7. Back Stairs and Bolsover Castle in Margaret Cavendish’s Writing

Back Stairs Bolsover from Bottom
Up the Main Back Stairs at Bolsover Castle

Back stairs have an unsavory reputation.  Questionable access is made to people in power or, perhaps, guests at a house party get up to no good by using back stairs in the middle of the night.  I checked in the online OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and, while this reputation existed in the time of Margaret Cavendish, there was another story.  The main staircase was sometimes reserved for formal occasions and the back stairs used, not just by staff going about household business, but also by the master and mistress as well as family and friends generally.  Such seems to be the case with Cavendish’s play The Presence (1668) in which the the waiting ladies of the Princess meet on orders from her at the back stairs to go down to the Gallery.  Cavendish’s play has many autobiographical elements that would place it at the palace of St Germain en Laye near Paris, so Bolsover is probably not the location she had in mind.  Still, what worked for stairs at St Germain could just as well have worked at Bolsover.

Bolsover Castle has three sets of back stairs.  One set ascends from the kitchens in the cellar to the top of the building, and I’ll call these the main back stairs.  The other two only rise one level.  Of these other two, one rises from the beer cellar to the Hall and the other from the kitchens to a space between the hall and the Pillar Parlour.  I would bet that these two mostly were used by the servants to carry food and to take care of ordinary, “below stairs” household business.

Main Stairs Bolsover Niche 2015
Bolsover Castle’s Main Staircase with Niche

The main back stairs, I would guess, were used by owners and family, but shared with servants who worked in the top two stories.  I am not sure that the much larger, but not quite grand, main staircase was reserved for formal occasions, as it is not striking in the manner of the main staircase at Hardwick Hall.  Hardwick’s main staircase is today hung with impressive tapestry and may have been known to Margaret Cavendish, who describes such a staircase with shallow steps in The Unnatural Tragedy (1662).

Cavendish also describes a main staircase in her comedy The Convent of Pleasure (1668), suggesting that a staircase is a good place to hang oil paintings.  She goes on to say that flower pots should be put on pedestals in the Gallery in the summer, but she does not mention niches like the one pictured above and to the left.   So, what would go into such a niche in a main staircase? Typically a niche would have a marble bust, perhaps of a Roman deity or an emperor, though I can imagine seeing flowers in a large vase.  The interior of the Convent in Convent of Pleasure is remarkable in that seasonal change is tied to ongoing shifts in decoration.  Thus flowers in vases might be replaced in autumn with another item — perhaps something in marble or bronze. Cavendish certainly likes to write about sculpture.

Back stairs w window and door outside William's bedroom Bolsover 2915
Door to Main Back Stairs – Outside of Best Bedroom (belonging to William Cavendish)

The sign on the Best Bedroom level door to the main back stairs that says “No Entry” is for members of the public, visitors of what is now an English Heritage property.  Still, the sign might have been put there, but on the other side of the door, by William Cavendish (husband to Margaret), who owned Bolsover Castle. As you can see, William was able to close off the main back stairs so as to gain privacy when that is what he wanted.  I expect that the window had a curtain that could be pulled, again when that is what he wanted.  Privacy is a nice to have and to be able to regulate.

“Privacy” as a word and as a concept figures in a big way in the writings of Margaret Cavendish and others of her time.  Ladies and gentlemen intent on amorous discourse looked for private places to meet.  Indeed, William during his first marriage had a reputation as a ladies’ man and is so depicted in Margaret’s plays. Margaret, of course, was his second wife, and he appears to have settled down as he became older. In any event, he is the Lord Loyalty in the comedy The Presence, and described, perhaps in a gentle tease, as “none of the chastest men.”  (The “loyalty” involved was to the King, and William was no rebel.) So, the main back stairs at Bolsover could have been used by him to facilitate assignations, but they were probably more often climbed by friends and business acquaintances who were on their way to his bedroom for routine meetings.  Bedrooms were used in this way.

In Margaret’s verse narrative “A Description of Love and Courage” (found in Nature’s Pictures,1656),  the male protagonist climbs the main staircase of a nearly deserted but beautifully decorated house that is very much like Bolsover Castle.  He then descends “back by another way,” only to chance upon a lady who will become his love.  He finds her in a little chamber off of the Gallery, but there is no gallery in Bolsover Castle and so Cavendish may have conflated this building with the palace at St Germain-en-Laye.    In the story, backstairs and main stairs are only partly a route to romance.  They also allow Cavendish to give her readers a tour of the richly appointed fictional house.  Why do so?  Margaret had a wonderful imagination.  Indeed both she and William treasured what they understood to be the mental faculty of the “phancy.”  The floor plans and decoration of the two buildings, quite possibly, were disassembled and reassembled in her mind.

