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 8 of 12: Chapter 5)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990


Chapter 5

Imaginations of Impossibilities

5.1   Beyond the Confines of Reasonable Discourse

Contrasting Cavendish with John Donne (whose work Cavendish liked), Henry Perry writes:

Dr. Donne’s passionate nature twisted and contorted his medium of expression, but it never let him forget our material existence. The Duchess, however, entirely transcends mere flesh and blood, passing into a terra incognita of her own. Her fancy was so far removed from things of this world that when she gave it full swing the result proved confusing to readers and detrimental to aesthetic excellence. Moreover the quality of this romancing was not fervent enough to sweep the average citizen off his feet.... (263)

Cavendish’s wild fancy, far from being the negative influence that critics such as Perry condemn, offered her a needed escape from patriarchal jurisdiction. In prior chapters I have argued that when working within the bounds of accepted literary expression, Cavendish resonated certain antifeminisms built into the dominant prestige registers. Here I wish to contend that the further Cavendish retreats from the accepted conventions of “sociable” discourse for her class and culture, the more tantalizing her thought becomes. Within the interstices of dominant strains of discourse Cavendish located her wildest fantasies. The more she probed and played with “imaginations of impossibilities” (Worlds Olio 37), the more her subconscious let loose in images of fantastic liberation. As in her story of a beautiful, orphaned girl assigned to the care of a powerful lord who seeks to conquer her spirit and person, Cavendish felt keenly the many restrictions which circumscribed a woman’s life. There was but one liberated zone: “with Rules my Life did bind; / Nothing was free, but Thoughts within my Mind” (Natures Pictures 64).

5.2   Cavendish’s Romances

Douglas Grant has remarked that the central theme of Cavendish’s printed daydreams was portraiture of “herself as a learned and beautiful princess capturing the adoration of a wise and powerful king” (42). He concludes that

... in improbabilities and wonders she far outdid any romancer. How could the heroic and languorous worlds of even the most polished French romancers compete with her kingdom of purple savages and plumed camels? The truth is that there was a marked affinity between her imagination and theirs, and she was as instinctively conforming to the spirit of the age in the composition of her tales as she was in her natural philosophy. (157)

In trying to salvage Cavendish’s reputation by pointing to the normalcy of some of her more apparent extravagances, Grant passes over the dissimilarities that made her writings so disturbing. Yes, Cavendish was in tempo with the spirit of her age, in romance-writing as in all else. But her Blazing World, the longer tales in Natures Pictures, and some of her plays were romance with a difference. With these, Cavendish had borrowed a popular literary form, especially among women readers of the leisured classes, and reworked it almost beyond recognition. It is worth remembering that Dorothy Osborne happily abandoned herself to French romances and wrote pensively of their characters and plots to William Temple; but she considered Cavendish’s writings extraordinary and quite mad.

Notably, Cavendish had no intention of writing conventional romances, which she disliked. She tells us that romances — most unfortunately, “the chief study of our Sex” — teach women readers to “fall in love with the feign’d Heroes and Carpet-Knights, with whom their Thoughts secretly commit Adultery, and in their Conversation and manner, or forms or phrases of Speech, they imitate the Romancy-Ladies” (Sociable Letters 39-40). Cavendish many times condemned the negative influence of romances on women’s thoughts and actions (see 2.8). And she hoped to counter this adverse influence by deconstructing for her readers the premises and promises of romantic love.

Cavendish was herself drawn to visions of women as “Goddesses on Earth, who have the power and dominion over men” (1662 Playes 616). Far more than most women, Cavendish indulged shameless reveries of a society finally able to accord full recognition to women for their actual contributions and merits.<1> But Cavendish dreamed of women’s rewards at a social level in the public arena, while the more conventional romance-writers encouraged women to look no further than the ardent, handsome and gallant lover. Cavendish believed that the romancers’ promise of private, enraptured bliss — frozen in time — was a lie. Worse still, in her mind, the continual recycling of this lie in published literature contributed to women’s oppression. To Cavendish, the prostrate lover of the heroic romance was but a fleeting reality — a ready casualty of marriage, aging, and the decay of beauty. Time and again Cavendish argued the absolute necessity of distinguishing rhetoric from reality on this subject. Women did not fare in life as the rhetoric of romance intimated. There was in fact little public or private recognition of women’s “celestial” (let alone real) qualities. In Cavendish’s fictions, men treat angelical women dishonorably and with impunity, unmoved by appeals to right or reason or example.<2> The “Angelick Lady,” held up by the culture as “a Pattern to her Sex,” is in the end nothing more than a martyr to the feminine ideal. In one account, Cavendish tells us of a lady wronged by a beastly husband; the lady takes no revenge, hoping instead that her model behavior will dissuade her spouse from brutality. “Having cause to be Angry,” Cavendish sympathizes, she “did Patiently and Discreetly pass over her Injury, appearing Celestial” (Sociable Letters 68). But such angelical passivity and sweetness did nothing to remedy the hell of her life on earth. Cavendish felt there was small reward in consigning oneself to romantic hyperbole — “mourn, and weep my self to Water, and sigh my self to Ayre” (1662 Playes 511) — while awaiting recompense in the hereafter. Thus, she paid compliment to angelic women, even imaged scenes of public praise for their martyred lives, but in the end she exposed the poverty of the ideal in a society that preached but did not justly reward it.

