-or axis was an inadequate framework for truth-seeking. In Letter CXI of her Sociable Letters, she recounts a discussion among “my near Relative Friends” (all male) concerning the origins of the universe: “Thus, Madam, the Sages Discoursed, but they perceiving I was very Attentive to their Discourse, they ask’d my Opinion, I answered, they had left no Room for another Opinion, for the World was either Eternal or not Eternal, and they had given their Opinions of either side” (224–5). Because Cavendish usually found herself in disagreement with both “either” and “or” positions, she became increasingly suspicious of reductionist logical forms that seemed always to exclude alternate (her own particularly) points of view. A life experience grounded in difference — i.e., her alienation from male and female subcultures and from society at large; her constant awareness (and cultivation) of her own singularity — made her unusually aware of the ranging variety in perspective and opinion which binarisms could not address.

Cavendish refused to reconstruct the teeming difference she perceived everywhere around her in terms of opposition. To her mind, things just did not reduce that simply. For example, to oppose nature and nurture as mutually exclusive causes of women’s presumed inferiorities was to obscure the many complexities of identity as well as difference. In some ways, argued Cavendish, nurture is nature: “... ancient customs being a second nature, makes folly hereditary in that [female] Sex, by reason their education is effeminate, and their times spent in pins, points and laces, their study only vain fashions.”<28> Contrast schemes, she believed, distorted their subjects, imposing limiting structures found not in nature but crafted by logic in the service of biased argument. In the expert hands of a Joseph Glanvill, either-or logic could easily vanquish the fairies while turning witches into a “matter of fact.”<29> A particularly odious example of Glanvill’s favored form of binary argument surfaces in a letter he wrote to Cavendish:

... there are things done by mean and despicable persons, transcending all the Arts of the most knowing and improv’d Virtuosi, and above all the Essays of known and ordinary Nature. So that we either must suppose that a sottish silly old Woman hath more knowledge of the intrigues of Art, and Nature, than the most exercised Artists, and Philosophers, or confess that those strange things they performe, are done by confederacy with evil Spirits, who, no doubt, act those things by the ways and applications of Nature, though such as are to us unknown.
(A Collection of Letters and Poems 139–40)

Cavendish’s trenchant response to this line of restrictive reasoning — that the burning of “poore, old, and ill-favoured” women was neither righteous nor just, but a social convenience, sanctioned by misogynist prejudice — has already been discussed (see 2.9.3).

3.5.2 Substituting a Multiplicity of Perspective

“We need more than one perspective to see almost anything in all its dimensions,” writes K.C. Cole, herself well-schooled in the modern-day achievements of quantum theory (217). Cavendish, following the dictates of her own “sense and reason,” had reached much the same conclusion three centuries earlier. “A Man, a Tree, and a Stone,” she writes, “may all have perceptions of one Object, but yet their perceptions are not alike: for, the Tree has not an Animal or Mineral, but a Vegetative perception”; thus, each perceives and knows differently “according to the interior nature of its own figure” (Observations 209). A modern update of this position is provided by K.C. Cole who notes that while humans “can easily sense the pull of gravity, we are almost completely insensitive to the pulls and pushes of air resistance and surface tension that are major forces in the lives of cells and flies” (Cole 46). To Cavendish, each way of knowing was valid in the appropriate context. Each contributed to our expanding knowledge base. Each deserved equal recognition and prestige. She too believed that a certain multiplicity of interpretation (complementary descriptions, in the terminology of quantum physics) is necessary if we are to accurately address and account for “the manifold aspects of experience” (Cole 214). Cavendish’s aim in discourse and natural philosophy was to explore res through its many surfaces, to know it in multiple ways. As a result, her “triangular” discourse was richly polysemous.

In order to multiply her own (and her readers’) perceptions, she informs us,

I have writ different wayes of one and the same subject not to obstruct, crosse, or contradict; but I have used the freedom, or taken the liberty to draw several works upon one ground, or like as to build several rooms upon one foundation.
(1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions a2v)

Cavendish’s experimentation with genre (e.g., the same subject explored in prose, poetry, fantasy) was one way to achieve this. Another would have been to employ multiple media. For this, however, Cavendish lacked the means. Beyond the emblematic frontispiece that introduces many of her texts, there could be no further exploration of her subject on different sensory planes:

... my desires was ... that the sense of my opinions might be explained to the eye, as well as to the ear, or conceivements of my Readers; but by reason the Painters and Cutters in this Country cannot speak, nor understand English, nor I any other Language ... reason perswaded me to let my Book be Printed without them....
(1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions a2v)

But Cavendish could and did enlist a number of other means to probe the many faces of a subject. Her relentless exploration of shifting perspectives led her to adopt unconventional viewpoints, especially those of non-human subjects. Thus, her Poems and Fancies interjects dissenting views of man’s relationship to his environment, and in so doing, extends our vision of it beyond narrow self-interest. The poem “Earths Complaint” expresses the outrage of a violated earth:

My Children which I from my Womb did beare,
Do dig my Sides, and all my Bowels teare:
Do plow deep Furroughs in my very Face,
From Torment, I have neither time, nor place.
No other Element is so abus’d,
Nor by Man-kind so cruelly is us’d. (106)

Similarly, “The Hunting of the Hare” (110–13) and “The Hunting of the Stag” (113–16) unflinchingly record the terrors of the hunt from the point of view of the hunted. “A Dialogue of Birds” (70–75) incorporates even more multiplicity of vision; here we encounter not just one bird — designated to speak for all birds — but many birds, each with a different vantage point. As is usual for Cavendish, she here explodes identity (bird) into difference (birds).

In the Worlds Olio, Cavendish writes:

I have not tyed myself to any one Opinion, for sometimes one Opinion crosses another; and in so doing, I do as most several Writers do; onely they contradict one and another, and I contradict, or rather please my self, with the varieties of Opinions.... (T3r)

Cavendish handles “varieties of Opinions” in a number of ways. Sometimes competing views are simply sprinkled at random through a text, each developed within its own context, with no reference to anything outside that context. Contradictions just are; nothing specifies them as such, but the attentive reader cannot miss them. Sometimes competing views are connected by way of juxtaposition, but little else. Conflicting monologues on a subject issue as if from a void; they are linked serially, but no monologue contains explicit reference to any other. All argumentative relations (similarities, differences, qualifications) between conflicting monologues are left to the discretion of the reader. This technique surfaces repeatedly in her plays where sundry plots emanate from the same situation (e.g., the death of a husband in Bell in Campo, or marriage in The Bridals) with differing outcomes. At other times, juxtaposition is bolstered by thematic connections. Competing narratives offer variations on a theme, as in the series of poems — “On a Melting Beauty,” “On a Furious Sorrow,” and “On a Mourning Beauty” — from her Poems and Fancies (191–3). Here Cavendish explores a subject that fascinated the seventeenth-century English public: widowhood. When she first produced this series of poems, the ancient story of “The Widow of Epheseus” (from Eumolpus’ account in Petronius’ Satyricon) had been revitalized in several published versions and was enjoying immense popularity in England and on the continent. Cavendish’s friend, Walter Charleton, would later issue his own very successful New Science version (The Ephesian Matron) of the beautiful young widow’s alarmingly rapid slide from virtue to lust. In Cavendish’s hands, however, there was not just one, but many, narratives of widowhood. In the Poems and Fancies she recounts three; in Natures Pictures, she reworks the story of female constancy with increasing complexity for a run of 68 pages (2–70). Her refusal to succumb to universalizing tendencies is nowhere more apparent than here.