Stairs down to Beer Celler Bolsover 2015
Stairs from the Hall Down into the Beer Cellar

6. Margaret Cavendish on Walking and Gardens

Tuileries Gardenb Le Notre 17th cent
Tuileries Garden designed by Le Notre in the 17th Century

This week, I have been looking into what walking meant to Margaret Cavendish.  I have tried to contextualize by considering what John Evelyn has to say about the subject in his diary and in one of his translations from the French.  Evelyn was something of a Cavendish friend and certainly a leading authority on gardens.  But why did people walk in gardens in the 17th century?   Same as now or different?

Cavendish is quite modern in connecting walking to maintaining good health.  Indeed, she is very specific in recommending walking for exercise, as this passage from Sociable Letters (Letter 130) makes clear.

“So the Lady V.R. when she is Sick, promises, if ever she Recover, she will Take the Air, and Use Exercises, but being Restored to Health, she Forgets her Promise, or only Looks out of a Window for Once or Twice, and Walks Two or Three turns in a Day in her Chamber, which is as little Exercise as she can do, the truth is, she Errs as much in living too much a Retired Life.”

This character sketch of the Lady V. R. is a parody by Cavendish of Cavendish.  In her autobiographical excursus, “A True Relation” (found in Nature’s Pictures, 1656), Cavendish berates herself for neglecting her health and allowing her “lazy nature” to dominate.  Her only exercise is “walking a slow pace in [her] chamber.”  My sense is that Cavendish exaggerates her portrayal of herself as sedentary, but, whatever the case, she believes that walking induces to good health.

Rubens House Garden
Rubens House Garden, Antwerp

Cavendish writes in Letter 124 of Sociable Letters that her maids walked in the gardens of the Rubens House in Antwerp, where Cavendish lived with her husband for about ten years.  The maids, she says, walked for their “health.”

John Evelyn’s diary is full of narratives of his walks along garden paths.  He writes in detail about the elaborate terraces at St-Germain-en-Laye, which would have been known to Cavendish.  He does not suggest that walking there or elsewhere involves exercise or is is good for one’s health.  Unlike Cavendish, he uses the word “exercise” to indicate intellectual or religious activity.  Walks are meant to bring one to beauty or to lead to a sort of garden drama.  Of Cardinal Richelieu’s villa at Ruel, he says

“On one of these walks, within a square of tall trees, is a basilisk of copper, which, managed by the fountaineer, casts water near sixty feet high, and will of itself move round so swiftly, that one can hardly escape wetting.” (27 Feb 1644)

Cavendish notes such waterworks on occasion but is not especially impressed.  We all know that nothing intrigued Cavendish more than scientific and medical questions, and she considers in a physiological way how walking can cause “rest and ease” in Letter 156.

“When any one Stands still, the Nerves and Sinews are Stretch’d straight out at Length, but when one Walks or Moves, they have Liberty, as being Unbent, and Unstretch’d.”

Her discussion continues at length and is worth reading if you are interested in knowing what Cavendish thinks happens in the body as a person walks.

Several of Cavendish’s female characters are found walking alone or are said to enjoy walking alone.  Some of them are quite a bit like Cavendish in other ways, so is Cavendish telling us that she takes solitary walks?  It is difficult to know for certain, but Evelyn may give us a hint.

“The rest of my time of stay at Wotton [the home of his childhood] was spent in walking about the grounds and goodly woods, where I have in my youth so often entertained my solitude.” (30 Aug 1681)

Late in life, Evelyn shifts from describing the the beauty and drama that he had searched for in gardens to reminiscing about other reasons for his walks.  As a young man, he walked the “grounds and woods” at Wotton apparently to be alone with his thoughts.   In a wonderful, if ambiguous phrase, he describes the situation by saying that solitude and entertainment go together in some way.

I would not be surprised to learn that Cavendish liked to walk alone in gardens and entertain herself with her musings. Indeed, many of us do that sort of walking today.  Gardens, in any event, offer many possibilities.  Because she was a member of Queen Henrietta Maria’s entourage, Cavendish would have walked with groups at gardens like the Tuileries (pictured at the beginning of this blog) or that found at the Trianon Porcelain (pictured at the end).  There is pleasure in walking even in a vegetable garden, as Evelyn’s translation from the French of Jean de La Quintinie’s Complete Gardener (1693) makes clear.

“It is not sufficient to have set down in general, what relates to the Advantages of the Production [of food for the kitchen], we must likewise declare what relates to . . .  the Pleasure of Walking.”

Cavendish frequently writes in her Poems (1653) of the pleasures of walking, but the thinking part can be work, too.