The stylized language of lovemaking so exaggerated in the romances — and also “a la mode” in the upper echelons of seventeenth-century society<3> — was an easy target for Cavendish’s ire. In real life, as in fiction, Cavendish had little patience with false sentimentalizing, and she often unveiled its inherent deceitfulness: “if all the Tears Romances express Lovers to shed, were Gathered or United, it would cause a second Deluge of the World” (Sociable Letters 161). Her plays are rife with devastating critiques of “Court-talks” and those who practice them. For example, the 1668 Plays contains a clever burlesque of such high-blown compliment as “your Beauty shineth like a blazing-Star, whereon Men gaze, and in their Minds do wonder at the sight ... your frowns and smiles are Destiny and Fate, either to kill or cure,” conducted between the fool, Mimick, and the maid, Joan (The Bridals 65). In line with her contempt for such discourse, and her anger at its victimization of women, Cavendish strove to expose the harsh reality behind the mask of compliment. Over and over she warned that the language of love will all too soon evanesce “to quarrelling disputes, or insulting commands” (1662 Playes 428). Women, she argued, are to their own detriment “Credulous and Believing Creatures.” But Cavendish perceived such credulity as a product of culture, not nature. Due to their restricted liberty and experience of the world, women were especially susceptible to idealized descriptions of the world and of their place in it, she felt (Orations 83). Cavendish also explained the powerful allure of the “complemental discourse” of love as the result of woman’s consuming need for approval in a society that devalued her from birth. “[F]earing they should not be so Noble Creatures as Men,” women “are apt to be out of Countenance, as mistrusting some Imperfections in themselves”; thus, low self-esteem made women ready victims of the “inticing, alluring, perswading and flattering” language of romance (Worlds Olio 81; 1668 Plays, The Bridals 41).

Cavendish’s romances also exposed to rigorous critique romantic idealizations of chastity and constancy in love. The travails of Affectionata/Travelia in “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity” (Natures Pictures 394-514) depict female chastity not as an ideal but as a pragmatic necessity — a form of self-protection operative under a sexual double standard. Cavendish never allows her readers to forget the sexual double standard that limits women’s exercise of choice and then glorifies that loss of liberty. Her analysis of the sexual double standard in love is incisive. In particular, her plays outline its origins in men’s visceral fear of women under seventeenth-century patriarchy. Through cuckoldry or a simple act of “indiscretion,” a wife can always “unman” her husband, stripping him of “all the Honour that my birth gave me and my education indued me, my vertue gained me, my industry got me; fortune bestowed on me, and fame inthron’d me for” (1662 Playes 460, 4-5). The Lord Singularity, we are told, “would sooner yield up my life to death, than venture my honour to a womans management” (Loves Adventures, 1662 Playes 5). In her presentation of relations between the sexes, Cavendish unravels the mystique surrounding women’s sexuality whereby men’s fears of women’s power to “unman” them are metamorphosed as woman’s fault and become the feminine burden. At the end of Loves Adventures, the Lady Orphant/Affectionata’s constancy and devotion in love is valued by Lord Singularity only because it has first been shrouded in male bonding rituals. Having proven herself as a man, Orphant/Affectionata is more acceptable to Singularity on equal terms as a woman. But the conditions that caused Singularity’s initial doubts about women still threaten their future together. Cavendish’s fictions are quite clear on this point: there is nothing romantic about a forced feminine constancy that carries the burden of proof, with only the promise of repeat recriminations and marital infidelities in return.

While conventional romances froze the moment of courtship, prolonging its intensity for up to thirty volumes of purple prose, Cavendish’s contributions to the genre pointedly omit “the sensation of being in love as an end in itself” (Mendelson, Mental World 22). In her texts, the rituals of male-female courtship are instead simply ignored, recast along homosexual lines, forced into the public arena, or rejected altogether. For example, in the Blazing World (a text of 160-plus folio-sized pages), two sentences are devoted to the subject of courtship:

No sooner was the Lady brought before the Emporer, but he conceived her to be some Goddess, and offered to worship her; which she refused, telling him, (for by that time she had pretty well learned their Language) that although she came out of another World, yet she was but a mortal. At which the Emperor rejoycing, made her his Wife, and gave her an absolute power to rule and govern all that World as she pleased. (13)

As for romance, the only four identifiable men in the tale are cardboard characters, lacking even a minimal description of physique or character. All four assume only minor (and usually passive) roles in the action of the text. What little romance exists, in terms of protestations of love, constancy, and desire (desexualized as the need for companionship), is shared between two women — the Empress and the Duchess of Newcastle.

In Loves Adventures, a romance fashioned as drama (see 1662 Playes), Cavendish recast romantic intimacy in terms of male bonding. In The Convent of Pleasure (see 1668 Plays) we encounter intimacy recast in lesbian terms in Cavendish’s most detailed rendering of the subject. In this fascinating play, the illustrious Lady Happy, who has rejected men for a life of pleasure as a devotee of nature, is wooed by a great foreign princess, “a Princely brave Woman ... of a Masculine Presence.” Their courtship is initiated when the Princess and Happy dress “in Masculine-Habits, and act Lovers-parts.” The passion and anguish of their courtship<4> is of course resolved at play’s end when the Princess-masquerading-as-a-man is revealed to be a powerful prince in disguise. At this point, however, romance abruptly succumbs to the business of marriage, intimacy between the lovers subsides, and the fate of the Convent of Pleasure is left hanging in one of Cavendish’s most unsatisfactory and forced endings.