At times, Cavendish explicitly connected competing viewpoints for her readers. Some works, like her plays, are composites of “dialogue-discourses” where multiple voices engage in interactive dialogue. In the Poems and Fancies we find for example “A Dialogue betwixt Man, and Nature” and “A Dialogue between an Oake, and a Man cutting him downe” where an exchange of views is methodically presented (58–9, 66–70). In Natures Pictures, a dialogue of voices provides the organizing schema for Book I. Here multiple speakers, both women and men, tell tales from male and female points of view on a variety of subjects. Nonetheless, Cavendish avoids a simple male-female polarity between speakers. There is no universal feminine or masculine voice, only infinite variations on each as speakers support, modify, and disagree with one another regardless of gender. Other texts use logical argument to connect disparate views. Letters CXXXV and CXXXVIII of the Sociable Letters both ponder the influence of the planets on human behavior and disease. Although not serially juxtaposed, the second letter makes explicit reference to the earlier letter:

... in this Later Discourse, I seem to have no Belief that the Stars have an influence over the Bodies or Minds ... and so over Fortune, Education, Laws, Custom, and the like, whereas in my Former Letter, I said, they had over the Body, and was apt to Believe they had also over the Mind; but since I writ the Former Letter ... I have thought of it more than I had then.... (287)

Note how the change in opinion is not just recorded for the reader and the earlier “mistaken” letter edited out. Here as elsewhere in her texts there is a free play of contradictions. This accords with Cavendish’s belief that “varieties of opinions” seldom reduce to one right answer. As she contends in The Presence, disputes are usually “left in debate,” and not resolved by force of logic or argument (1668 Plays 131). Hence, her Orations, even with its more pronounced argumentative frame pointing at differences for the reader, still avoids either-or polarities. She describes her multiple arguments on behalf of vice as well as virtue as but “Declamations, wherein I speak Pro and Con, and Determine nothing” (Sociable Letters c2r). Even in her plays, where characters personify humours or behaviors and are frequently typecast as villains or victims, there are no all-good or all-bad characters. No single voice has a monopoly on the truth. From lowly nurses to debauched courtiers, each character is allowed a certain profundity gleaned from experience. Each argues his/her point of view without suffering a summary refutation by either plot or argument. Indeed, conflicts between characters (such as man and wife) are often left unresolved at play’s end.

3.5.3 Discourse as “an Arguing of the Mind”

In keeping with her view of nature as infinite matter in a state of continual motion and permutation (see chapter 4), Cavendish could not concur with expectations for steadfastness in vision or discourse. She lectures her readers that those who seek to elevate the human mind somewhere above the flux (and associated corruption) of corporeal existence err:

Nature hath not onely made Bodies changeable, but Minds; so to have a Constant Mind, is to be Unnatural ... it is Natural to be in one Mind one minute, and in another in the next; and yet Men think the Mind Immortal. But the Changes of Nature are like the Sleights of a Juggler, we see many several Shapes, but still but one Matter.
(Worlds Olio 162)

Dissent, doubt, reversal, modification are all integral to human cognition, she believed. Hence discourse, as a raw textual record of the byzantine movement of human thought, must chart the non-positive as well as the positive elements of that process. Accordingly, Cavendish defined discourse (and particularly scientific discourse) as “an Arguing of the mind,” a “Reasoning with our selves” (Observations c2v, c3r).

Internal mental debate amongst the various “Parts of my Mind” formed the basis of Cavendish’s scholarly and scientific method. It was an investigative process without closure, and Cavendish would faithfully record on paper the intricacies of the entire process as ideas spawned new ideas and arguments in dialogue with other ideas until, presumably, her mind tired of the subject. In her 1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions she tells us that while writing this work “my Brain was like an University, Senate, or Council-Chamber, wherein all my Conceptions, Imaginations, Observations, Wit, and Judgment did meet, to Dispute, Argue, Contrive, and Judge, for Sense, Reason, and Truth” (b3v). She further perfected her innovative rhetorical technique in the Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, which opens with an astonishing 35-page “Argumental Discourse.” Herein she informs the reader that:

When I was setting forth this Book ... a Dispute chanced to arise between the Rational Parts of my Mind concerning some chief Points and Principles in Natural Philosophy; for, some New Thoughts endeavouring to oppose & call in question the Truth of my former Conceptions, caused a war in my Mind: which in time grew to that heighth, that they were hardly able to compose the differences between themselves, but were in a manner necessitated to refer them to the Arbitration of the impartial Reader, desiring the assistance of his judgment to reconcile their Controversies, and, if possible, to reduce them to a setled peace and agreement. (e2r–e2v)

The text that follows records the proceedings of a mind torn by argument, questioning its own assumptions at every turn; for example: “At this declaration of my former Thoughts, the latter appear’d somewhat better satisfied, and had almost yielded to them, but that they had yet some scruples left, which hindred them from giving a full assent to my former rational Conceptions” (f1r). In the end unable to reconcile “the latter and former Thoughts and Conceptions of my Mind,” Cavendish reasons that she

... should publickly declare their differences and Controversies, and refer them to the Arbitration of the Judicious and Impartial Reader. This Proposition was unanimously embraced by all the Rational Parts; and thus, by their mutual consent, this Argumental Discourse was set down, and published after this manner. In the mean time, all the Rational Parts of my Mind inclined to the opinion of my former Conceptions, which they thought much more probable than those of the latter. And now, since it is your part, Ingenious Reader, to give a final Decision of the Cause, consider well the Subject of their Quarrel, and be Impartial in your Judgment; let not Self-love or Envy corrupt you, but let Regular Sense and Reason be your onely Rule, that you may be accounted just Judges, and your Equity and Justice be remembred by all that honor and love it. (i2v–i3r)

Cavendish’s final scientific treatise, Grounds of Natural Philosophy, is rife with arguments conducted among the “parts of my mind.” The following organization is typical:

The Parts of my Mind did argue amongst themselves, Whether ... And they all agreed, That probably ... But afterwards, the Opinion of the Major parts of my Mind, was, That ... The Opinion of the Minor Parts of my Mind, was, That ... The Major’s Opinion was, That ... The Minor’s Opinion was, That ... The Major Part agreed, That ... but yet ... After this Argument, there followed another; That ... The Major Part’s Opinion was, That ... Upon which Argument, all the Parts of my Mind agreed in this Opinion.... (251–3)

Such democratic discussion, conducted between opposing viewpoints without rancor or aggression was unusual in a century prone to vitriolic dialogue and accusation concerning scientific issues.<30> Crazy as it seemed to many of her contemporary readers, such internalized dialogue was one of the only alternative methods open to a woman wishing to publicly dispute the issues of the day, but unable to draw a public response.

Cavendish’s unique habit of internalized debate was as much the offshoot of real-life as rhetorical considerations. As a woman, she was excluded from the normal arenas (lectern, university, coffeehouse, Royal Society) of public intellectual debate. And although “I cannot conceive why it should be a disgrace to any man to maintain his own or others opinions against a woman, so it be done with respect and civility” (Philosophical Letters c1v), Cavendish knew that no self-respecting male scholar would dispute freely with her in print. She attributed this in part to the “self-conceit” of “the most famous modern Writers” (Blazing World 89).<31> Women’s subordinate status meant that “wise learned men think it is a discredit to discourse learnedly to ignorant women.” In her own case, she had encountered “many learned men” who

... speak most commonly to women, as women do to children nonsense, as thinking they understand not any thing, or else like those that are of another Language speak such gibberish ... as if ignorance was bound to understand nonsense, that is not to be understood.
(1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions B4r)

Even worse than the anticipated condescension of male intellectuals was any dissembling concerning their scholarly credentials. Cavendish was outraged when one man went so far as to “quit the Breeches for a Petticoat,” rebutting her Worlds Olio in Du Vergers Humble Reflections — “a little Pamphlet, under the name of a woman, although she did little towards it” (Philosophical Letters c1r–c1v). The author’s pretending to meet Cavendish as an equal in dialogue, when in fact he was anything but (i.e., a man privy to all the educational advantages denied Cavendish), was unjust and “dishonourable,” she protested.

