11. Margaret Cavendish Writing About Servants

Kitchen ovens Bolsover 2015
Bolsover Castle Kitchens

Margaret Cavendish tends to end her letters in Sociable Letters (published 1664) by writing, “Your faithful friend and servant.”   The lady with whom she corresponds is fictional as is most of the content of the letters, but the closing is typical for communication among equals or near equals in the upper classes.  Your offer of your service to others was partly pro forma and partly a genuine sign that you would help out if ever the need arose.

The relationship between mistress and those people who did the cooking and cleaning was, of course, different, but servants sometimes rose to have more power than one might expect.  In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio is a high-level servant who thinks he just might marry the lady of the house, but he ends up looking foolish instead.

Cavendish writes quite a bit about servants in their various gradations, including the lowest levels.  Shakespeare ends Love’s Labour’s Lost with an image of a cook.

Then nightly sings the staring owl, “Tu-whit,
Tu-who,” a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Kitchen maids for WordPress blog
Kitchen Maids, Seventeenth Century Dutch Print

That women cooks were greasy seems to have been proverbial and Cavendish, like Shakespeare, subscribes to the stereotype, if for no other reason than to have a little fun.  “Keeling,” by the way, was not just “cooling” but might involve the skimming of animal fat from the surface of a boiling liquid.  In Sociable Letters, Cavendish writes the following of a gentleman who marries his kitchen maid. First we learn that the kitchen maid catches grease as it flows off of cooking meat.  Then we are given the wry conclusion to the tale.

“But though her Office and Birth were both Dripping and Basting, yet his Dignity and Wealth [i.e., from the marriage] hath made her a gay Lady; and so leaving him to his dish of Brewess, I rest, Madam, Your faithful Friend and Servant.” (Letter 42)

Cavendish is actually quite sympathetic to the couple, but with conditions.  The gentleman’s parents are not living and he has no children from a previous marriage.  What these circumstances mean is that he causes no embarrassment to anyone but himself, and if he doesn’t mind, then we should not.  My guess is that Cavendish is alluding to another play by Shakespeare when she uses the word “dish.”  Enobarbus has no doubt that Anthony will leave Octavia and return to his “Egyptian dish,” Cleopatra.  The comparison between kitchen maid and Egyptian queen is extreme, and Cavendish is inviting us to join her in a laugh.

Servants kitchen Blog Oct 2015
Seventeenth-century Dutch Print of Servants Preparing Food

A more serious situation arises when a married man becomes romantically involved with servant, though even here Cavendish tends to see such relationships in their complexities.  She sometimes lays a part of the blame for these liaisons on the ill-health of the wife, as in a story called “The Matrimonial Agreement” (found in Nature’s Pictures, 1656).  That does not mean that she exonerates the husband.  It is just that he is not a cardboard villain.

In The Unnatural Tragedy (1662), Cavendish lays the blame for a romance between a serving maid and a master squarely on Nan, the maid.  Nan is simply a scheming woman, who steals the pliant husband.  The wife’s rejection leads to her death through a sort of sadness, but Nan does not triumph.  A member of a group of young ladies called the “sociable virgins,” marries the now-widowed husband and casts Nan “out at the gates.”   Cavendish is not at all clear about the social positioning of the sociable virgins, though they seem to be waiting ladies (see blog 10 on carpets).  Even with the not-so-nice sociable virgin, Cavendish gives us a bad person with interesting qualities.   The sociable virgin, after she becomes the second wife, tells her new husband that he had better get rid of Nan or he might find himself less than perfectly healthy.  The sociable virgin appears to know how to poison people.  At the same time, she is happy for him to keep a mistress — just someone who is not a servant in what is now her house.

Cavendish writes quite a bit about relationships between female servants and masters of houses, mostly to describe the pain caused to wives. Her husband, William, seems to have had some sort of romantic entanglement with a serving girl during his first marriage and while his first wife was ill, but I doubt that Cavendish’s interest is mainly in her husband’s history.  Rather, she saw around her too many wives whose household authority was undermined by pliant or callous husbands.