In another unusual twist on “romancy” protocols, The Publick Wooing de-privatizes heterosexual courtship and forces it into the “publick Assembly” as a means of guarding against the importunities and “Appetites of greedy men, and their own inconstant and changing Natures” (1662 Playes 372). In this romance, the Lady Prudence approaches love stripped of any and all sentimental delusions. The “Strange Wooer” with a wooden leg, eye patch, crooked back, dishevelled hair, and plain clothing whom Prudence chooses to marry courts her soul, not her body, paying tribute to her “Wit, Wisdom, and Virtue” (394). Prudence, in turn, selects her husband for the “Truth, Sincerity, Constancy, Justice, Prudence, Courage, and Temperance” of his character (395). Of course, in a final concessionary romantic gesture, the mystery lover metamorphoses on center stage into the handsome, valiant, and bountiful heir of the powerful Great Duke of Grandy. Cavendish clearly felt a need for this transformation if her fanciful moral that singularity of virtue is in the end rewarded was to carry any weight with her readers.

And finally, a number of Cavendish’s romances have heroines who explicitly reject private for public love and devotion. Her “She-Anchoret” characters all encloister themselves from male suitors in search of the self-fulfillment awarded in public life.<5> In defending this choice, Cavendish’s heroines argue forcefully concerning the many detriments of love and marriage. Sanspareille dismisses a bevy of ardent lovers with the remark “if I were marryed, instead of discoursing of several arguments, I should be groaning and sighing, and weeping, with several pains and vexations” (1662 Playes 161). This was hardly the conventional lament of the romance heroine.

Similarly, whenever Cavendish’s heroines die (or offer to die — a few are reprieved) at the alter of love, there is no accompanying description of the underlying passion that would produce such a desperate act. Cavendish’s focus is instead on the act itself and the honor and glory it imparts to the heroine (see for example, the story of Jantil in Bell in Campo, 1662 Playes 578-633). At the same time, Cavendish capitalized on suicide as “an aggressive instrument of retaliation” in the war between the sexes (Mendelson, Mental World 23). She used it to punish inconstant lovers and husbands, forcing from them acknowledgements of wrongdoing and of the heroine’s probity that are steeped in guilt and presented as unobtainable any other way.<6> Suicide as a revenge fantasy was most attractive to Cavendish precisely because it was one of women’s few socially-acceptable means for exercising power. As the Lady Perfection informs the lovelorn Arch-Prince who threatens to force his rights under patriarchy, “You have no power, the power lives within my self; for I can take away my life” (The Religious, 1662 Playes 541). For this supreme sacrifice to love and honor, Cavendish knew her society would award grudging recognition.

Indeed, love in Cavendish’s romances has little to do with affection, and everything to do with power. Sequestered behind the mask of love is always the threat of men’s uninhibited power in a patriarchal society. The lover-turned-lord-and-master is a constant theme in Cavendish’s works, while the lover-turned-rapist reveals the dark underside of romantic passion in “A Description of Love and Courage” (Natures Pictures 56-70), “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity” (Natures Pictures 394-514), and The Unnatural Tragedie (1662 Playes 323-66). However, in Cavendish’s rendering of heterosexual love as an expression of power relations, woman is more than just a passive victim. Her romances often indulge a fantasy of what Mendelson has termed “lethal feminine beauty” (Mental World 23), whereby “great” men, transfixed by the divine radiance of the heroine, willingly transfer to her their exercise of power. Cavendish’s infrequent positive imaging of male lovers consumed by passion for the heroine extends only to that point at which the transfer of power occurs, as in her two-sentence description of courtship in the Blazing World, quoted above. In addition to its usefulness in the private sphere for ensnaring powerful men into uxorious servitude and power-sharing, Cavendish deployed the fantasy of “lethal feminine beauty” in the male-dominated public sphere as well. Her heroines’ aggressive achievements in the social arena are always softened (indeed, often prepared for) by unsurpassed beauty and virtue. Even the Lady Orphant/Affectionata, who performs stupendous feats in the guise of a boy, has an irresistible quality of feminine comeliness that deflects criticism and beguiles seasoned men in positions of power — monarchs, military generals, counselors of state, even the Pope (Loves Adventures, 1662 Playes 3-77). Nowhere is Cavendish’s pleasure in the fancied potency of feminine beauty more apparent than in the daydreams of the Lady Contemplation who imagines that on her way to marry “a great powerful Monarch,”

... all the streets were strewed with dead Lovers, which had lived only on hopes, so long as I lived amongst them ... after my Beauty had killed millions in the Kingdomes I passed thorow, I arrived at that part of the world where the Emperour was ... but as I past along, all the Highwayes were beset with Crouds of people, which thronged to see me, and when they saw me, they cryed out I was an Angel sent from the Gods....
(1662 Playes, The Lady Contemplation 183)

No humble pie here for the Lady Contemplation. Routine sentiments of modesty or distress expressed by conventional “romancy-ladies” over references to their divine beauty do not perturb the Lady Contemplation in her ruthless bid for power. Her daydreams are of imperial governance and heroic exploits. She muses not about lovers and love but about “what wise Laws I make, what upright Justice I give, ordering so, as the whole world should be as one united Family; and when I shewed my wisdome in Peace, then my thoughts should have raised Warres, wherein I would have shewed my valour and conduct” (183).