Not surprisingly, Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters debating Henry More and Francis van Helmont, among others, is actually conducted in dialogue with a certain “Madam” who has requested Cavendish’s opinions on the foremost philosophers of the day. This fiction of a supportive woman friend as partner in dialogue was clearly comforting to Cavendish. Secure in her knowledge of “that real and intire Affection you bear to me,” Cavendish trusts that “you would be pleased to tell me unfeignedly, if I should chance to err or contradict but the least probability of truth in any thing” (Philosophical Letters 4). Cavendish then builds an invigorating dialogue of ideas between women, taking the form of constructive free-wheeling debate rather than flashy, clamorous polemic. By the end of the text she has extended her vision of dialogue to include “a Triumvirate in discourse” — three women avidly debating philosophical issues at length. Notably, this vision comes right on the heels of her discussion of Galileo’s Dialogues, and perhaps uses it as a model (Philosophical Letters 495).

3.5.4 The Pull of Univocality

It is an interesting contradiction of Cavendish’s rhetoric that she explicitly sanctions univocality at the same time her discourse works to subvert it. From a political perspective, Cavendish had a great deal of difficulty with multiplicity of opinion. She viewed the tendency to “Dispute and Argue” publicly as a key contributor to the English Civil War. “Several Opinions breed Disputations,” she writes; this in turn produces a “society in parts which is siding, and factions”; and this “causeth poverty, discord, war, and ruine” (Worlds Olio 205, 31).

In matters of politics and religion, Cavendish brooked no dissent; it was her will that “the People Obey and not Dispute” (Orations 65). Ostensibly to further national peace and prosperity, Cavendish advanced Hobbesian arguments on behalf of monarchy, even tyrannical monarchy (e.g., Natures Pictures 611, 634, 636). More than once, her utopian visions (sometimes so alluring) are truly appalling.<32> These dark visions were clearly fed by deep yearnings for socio-political order and stability. In response to the ravages of civil war, Cavendish sought guarantees that by her “sense and reason” she knew to be impossible: “Nature being a perpetual Motion, and as full of Division as Composition” does not permit “a general Conformity of Mens judgments” (Observations e1v). Her fantasies engineered social harmony either by force (the unequivocating exercise of monarchical power) or by identity (as in her various all-female retreats where the perceived interests of self and group coincide), and resisted the vitality of pluralism that captured her imagination in the natural world. The amity (versus faction) in difference that Cavendish located in nature simply could not be envisioned at the level of polity.

There is an important political component also to Cavendish’s aversion to binary oppositions. Her reactionary politics often prompted her to veer away from the explosion of binarisms into complementary visions, and seek instead the unity of compromise as exemplified by the golden mean between extremes. This reliance on moderation as a control factor occurs usually within the context of political discussion, as in the Orations, where human society is the primary subject. Although the compilatory framework of the Orations favors multiple speeches on a subject from differing points of view, Cavendish also displays a tendency to argue opposing sides of an issue and then locate the “truth” somewhere in between (e.g., “An Oration Proposing a Mean betwixt the Two Former Opinions” [71]).

At the same time, Cavendish was an ardent supporter of rigid polarities when to do so served political imperatives. She repeatedly railed against “our Natural Philosophers” who “by their extracted, or rather distracted Arguments, confound both Divinity and Natural Philosophy, Sense and Reason, Nature and Art, so much as in time we shall have, rather a Chaos, then a well-order’d Universe, by their Doctrine” (Observations b2v). In Cavendish’s world view, it was critically important that all matters of “Divinity and State” be accepted without question or examination; the people (and here, to a certain extent, Cavendish included herself) must “Submit to that which our Fore-fathers thought fit to Enact, Order, and Dispose, for the good of their Successors, and Succedent Times” (Sociable Letters 79). Where skepticism and the free play of opinion was desirable in natural philosophy, it could not be allowed to extend to “Spiritual Causes” (Sociable Letters 79). The boundaries around issues of church and state were absolute. “As for Divinity,” she wrote, “I pray devoutly, and believe without disputing; but as for Natural Philosophy, I reason freely, and argue without believing, or adhering to any ones particular opinion, which I think is the best and safest way to choose” (Philosophical Letters 211; see also 216–7, 220–2, 230–1).

In the end, Cavendish’s explicit polemic on behalf of a politics of reaction was undercut by her own rhetorical method. Her discourse thwarted any attempts “to reduce” opinion “to a setled peace and agreement” (Observations e2v). This was at once its promise and its peril.

3.6   Fusing the Discourses of Fiction, Fantasy, and Fact

In her writing, Cavendish refused to reign in an active imagination and conform to generic boundaries requiring her to structure her world view in ways that were incompatible with her experience. Writing at a time when New Science purism coincided “with a hierarchical separation of genres” (Cave 333), Cavendish pursued a unique scholarly method that fused the discourses of fact, fiction, and fantasy while still affirming their relations of difference. For the twentieth-century reader, even more steeped in distinctions concerning “fact” and “fiction” than Cavendish’s seventeenth-century audience, this is perhaps the most difficult aspect of her work to overcome. Now, as then, readers are uncomfortable with Cavendish’s merging of science, self, and fancy within a single discourse.

3.6.1 The Preeminence of Imagination in Cavendish’s
     Scientific Method

With increasing amusement and alarm, seventeenth-century commentators such as a Vice Chancellor at Cambridge University noted the many extravagances of Cavendish’s “happy and pregnant imagination” as she pursued a form of scientific scholarship that “admits of no bounds” (A Collection of Letters and Poems 31). This was completely at odds with established New Science methods. Joseph Glanvill, drawing on Baconian principles, stated quite clearly that those who sought nature’s truths were “to take care to keep themselves within the Bounds of sober Enquiry, and not indulge irregular Sollicitudes about the knowledge of Things, which Providence hath thought fit to conceal from us” (Essays VI:41). “Irregular” included anything associated with “the Woman in us,” especially that traditional wellspring of female potency — the imagination (see A.3.5, A.3.6). Not coincidentally, “irregular” investigations of nature usually signified the practice of witchcraft (Jobe 350).

In its bid to consolidate power, the Royal Society promoted an institutional monopoly on truth-seeking. As a control strategy, any reminders of the very real limits on man’s potential and power — e.g., emotion, fantasy, speculation — were to be exorcised by what Sprat termed “the drudgery and burden of Observation.” New Science propaganda hammered home to a skeptical public the idea that the “Epitome’s of knowledge” could be discovered only via its particular method of “diligent, private, and severe examination of those little and almost infinite Curiosities, on which the true Philosophy must be founded.”<33>

Cavendish, while claiming her rightful place in the New Science movement, refused to be shackled by the vision of method and discourse associated with the Royal Society. Institutionalized New Science maintained that “our Senses, Imagination and Passions are absolutely useless to the Discovery of Truth and Happiness ... on the contrary, they dazle and seduce us on all occasions” (Malebranche b1r). Cavendish vigorously disagreed.<34> To her mind, free play of the imagination was integral to any serious search for truth. Her preferred investigative method broke down as follows: observation (to observe natural effects); imagination (“to conjecture of [nature’s] wayes”); reason (“to discourse of her works”); and understanding (“to finde some out”).<35> Far from the narrowly-constricted inquiry envisioned by institutionalized science, Cavendish proposed that truth-seeking address “all that hath been, is, or is not, or what may be, or cannot be” (Sociable Letters 21). Anticipating Paul Feyerabend by some three hundred years, Cavendish argued:

... Opinions should not be sleighted nor contemned without Examination or Triall, though they be never so strange and unlikely, untill the Errour be found out; but not to rely upon them, or to be so bound that they will make no question against them; for an Opinion is but a guesse of what may be a Truth; but men should be as free to Opinions as Opinions to them; to let them come and go at pleasure.
(Worlds Olio 117)

This epistemological stance only underlined her renegade status in the world of Restoration science. Cavendish’s repeated championship of the erratic, unstructured, spontaneous, and unrestrainedly exuberant pursuit of knowledge often led her, and could possibly lead others, in untenable directions. Indeed, her texts openly encouraged her readers to “imagine” as she did when framing questions and posing answers in the search for a “true” natural philosophy (e.g., Philosophicall Fancies 38–9). Not only did Cavendish indulge an active imagination in her own scientific study, but she roundly criticized other New Scientists for their obvious lack of it, noting the resultant limitations this placed on many New Science attempts to explain natural phenomena (see 4.2).

