Too Much Mental Activity

A Glorious Fame: The Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

Reviewed by Jed Brendon-Tullett in the Literary Review

In an age when little more was expected of noble-born women other than the ability to sew, sing and produce healthy male heirs, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, (1623?—1673) wrote books.

'Mad Madge', as she was known, was not only clever but eccentric too with her outrageous clothes and odd ideas. (Have snails got teeth? Do fish have brains? Do pigs get measles? Are stars fiery jellies?). She became the laughing stock of society yet she knew Descartes and Hobbes; was an intimate friend of Charles H's brother and sister-in-law; read Plato, Democritus and Epicurus; was present at the Royal Society when Robert Boyle was giving his famous atmospheric demonstrations; wrote eleven books and two collections of plays and is buried next to her husband in Westminster Abbey.

Kathleen Jones has written a gentle and sympathetic biography of this plump, good-looking woman whom Pepys thought conceited and ridiculous but whom Virginia Woolf, (who wrote admiring essays about her in A Room of One's Own, The Common Reader and in the TLS) likened to 'a giant cucumber (which) had spread itself all over the roses and carnations and choked them to death'.

The biography is set against the shifting
backgrounds of the Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration, the complexities of which Jones explains with remarkable economy and lucidity. It is no mean feat to be able to trace the course of Margaret Cavendish's literary meanderings across these momentous years without losing sight of her subject.

We first catch a clear view of Margaret Lucas at Queen Henrietta Maria's Court at Merton College, Oxford in 1643, a year after the outbreak of the Civil War, when, barely twenty, naive, uneducated and only recently arrived from the Puritan stronghold of Colchester, she was taken on as a maid. Here, surrounded by an extraordinarily motley collection of negro servants, aggressive blond dwarves, dogs, poets, playwrights and hard-drinking, hard-swearing mercenaries, she gained the reputation which was to remain with her all her life of being a shy, solemn, stubborn girl, who lacked a sense of humour. However, young as she was, she already possessed radical opinions about the role of women in society.

After the disastrous failure of the Royalist cause at Marston Moor in 1644 the Queen fled to her native France taking her menage and maids with her and leaving behind Charles I whom she was never to sec again. They were housed in the Louvre, a vast, freezing palace full of excrement because of the French courtiers' and servants' habit of relieving themselves in any convenient corner. Margaret was once so overcome by the stench that the publically embarrassed them by refusing any more credit and then she had to pawn her jewellery to make ends meet. As the years dragged on they despaired of ever seeing England or their lands again as news came back from across the Channel of Cromwell's tightening grip on the country and the selling off of sequestered Royalist property to speculators.