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.
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.
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.
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.