Cavendish’s important inclusion of imagination in New Science methodology was not without precedent. As recounted in appendix A, Paracelsian, occult, and various popular sciences of the period all emphasized the role of imagination in the discovery process (see A.3.6). Of course, imagination was also an important part of Cavendish’s method because “New-born, Sublime Fancies” were her personal delight and designated route to recognition and fame (1664 Poems and Phancies A2r). Furthermore she, like most of her contemporaries, believed that women had a special talent for fancifying. Cavendish argued that fashion and other domestic arts associated with housewifery provided ample proof of women’s ability to think and pattern creatively. When coupled with the housewife’s skill at “discreet Management, and ordering,” such everyday domestic displays of creative impulses should, she believed, properly be designated art (and poetry, and science), although not produced according to conventional male-biased formulas (Poems and Fancies A7r, 122; Worlds Olio 87, 84). Thus, any intellectual and scholarly endeavours,

... which is built upon Fancy, Women may claime, as a worke belonging most properly to themselves: for I have observ’d, that their Braines work usually in a Fantasticall motion, as in their severall, and various dresses, in their many and singular choices of Cloaths, and Ribbons, and the like, in their curious shadowing, and mixing of Colours, in their Wrought workes, and divers sorts of Stitches they imploy their Needle, and many Curious things they make, as Flowers, Boxes, Baskets with Beads, Shells, Silke, Straw, or any thing else; besides all manner of Meats to eate: and thus their Thoughts are imployed perpetually with Fancies. For Fancy goeth not so much by Rule, as Method, as by Choice....
(Poems and Fancies A3r)

A science that acknowledged its grounding in creative choice rather than the rigidities of rule was Cavendish’s special contribution. Nonetheless, critics have seen fit to severely castigate her for this, calling her natural philosophy everything from “scientific poppycock” to “pseudo-science” and “a vast heap of rubbish.”<36> With typical condescension, Perry concludes that Cavendish’s “fanciful science is a paradoxical form of art not deserving extensive cultivation” (198).

3.6.2 Similizing as a Technique of Natural Inquiry

Cavendish is reknowned for what Perry calls “an exuberant fancy in need of formal repression” (234). To the majority of literary critics, Cavendish’s irrepressible imagination soared out of bounds most unacceptably in the “similizing” that is the focal point of all her writing. Turberville complains of Cavendish’s many “intricate and tortured metaphysical conceits,” and Grant argues that every page Cavendish wrote reveals that “she had fallen, like the young Dryden, under the soporific influence of Sylvester’s Du Bartas — a kind of poetry that ... viewed nature through the distorting glass of the unnatural conceit” (Turberville 1:196, Grant 113). Doubtless, a certain amount of similizing can be attributed to forced witty display wrought in the service of Cavendish’s belief that “it is better to write wittily then learnedly” (Philosophical Letters b2r). But Cavendish knew too that “wit,” on a par with reason and logic, “may paint and pensel out some Copies, and various Pictures of Nature” (1662 Playes 112). One of my favorite examples of Cavendish’s use of simile as a means of natural inquiry occurs in the Sociable Letters — the half-humourous passage that speculates about the Dutch living “Below Water, like Fishes,” and yet not of the “Temper” of fishes, but more after the manner of “Ants or Pismires.” After fully indulging the play of her metaphors, Cavendish finally concludes on a popular topic of controversy that “Men are not according to the Temper of Climats they are Born and Bred in, but according to” a combination of chance, breeding, and evolutionary imperative (Sociable Letters 231–2). This was, of course, a technique of natural inquiry frowned upon by institutionalized New Science (see B.4).

Similizing was a natural format for Cavendish’s “triangular” perspective on the world. It opened her discourse to ambiguity, polyvalence, new perspectives of old and familiar things. Cavendish delighted that her discourse, “ful of fresh & new conceits,” was “like a beauty that every time is looked upon discovers new graces” (Worlds Olio 10). Many of Cavendish’s conceits explode the conventional binarisms — e.g., animate/inanimate, organic/inorganic, human/animal, mind/matter, fiction/existence — by which we compartmentalize and understand the world. She similizes the human brain to a beehive, a barrel of wine, and a garden. Thoughts are like pancakes. The male heart is like a head of garlic. A fancy is likened to a gnat. Clouds compare to horses. Death is like a chef. A young lady is similized to a ship. Water is like a swarm of bees. The human body is like a chemist’s still. Speech resembles a game of tennis. The human passions have arithmetic meaning. Visions such as these are largely responsible for the critics’ charges concerning Cavendish’s “exaggerated fantasy”: “Margaret Cavendish puts no check upon her imagination but permits it quite to surpass the bounds of reason” (Perry 257, 263). This, Perry confides, is a female trait. But to Cavendish, a skill at discovering relationships previously unimagined by “Drawing all things to all things, at your Pleasure” lay at the heart of the scientific process.<37> Modern philosophers of science would not disagree.<38>

3.6.3 Fanciful Nomenclature

In her first publication, Cavendish noted that “My Book ... is thick of Fancies” and cautioned her readers “to observe very strictly every word they read; because in most of these Poems, every word is a Fancy” (Poems and Fancies 122, 123). To a seventeenth-century scientific community struggling to develop a nomenclature deemed suitable for precise description of the material world, Cavendish’s open embrace of word play and her assimilation of literary metaphor within technical discourse was alarming. As Wilda Anderson points out in her penetrating analysis of Lavoisier’s systematic rhetorical distortions, “‘Nature’ is a product of the language, and not merely an object of study in the material world”; “an institutionalized process of judgment... has been built into the language” of science (770). It was thus not accidental that when Robert Hooke examined minute life forms through the microscope he named what he saw “Machines of Nature” (Micrographia g1r). Nor was it accidental that when Cavendish looked into the microscope, “fairies” danced before the lens. As part of her dynamic naming process, “fairies” took on a new material form; the multiple realities of experience, imagination, and scientific investigation coalesced in exciting ways within a single image; and another word was enriched by its expanding, rather than contracting, definition.

Cavendish was equally eccentric when coining other names for natural phenomena and processes.<39> In general, she rejected approved “terms of art” for names rich with connotative spin. Unlike the majority of New Scientists (see B.2), Cavendish had no interest in a special philosophic language that imposed what she referred to as “the Corruption of Logick” (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions b4v) on words. Her experiences with New Science nomenclature were negative; establishment terminology was seldom “significant to the sense of my discourse,” she complained.<40> The natural world that she framed in language was inexpressible in the “stripped” vernacular of institutionalized New Science. Cavendish knew this, and she tenaciously held on to her power to name, as exercised by countless generations of women before her (see A.5).

3.6.4 “Ambivalent Discourse”

Ultimately, Cavendish produced what Cave has labeled “ambivalent discourse” (333). Her texts “rest genreless, a tribute to uniqueness and individuality, a defiance of discourse” (Davis 12). Cavendish’s literary works all incorporate New Science disquisition. Cavendish wrote poems on atomic theory and romances that speculate on thermodynamics. Turberville finds her plays “despite their form, as much essays in philosophy as her avowedly philosophical works.”<41> Grant cannot decide whether Cavendish’s science-fiction text, the Blazing World, is “either narrative or speculation” (208). Cavendish herself points to an unabashed mixture of genres in this work: “The First Part is Romancical; the Second, Philosophical; and the Third is meerly Fancy; or, (as I may call it) Fantastical” (Blazing World A4r). And the free-form mixture of fantasy and scientific reasoning that it contains is typical of all her work. For example:

... as for the ordinary sort of men in that part of the World where the Emperor resided, they were of several Complexions; not white, black, tawny, olive- or ash-coloured; but some appeared of an Azure, some of a deep Purple, some of a Grass-green, some of a Scarlet, some of an Orange-colour, &c. Which Colours and Complexions, whether they were made by the bare reflection of light, without the assistance of small particles: or by the help of well-ranged and order’d Atoms; or by a continual agitation of little Globules; or by some pressing and re-acting motion, I am not able to determine.
(Blazing World 14–15)