Thus, in lieu of the usual amorous adventures and exploits of the hero, Cavendish’s romances record the epic adventures of women with “as much courage to fight, as Hector and Achilles had ... as wise as Nestor, as Eloquent as Ulysses, and as beautiful as Hellen” (Blazing World 160). With her nonconformist romantic heroines, Cavendish promoted feminist themes and provoked speculation about women’s potential triumphs in a different world of opportunity. Yet Cavendish’s romantic visions of the future were grounded in a not-so-distant past. Her mythic heroines recalled the individual achievements of incomparable women from a bygone era, such as those popularized in Thomas Heywood’s encyclopedic Gunaikeion (first published 1624). The Lady Contemplation explicitly lays claim to verisimilitude in historical “Records” which have “given us Precedents” (1662 Playes 212). As such, Cavendish’s romances promoted a radically different interpretation of vraisemblance (the cornerstone of all French romances). It was in Cavendish’s hands that the heroic romance first idealized history from the feminist standpoint.

5.3   Cavendish’s Utopias

Cavendish’s fancy frequently conjured imaginary worlds which she could order and govern without having to contend with the “great disturbance and opposition” that impeded political projects in the real world (Natures Pictures 209). The primary motivation for these imaginings was to play “what if ...?” with matriarchal rule. Cavendish felt that under patriarchy, men overreached their power base, attempting “to govern the whole world, in all active affairs, although they have neither foresight nor experience” of all (Worlds Olio 58). In contrast, “if women were imploy’d in the Affairs of State, the World would live more happily.” This claim Cavendish justified with the observation that “it cannot be govern’d worse than it is: for the whole World is together by the Ears, all up in Wars and Blood, which shews there is a general defect in the Ruler and Governors thereof” (1662 Playes 332). In this sentiment there is more than a hint of nostalgia for the old “glory” days of Elizabeth’s reign. Not surprisingly, Cavendish’s various utopias each stress social harmony.<7> Some are reformed states, as in the Kingdom of Fancy, where under the intuitive governance of Affectionata/Travelia, a united and happy people prosper.<8> In each of Cavendish’s utopias, the actual details of government and/or the process of political reform are conspicuously absent. Description for the most part is limited to sweeping generalizations of policy objectives.

In Cavendish’s writings, the most persistent theme associated with women’s rule is monarchy administered via the politics of charisma. Cavendish often romanticized her wise-virtuous-and-beautiful heroine’s “magnetick” qualities (a seventeenth-century platitude) as capable of pulling together diverse factions within the state — all united, as it were, out of a common love and admiration for the woman-in-charge. In an interesting twist on patriarchal notions of the home as but a microcosm of the state, Cavendish modeled her utopian states on the type of matriarchal domestic management successfully practiced by her mother. Writing on the heels of civil war — which she attributed in large part to intractable opinions met with force rather than persuasory appeals to reason and self-interest — Cavendish concocted the Kingdom of Amity where, in the queen’s absence, the heroine (still disguised as a young man) governed “so gently” that “his Commands” were but “Perswasions” willingly obeyed by all (Natures Pictures 472). Similarly, the Empress of the Blazing World reforms both “Church and State” in that society “without inforcement or blood-shed,” relying on her own charisma and the twin influences of reason and rhetoric.

5.3.1 The Blazing World

With her Blazing World, Cavendish produced what Turberville has deemed “the most wild and eccentric delineation of a Utopia in literature” (1:187). Perry goes even further, claiming that the Blazing World is evidence that “its creator was, on one occasion at least, dangerously far from sanity” (265). With its bold incorporation of what we would now call feminist science fiction, the Blazing World was definitely unique. More extraordinary even than the plot were the fabulous adventures of the heroines, including space travel by “AEreal Vehicle” and the ability to enter and leave material bodies at will (the tea party within the Duke of Newcastle’s body has already been mentioned; see 2.7.2). The Blazing World also featured a fantasia of altered physical states, ranging from new life forms (such as animal-, insect-, and bird-men, men of a grass-green complexion, etc.), to cities constructed of coral or amber, sand made from gold, humans dancing on water, and a world comprised of “Veins, Muscles, and Nerves, and all these to move by one jolt or stroke” (Blazing World 97). And fact/fiction boundaries were tendentiously blurred, as in Cavendish’s use of herself and husband as fictional characters, her nonchalant mix of fabulous adventure with domestic routine, and the remarkable courtroom pleading with Fortune where Honesty makes the Duchess cry.

