This long pursuit, p.11
This Long Pursuit, p.11Richard Holmes
It was at this time, and among this outspoken company, that Margaret began to experiment with dashing male ‘cavalier’ outfits, steadily adding to her conventional wardrobe a whole range of short, knee-length military-style ‘jupes’ or jackets, extravagant silk sashes and decorative belts, and a panoply of beribboned and stridently feathered hats. This evidently began as part of the theatrical games which the exiles loved to stage, and for which Margaret playfully learned a whole repertoire of sweeping masculine bows as a mocking substitute for the traditional demure, courtly curtsey. She would later deploy these to scandalous effect in London. Cross-dressing, and theatrical self-presentation, would become a favourite theme in her writing. Surprisingly, the Queen soon seems to have become reconciled to her lady-in-waiting’s strange transformations, and approved of her marriage into the headstrong, incorrigible Cavendish clan.
In 1648 the Cavendish group moved to Holland, where a £2,000 gift (then a formidable sum) from the Queen, and Cavendish’s cavalier borrowing from friends, allowed them to set up home in the artist Rubens’s old house in Antwerp. Here their circle of intellectual friends widened to include René Descartes and the mathematician Constantijn Huygens, whom Margaret got to know well. Throughout the 1650s she was also despatched on several delicate diplomatic trips to London in an attempt to secure William’s inheritance from the Cromwellian government. She was only partially successful, but in the meantime William’s social position was confirmed, and she thenceforth called herself the Marchioness of Newcastle. She finally returned permanently to England with William at the Restoration in 1660, full of French science, French manners and French dress fashions, all of which she would put to spectacular and frequently mischievous use.
By then she had already published her first book at the age of thirty and under her own name – a provocative step for a woman, even an aristocratic one. The title page ran: Poems and Fancies, Written by the Right Honourable the Lady Margaret Cavendish Marchioness of Newcastle … Printed in London at the Bell in Saint Pauls Church Yard, 1653. The book was not dedicated to her husband, but to ‘Sir Charles Cavendish, my Noble Brother-in-Law’. Her Epistle Dedicatory was characteristically teasing, and included a clever image drawn from dressmaking:
True it is, Spinning with the Fingers is more proper to our Sex, than studying or writing Poetry, which is Spinning with the brain. But having no skill in the Art of the first (and if I had, I had no hopes of gaining so much as to make me a Garment to keep me from the cold) made me delight in the latter, since all brains work naturally, and incessantly, in some kind or other, which made me endeavour to Spin a Garment of Memory, to lap up my Name, that it might grow to after Ages …
To this she added a series of challenging Prefaces, addressed respectively ‘To All Noble and Worthy Ladies’, ‘To Naturall Philosophers’, and ‘To the Reader’. She made no political references to the Cromwellian regime, but concentrated on attacking the currently subservient position of women in England. To the ‘Noble Ladies’ she remarked: ‘I imagine I shall be censured by my own Sex; and Men will cast a smile of Scorne upon my Book, because they think thereby, Women encroach too much upon their Prerogatives, for they hold Books as their Crown, and the Sword and Sceptre by which they rule and govern.’ Nevertheless, she begged women to support her, ‘otherwise I may chance to be cast into the Fire, but if I burn, I desire to die your martyr’.
The book is divided into five sections, each linked by a different poem with the generic title of ‘The Claspe’, as if Margaret conceived of the collection as an artfully strung necklace of threaded beads. Her verse, unlike her breathless florid prose, is plain, measured, heavily rhymed and carefully pointed. There is an early series of poems based on mathematics, and exploring the current theories of Gassendi concerning the atomic structure of the material world (‘Motion directs, while Atoms dance’). These include philosophical reflections on what the concept of ‘infinity’ might mean in terms of space and time, and a vividly imaginative speculation on the possibilities of a microscopic world, entitled ‘A World in an Ear-Ring’. Written in her deceptively direct, almost childlike style, it opens with the idea of a miniaturised solar system (with the sun firmly at the centre):
An Ear-ring round may well a Zodiac be,
Where in a Sun goeth round, and we not see.
And Planets seven about that Sun may move,
And he stand still, as some Wise Men would prove.
And fix-ed Stars, like twinkling Diamonds placed
About this Ear-ring, which a World is vast …
In later sections of her poetic necklace come curious observations of natural phenomena, seen from unexpectedly scientific angles: ‘Of Cold Winds’, ‘Of Stars’, ‘Of Shadow’, ‘What makes an Echo’, ‘Of Vacuum’, ‘The Motion of Thoughts’, ‘The Motion of the Blood’, ‘Of the Beams of the Sun’, or ‘What is Liquid’. Often these are explored through extended and ingenious similes, or structured around formal ‘dialogues’ between the elements. There is a further section on animals, birds and insects. Many of these pieces have a disconcerting wit, and are like comic aphorisms, or even provoking ‘nonsense’ rhymes. Here is the whole of her poem ‘Of Fishes’:
Who knows, but Fishes which swim in the sea,
Can give a Reason, why Salt it be?