As for her avowedly philosophical works, Grant remarks that Cavendish was “unable to give her attention to any one subject for long without digressing restlessly into fantasy” (167). Here he evidences her progression in the Poems and Fancies from discussion of minute particles of matter, to visions of a world within a lady’s earring, to lavish description of a charming fairy kingdom in the center of the earth (Grant 117–8). The later appending of the incredible Blazing World to the more conventional Observations upon Experimental Philosophy in this world “as two Worlds at the end of their Poles” — both of them “Worlds I have made” — deliberately emphasized an unexpected “Sympathy and Coherence with each other” (Blazing World b1v, X4r). Cavendish’s creative jointure of material and imaginary worlds in that text exploded all boundaries separating fact and fiction. This trend continued in the Grounds of Natural Philosophy, where sustained philosophic analysis of physical reality gave way to sustained philosophic analysis of imaginary “Restoring Actions of Nature” occurring in “Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” that are similar to “Producing Beds, or Breeding Beds.” As summarized by Grant:

Justice cannot be done to the fantastically improbable arguments which ensued between the different parties in her mind over this proposition, but at length it was concluded that if there were such restoring-beds, whereby decayed life was renewed, they must be hung about a creature compounded of “elemental, animal, mineral and vegetable life,” which could only resemble in shape “a great and high rock” and be situated in the very middle of the earth’s central sea. And with this last typical gesture, this unwitting gift to the Freudian psychologist, Margaret concluded her final work on her life’s passion, Natural Philosophy. (211)

Cavendish’s use of poetry as a format for scientific disquisition was not unique. Henry More’s Philosophical Poems encased a sustained scholarly argument in natural philosophy in Spenserian stanzas. His use of poetic allegory was well suited to his particular brand of mysticism, and attracted no special attention. More’s work was popular and highly acclaimed. But Cavendish’s far-flung similies, feminine images, feminist theories, wild fantasies, and cultivated ambivalences were an altogether different matter. In the end, these interjections are what made her discourse aberrant — not whether her science was cast as poem, narrative, utopian fiction, epistle, or essay.

3.7   Infusion of “Feminine” Self in Discourse of Object

While institutionalized New Science sought an “improved masculinity” by masking off regions of the human psyche and experience that threatened male dominance (see A.3.5), Cavendish’s New Science investigations aggressively spotlighted the alternate Weltanschauung of “the Woman in us.” Her accumulation and examination of data was pointedly subjective. She did not present her readers with decontextualized “facts,” but perceptual data processed through the lens of personal experience. Turberville has criticized Cavendish for this: “No writer was ever less impersonal, for she never took an objective view of anything: she was interested less in examining the thing itself than in her own reactions to it” (1:155). In fact, Cavendish’s subjective processing of natural phenomena complemented her naturalist rhetoric and its stress on the thinking self engaging freely with the surrounding world on numerous experiential levels. It was also truer to the scientific process than New Science activists cared to admit. In modern philosophy of science (and Western science itself) it is now generally acknowledged that what we see is always determined in part by who we are. Personal (and collective) experiences not only provide the data for science, but also control how we approach that data, how we think about it, and ultimately how we understand it. Objectivity thus resides not in a blanket disavowal of subjectivity, but in honest revelation of our perceptual selves. Cavendish early recognized this in her comments about “Historians” who neglect “to describe their Birth and Breeding, their Life, their Actions, their Fortunes, their Interest” and other signifiers of their “Partiality” which would “let the World judg, whether they writ Truth” (Natures Pictures 703).

In her Sociable Letters, Cavendish intones that “In truth, Writers should never speak of themselves, but in Praefatory Epistles, or in a History of their own Lives, wherein they may freely declare their own Acts and Opinions” (152). Yet her own writings are intensely personal throughout: “she took all her readers into her confidence, and revealed to them, not only her most intimate thoughts on every subject that interested her, but the most detailed facts about her domestic habits and arrangements” (Turberville 1:155). While such a raw disclosure of self elicited warmhearted responses from Charles Lamb and Virginia Woolf, the majority of published comment betrays a certain discomfort with such an obvious breach of feminine decorum. Firth writes: “No woman ever more frankly described herself in her autobiography or more carelessly displayed herself in her writings” (xxxvii).

No matter the genre or approach, Cavendish spun her discourse from her own personal life. Interestingly, she appropriated every genre for this written dialogue between self and experience except the one genre considered most acceptable for such private female musings — the diary or journal. This casual interplay of personal and formal in her writings is, of course, nowhere more discomfiting than in her science texts where generic protocols most firmly legislate against it. Although the “self” was a prominent feature of New Science writings, that self was male and properly masculine, fine-tuned from birth for public display (see 3.1, B.6.3). His experiences and perceptions were those validated by his culture. And he maintained a safe distance from the reader and the subject at hand. In Cavendish’s discourse, “self” is relentlessly female. And this female self is intimately connected to the world she describes.

In the myriad details of domestic life, the concrete examples of peevishness and nobility of spirit, her confessions of jealousy and shame and vulnerability, Cavendish reveals an emotional component edited out of most formal exposition. Throughout her writings Cavendish openly responds to phenomena in nature with the sentience (and sensuality) of a poet who is also a woman. Even without the explicit commentary, her metaphors communicate a striking emotional involvement with her subject matter. To Cavendish, emotion was a valid form of information processing, sometimes more accurate than rational thought. Arguing in The Comedy Named the Several Wits against conventions that limit the capacity for truth-telling to the discourse of reason, the character Caprisia notes that the language of the emotions can also deliver truths:

Mere. Daughter, you speak and judge passionately, and passion can never reason well; for how is it possible, for reason to exercise its function, when passion opposes, and is too strong for it.
Capris. Truth may be delivered in passion, but not corrupted with passion; for truth is truth, howsoever it be divulged....
(1662 Playes 89)

Accordingly, Cavendish’s own “triangular” discourse explores material reality in both rational and emotional terms, regardless of literary type. In so doing, Cavendish turned upside-down both “ancient” and “modern” conventions of belles lettres governing form and content. She also challenged New Science epistemology head-on. She was most aggressive in her condemnation of “the Opinion which confines all knowledg of Nature to a man’s Brain or Head, and allows none neither to the Sense, nor to any part of Nature” (Observations 188). To Cavendish, both body and mind yielded accurate, albeit different, knowledge of the external world. One of her more unorthodox positions held: “... that which we call thought, or animal knowledge is made both in the brain and heart” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 106; see also 4.8). But the majority of New Science propagandists, each seeking to “rule himself” and nature, were too terrified of what Glanvill called “a miserable Tyranny of Passion” to give emotion equal play as a means of knowing (Essays I:30). In the Plus Ultra, Glanvill writes: “I account these personal matters a kind of Digression from the main thing I intended. To return therefore to my Subject ...” (71). Subsequent technical writing would soon refuse the personal altogether.

3.8   Return to Copia<42>

Cavendish’s practice of an “opened closure” that defied Standard Language controls signified a return to the discourse of copia. While Cavendish never saw herself as part of any particular (all-male) rhetorical tradition, her feminist impulses pushed her towards an “open-system paradigm” for discourse, one capable of representing “the living individual in the way in which it must live, that is, in context, inextricably related to the other, the outside, the ‘environment’” (Ong 325). Cavendish thus rejected a positivist rhetorical model.

