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?
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 Lucretia, 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.