3. Men and Women Paying Visits to Country Houses, Town Houses, and Palaces

Long shot exterior Chateau S G en L

Alas, I do not quite know all of the ins and outs of WordPress, for I find that an early draft of this post was published and my last draft before calling it quits on Saturday night is lost.  Hum.  I thought I had saved that last draft.  So, I will be working on this post today to try to get it as I would like it to be.  Here we go.

This past week I spend a good deal of time using email to ask scholars and archivists about 17th-century guest books and visitors’ registers.  I had been hoping to learn about the actual visiting habits of Margaret Cavendish and to compare those habits to the way in which she treats the topic of visiting in her fiction, drama, and published letters.

I was disappointed to learn that guestbooks mostly seem to be kept beginning in the early 19th century, though the stress here should be on “seem.”  I will continue my inquiries but now am in the process of shifting my online search terms to “household + accounts” and “steward’s + books.”   Using a tip from a scholar friend, I found a household account book in the 1853 volume of the Chetham Society publications.   The account book (from the 1580s) does list dinner guests and even goes so far as to say that a play was performed.  Alas, the actors (part of the household or travelling players?) are not specified nor is the play.

While I was busy asking for help from those who know the printed sources and archives, it occurred to me that I might do a quick read-through of Margaret’s letters sent to her future husband when both were in France.  These letters were never intended to be published and are mostly a record of the efforts by the two of them to marry without affronting Queen Henrietta Maria.

Pictured above is the Palace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where the then Margaret Lucas lived with the Court of Henrietta Maria for a time during the Interregnum.  Margaret’s letters to William Cavendish (the future husband, pictured below) often propose meetings with him, which will take place during visits to Paris (about 12 miles away) that she makes as a part of the entourage of the Queen. William had asked her to “send” for him to come to St-Germain Palace, but she in Letter 2 refused, invoking her need to protect her reputation.

William Cavendish Image

She does suggest that he approach Henrietta Maria, but it is not clear whether he did or did not.  Margaret knows that they are being discussed as a couple, but she is not interested in secrecy.  Rather she hopes to conduct their visits according to generally accepted social rules so that there will be no “grounds” for condemnation (Letter 3).  In one of her later letters (Letter 16), she she says that she plans to visit Paris for her own “occasions,” presumably independently of the Queen.  Indeed, she is increasingly dismissive of other people’s opinions as her letters progress.  Pictured below is the Hotel de Carnavalet, the town house of Madame de Sevigne, as it would have appeared perhaps 30 years after Margaret lived at St Germain.  Margaret and William might have met at such a venue.

Carnavalet Garden Jan 2015

In a short story called “The Loving Cuckold” found in Nature’s Pictures (1657), Margaret tells the tale of a wife who is, to use Margaret’s word, “corrupted” by a man who pays visits to her at her home.  This is not a moral tale that adumbrates the novels of Samuel Richardson.  Rather it is an examination of the realities, some of them ironic, of city and country house visiting.  The  man who becomes involved with the wife had come to her house on several occasions to find her husband, and it is the husband’s absence that creates the opportunity for the affair to develop.  Margaret does not condemn either the wife or her lover, but rather finds irony in the fact that the husband begins to take notice of his wife once she has a lover.  The husband does not become angry or enraged.  He simply begins to desire her because someone else does.  It is a bit like wanting an ice cream cone because you see someone else with one.

Let’s return to the problem of real life versus fiction.  Both Margaret’s letters (real life) and her short story (fiction) indicate that visiting by men and women, contrary to what I suggested in my last post, could be arranged quite informally.   Margaret seems to have been able to meet with William in Paris at short notice and when not in an entourage, but she no doubt risked her reputation.  The two married, so no harm done.

The letters from Margaret to William can be found in The Phansies of William Cavendish (ed., Douglas Grant), and in Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind (Anna Battagelli).

2. Literary Biography and Guestbooks

Rubens Huis Exterior July 2015

Margaret Cavendish has a great deal to say in her plays, fiction, and published letters about ladies paying visits to other ladies’ houses. Sometimes she she trivializes and mocks what she sees as a world of social gadabouts and suggests that visits are no more than an excuse for sessions of gossiping.  She, Margaret, is a solitary and contemplative woman by contrast.   No merry making at little neighborly feasts, no chit chat with pals for her.  She disdains these “junkets.”

Those who have read Cavendish know better than to take such trivializing and self-representations at face value.  While Margaret was never a social butterfly, there is plenty of evidence to show that she paid calls on other women and other women came to her.  In letter 202 of Sociable Letters (1664), she writes to Lady Eleanora Duarte to describe a visit of Elanora’s two sisters, Katherine and Frances, to the Cavendish residence on Wapper Street in Antwerp, a building that is now the Rubens House Museum and that is pictured above in a view from the back garden.  Margaret goes on in the letter to say that the “good company” of the two women put her into a “Frolick humour” and that she sang some old ballads.  Although the letter is couched in a large amount of playful self-deprecation typical of the time, it is fascinating for what it says about amateur musical performance.  It goes into detail about which sorts of voices work best for which sorts of music.