Servant sweeping WordPress blog
Seventeenth-century Dutch Drawing

Cavendish was lifelong friends with Elizabeth Chaplain, apparently an upper-level servant who became her waiting lady.  Elizabeth married an English merchant, Francis Topp, when she and Cavendish were living in Antwerp, but did not cease to be Cavendish’s friend, confidant, and perhaps agent with publishers. Cavendish addresses Elizabeth in a preface to the 1653 Poems, where a reply by Mrs Topp is also printed.  It appears that the mistress (Cavendish) understood the servant (Elizabeth Topp) as a literary protégé.

All of this is not to say that Cavendish did not value social rank or think that the great bulk of servants should be happy in menial employment.  Cavendish was a Royalist.  Make no mistake about it.  Still, she was self-aware and knew her own origins.  Her father, while wealthy, had no title, a fact that she foregrounds in the first paragraph to her autobiography (“A True Relation,” printed with Nature’s Pictures in 1656).  So too her husband, who rose with no inherited title to become Duke of Newcastle.  Social class for Margaret Cavendish allowed for considerable movement — for some people.

More importantly, Cavendish felt that people of all sorts and shapes and kinds were fit material for poetry, fiction, drama, fictional letters, and so forth.   In Sociable Letters (Letter 123), she admires Shakespeare for taking the same view.  Shakespeare was faulted in the Restoration for creating  too many lower-class and low-life characters.  Cavendish writes of Shakespeare as follows.

“To Express Naturally [and] to the Life a Mean Country Wench as [accurately as] a Great Lady, a Courtesan as [accurately as] a Chaste Woman, a Mad man as [accurately as] a Man in his right Reason and Senses, a Drunkard as [accurately as] a Sober man, a Knave as [accurately as] an Honest man . . .  it Expresses and Declares a [great] Wit.”

Cavendish was the first critic (man or woman) to discuss Shakespeare in depth and detail on the printed page.   She was also one of the most perceptive.

Drunk Peasant 1645 BM for WordPress
Drunken Peasant, Dutch 1643

10. Margaret Cavendish on Art, Nature, and Textiles

Tapestry Bolsover Sept 2015
Tapestry in the Star Chamber, Bolsover Castle

In the Star Chamber at Bolsover Castle, the door behind the tapestry leads to William Cavendish’s bedchamber and a room called “the nursery,” but obviously the tapestry can be dropped down, probably for formal occasions, so that the door does not show. There is a second door on the same wall and a second tapestry, which can be raised and lowered in the same way as the first.  With the tapestries down, the doors are hidden and the effect is of a single wall with a great expanse of color.

The tapestries contain large figures, but also small items, especially along the edges.  On the edges of the tapestries pictured above, there are various sorts of fruit, including grapes.   These particular tapestries had not been woven at the time of Margaret and William Cavendish.  Rather, they are recently woven and intended by English Heritage to accurately portray the sorts of tapestry that hung in such places as Bolsover in the seventeenth century.

Bess of Hardwick Print
Bess of Hardwick

A poem by Margaret, “Of a Wrought Carpet Presented to the View of Working Ladies” (Poems and Fancies, 1653), describes a carpet that includes many of the pictorial elements of the tapestries currently in the Star Chamber.  For instance, the edges of the carpet are decorated with fruit, including grapes.  Parts of the poem’s title are a little unclear for the modern reader, though it is possible to make some reasonable guesses.  The Oxford English Dictionary online explains that “wrought” can mean “decorated with needlework” when applied to fabric.  The working ladies are probably Cavendish’s “waiting ladies,” for whom needlework would have been a recommended occupation.  They are not “working class,” of course, but working with fabric was felt to be a good activity for upper-class women.  The situation of the poem, then, might well involve waiting ladies who are examining a carpet with a view to duplicating designs in needlework in cushions.  The wealthy and powerful Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury,  was famous for loving to do needlework, and Bess, when alive, had lived at nearby Hardwick Hall. Margaret may have had the example of Bess in mind when writing the poem

Readers of the poem, along with being given a description of the carpet, are treated to a discussion of art and nature.  Literary discussions of this sort were common in Margaret’s time, but this poem has some interesting and comic turns. Margaret makes a joke of the traditional story of actual birds pecking at representations of grapes painted by the classical Greek Zeuxis’.