Because her form of “natural rational discourse” was not persuasory in intent, Cavendish did not seek the “conquest” or “conversion” of her readers as did others in the New Science movement (see B.6.2). Mary Ann McGuire observes that Cavendish was “more interested in exploring all facets of an idea than in formulating manifestos”; as a result, “Cavendish explained that she offered, not a coherent theory, but musings” (193). Cavendish’s science writing in particular showed little concern with proof-by-demonstration. The science she documents is a task of discovery (“how/what do I know?”) and not one of justification (“how/what can I prove to others?”).<43> Walter Charleton recognized this early on, commenting that “I have not yet been so happy as to discover much therein that’s Apodictical, or wherein I think my selfe much obliged to acquiesce.... This, Madam, can be no discredit to your Philosophy in particular, because common to all others” (A Collection of Letters and Poems 112). Here Charleton overreaches somewhat. As argued in appendix B, the majority of New Science writing was nowhere near as free of attempts at reader coercion as Cavendish managed to achieve (see B.5, B.6.1, B.6.2). In this area, Cavendish’s discourse was a tour de force not soon to be matched.

Cavendish’s writing was not, of course, completely devoid of traditional forms of logical proof. One of her prefatory pieces to the 1668 Observations is framed as an “Argumental Discourse” wherein “You’l find that I go much by the way of Argumentation, and framing Objections and Answers; for I would fain hinder and obstruct as many Objections as could be made against the Grounds of my Opinions” (c2r). At the same time, she knew the traps and limitations of a dialectic pro-and-con. The type of point-counterpoint technique favored by the polemicists of her century was too constricting to suit her subject, her world view, her personality, or her desire to follow the flow of her own ideas in discourse. Even in the context of “disputation,” Cavendish rejected systematic adversarial argument. Instead we encounter a prime example of her heuristic technique, replete with contradictions, logical twists and turns, self-deprecating tone, and endlessly meandering speculation that avoids categorical statement or other forms of closure:

Madam, Since I mentioned in my last that Light did disturb the figures of External objects presented in Transparent bodies; you were pleased to ask, Whether light doth penetrate transparent bodies? I answer, for any thing I know, it may; for when I consider the subtil, piercing and penetrating nature of light, I believe it doth; but again, when I consider ... but that on the contrary ... I am half perswaded that ... Also I am of a mind, that ... also ... But you may say, that ... I answer ... and for any thing I know ... But you may say, That ... I answer ... I will not say but that....
(Philosophical Letters 88–9)

Notably, this same discourse repeats yet again (in almost identical form) 113 pages later, thus stressing the irresolution of thought and subject. No “victory” awaits one point of view over another. Competing opinions are simply juxtaposed and left to illuminate one another through contiguous placement, “since two opposite things placed near each other, are the better discerned” (Philosophical Letters 2). Right and wrong, true and false are judgments arrived at separately by the reader with little prompting from the author. Indeed, Cavendish believed that the rigors of statement-refutation-counterstatement were often an ineffectual tool of persuasion. Her writings frequently acknowledge that factors other than the force of logic (most particularly, emotion and experience) inform belief. Recent studies of the scientific community and its discourse, as well as studies in communication, bear her out in this.<44>

In focusing on a context of discovery rather than proof, Cavendish ends up sharing with rather than coercing her reader. As Pearson has already pointed out, “deliberative” rhetoric of the sort produced by Cavendish seeks to involve the reader in a joint act of problem-solving; it is geared to “co-orientation” rather than “dominance” (65, 60). Cavendish’s diary-like informality, coupled with ceaseless dialogue amongst “the parts of my mind,” translated into ingenuous dialogue with the reader on equal (and usually friendly) terms. She repeatedly undercut her own authority, pointing to the limitations of her experience and expertise, the “partiality” of her “opinions” (Cavendish always presented data as opinions rather than facts<45>), and the probability that her theories were in error. She claimed no unique insight into nature or truth. She claimed no special authority by virtue of method or professional membership. And she was something of an iconoclast in jibing at the inflated self-importance with which many in the New Science movement approached such weighty matters as Thomas Sprat’s “epitomes” of the universe:

I may be absurd, and erre grossely.... but if I do erre, it is no great matter; for my Discourse ... is not to be accounted Authentick: so if there be any thing worthy of noting, it is a good Chance; if not, there is no harm done, nor time lost. For I had nothing to do when I wrot it, and I suppose those have nothing, or little else to do, that read it.
(Poems and Fancies A6r)

Cavendish’s method of discourse, predicated on the human capacity for sense and reason that is common to all, opened literate opinion to the “unlearned” and non-philosopher, and encouraged the reader to speculate freely and in opposition to herself and others. Her discourse empowered the reader as critic and equal voice of authority.<46> Cavendish knew that the reader, as much as the author, actively created meaning. A book’s value and fame emerged from a complex interplay between author, text, and reader: a “good” reader could imbue a bad text with truth and grace, while an “ill” reader could easily silence the truths of wisdom and wit, she believed (Worlds Olio A6r, O3r; 1662 Playes A9v and The Comedy named the Several Wits 92). Cavendish makes repeated overt reference to the reader’s role in discovering and determining truth throughout her works. In itself, such explicit appeal was not unusual. The concept had roots in Baconian rhetoric and was popular in New Science circles. However, in Cavendish’s texts, surface references to active reader participation in truth-seeking were buttressed by a structural imperative inherent in the discourse of copia. The reader who was unwilling to exercise her/his right of control over language and meaning could not read Cavendish’s work. It was that simple.

3.9   The Taming of Her Discourse?

It has been suggested that over time Cavendish sought to rule in her “wild” rhetoric and conform to accepted standards. Sara Mendelson discerns “a progressive certitude” in Cavendish’s book titles, which she believes masks an increasingly defensive posture as Cavendish gradually came to realize the error of her ways. Mendelson locates the origins of this encroaching defeatism in Cavendish’s visit to the Royal Society, asserting that afterwards, Cavendish published no “original works” on science. Although Cavendish continued to “dabble” in science, “her chief energies were poured into estate management on her mother’s model” (Mendelson, Mental World 43, 47–8, 59). Douglas Grant agrees that Cavendish’s Royal Society visit “shook her self-confidence in her own methods” (209). Unlike Mendelson, however, he considers the later Grounds of Natural Philosophy (pub. 1668) an “original work” despite the fact that he believes Cavendish “was openly in retreat” throughout (227, 209).

I agree with Grant concerning the “originality” of the Grounds of Natural Philosophy. While it is true that Cavendish customarily avoided editing chores, hiring someone else to polish the Poems and Fancies, Natures Pictures, and Worlds Olio for second and third editions, she herself revised the Philosophical and Physical Opinions as the new Grounds of Natural Philosophy, advertised on its title page as “the second edition, much altered from the first.”<47> Her stated intent in so doing was to “rectifie” and “correct” the “many Imperfections” of the 1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions. She ardently desired that her ideas find acceptance, she tells us; and she had worried that her unlearned style of discourse might hamper her in this.

Certainly, the Grounds is a more restrained text than any preceding it, in keeping with Cavendish’s end focus on explication over exploration. Grant asserts that with the Grounds Cavendish was even more tentative than usual and “more careful to avoid controversy.” The “wild speculation” and abundant similizing so characteristic of her earlier texts were in this text edited out. And the familiar “loose spirited movement” of Cavendish’s prose was replaced by a more measured style, which Grant disapproves as “flatter, cautious and ordinary” (209–11). I would add that Cavendish’s syntax remained cumulative rather than analytical in this text, but that she was more selective about what material was included for discussion. More heavily punctuated clauses place limits on her usually spiralling style. Clauses no longer spill over into one another but are separated off and retained within the finite boundaries imposed by punctuation. A marked lack of redundancy makes this text easier to read, but also harder to comprehend. The Grounds is also more closely structured along logical lines. Once tangled webs of ideas are broken out into added chapters with a single unifying theme. Organizational schemas no longer break down mid-way but are carried through within and between major “Parts.”

Nonetheless, any new (versus edited) material in the Grounds recaptured the movement and feel of her usual rhetorical method. And in her prefatory remarks, Cavendish still boasted of her refusal “to labour much for Method” (A2v). She was willing to make some capitulations to the “rules of art,” but the Grounds was no paean to the “plain style” ideal of institutionalized New Science. Nor did it repudiate her former spirit of self-reliance and “natural rational discourse.” Instead, Cavendish “would, obstinately, suckle it my self, and bring it up alone, without the help of any Scholar.” And then, reminding her readers of her “boldness,” she dedicated her unlearned text to the “World of Learning” (Grounds A2v).

