13. Royalist Politics, the Visual Arts, and Margaret Cavendish

Roman Emperors at Bolsover Castle: Claudius Caesar (left) and Claudius Domitianus

The oil paintings of the Roman Emperors to be seen at Bolsover Castle these days are a reminder that  art collecting was associated with the monarchy during the first half of the 17th century.  King James I, himself a collector, was outdone by his son Charles I, who amassed what was probably Europe’s most valuable collection of painting, sculpture, drawings,  prints, and objets d’art.   The extravagant spending of Charles on the visual arts angered members of Parliament, especially the Puritans.  The Puritans, of course, favored churches that were bare of statues and paintings. The Puritans, as a group, were not known for collecting secular art.

The Duke of Gonzaga, a powerful Italian nobleman, commissioned Titian, perhaps the premier painter of the Venetian school, to paint eleven Caesars, which, after Gonzaga’s death, were bought by Charles in the late 1620s.   It is thought that the Caesars at Bolsover, which are copies, were acquired by Margaret’s future husband, William, a little thereafter.  Margaret would have met with these paintings, probably at Welbeck Abbey, upon her return to England as the Restoration got under way.

Margaret compares Imperial Rome to the Roman Republic in Letter 187 from Sociable Letters (1664) when she writes of the death of the Roman statesman Cato the Younger:

“For he [Cato]  perceiving his Country was like to be Govern’d as a Monarchy, which was before a Republick, Kill’d himself, although he knew the old Government was so Corrupted, as it caused great Riots, Tumults, Seditions, Factions, and Slaughters, Killing and Murdering even in the Market-place, so as it could not be Worse what Chance soever came, but was Probable a Change of Government might make it more Peaceable and Safe.”

Cato Suicide
Suicide of Cato, Print Made in 1648

Margaret, we might say, was predisposed to look with favor on the the new Roman government because it bore similarities to the English monarchy, which, of course, recently had been restored when Sociable Letters was written.  What is interesting here is that  she is less than a strict Royalist in Letter 187.  She does not suggest that monarchy is the only legitimate form of government.  Rather, she asserts that change was needed because the Roman Republic was so corrupt.

Further, she feels that Cato, a supporter of the failed Republic, should have allowed himself to reach an accommodation with Julius Caesar.  Instead, Cato committed suicide, which was a foolish but honorable act.  Indeed, she ends the letter by calling him “honest Cato.”  In the print, above and to the left, Cato is to be seen pulling his entrails from his body, a horrible part of the suicide described by Plutarch.

The situation is complicated by another print, which apparently links Cato to Julius Caesar with the thought that both were virtuous men.  In this second print, the two men are recipients of fame bestowed them by Plutarch, and it is Plutarch who Margaret says she has been reading.   The two elephants which draw the triumphal car of the personified Fame are led by Alexander the Great, who is followed by Julius Caesar.  Plato, the Greek philosopher, and Cato walk behind Caesar and next to the car.  Death is trampled by the elephants.


Cato elephant print
Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Plato, and Cato the Younger in a Netherlandish print of ca 1565

Cato, as a representative of republican government, is subordinated in the procession to Ceasar, the creator of single-person imperial rule in Rome, but Cato is not excluded from fame.  Perhaps Cato along with the philsopher Plato are to be understood as men of thought rather than action. In any event, the two sorts of government are not visually shown to be in opposition to one another.

About a hundred years after the print with the elephants appeared in the Low Countries, a portrait of the great Dutch politician Cornilius de Witt is found accompanied by the statement that he was a Caesar in the field of battle and a Cato as a lawmaker.  It would seem that, at least for the visual arts, representatives of monarchical and representative government could be found together.  Modern scholarship tends to categorize English political thinkers of the 17th century as being committed to one sort of government or the other, but perhaps many looked to have the best of both.

De Witt and Cato
Cornelius de Witt, Dutch politician. Print after 1674

In any event, I am inclined to see Cavendish not as an “absolutist” Royalist but rather as a pragmatist and a consensualist.  She endorsed monarchy but only with conditions, and the governed had some say in the matter.  Most surprisingly, she allows for a legitimate rebellion against an inept or corrupt government in her article on Brutus in World’s Olio, Book II, Part III (1655).

“Brutus was thought a greater Friend to the Commonwealth, than to Caesar;  but I think him a Friend to neither; for the Envy to the present Government, or Governor, begot his desire of Change  . . . .  Had the [newly formed government under Julius Caesar] been at the worst, then a Change must needs have been for the better: but it was not so.”

This passage is strongly Royalist up until the last sentence, at which point the Royalist position becomes conditional.  As a pragmatist, Cavendish allows that a bad government of any sort should be changed.

As a consensualist, she continues on to write:

 “For if [the people] had liked better [the Republic], they would have followed Brutus And that Government is to be approved best, that pleaseth most; for Government is for Safety, Peace, and Profit; and there is nothing keeps [a country] more in Peace, than Unity and Concord, and the Affections of the People to their Governors.”

By the way, two statues of Diana of Ephesus, associated with the Goddess Natura, are to be seen as if also marching in the procession of the elephants.  Cavendish often invokes Nature as a goddess and would have liked this detail,  had she seen the print.  And she might have, given her years in the midst of the Antwerp art world.


Modern Replica of a Bust of a Caesar —  in the Venus Fountain at Bolsover Castle

12. Margaret Cavendish on Houses and Gardens, Love and Pleasure

During the Restoration, “pleasure” was a much-used word, one that prompted Cavendish to write about what was enjoyable as well as the reasoning behind religious asceticism.  The Convent of Pleasure (1668) is the most read and most performed of her plays these days, partly because it deals with the perceived conflict between same-sex love and what is natural.  Cavendish, who derived a great deal of her thinking from the Stoic philosophers, believed that the pursuit of pleasure was good and seeking pain foolish, but she wondered whether attraction involved in same-sex love was natural.