The fruits [in the carpet] so hung, as did invite the taste,
And small birds picking seen to make a waste.

The birds do not “peck” at the grapes but “pick” at them.  In the 1668 edition, various revisions to the poem have been made, but the word “picking” remains unaltered, suggesting that “picking” is not a spelling variant of “pecking.”  In a play on words, the birds are seen to pick, I would say, at the threads in the carpet.  The result is a “waste,” i.e., a tatter. Now my reading is not the only one possible.  One can pick at food, though normally that does not lay waste to what is on the plate. In any event the poem draws attention to itself as a poem, a work of art commenting on another work of art.  The fact of multiple, alternate readings, reinforces the self-consciousness of the poem as a poem.  It is not simply a praise of a carpet.

Zeuxis grapes Oct 2015
Print of Zeuxis Painting Grapes

Another instance of Margaret asking her readers to share a laugh appears when the lustful gods in the carpet are said look natural because they resemble statues.

Those figures [the gods] all like sculpture do bear out
To lie on flats many will make a doubt.

Looking back at the tapestries that are hung in the Star Chamber, I am inclined to see the large figures there as resembling statues more than living people. Flemish painting of the time (which Margaret knew well) was very good at creating what looked like living people, but that may never have been the intent of the creators of tapestries and carpets. Fabric, it seems to me, does not lend itself to capturing the nuances of actual life, and especially faces, but it is not at all bad at representing people as statues. People depicted as sculpture in set poses fit nicely into a world where statues of biblical and classical figures were highly valued.

Still, there is comic irony in the poem in the way that art imitates art and not nature.  In a final example, a priest is convinced by the play of light and shade in the carpet that a grove of trees is actual, a part of nature.  He feels he is in a genuine wood and apparently prays to the trees.  This might be a Roman priest, though Margaret does write about Druids.  But, of course, the priest is himself a part of the carpet.  How can he be fooled as she suggests?  She is, I think, asking us to chuckle.

Margaret ends the poem by saying,

This piece [the carpet] the pattern is of artful skill
Art, imitator is of nature still.

But mostly this particular poem actually says something quite different from what is suggested in its final lines  Art often imitates itself.  I doubt that Cavendish would claim that art always imitates art, but she does like to consider complications and conundrums.  Her approach brings to mind Magritte’s painting of a pipe which is accompanied by the title, “This is not a pipe.”

There is a final irony that does not come out of the poem but out of other writing by Margaret:  She says in a preface to Sociable Letters (1664) that she does not want her waiting ladies doing needlework.  Rather, they should be reading, presumably improving their minds.  We, of course, should not see her as as someone who disliked the world of fabric.  She loved to create very original “fashions” in clothing for herself, but she also loved to shift her self-presentation around for various reasons.  One of those reasons was that she liked to keep people guessing.

By the way, behind the second door concealed by a tapestry in the Star Chamber was a withdrawing room called the Marble Closet.  Perhaps a place for a private chat if one were an honored guest at a large gathering.

Fainting couch marble closet off of Star Chamber Bolsover
Behind the Second Door — the Marble Closet

9. Margaret Cavendish and John Evelyn on the Beech, the Birch, the Aspen, and the Poplar

Bolsover copper beach and pump house
The Copper Beech at Bolsover Castle

I return to the image of the Bolsover Castle copper beech from post 8 because Margaret Cavendish had some nice things to say about beeches, a sort of tree that was not always noticed.  Edmund Spenser provides a catalogue of trees near the beginning of Book I of The Faerie Queene (1590) but he does not list the beech.  John Evelyn does not write about the beech in his diary, though he often admires oaks.  Evelyn does look at the beech in Sylva (1664) but feels that the tree is “vulgar.”  Cavendish, however, liked its smooth bark and noted that the tree grows “large and tall.”  It is the huge circumference and enormous height of the Bolsover copper beech, together with its reddish leaves, that make the tree so impressive to visitors at the English Heritage property these days.  It does not hurt that the tree nicely fills, but does not overfill, the space where it stands.