Grant avers that in reworking the Philosophical and Physical Opinions as the Grounds of Natural Philosophy, Cavendish chafed under the uncomfortable rigidities that she imposed on herself as editor. He cites the appended fictions at the close of Grounds (i.e., the restoring-bed debate; see 3.6.4 above) as “Margaret’s typical way of protesting against the unnatural restraint which she had imposed upon herself” elsewhere (210–11, 167). But this closing piece is more than simply a resort to a flight of unrestrained fancy. The “Conclusion” to the Grounds (309–11) is in fact a devastating bit of self-mockery where one group of thoughts similizes Cavendish’s restoring-bed fancies to those of the chemists “who, after they have wasted their Times and Estates, to gain the Philosophers-Stone ... write Books to teach it to the Sons of Art: which is impossible ... ever to be learn’d, there being no such Art in Nature” (310). The final passage is a complex of ironies that shake reader complacency and challenge rhetorical positivism at its core. Hence, the Grounds ends as discourse still very much on Cavendish’s own terms. I would argue that to the very end of her publishing career, Cavendish reveled in — not renounced — the expressive possibilities of her “triangular” discourse, with its “patterns and meanings previously unimagined” (Penelope and Wolfe 136).

Chapter 4 >>


1. The title of this chapter is drawn from Cavendish’s play, The Comedy Named the Several Wits, wherein the character Caprisia apologizes for some contentious remarks, commenting that “my discourse had a triangular countenance, for it seem’d foolish, spitefull and wicked” (1662 Playes 112). The triangle (long associated with the “feminine,” the passions, and the non-standard) is particularly apt as a metaphor for Cavendish’s own pointedly deviant discourse, which concurrently achieved the multiplicity of perspective Cavendish associated with the triangle: “the triangular points being odd, multiplie and subtract by reflections, as we ... see by triangular glasses, that from one face millions are made by subdividings” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 60).

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2. Poems and Fancies 212, A5r; see also 1662 Playes A8r, A11r, 681 and Observations b1v.

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3. See, for example, Sociable Letters 296 and 1662 Playes A11v. Cavendish favored reproductive imagery when describing all facets of the publication process: e.g., “my Book is lamed by an ill Midwife and a Nurse, the Printer and Overseer” (Worlds Olio O3v). Spawned by a joint exercise of wit and learning — for Cavendish, the twin forms of knowing, understanding, and creating which “makes men Divine” (Orations 306, Worlds Olio 6) — each book-child asserted its parent’s power and genius through the very fact of its existence.

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4. Compare, for example, Bacon’s commentary in Essay 7, “Of Parents and Children”: “The perpetuity by generation is common to beasts; but memory, merit, and noble works, are proper to men. And surely a man shall see the noblest works and foundations have proceeded from childless men; which have sought to express the images of their minds, where those of their bodies have failed. So the care of posterity is most in them that have no posterity” (Works 6:390).

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5. Ref. appendix B under B.6.3. Elizabeth Eisenstein also remarks on this; see her The Printing Press as an Agent of Change 559.

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6. The phrasing, from a direct reference to Cavendish, is Osborne’s; see her letter to William Temple for 7 May 1653.

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7. Caprisia, asserting her rights to opine publicly, contends in an argument with her mother that “I gave but my opinion ... and I may speak freely, my opinion of the generalities.” Her mother responds: “You may chance, by your opinion of the generalities, to be generally talk’d of.” Caprisia’s sharp retort to this exposes the contradictions of her position: “Why, then I shall live in discourse, although discourse were dead in me, and who had not rather live, although an ill life, than dye?” (1662 Playes 100).

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8. Despite the gender discriminations of “sociable” discourse, Sanspareille’s oral accomplishments know no bounds: she “can plead causes at the Bar, decide causes in the Court of Judicature, make Orations on publick Theatres; act parts, and speak speeches on the Stage, argue in the Schooles, preach in the Pulpits, either in Theology, Philosophy, moral and natural, and also phisick and Metaphysick” (1662 Playes 158).

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9. See, for example, Loves Adventures and The Publick Wooing in the 1662 Playes; also The Presence in the 1668 Plays.

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10. Margaret perhaps first discovered this power of the pen during her difficult courtship with William. When in conversation with William, Margaret typically reverted to silence and relinquished control of the discourse to him: “my Lord the Marquis of Newcastle did approve of those bashful fears which many condemned, and would choose such a wife as he might bring to his own humours, and not such a one as was wedded to self-conceit, or one that had been tempered to the humours of another; for which he wooed me for his wife” (A True Relation 288). The couple’s conversational interchanges followed a conventional pattern of male dominance; for example: “when my Lord admits me to his company, I listen with attention to his edifying discourse, and I govern my self by his Doctrine” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions A4r). However, through letter-writing, Margaret masterfully reasserted control over the courtship ritual. After comprehensive study of Margaret’s and William’s love letters, Douglas Grant argued that when courted by William, Margaret had both “to moderate as well as retain him”; her letters reveal “how skilfully she achieved her purpose” (Cavendish, Phanseys xxviii; see also Mendelson, Mental World 20, 24 and Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 88–9).

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11. This claim is, of course, mired in dispute. It has been customary to measure women’s literacy during the seventeenth-century as a function of writing skills. Numerous studies of the subject concluded from this that the vast majority of women in seventeenth-century England were illiterate because they were unable to sign their names. However, as Cavendish herself noted, “I observe, our Sex is more apt to Read than to Write” (Sociable Letters 225). More recent and exhaustive scholarship on the subject substantiates Cavendish’s claim. During the Stuart era, girls of all classes often learned to read but not write in markedly increasing numbers (Cressy).

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12. The need to confront a hostile audience did nonetheless produce certain distortions in Cavendish’s written discourse. Most notably: the profusion of prefaces that dot her works (up to 20 in the Philosophicall Fancies [11 pieces up front and 9 more at text end] and 1655 edition of Philosophical and Physical Opinions [12 pieces up front, 4 more interjected in the body of the text, and 4 more at text end]); a certain prolixity of style (due to endless repetition of ideas and explanations in a futile attempt to placate/persuade antagonistic readers); and a sometimes convoluted syntax (embedded clauses spinning her discourse every which way in order to explain/justify each choice of word or phrase). However, these were not simply a byproduct of gender but were characteristic of any writer posing new and/or controversial ideas to an unreceptive audience. Epistolary advisements, circumlocution, and redundancy of argument pervade the majority of New Science texts during this period (see, e.g., almost any work by Glanvill, More, and Boyle).

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13. Examples of such bravura are found in her Sociable Letters c2r; Natures Pictures 2; Worlds Olio A3v; 1668 Observations b1v, d4r; Life 317–318; Philosophicall Fancies 90; 1662 Playes A6v; and A True Relation 273.

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14. 1662 Playes A6v; see also Worlds Olio O3v, Observations c1r, and 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 169.

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15. This was, of course, a long-standing aristocratic creed, and Cavendish deliberately appealed to class biases in her arguments, commenting multiple times that “it argues but a mean Nature, to imitate others” (Blazing World 149). For example, writers who simply reformat and repeat the teachings of others “are like those unconscionable Men in Civil Wars, which endeavour to pull down the Hereditary Mansions of Noble-men and Gentlemen, to build a Cottage of their own” (Observations b2r). Similarly, to be subservient to the rules of art is ignoble and degrades a man “from being Magnanimous and Heroick; for one shall seldome find a generous and valiant Heart, and a pedantical Brain, created or bred in one Body; but those that are nobly bred have no Rules but Honour, and Honesty, and learn in the School of Wisdom to understand Sense, and to express themselves sensibly and freely, with a gracefull negligence” (Worlds Olio O3v).

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16. Life li; 1662 Playes, closing “Errata” (sig. Jjjjjjjj2r).