“When I did write this Booke, I took great paines,
For I did walke, and thinke, and breake my Braines.” (“The Claspe”)

A final suggestion.  Let me know if you find Cavendish saying anything interesting about walking and gardens.

Trianon de Porcelaine, Gardens, near Paris

5. Men Visiting Women: Margaret Cavendish, John Evelyn, and Garden Architecture

John Evelyn wiki commons
John Evelyn, diarist and writer on various topics including garden design

In April and May of 1667, the diarist John Evelyn visited Margaret Cavendish at the newly repurchased and freshly refurbished Newcastle townhouse in the fashionable village of Clerkenwell, located a little north of London.  Mary Evelyn, who accompanied her husband John on two of these visits, was not at all impressed with Margaret, whom she found “obscene,” but John “was much pleased with [Margaret’s] extraordinary fanciful habit, garb, and discourse.”   John was a courtier and perhaps something of a ladies’ man in a Platonic sort of way, and Mary was not especially happy with John’s desire to cosy up to those in power or who had about them an aura of celebrity.  Margaret certainly was a celebrity in the spring of 1667, making a grand visit with full entourage to the Royal Society.  Another diarist, Samuel Pepys, commented on her “comeliness.”   In the afternoon of the 11th of May, John went to dinner at Newcastle House and afterwards “sat discoursing with”  Margaret in her bedchamber until the Marquess of Dorchester joined them, at which point John left the room.

Such bedroom visits were common enough and it may be that Evelyn was simply being received in a polite way, with the expectation that he would leave as soon as someone else (especially of higher social rank) came along.  Still, one wonders what Margaret and John talked about while he was there.  She and he exchanged gift books, and she once spoke of John’s wife as being a sort of daughter.  There may have been a bit of a joke in Margaret’s remark, since John had long before married an eleven-year-old Mary Browne. The couple did not cohabitate until later.  For his part, John seems to have written a witty poem on Margaret’s visit to the Royal Society, a poem sometimes interpreted these days to show how much she was ridiculed by the Society’s members but which I think was intended as friendly teasing directed at Margaret’s husband, William.  William had written a poem in a similar vein about John marrying a girl who he could keep, as it were, in storage for a later day.   Clearly the two couples (Margaret and William, Mary and John) had an interesting relationship in which good-natured teasing may have brought about a bit of irritation.

St Germain garden plan
St Germain en Laye, etching by Claude Châtillon (1547-1616)

I would like to suggest that Margaret and John both had an interest in garden architecture and that they shared overlapping experience with noted gardens of the time.  In addition, John designed a garden that still exists in Surrey.  The etching above probably gives a good sense of the appearance of the gardens of St-Germain-en-Laye, the palace where Margaret lived as a maid of honor to Queen Henrietta Maria for a time during the middle years of the 1640s.  St Germain, the town next to which the palace was set, was the location of the residence of the English Ambassador, Sir Richard Browne.  Browne, of course, became John’s father-in-law, so John, as a courtier, quite naturally could have met Margaret at the palace gardens during visits to see Mary.

So what did Margaret and John discuss in her bedroom in the Palladian Clerkenwell house one afternoon in May of 1667 or on other, unrecorded, visits to where she lived?  Quite possibly garden architecture.  John was interested in terraces and writes admiringly about finding them at Isola Bella in Italy.  St-Germain-en-Laye, as is easily seen in the print above, was characterized by a series of terraces and stairways.  Cavendish in The Unnatural Tragedy (published 1662) gives the social-climbing Madam Malateste a speech in which house and garden design figure prominently.  If one is to impress society, it is a good idea to have carefully laid out terraces, which is what, I believe, is described in the following quotation from Malateste: One should make

“Walks of green Turf, and those to be hanging and shelving, as if they hung by Geometry.”

Rather than simply say “terraces,” Madam Malateste describes their impression on the viewer’s eye.  Her garden, like that at St-Germain-en-Laye, will look like a series of shelves of grassy lawn on which people can stroll or sit.  Part of the impression will be of “geometry,” or lines and spaces.  In June of 2015, Brandie Siegfried read a paper at the Cavendish Conference in Cyprus, a paper on Cavendish and geometry.  Cavendish, it appears, found beauty in practical geometrical application.  John Evelyn, when creating the garden at Wotton House in Surrey for his older brother shows a similar interest.