One might wonder what Evelyn had in mind when he wrote the word “vulgar,” so I looked for other instances of where he used it in Sylva and found that the opposite of “vulgar” is “noble.”   Evelyn does not mean that beech is without its uses or its place in the world, but Evelyn’s views about various sorts of value are often quite different from ours today.  It seems that is vulgar for him is natural and uncultivated, in a word “common.”  Cultivated is good and nature often can do with some improvement.  That said, there was a practical side to Evelyn, who gave more thought to the oak because the oak was essential to shipbuilding.

Cavendish miniature wikicommons
Margaret Cavendish

I am not quite sure how much Cavendish agrees with Evelyn and how much she takes a different approach, but I am sure that she relied more on direct observation of what she saw around her than on her reading of the Classics.  Evelyn was steeped in Roman and Greek literature, but this is by no means to say that Evelyn failed to carefully observe nature.  He has a good eye for what is beautiful as unimproved by foresters and gardeners.  He visited Tunbridge Wells in September of 1661 and records his impressions in his diary as follows.

Walking about the solitudes, I greatly admired the extravagant turnings, insinuations, and growth of certain birch trees among the rocks.

It is unlikely that Evelyn is referring to the handiwork of a gardener who has carefully arranged the birches.  Rather it appears that the trees themselves “insinuate” among the rocks.

Given the fact that Cavendish was a woman who liked to write poetry about science (including medicine), her descriptions of trees are likely to be different from the practical advice and classical reference of Evelyn.  A case in point involves the aspen.  I am not quite sure how the aspen differs from the poplar or if the terms were interchangeable — at least for the writers of the 17th century.   In any event, Cavendish is  most interested the motion of the aspen’s leaves.  In “Hunting of a Stag” (Poems and Fancies, 1653), she writes as follows.

Small aspen stalk, which shakes like agues cold,
That from perpetual motion never hold.

The aspen leaves are always in movement because the slender stem that holds the leaf, the “small aspen stalk,” twists easily in the wind.  An ague was a fever, so Cavendish adds in a medical metaphor and then alludes to the scientific problem of perpetual motion.  “Hold” here probably means “stops.”  Evelyn’s approach in Sylva as might be expected is more academic.

The aspen only (which is that kind of libyca or white poplar, bearing a smaller, and more tremulous leaf, (by the French call’d la tremble or quaker) . . . .  Pliny would have short trunchions couched two foot in the ground (but first two days dried) at one foot and half distance, and then moulded over.

John Evelyn wiki commons
John Evelyn

Evelyn, by the way, send a gift copy of Sylva to Cavendish, who responded with a thank-you note that still exists.  He probably knew her poetry and they certainly met in London in 1667.  I would not claim, however, that either one responded to the other in print.

It is interesting that Cavendish includes the sap of the poplar in funeral arrangements explained in the poem “The Description of Violence in Love.”

Then constant lovers, mourners be. When [we are] dead,
They’l strew our graves, which is our marriage bed:
Upon our hearse a weeping poplar set,
Whose moistening drops our death’s dried cheeks may wet.
Two cypress garlands at our head shall stand,
That were made up by some fair virgin’s hand.
And on our cold pale corps such flowers strow,
As hang their heads for grief and downward grow.
Then shall they lay us deep in quiet grave,
Wherein our bones long rest and peace may have.
Let no friends marble tombs erect upon
Our graves, but set young myrtle trees thereon.
Those may in time a shady grove become,
Fit for sad lovers walks, whose thoughts are dumb.

One wonders if there is any precedent for a funeral in which sap from poplars drops onto the faces of the deceased.  This is not a custom, literary or actual, I have encountered heretofore.  If there is a suggestion that the lovers return to nature by having no tomb to mark the location of their remains, that suggestion is equivocal, in that they become the unseen centerpiece of a grove that is planted rather than one that pre-existed.   That mixed message is probably in line with Cavendish on nature more generally.