In many ways a New Science utopia, Cavendish’s Blazing World bears comparison with Bacon’s New Atlantis and Glanvill’s “Continuation of the New Atlantis.”<9> When Cavendish chooses to “reject and despise all the Worlds without me, and create a World of my own,” she creates a “Paradise” where a woman engages in open public dialogue with the male members of various scientific societies which she, as “Empress,” has created (Blazing-World 98). Discussion ranges broadly (as in Cavendish’s New Science texts) over assorted natural phenomena, incorporating twenty pages of discourse between the Empress and a group of Immaterial Spirits on spiritual subjects with highly unorthodox overtones. Throughout it all, however, it is the Empress who controls the direction of conversation, avidly pursuing her own form of natural inquiry within the framework of the question-and-answer flow of communications. The Empress formulates the questions to which her scientists respond (their responses usually terminating inconclusively in unresolved disputes); the Empress then arbitrates, asks more questions, initiates experiments, ventures opinions and judgments upon the information presented to her, and sometimes reformulates her opinions after considering new qualifying data. Notably, neither the Empress, her scientists, nor the Immaterial Spirits are ever infallible sources of truth in their joint inquiry into nature. In large part, the Blazing World is a feminist rewrite of Genesis whereby Eve eats the entire apple of knowledge and reigns in peace. When the men of “Paradise” introduce disharmony as a result of competitive truth-seeking, the Empress disbands the scientific societies she has created in the belief that “it is better to be without their intelligences then to have an unquiet and disorderly Government” (Blazing World 122). Thus “Paradise,” under woman’s management, is restored to equilibrium.

Contrary to Cavendish’s vision of decentered knowledge-seeking, with its novel reliance on mixed-species intelligence and the give-and-take of clamorous, egalitarian debate, Bacon’s House of Salomon is secretive and highly-stratified with only three Fathers at the pinnacle of the society permitted to function as Interpreters of Nature. In Bacon’s utopian vision, women figure only as “servants and attendants” to the fathers and sons of science (see A.4).

Glanvill’s continuation of Bacon’s tale begins at the point of acknowledging that “there were Truths which the World would not bear” and expands on the House of Salomon’s requisite “oath of secrecy” (Essays VII:15). Glanvill’s primary purpose is to flush out the missing details of how truths both scientific and religious are arrived at, dispersed (or not) within society, and “good” rather than “notions” inculcated “among the illiterate and unqualified” of Bensalem (Essays VII:14). As Carolyn Merchant has already pointed out, Bacon’s Bensalem (and Glanvill’s, by extension) supplanted earlier notions of the organic utopian community (Death of Nature 80). Bensalem is in essence a technocracy wherein nature has been harnassed in the service of utopia by the Fathers of Salomon. There is no sense of human beings delighting in a free nature as we encounter repeatedly in Cavendish’s Blazing World.

5.3.2 The Convent of Pleasure

The utopia delineated in The Convent of Pleasure (see 1668 Plays) is constructed around certain core themes that surface repeatedly in Cavendish’s visionary schemes. First, Cavendish’s alternative community structure in this play is designed to celebrate rather than deny the pleasures of life. The Lady Happy tells us that she is “not a Votress to the gods but to Nature”; as such, “My Cloister shall not be a Cloister of restraint, but a place for freedom, not to vex the Senses but to please them” (11, 7). As devotees of nature and pleasure, the Convent members immerse themselves in a world of sensuality that luxuriates in nature’s variety and bounty. Their utopia is constructed in harmony with nature’s cycles and rhythms. We are told that the furniture in the house, plus plate, bedding, and linen all change seasonally. The gardens, household decorations, diet, fashions, and “pleasures and delights” of Convent members also track the changing seasons (and in some cases such as clothing, “our several pastimes” as well). There are numerous occasions in her writings when Cavendish condemns a life devoted to sense gratification, as when Affectionata/Travelia is shipwrecked in the Kingdom of Sensuality — a distopian nightmare (see “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity,” Natures Pictures 394-514). But Cavendish’s antisensualism was primarily directed at sexual license and carnal excesses such as gluttony. In contrast, her utopias indulged the delights of the natural world that poets image and “the Woman in us” craves. This is the allure of fairyland for Cavendish, whose Queen Mab spends her days in eternal “pleasure,” enjoying a life of harmony with nature in a fairy kingdom where there is no cruelty.<10> This same sentiment guides Lady Happy’s serene vision of herself as a sea-goddess:

My Cabinets are Oyster-shells,
In which I keep my Orient-Pearls,
To open them I use the Tide,
As Keys to Locks, which opens wide,
The Oyster-shells then out I take;
Those, Orient-Pearls and Crowns do make;
And modest Coral I do wear,
Which blushes when it touches air.
On Silver-Waves I sit and sing,
And then the Fish lie listening:
Then sitting on a Rocky stone,
I comb my Hair with Fishes bone;
The whil’st Apollo, with his Beams,
Doth dry my Hair from wat’ry streams.
His Light doth glaze the Water’s face,
Make the large Sea my Looking-Glass;
So when I swim on Waters high,
I see my self as I glide by:
But when the Sun begins to burn,
I back into my Waters turn,
And dive unto the bottom low:
Then on my head the Waters flow,
In Curled waves and Circles round;
And thus with Waters am I Crown’d.
(Convent of Pleasure 42-3)