4. Women Visiting Women and Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters

Cavendish Closet image It is often said that Margaret Cavendish was a recluse, a woman who hid away from the world and lost herself in her writing.  She, of course, gives ample evidence to support this understanding of her life.  In her autobiographical excursus “A True Relation” (published with Nature’s Pictures in 1657), she characterizes herself as a shy melancholic who loves to spend her time with pen ink.  Indeed, the picture to the left plays on this view of self.  There she is in her writing closet with all the necessary tools.  The only oddity is a bell, which she says she used to summon a servant to jot down her thoughts in the middle of the night.  The picture is taken from a frontispiece that was one of three that she sometimes added to printed copies of her books. Although it was not her only frontispiece, is the one that emphasizes the notion of the solitary writer.

Sociable Letters, printed in 1664, gives a good amount of detail about visits that Cavendish’s main character, the letter writer, receives, mostly from other women.   Often the letters start with a phrase like “the Lady P. R. was to visit the Lady S. I.” and then continue with a recounting of what was discussed by the women.  But what is the solitary Margaret Cavendish doing writing in the first person about a character who is forever spending her time entertaining women of the gentry?  The answer is complicated but I will begin by suggesting, as I often do, that Cavendish is playing games with her readers.  She aims to tease and does not expect to be taken literally.  Is her letter writer just a cover for the actual Margaret Cavendish, is there no connection, or what?Ten Women Image

When women visit women, there are a number of conflicting, or maybe not-so-conflicting, circumstances involved.  Visiting, says Cavendish, often entails entertaining guests even when one is not quite in the mood. Guests can be loud and fail to let others talk.  Guests can be censorious of people not present and can gossip.   The other side of the coin is that entertaining guests can be intellectually entertaining for the hostess.  Some guests seem to come primarily for the food, and so, as I mentioned in a previous post, visiting and “junketing” (eating various delicacies as snacks) go together.  In the image to the right  taken from a contemporary print, a group of women meet to chat and eat in a woman’s bedroom.  Certainly one bedroom in Bolsover Castle, a room that Cavendish may have used, is of the size and shape as that found in the print.

Observation undertaken while visiting others and receiving guests, gave Cavendish the raw material for creating characters found in Social Letters and also for her plays and short stories.  There are “trencher-guests” who clearly enjoy the food on offer, and there are the ladies who don’t do much else beyond paying and receiving visits.  These are mostly caricatures, drawn with wit and economy.   Joseph Hall and Sir Thomas Overbury would recognize the literary form — the character. Cavendish goes beyond mere caricature, however, and gets into in-depth analysis of personality — her own — in Letter 147.

I Endeavouring to Entertain [my guests] Kindly and Friendly, Talk’d so much, as they might easily believe, my Tongue was in a Perpetual Motion, especially being Strangers to me, not knowing my Solitary, Silent Humour.

What is going on here, I think, is that Cavendish presents us with an experience that we have all had.  She suddenly finds herself talking more than one should.  She says to herself in effect, “Hey, how did that happen?  That’s not really me.”  She then riffs to the notion that women are by nature given to too much talking and from there to the thought that if she, Cavendish (or is it Cavendish’s letter writer character?) doesn’t talk enough she will be a monster (i.e., unnatural).  In a wonderful bit of comedy, she cuts the letter short:

Wherefore, lest I should Commit a Double Fault, in overmuch Writing of my overmuch Talking, I take my leave of you, and rest,  Madam, Your faithful Fr. and S. [i.e., friend and servant]

All is not comedy in the visits in Sociable Letters and one of its most serious letters, number 54, deals with a debate between two women visitors who disagree about the rape of Lucretia, a subject popular in art and literature of the time.  Shakespeare wrote an epillion (a long narrative poem) on the topic and Bess of Hardwick prominently displayed a painted cloth in which Lucretia is shown stabbing herself with a knife.

 The first of the female guests in Letter 54 praises LucretiaSociable Letters Image my book, saying that Lucretia’s suicide proved the classical lady to be a virtuous woman because she sacrificed her life for her husband’s honor.  The second female guest replies that Lucrecia killed herself through “prudence and wisdom,” since the husband was going to kill her anyway.  Cavendish (or her letter writer) does not take sides and only intervenes to stop what is becoming a heated argument.

If the apparent point of the letter is that we don’t really know what Lucretia’s motives were, the actual suggestion put forward obliquely might well be, “Do we really need, as wives, to make absurd sacrifices (theatrical or otherwise) for our husbands?”  It is a question that Aphra Behn, a dozen or so years later, takes up in passing at the beginning of her short novel, The Nun or the Fair Vow Breaker:   Should a wife wife “leap alive into the grave” of her deceased husband to be buried “quick” with him?  I expect that for Behn . . . and Cavendish . . . the answer is a resounding “no.”

Next week we look at the diarist John Evelyn’s visit to Cavendish’s writing closet in Newcastle House in London in spring of 1667.