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.
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.