A second favored theme of Cavendish’s is present in her portrait of the Convent of Pleasure as a homosocial environment. Once again, we are brought to face her conviction that in a patriarchal society women can never know true pleasure as long as there is interaction with men. In Happy’s pleasure-filled vision of encloisterment, “retiredness bars the life from nothing else but Men” who are considered “Obstructers” of “the variety of Pleasures, which are in Nature ... for, instead of increasing Pleasure, they produce Pain” (4, 12). The cloister had, of course, long been a recognized refuge from the woes of oppression for upper-class women. When stripped of religious severity, encloisterment was still an attractive alternative to Cavendish, who had observed its virtues firsthand from her mother’s embrace of it during widowhood.<11> With enough money, Cavendish fancied, one could create a utopian enclave for women and avoid the larger — perhaps even insoluble — issue of patriarchy simply by excluding men, their biases, and their laws.<12> While such an idyllic retreat could not possibly service all women, it was enough that it could service a deserving few “whose Births are greater then their Fortunes” (7). In an unsavory and frank expression of self-interest, Lady Happy avers:

... those Women that are poor, and have not means to buy delights, and maintain pleasures, are only fit for Men; for having not means to please themselves, they must serve only to please others; but those Women, where Fortune, Nature, and the gods are joined to make them happy, were [not] made to live with Men, who make the Female sex their slaves.... (7)

In the end, the Convent of Pleasure is a feminist model of Arcadia. With it, and numerous other pieces, Cavendish joined in the pastoral fantasies that enjoyed a rebirth of popularity during the Stuart era. Many of the best-known rural idylls of the seventeenth century were, as Keith Thomas points out, “compensatory myths, composed by or for the sake of” the defeated Royalist gentry (Natural World 252). Cavendish’s texts, even with their added touch of feminism, were well within this literary tradition. Although nature in Cavendish’s pastorals was not the conventional circumscribed and comforting garden of the pastoral, it was still an idealized refuge for persons of means bowed down by harsh political and economic realities. Too, it was not woman’s gender affinity with nature and her struggle for freedom and wholeness that spurred the experiment in communal, harmonious living at the Convent of Pleasure. It was instead Cavendish’s need to bask in the solace of uninhibited self-indulgence of a sort denied women from birth. The Convent of Pleasure was in simple terms a precursor of today’s bumper sticker frustration: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” In this respect, her Arcadian portraits — appealing as they are — were far less reaching than her philosophical opinions which posited a natural world of infinite complexity and dialectical struggle.<13>

5.4   Changing the Dimensions of Physical Reality

Far more intriguing than her reworking of conventional genres such as the pastoral and romance was Cavendish’s imaging of alternate physical realities. Such imaging was the direct result of her philosophical stance that nothing in nature is annihilated — the same matter is just continually recycled into a succession of different “figures” (see 4.7). As described in chapter 4, Cavendish argued that all natural phenomena (including lifeforms) are made from matter that “is one and the same in its nature or essence”; differences between and within existent species of things derive only from a difference in “the degrees of quantity, and parts of Matter, and in the various and different actions or motions of this same Matter” (Philosophical Letters 236). Hence, humankind is composed of material parts shared with all other beings and things in nature. Because material parts are not forever constrained within one and only one lifeform or species, nature could yield an almost limitless array of possible “figures,” all from the unceasing recombination of matter.

Transmigration between physical states followed easily from Cavendish’s twin postulates of nature’s infinite capacity for permutation and the protean quality of matter. She explained:

Natural Creatures are more numerously and variously produced by dissolution of Particulars by the way of Metamorphosing, then by a continued propagation of their own Species by the way of translation of Parts; and ... Nature hath many more ways of Productions, then by Seeds or seminal Principles, even in Vegetables: witness the Generation of Production of Moss, and the like Vegetables that grow on Stones, Walls, dead Animals sculls, tops of Houses, &c.
(Observations 39)

Cavendish held to this view despite alternative hypotheses

... that the Seed of Moss being exceeding small and leight, is taken up, and carried to and fro in the air into every place, and by the falling drops of rain, is wash’d down out of it, and so dispersed into all places, and there takes only root and propagates where it finds a convenient soil for it to thrive in.
(Observations 39)

Cavendish’s fascination with natural processes of rejuvenation (life, death, renewal) by way of transmigration was continual. She speaks excitedly of “chylus transmigrated into ... excrement, which transmigrates through the body, into dung, dung into earth, earth into Vegetables, Vegetables into Animals; again by the way of food, and likewise Animals into Animals, and Vegetables into Vegetables, and so likewise the elements” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 47-8).