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17. Both Joan Kelly and Hilda Smith comment on the gender bias of the universal ideal of humanitas, with learning tightly bound to the notion of the gentleman and his role in society (see Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 67; Kelly 8).

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18. My arguments here and throughout the rest of this chapter (also chapters 4 and 5) concerning the “deconstructed character” of Cavendish’s texts at times parallel French feminist critiques of “phallagocentrism.” In particular, Cavendish’s use of mobile, pluralist viewpoints; her refusal to be identified with any one of the many “I”s in her texts; her pleasure in open-ended textuality; her struggle against the closures of binary oppositions; and her arraigning of the New Science drive to stabilize, organize, and rationalize our conceptual universe: all are prominent themes in French feminist theory (Moi 18, 8, 108, 159). Although my particular background and (pre)occupations lead me to probe much of the same material from a different vantage point, I do believe that French feminist theories applied to study of Cavendish would greatly further our understanding, especially concerning Cavendish’s choice of imagery, her (ab)use of cultural symbols, her “mad” fantasies, the interplay of conscious and subconscious as worked through in the structures of her discourse, her exceedingly complicated sexuality, and her tangled attempts at (de)constructing herself and other women as subject. I regret that with my different starting base, I am unable to satisfactorily account for such important facets of Cavendish’s life and discourse.

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19. This particular phrasing is Charles Cheyne’s; see his 1662 letter to Cavendish stating “You have ... taught us justly to own all, from our Mother-Wit ...” (A Collection of Letters and Poems 78).

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20. Cavendish did echo the anxiety of her culture over “wandering thoughts” in the following passage from her Poems and Fancies: “For the truth is, our Sex hath so much waste Time, having but little imployments, which makes our Thoughts run wildly about, having nothing to fix them upon, which wilde thoughts do not onely produce unprofitable, but indiscreet Actions; winding up the Thread of our lives in snarles on unsound bottoms” (A5r). Interestingly, this passage was offered as justification for women like herself who published their writings: Cavendish contended that writing rechanneled improperly feminine thoughts in more profitable directions. She appears not to have noticed the supreme irony of arguing on behalf of fixing “wilde thoughts” in a discourse that itself “runs wildly about,” proudly proclaiming this feat of liberation to an astonished world.

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21. Information theory has long supported Cavendish and Boyle in this. Repetition of information within and across channels has proven particularly useful as a means of increasing reader comprehension and reader retention (see, e.g., Barnett and Hughes).

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22. Good examples are found in Letters IV and V of the Philosophical Letters (see 18–25).

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23. For example, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, where the same issues are repeatedly argued in relation to a number of different authors.

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24. For example, Philosophicall Fancies, where prosaic inquiries of the natural world are reconstructed in poetic summations, and Poems and Fancies, where poetic statements repeat in prose form.

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25. Jean Gagen, among others, complains of this; see The New Woman 39.

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26. The Comical Hash is an extreme example of this (see 1662 Playes 557–77).

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27. Albert Einstein, for example, believed that the best scientific text reproduces for the reader all the indirections and detours of thought from which new ideas gradually emerge; it does not strip these away to re-write the thought process in terms of a tidy and efficient linear movement toward the only possible conclusion. To Einstein, a conclusion was knowable only within the (almost always) messy context of the actual thought process that produced it (see Minor, “Albert Einstein on Writing”).

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28. 1662 Playes 123–4. Margaret shared this particular sentiment with her husband. Cf. William’s Advice to Charles II: “So powerfull sire Is Custome, it is converted into nature, & is Nature, & In the bloud” (70).

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29. Cavendish angrily responded to those who castigated her for her love of fairies: “I Wonder any should laugh, or think it ridiculous to heare of Fairies, and yet verily beleeve there are ... Witches, which are said to change themselves into severall formes, and then to returne into their first forme againe ordinarily, which is altogether against nature: yet laugh at the report of Fairies, as impossible; which are onely small bodies, not subject to our sense, although it be to our reason” (Poems and Fancies 163).

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30. Cavendish makes special note of how “friendly” were the “Parts of my Mind”; see Grounds 291–2.

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31. Indeed, the case of Henry More, as alluded to in his letters on “this great Philosopher” to the viscountess Conway, bears Cavendish out in this. Margaret first sent More copies of her text disputing his theories (along with those of Hobbes, Descartes, and van Helmont) in an attempt to engage him in dialogue. More allowed that Cavendish was “by farr a more civill Antagonist” than most, but he had no intention of discussing his ideas with her in public; furthermore, “I believe she may be secure from any one giving her the trouble of a reply” (Finch, Conway Letters 233–234, 237).

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32. For example, in the Blazing World, the Empress returns to her native land, at that point beset by war and civil strife, and mercilessly enforces unity under the rule of one monarch, one religion, one language. Not content to conquer one people, the Empress extends her imperial sweep to the very borders of the world, and then awards global control to the monarch of her native land. In the Worlds Olio, Cavendish regales her readers with a detailed portrait of a horrifying autocracy. In this ideal society, it is legislated that the people are dutifully submissive to power and authority, speak only wisdom and truth (otherwise they must be silent), “Discourse ... to Instruct, not to make Sport,” are rational rather than emotional, and lead severe, virtuous, honorable, valiant, chaste, and ordered lives (205–12, 213–15).

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33. Sprat 7–8. More detailed discussion of these themes occurs in appendix A (see A.3.6).

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34. For Cavendish’s arguments on sense perception as an essential format for knowing and truth-seeking, see the separate discussion under 4.9.1 and 4.9.2. Her inclusion of passion as an equally valid cognitive mode is discussed under 3.7.

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35. This breakdown appears in the Worlds Olio E2v.

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36. See MacCarthy 123, Goulding 35, and Firth xxxvii.

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37. The quotation is from William Cavendish’s preface to the 1664 and 1668 editions of Margaret’s Poems and Fancies (see A2v). William shared Margaret’s view of similizing. In his Advice to Charles II, William argued that observation is never value-free: “when Soever wee See ... wee Are always simulising, as white as snow, white as a Lilly or Something,” depending on our point of view and the dictates of custom (71).

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38. For example, see the work of Jacob Bronowski and William Gordon.

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39. For example, “rational” and “sensitive” matter/spirits; see her comments on this important word choice in the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 138 and Natures Pictures 588–9.

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40. 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 138. See also Philosophical Letters 238, 275.

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41. Turberville 1:192. A prime example of this is found in The Comical Hash; see Cavendish’s 1662 Playes 557–77.

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42. I use the phrasing “return to” to emphasize that Cavendish’s discourse, in contrast to the neoclassical models preferred by prominent Royal Society spokesmen such as Glanvill, recalls the language structures of copia (see B.5). For example, the parallels between Cavendish’s writings and those of Montaigne, a master practitioner of copia, are many. Both produced representational discourse in a liminary role, formulated as “the perpetual opening of a parenthesis” (Cave 273). Nonetheless, I do not wish to argue from parallels specific relations of influence. Cavendish did not consciously work within, but outside of, “masculine” literary traditions (see final comments under 3.3 above).

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43. This distinction is from Sally Gearhart, “End to Technology” 174. Cf. the critique of New Science method as proof-by-demonstration in appendix A (see A.3.6).

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44. See, e.g., Charles Bazerman, “Scientific Writing as a Social Act”; George Barnett and Carol Hughes; Sally Gearhart, “Womanization of Rhetoric”; Janice Moulton; and Sheryl Pearson.

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45. For example: “Humble and plain Opinions, raised by the Opinions of others, I here present” (Worlds Olio T3r).

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46. In comparison to Cavendish, even Boyle, whose interesting attempts at copia are summarized in appendix B (see B.5), retained an authoritative, controlling tone towards audience: he frequently plays with the reader; his texts are designed to initiate readers into the proper ways of natural philosophy; and he desires not just to “display” but also to “inculcate” his truths in the reader (e.g., Works 1:315, 1:316, and 5:254).

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47. On this, see her comments in Philosophical Letters 413, 542 and Grounds of Natural Philosophy A2v.

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