And how it ebbs and flows, perchance they can
Give Reasons, for which never yet could Man.
She also displays sudden, surreal turns of humour or imagination. She delivers a long, learned poem entitled ‘The Windy Giants’, on the different natures of the winds from the four points of the compass. This is presented as a serious semi-scientific text, which draws on considerable meteorological knowledge. But then she unexpectedly follows this with a short poem called ‘Witches of Lapland’, which seems to be pure myth – or pure mischief:
Lapland is the place from whence all Winds come,
From Witches, not from Caves, as do think some.
For they the Air do draw into high Hills,
And beat them out again by certain Mills:
Then sack it up, and sell it out for gain
To Mariners, which traffick on the Main.
She includes many long poems against animal cruelty, among them ‘The Hunting of the Hare’ and ‘The Hunting of the Stag’. In one of her Prefaces she describes herself as a typical woman in her feelings, being ‘as fearful as a Hare’. But in another striking poem, ‘Similizing Fancy to a Gnat’, she implies that as a poet her imagination is furious and masculine, burning hot with thoughts that turn ‘red’:
Some Fancies, like small Gnats, buzz in the Braine,
Which by the hand of Worldly Cares are slaine.
But they do sting so sore the Poet’s Head
His Mind is blistered, and the Thought turned red.
Nought can take out the burning heat, and pain,
But Pen and Ink, to write on Paper plain.
But take the Oil of Fame, and ’noint the Mind,
And this will be a perfect Cure, you’ll find.
Poems and Fancies ran to three editions, the third being published in 1668. It was to be the first of no fewer than twenty-three volumes, which included a steady stream of plays, essays, orations, fictions, biography, autobiography and letters. Not least of the works written in exile was a provoking mixture of prose tales and poetry, entitled Nature’s Pictures (1656). Here, for example, Margaret coolly raises the question of what actually happens after death, mixing Christian, classical and even atheist explanations, without preference or prejudice:
There was a Man which much desired to know
When he was dead, whither his Soul should go:
Whither to Heaven high, or down to Hell,
Or to the Elesian Fields, where Lovers dwell;
Or whether in the Air to float about,
Or whether it, like to a Light, goes out.
Through the Cavendish connection, Margaret took full advantage of her new social position, meeting many of the leading Fell
On 30 May 1667 she did appear, when she became the first woman to attend one of the Royal Society’s formal meetings at Arundel House, now Gresham’s College, off High Holborn. On this occasion she witnessed several optical and microscopic experiments (organised by Robert Hooke), and was ‘full of admiration’ – although, according to Pepys, her dress was ‘so antic and her deportment so unordinary’ that the Fellows were made strangely uneasy. He first describes the bustle surrounding the event in his characteristic gossipy style:
After dinner I walked to Arundell House, the way very dusty, the day of meeting of the Society being changed from Wednesday to Thursday, which I knew not before, because the Wednesday is a Council-day, and several of the Council are of the Society, and would come but for their attending the King at Council; where I find much company, indeed very much company, in expectation of the Duchesse of Newcastle, who had desired to be invited to the Society; and was, after much debate, pro and con., it seems many being against it; and we do believe the town will be full of ballads of it.
He then archly records the scene:
Anon comes the Duchesse with her women attending her … The Duchesse hath been a good, comely woman; but her dress so antick, and her deportment so [un]ordinary, that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say any thing that was worth hearing, but that she was full of admiration, all admiration. Several fine experiments were shown her of colours, loadstones, microscopes, and of liquors among others, of one that did, while she was there, turn a piece of roasted mutton into pure blood, which was very rare.
John Evelyn conceded that the Duchess dressed ‘like a Cavalier’, but his diary is rather more respectful, or at least more non-committal:
30th May, 1667. To London, to wait on the Duchess of Newcastle (who was a mighty pretender to learning, poetry, and philosophy, and had in both published divers books) at the Royal Society, whither she came in great pomp, and being received by our Lord President at the door of our meeting-room, the mace, etc., carried before him, had several experiments shown to her. I conducted her Grace to her coach, and returned home.
Dorothy Osborne remarked casually of the Duchess that ‘there were many soberer People in Bedlam’. But Sir Robert Merivel, Physician to the Royal Dogs, noted kindly that ‘My Lady Newcastle was greeted by much yapping and barking by the learned Fellows of the Society, but seemed to keep them all at heel in a very easy manner.’
Subsequently there were protests at her visit from many of the Fellows, while Pepys himself records the scandal with considerable relish. The dangerous experiment was not to be repeated by the Royal Society for another couple of centuries. Yet Margaret Cavendish was now more widely known (or notorious) than ever, and her many books, treatises and poems, began to be seen as championing the principle of free publication and ‘popular’ writing. In one of the linking ‘Claspe’ pieces in Poems and Fancies, she wrote:
Give me the free and noble style
Which seems uncurb’d, though it be wild:
Though it runs wild about, it cares not where;
It shows more Courage, than it doth of Fear.
Give me a style that Nature frames, not Art:
For Art doth seem to take the Pedant’s part.