We thus encounter in Cavendish’s writings a radical breakdown in classical boundaries between human and non-human, organic and inorganic, physical and non-physical, even male and female. Versus “some Learned” who “puzzle themselves and the world with useless distinctions, into animate and inanimate Creatures,” Cavendish exploded New Science contrast schemes to explore the possibilities of alternate physical realities: “Thus may another World, though matter still the same, / By changing shapes, change humours, properties, and Name” (Observations 114, Philosophicall Fancies 62). The wonders “Of Sense and Reason exercised in their different shapes” was something quite marvellous to contemplate:

Then Corall Trouts may through the water glide,
And pearled menows swim on either side;
And Mermayds, which in the Sea delight,
Might all be made of watry Lillies white;
Set on salt watry Billows as they flow,
Which like green banks appeare thereon to grow.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
Large Deere of Oake might through the Forrest run,
Leaves on their heads might keepe them from the Sun;
In stead of shedding Hornes, their Leaves might fall,
And Acornes to increase a Wood of Fawnes withall.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
Then might the Diamonds which on Rocks oft lye,
Be all like to some little sparkling Flye.
Then might a leaden Hare, if swiftly run,
Melt from that shape, and so a Pig become.
And Dogs of Copper-mouths sound like a Bell;
So when they kill a Hare, ring out his Knell.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
And Stars be like the Birds with twinckling Wing,
When in the Aire they flye, like Larks might sing.
And as they flye, like wandring Planets shew,
Their tailes may like to blazing Comets grow.
When they on Trees do rest themselves from flight,
Appeare like fixed Stars in Clouds of night.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
Or Women may of Alabaster be,
And so as smooth as polisht Ivory.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
Or else bee made like Tulips fresh in May,
By Nature drest, cloath’d severall Colours gay.
Thus every yeare there may young Virgins spring,
But wither, and decay, as soon agen.
While they are fresh, upon their Breast might set
Great swarms of Bees, from thence sweet Honey get.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
Then silver Grasse may in the Meadowes grow,
Which nothing but a Sithe of fire can mow.
The Wind, which from the North a journey takes,
May strike those silver strings, and Musick make.
(Philosophicall Fancies 56-62)

Altered physical states for women (the above poem rehearsed a number of them) were an especially compelling fancy. With the human body such an emphatic marker of gender, Cavendish reveled in visions of womanhood freed from corporeal confinements. Travels by “Æreal Vehicle” were explored in the Blazing World even though Cavendish did not truly believe in the transmigration of souls. Her writings are peppered with portraits of women who “to a shining Comet did translate” or the woeful widow whose

... bloud congeal’d to Ice,
And all her Body changes in a trice;
That Ice strait melted into tears, down run
Through porous earth: so got into that Urne ...

to mingle for eternity with her husband’s ashes (Poems and Fancies 193, 192). Cavendish even toyed with the idea of somatic sex change, recalling that “Ovid speaks of a Woman, that wisht her self a Man, and the Gods granted her wish, and she became a Man” (1662 Playes 145). With typical esprit, Cavendish has a gentleman character in her play Youths Glory dream of becoming “a Woman, but such a Woman as the Lady Sanspareille.” In the ensuing dialogue on the subject, the lack of recorded examples of male-to-female transsexuality is attributed to sexist biases in culture and history that have deflected attention from such an option (1662 Playes 145).

One of Cavendish’s finest fancies on this subject reworks the conventional plight of a handsome young lord and a beautiful young lady, desperately in love, whose parents forbid their union, “Whereat they grew so discontent and melancholy, that they both dyed.” On their way to the Elysium Fields, the two souls meet. Having no bodies with which to express their love, the souls “did mingle and intermix, as liquid Essences” in “gentle, smooth, soft Love-expressions.” Desiring to remain forever in this state of love, the souls reject a future in the Elysium Fields and head for the planets. Everywhere they go, the “two Noble Souls, by Conjunction, produced several Flames, which were called Meteors” — “shining-lights, like Starrs; but being produced from the Mortal temper of the Souls, are subject to Mortality.” Finding no particular planet suitable for eternal habitation, the two souls travel above the planets, in the end becoming a “fix’d Starr, as being Eternal, and not subject to dye” although no longer able to produce “more Issues” (“The Propagating Souls,” Natures Pictures 223-226). In this remarkable revisioning of heterosexual relations, Cavendish eloquently conveyed her dissatisfactions with the status quo. Small wonder that imagings of soul travel (a popular New Science fiction) were taboo for seventeenth-century women, on grounds that such reveries encouraged sexual license.

5.5   The Politics of Fantasy

Despite her retreat into fancy as a surrogate for political action, Cavendish’s “imaginations of impossibilities” were not without political consequence. Not only did her fancies suggest a genuine alternative to oppressive cultural forms, but her publications explicitly encouraged others to join her in the search for alternatives. “Every human Creature,” she wrote,

... may create a World of what Fashion and Government he will, and give the Creatures thereof such motions, figures, forms, colours, perceptions, &c. as he pleases ... also he may alter that World as often as he pleases ... and enjoy as much pleasure and delight as a World can afford....
(Blazing World 97)

Coupled with a philosophy that emphasized the continual dissolution and restructuring of everything in nature — even promoting the idea that “some Societies ... may, sometimes, after their Dissolutions, be united into more Happy Societies, or Forms” (Grounds of Natural Philosophy 283) — such directives had clearly subversive overtones. Her Blazing World ended shortly after declaring that “if any ... cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please” (160).

A woman who challenged her readers to rebel, even if only in their minds, represented a certain danger. In conceiving new orders of being — in the relationships between people and between people and things, and in conceptualizations of social existence (inclusive of physical and material existence) — the maker of visionary worlds acknowledges dissatisfactions with this world and places special emphasis on particular needs and desires which are unfulfilled by an existing social order. At the same time, articulation of alternative realities and explanations may stimulate a realization that possibly other physical and/or perceptual laws exist in the universe than the ones we have been taught to look for and believe in (de Lauretis 161-163). Free mental play focused on the imaging of alternative realities is thus an important precursor of more substantive challenges yet to come.