8. Art, Science, Religion, and Cavendish’s Poem on an Ancient Oak

Print 1650 - 1660, by Willem van Bemmel
Print 1650 – 1660, by Willem van Bemmel

Margaret Cavendish lived in Antwerp during the 1650s just around the corner from the Duarte family.  Its members were musicians as well as collectors of and dealers in art. Cavendish, who was good friends with them, would have had plenty of opportunity to view their collection and their ever-changing stock of oil paintings.  In addition to paintings, there were prints, often made as copies of important artworks.  It was becoming fashionable to buy prints, and Cavendish’s friend John Evelyn collected large numbers of such easily transportable items.  It is said that other Englishmen followed his lead.

“Of an Oak in a Grove,” first published by Cavendish in Poems and Fancies (1653), both shows Cavendish’s visual arts orientation and allows her to meditate on the ways in which trees are understood from the viewpoints of natural philosophy (i.e., science)  and religion.  She begins her poem by self-consciously painting a picture in words, while alluding to scientific approaches to  the study of light.

Through spreading boughs, their quivering light broke in
Much like to Glass, or Chrystal shiver’d thin
Those pieces small on a green Carpet strew’d.
So in this wood, the light all broken shew’d.
But this disturbed light the Grove did grace,
As sadness doth a faire and beauteous face.

I have had no success in finding Cavendish’s “quivering light” in practical guides to painting, such as the two by Henry Peacham (the artist) and John Evelyn’s An Idea of the Perfection of Painting (a translation of a book by Roland Freart).  I will continue to look, but I have a hunch that Cavendish’s interest in what we moderns would recognize as “dappled shade” was prompted in part by her knowledge of scientific experiments being conducted with prisms to break or “shiver” white light into its constituent colors.  Not long after her poem was published, Isaac Newton used prisms both to break white light into a spectrum and to put it back together again — to return it to white light.  I think that this sort of experimentation was very much on Cavendish’s mind.  At the same time, she finds a wonderful way to describe the sort of “quivering light” apparent in Willem van Bemmel’s print, above and to the right.

Bolsover copper beach and pump house
Memorable copper beech at Bolsover Castle

Cavendish gives a Pagan spin to the poem, saying that people asked for help from the tree, which was sacred to Jove. They gave thanks by hanging offerings from its limbs.  Cavendish probably refers to actual religious practice, but I do not know the locus classicus if there is one.  Or, perhaps, the ancient tradition that she has in mind might be derived from folklore rather than Latin or Greek literature, as with a handkerchief tree in Cyprus.  Some trees do seem to be more memorable than others and one is a huge copper beech at Bosover Castle, pictured above. That tree, I imagine, postdates the era of Cavendish, but it certainly is in keeping with her interests.

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75) *engraving *24 x 18.8 cm *1514
Print: Albrecht Durer’s Melancholia

Cavendish shifts her poem into the direction of whimsy when she describes the oak as being covered with moss which she says is an arboreal dandruff.   Some later readers, like the Romantic essayist Charles Lamb, loved Cavendish’s whimsy but others have found it off-putting.  It does stand in counterpoint to the poem’s serious and sombre ending in which Jove is given credit for including old age as a part of life as it is normally lived.  The print by van Bemmel may be understood to partake of melancholy as the tree in it is old and apparently moss covered.   The sombre mood of the ending of Cavendish’s poem was suggested at the beginning in the “sadness” of the “faire and beauteous face.”

I wonder if Cavendish thought about the connection that might be made to the print of Albrecht Durer’s “Melancholy” (pictured above, right), where the figure of Melancholy is surrounded by scientific paraphernalia.  The rainbow in the background makes a nice connection with the splitting of light into a spectrum of colors.

In any event, Cavendish liked to write poems about trees and about oaks in particular.  Her poem about a man who has a dialogue with the oak tree that he is in the process of chopping down is certainly whimsical but with a surprise at the end.  Man, the man with the hatchet says says, strives to better himself.

And [man] never can be satisfied, until
He, like a God, doth in Perfection dwell.
If you [the tree], as Man, desire like Gods to bee,
I’le spare your Life, and not cut downe your Tree.

Here we have Cavendish hinting at her beliefs regarding souls and all living things.  Pythagoras would not eat beans because he believed beans have souls.  Cavendish’s man with a hatchet, seems to spare the oak because of views about the soul that are similar.

Dying tree image 1653
Man with Hatchet and Tree, 1653