Bolsover fig and wall niche
Wall Around the Venus Garden at Bolsover Castle, Where Cavendish Lived

The Convent of Pleasure goes beyond offering mere hints of homoeroticism, such as are found in Shakespeare’s comedies, but, as with Shakespeare, the interesting questions of sex and gender in Convent remain unresolved.  Lady Happy, the female protagonist, thinks that she is in love with another woman, while in fact she is in love with a man disguised as a woman –indeed a man who is a prince.  It is during her time laboring under the misapprehension of sexual identity that Lady Happy delivers the famous and very affecting soliloquy that includes these lines:

Why may not I love a Woman with the same affection I could love a man?

No, no.  Nature is Nature and still will be
The same she was from all Eternity. (IV.1)

After this speech has been completed, the Prince enters and the two lovers kiss as well as embrace. The Prince takes the opportunity to lighten the mood and offers a comic aside to the audience.

These, my embraces of a Femal kind
May be as fervent as a Masculine mind.

Bolsover flowers
Autumn Flowers in the Venus Garden

The audience is in on the joke about the disguise, but what about the notion of a “Masculine mind”?  Cavendish was admired for being masculine in her wisdom in a letter written by the Dutch philosopher, Constintijn Huygens.

I should be loath to believe any Female Fear should reign amongst so much over-masculine Wisdom, as the World doth admire in you [Margaret].

By “over-masculine,” Huygens probably means “highly-masculine,” and he was not alone in thinking well of “masculine” women, though others (like Lord Denny) called them “monsters.”

If Cavendish leaves us with unanswered questions about the connections among same-sex love, pleasure, and nature when she concludes Convent of Pleasure, she is very clear that asceticism is foolhardy.  Lady Happy sums up the play’s attitude nicely.

“Can any Rational Creature think or believe the gods take delight in [an] uneasy life [for humanity]? . . . .What profit or pleasure can it be to the gods to have Men or Women wear coarse Linen or rough Woollen or to flay their skin with Hair-cloth?” (I, 2)

Hardwick sea dog table 2
Rush Mats Under the Sea-Dog Table at Hardwick Hall

What, then, does Cavendish unequivocally enjoy?  What would she recommend as enjoyable to others?   Enjoyment in Convent of Pleasure, unlike most other Restoration comedies, is associated with traditionally female activities, such as the decoration of living space inside and outside of a house.  Cavendish’s views are  outlined in a long speech by Lady Happy from which I quote a small part.

“For Pleasure and Delight . . .  I have change of Furniture for my house according to the four seasons of the year . . . .  as in Spring our Chambers are hung with Silk Damask . . . .  And [in the summer] all the Floor strew’d every day with green rushes . .  . . And in the winter Orange-Trees.  . . .  my gardens to be kept curiously and flourish in every season.”  (II, 2)

My first impression of this speech, which goes on uninterrupted for two pages, was that it makes for bad drama by being too talky, but I now believe that it is a powerful statement that enjoyment and pleasure do not need to be libertine in a traditionally male way.

Bolsover flowers niche pots
A Niche in the Venus Garden Wall

At the same time, there is a good deal of stress on sensual enjoyment in what Lady Happy says, especially on the sense of smell.  Orange trees, John Evelyn writes, were grown indoors in the winter not for fruit but for the scent of their blossoms, and the aroma of freshly sprinkled rush mats in English country houses, as with Hardwick Hall (pictured above left), can be very pleasant even today.

This is not to say that there is no room for love, even love of a physical sort, in Cavendish’s world.  The newly refurbished Venus Garden at Bolsover Castle, where she once lived, is perfectly suited for lovers, and there are niches in its large walls where ladies and gentlemen might meet and converse.

Finally, Cavendish sometimes likes to create threads within her narratives in which unorthodox sexual pleasure plays a part.  In Nature’s Pictures (1656), for instance, there is a story in which a lady faints upon being told that her fiancé has married another woman. During the fainting spell, her soul descends to Elysium, and, upon recovering, the lady explains that she saw many lovers there including the Biblical Lot and his daughters about whom she says,

“Lot and his Daughters were more merrily disposed than the rest. I asked the reason and it was answered me that as they fell in love in the World, so they should there continue for ever.”

Cavendish, writing in the 1650s, finds Lot’s incest just a little comic. In the second edition of the book (1671), she removes Biblical characters from the story but keeps in a reference to Nero and his mother, who were thought by the Roman biographer Suetonius to have been lovers.

Bolsover asters
Asters in the Venus Garden

For Cavendish, Elysium is as the classical poets have described it:

“Dark as a shady Grove, or [bright] as the dawning of the Day, or like a sweet Summer’s Evening, when the Nightingale begins to sing.”

One might wonder why Cavendish places such a man as Nero in this beautiful and serene garden.  I am inclined to think that for Cavendish Nero is more a character from fable than a depraved figure from history.  I dare say she may have thought the same about Lot.  A traditionalist Anglican in religion, she did not understand her traditions to be fact so much as the stuff of powerful narrative.

By the way — Not a lot of people really believed everything that Suetonius wrote, least of all Cavendish I would guess.  Something of a sceptic regarding classical authors, she is known to have joked about reading “Plutarch’s Lies” (Sociable Letters, Letter 30).

Venus in Venus Fountain Bolsover
Venus Statue in the Venus Garden