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.
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 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.