Closer examination of her works suggests why the Fellows of the Royal Society were so wary of her. In what is arguably the first ever science-fiction novel, The Blazing World, published a year before her memorable visit in 1666, she had openly satirised the Society. She justified this in an interesting Preface to the Reader, as ‘adding a piece of fancy to my serious philosophical observations’. In it she considered an alternative dystopian future for science, presenting herself as a visiting Empress to a sinister, distorted, experimental world, and the Royal Society Fellows as various kinds of foolish and predatory animals: ‘bird-men’, ‘fox-men’ or ‘spider-men’, all busily and blindly at work on their particular obsessions.
In her role of royal agent-provocateuse she criticised the Fellows’ confident reliance on new-fangled optical instruments like the telescope and the microscope. She suggested that these might be dangerously distorting, producing wholly false notions of scientific objectivity. She ‘grew angry’ at their telescopes, which might be ‘false-informers’ and cut astronomers off from the true wonders of nature. She commanded them to break the lenses, ‘and let the bird-men trust only to their natural eyes, and examine celestial objects by the motions of their own sense and reason’.
She added to this a vividly polemical account of Robert Hooke’s grotesque microscopic enlargements contained in his celebrated illustrated book Micrographia (1665). These included a horrendously hairy flea and an enormous supine louse, ‘so terrible that they put her into a swoon’. Hooke’s magnified drawings made the louse appear ‘as big as an elephant’, and a mite ‘as big as a whale’. Such magnifications were a kind of blasphemy against the beauty and proportion of Nature. Moreover, she asked, what were their practical benefits to mankind, especially to the ‘poor infected beggars’ on whom both louse and mite fed so ravenously and caused such unchecked torment? ‘After the Empress had seen the shapes of these monstrous creatures, she desired to know whether their microscopes could hinder their biting … To which they answered, that such arts were mechanical and below the noble study of microscopical observations.’ She also attacked William Harvey’s cruel anatomical dissections, carried out on hundreds of live animals, and causing an infinite world of useless pain.
In places her criticisms could become strangely poetic, even metaphysical: ‘Notwithstanding their great skill, industry and ingenuity in experimental philosophy, they could yet by no means contrive such glasses, by the help of which they could spy out a vacuum, with all its dimensions, nor immaterial substances, non-being, and mixed-being, or such as are between something and nothing; which they were very much troubled at, hoping that yet, in time, by long study and practice, they might perhaps attain it.’
All of these provoking observations, many of which anticipate the satires of Jonathan Swift against scientific ‘speculators’ a generation later, seem aimed at what Margaret saw as the inhumane attitudes of the experimenters of the Royal Society, rather than at the actual sciences themselves. Her parodies of the new visionary power of the telescope and the microscope, which she knew very well were revolutionising scientific observation at this date, were deliberately wilful and perverse. They aimed to shock and mock. Samuel Pepys – soon to become President of the Royal Society himself – easily concluded that the Duchess of Newcastle was ‘a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman’. But that was a very short-sighted (and uncharacteristically humourless) dismissal. In retrospect it is clear that The Blazing World did raise for the first time some perennial questions about the humane purpose of experiment. Against this, her poems show a genuine fascination with the new emerging forms of scientific knowledge. If her satirical prose work is comparable in some ways to Swift, the quirky and enquiring turns of her poetry might remind us at moments of John Donne.
Elsewhere in her writings she produced a string of heterodox and often challenging remarks about the impact of science. In one of her Playes published in 1662, she observed: ‘Nature behaves her selfe like a Huntress, and makes Mankind as her Hounds, to hunt out the hidden effects of unknown causes, leading Mankind … by the string of observation, the string of conception, and the string of experience.’
She emphasised the need to retain a proper sympathy with Nature, in order fully to understand it. She conceived Nature as powerful, female, uninhibited and uncon
This instinctive sympathy with animals, and precise scientific observation of them, appears most memorably in her long poem ‘The Hunting of the Hare’, from Poems and Fancies. In this she describes how a beautiful hare (who she calls tenderly ‘poor Wat’) lies up between the ridges of a ploughed field in absolute stillness, ‘his Nose upon his two fore-feet’, at peace with Nature. He quietly surveys his world, with his ‘great grey eye’ scanning the landscape ‘obliquely’. He is intelligent and alert. He always turns himself into the wind so that his fur lies flat and snug against his body – he ‘keeps his Coat still down, so warm he lies’. Yet none of this avails him against the predatory violence of mankind. Inevitably he is spotted, pursued and savagely killed. After the useless horror of the hunt (‘The hornes keep time, the Hunters shout for joy’) and the viciousness of the hounds, Margaret laments the innocent creature’s inevitable and ‘patient’ death:
Then tumbling downe, did fall with weeping Eyes,
Gives up his ghost, and thus poor Wat he dies.
Her conclusion is fierce, and has a characteristically surreal touch. She bluntly declares that men are instinctively cruel, and essentially callous: ‘Or else for Sport, or Recreations sake’, they
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