The lack of any alternative conceptions to the status quo is always a powerful inhibitor of revolutionary change. Indeed, Wrightson has noted this as a key factor in the eventual cooptation of the English revolution mid-seventeenth century.<14> While it can certainly be argued, as did Henry Perry, that Cavendish’s proferred alternatives were too bizarre to “sweep the average citizen off his feet” in a revolutionary fervor, it is clear that they nonetheless struck a responsive chord. More than one woman was engaged in thoughtful critique and pursuit of change because of Cavendish’s opening dialogue. Sara Mendelson has suggested that Cavendish’s writings and conduct had at least a “subliminal effect in broadening women’s ideas of what constituted conceivable behavior.” She also suggests that women writers of the period (e.g., Lucy Hutchinson, Lady Halkett, Lady Fanshawe, and the Countess of Warwick) emulated Cavendish to one degree or another (Mental World 61). Cavendish’s own comment to a woman correspondent in her Sociable Letters acknowledges an influential role: “You writ in your last Letter, that I had given our Sex Courage and Confidence to Write, and to Divulge what they Writ in Print” (225). Certainly, the educational reformer, Bathsua Makin, was deeply stirred by Cavendish’s example, as was the radical (and feminist) astrologer, Sarah Jinner.<15> The similarities remarked on by Hilda Smith between the all-female schools of Cavendish’s The Female Academy and The Convent of Pleasure (see 1662 Playes) and Mary Astell’s carefully reasoned proposal for a women’s college are perhaps not completely coincidental (Reason’s Disciples 111). And moving considerably forward in time, one could even wonder if Virginia Woolf’s recurring reference to “a world of her own”<16> was not drawn from Cavendish’s provocative use of the phrase three centuries earlier? In the end, Cavendish’s strange visions inspired no great sexual revolution (the visions of the individual never do). But they surely contributed to the process of incremental change in gender relations that continued its relentless press in the centuries to follow.

Chapter 6 >>


1. See, for example, the resplendent funereal processions, followed by ostentatious spectacles of mass adulation and eulogies of sainthood, that we find in Natures Pictures 46, 706 and in Youths Glory (1662 Playes 173-80).

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2. See the stories of Sir Henry Courtly and Lady Jealousie in The Publick Wooing; of Madame la Soeur, Mademoiselle Amor, and Monsieur Frere in The Unnatural Tragedie; of Madame Bonit and her husband Monsieur Malateste in The Unnatural Tragedie; and of Sir Edward Courtly and Lady Jealousie in The Matrimonial Trouble (all in the 1662 Playes).

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3. The marked extravagence of sentiment which elevated the commonalities of courtship to ridiculous heights is apparent even in William’s love poetry to Margaret (see his Phanseys). The exaggerations of courtly romance also surface in William’s prefaces to Margaret’s works.

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4. See, for example, Happy’s woeful “why may not I love a Woman with the same affection I could a Man?” Also: nature, “I fear will punish me, for loving you more then I ought to love you” (1668 Plays, The Convent of Pleasure 32).

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5. See, for example, Natures Pictures 544-67, 571-706 and Youths Glory (1662 Playes 122-180).

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6. See, for example, the story of Forsaken/Disguise in The Matrimonial Trouble (1662 Playes 422-88).

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7. For example, “Fancy’s Monarchy in the Land of Poetry” (Natures Pictures 227-31).

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8. See the tale, “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity,” Natures Pictures 394-514.

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9. This piece is the seventh of Glanvill’s Essays on Several Important Subjects.

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10. See Poems and Fancies 148-55. Note: the pages in this text are misnumbered; pp. 148-55 appear twice (my reference here is to the second set of numbers).

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11. See A True Relation 289, plus 317 for Cavendish’s further romanticizing of this.

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12. Cavendish appears to have thought that £10,000 per year would suffice: “Ten Thousand Pounds a yeare will make me live: / A Kingdome, Fortune then to me must give” (Poems and Fancies 93). Of note, this is about what William took in annually (the Newcastle branch of the Cavendishes was among the 20 richest families in England). Lawrence Stone estimates that for the year 1641, Newcastle’s gross rental receipts were within a range of £10,800-12,999 (Crisis of the Aristocracy 1194, 761).

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13. For an interesting summary of dialectical versus Arcadian representations of nature, see Carolyn Merchant’s Death of Nature 6-9. My own closing arguments concerning Cavendish’s Convent of Pleasure draw heavily on those of Merchant.

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14. See his English Society 1580-1680 60, 64-5, and 179.

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15. Sarah Jinner opens her 1658 almanac with a reference to the female literary tradition of old and new, accounting Cavendish a “rare poet” (and Katherine Phillips also; see B4r). An interesting account of Sarah Jinner is given in Bernard Capp, English Almanacs 1500-1800. Concerning Bathsua Makin’s laudatory commentary on Cavendish, see Hilda Smith (Reason’s Disciples), J.R. Brink (“Bathsua Makin”), and Douglas Grant (Margaret the First 20).

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16. See Spacks, The Female Imagination 260.

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