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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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).