Rubens House Dining Room 2015

But why write a letter?   Why not just drop in on Eleanora, who lived around the corner on what is now Meir Street, and mention the visit of the two sisters?  The answer, I would guess, is that members of the social elite in Antwerp did not just drop in on friends and that visits were pre-arranged.  Visits were often formal, and one went to dinner at the Cavendish residence on Wapper Street by invitation.  The room where such a dinner would be held is probably the one now a part of the Rubens Museum and pictured above and to the right.

All of this said, it seems to me that letters were not just for communication when a visit had not been arranged. Rather letters made for a very effective way to create set pieces designed to evoke thought and a considered response.  Lady Eleanora might write back or might bring up the topic on a visit to Wapper Street.  A second letter from Margaret points up another characteristic of epistolary communication.  You don’t have to read letters all the way through if you find them tedious and you may be free to choose not to respond.  My sense is that Lady Eleanora would have been less likely to respond to a second letter from Margaret (letter 206), a letter that goes on at length about the chemistry of gold.   Music was more Eleanora’s interest than chemistry.

And now to literary biography and guest books.  Much of what I have to say about Margaret Cavendish’s writing relies on literary biography — what sort of person was she as a writer.  My sense from reading her plays, fiction, and published letters is that she was not much of a “junketer,” but there is a way to for me to check on myself by using fact (if I can find it).  Many large houses of the seventeenth century had guest books or visitors registers. I heard a couple of papers last year at a conference at the University of Northampton in which European scholars used guest books to trace visits made by Europeans to English country houses.  So . . . I have been using online tools like National Archives Discovery to look for sets of key words like “guest + book” and “visitor + register.”  I have not had much success so far.  I have written to some scholars, museums, and country houses.  Again no luck.  If you are an archivist, watch out.  I soon may be asking you about guest books.

Haddon Hall roses in bloom

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, not so very far from Bolsover Castle where Margaret sometimes lived.  I wonder if she visited Haddon.

Next week: More on visiting (by both men and women).  More on guest books.

1. Research in the Literature of Renaissance Houses and Gardens

Rubens Huis Exterior July 2015

I am much involved in a long-term research project on the literature of Renaissance houses and gardens in which I envisage several outcomes.   First, I hope to make connections between houses and gardens that Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673) might have seen and her published poems, plays, fiction, letters, scientific essays, biography, and autobiography.  She was  a prolific writer and is today remembered along with Aphra Behn as one of the two great English women writers of the seventeenth century.

Second, I will try to connect house and garden to poems by such writers as Thomas Carew.  I especially like his verse letter “To G N from Wrest” (ca 1639), which plays with the meanings that gather around or emanate from a set of garden statues at Wrest Park in England.  Ceres and Bacchus are paired, and I am looking for other groupings of classical figures in garden sculpture.  I  like to go off on tangents in research, so my third objective is less a tangible goal and more a matter of keeping myself and like minded readers entertained with the oddities of literature and its historical backgrounds.

To return to Cavendish, one of the one places that she lived with her husband while he was in exile during the Interregnum was at the Rubens house in Antwerp.  The building was let to the Cavendishes by the widow of the painter Peter Paul Rubens.  Rubens added the three-storey wing that is shown slightly left of center in the picture above.  He also added the gate which is at the center of that image and the one below.

Rubens House Gate Summer 2015

Margaret Cavendish had an interest in gates for large houses like this one and writes about people being “put out at the gates” in one of her plays, ‘The Unnatural Tragedy.’   Gates also can be important in actual English country houses. A gate at Wentworth Woodhouse was singled out for special attention by the guide on the tour that I took in summer of 2014.  It was from the Wentworth Woodhouse gate that Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford, began his journey to be put to death in London in 1641.  His family considered him to be a martyr.  See the Wentworth Woodhouse gate below.


In any event, I plan to explore how various elements of architecture would have influenced the thinking of Cavendish and her readers. The gate at the Rubens House does not separate the house from the outside world, for it lies between the house and the garden.  The Rubens House gate is, rather, mostly an edifice that evokes ancient Rome in the midst of bourgeois Antwerp.  It claims a venerable past, a past that is in a sense timeless and immutable.  If Cavendish has a gate like this one in mind, then we might understand that the scheming lady’s maid, Nan, who is ejected from the gate in the play is dismissed from ancient civility and not only from a prosperous household.  Nan’s mistress, the heartless social-climer Madame Maleteste, eventually leaves this gate behind as well.   Comments welcome.

The next blog in this series will be on literary biography and guest books in English and Dutch country houses.

Jim Fitzmaurice