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

7. Back Stairs and Bolsover Castle in Margaret Cavendish’s Writing

Back Stairs Bolsover from Bottom
Up the Main Back Stairs at Bolsover Castle

Back stairs have an unsavory reputation.  Questionable access is made to people in power or, perhaps, guests at a house party get up to no good by using back stairs in the middle of the night.  I checked in the online OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and, while this reputation existed in the time of Margaret Cavendish, there was another story.  The main staircase was sometimes reserved for formal occasions and the back stairs used, not just by staff going about household business, but also by the master and mistress as well as family and friends generally.  Such seems to be the case with Cavendish’s play The Presence (1668) in which the the waiting ladies of the Princess meet on orders from her at the back stairs to go down to the Gallery.  Cavendish’s play has many autobiographical elements that would place it at the palace of St Germain en Laye near Paris, so Bolsover is probably not the location she had in mind.  Still, what worked for stairs at St Germain could just as well have worked at Bolsover.

Bolsover Castle has three sets of back stairs.  One set ascends from the kitchens in the cellar to the top of the building, and I’ll call these the main back stairs.  The other two only rise one level.  Of these other two, one rises from the beer cellar to the Hall and the other from the kitchens to a space between the hall and the Pillar Parlour.  I would bet that these two mostly were used by the servants to carry food and to take care of ordinary, “below stairs” household business.

Main Stairs Bolsover Niche 2015
Bolsover Castle’s Main Staircase with Niche

The main back stairs, I would guess, were used by owners and family, but shared with servants who worked in the top two stories.  I am not sure that the much larger, but not quite grand, main staircase was reserved for formal occasions, as it is not striking in the manner of the main staircase at Hardwick Hall.  Hardwick’s main staircase is today hung with impressive tapestry and may have been known to Margaret Cavendish, who describes such a staircase with shallow steps in The Unnatural Tragedy (1662).

Cavendish also describes a main staircase in her comedy The Convent of Pleasure (1668), suggesting that a staircase is a good place to hang oil paintings.  She goes on to say that flower pots should be put on pedestals in the Gallery in the summer, but she does not mention niches like the one pictured above and to the left.   So, what would go into such a niche in a main staircase? Typically a niche would have a marble bust, perhaps of a Roman deity or an emperor, though I can imagine seeing flowers in a large vase.  The interior of the Convent in Convent of Pleasure is remarkable in that seasonal change is tied to ongoing shifts in decoration.  Thus flowers in vases might be replaced in autumn with another item — perhaps something in marble or bronze. Cavendish certainly likes to write about sculpture.

Back stairs w window and door outside William's bedroom Bolsover 2915
Door to Main Back Stairs – Outside of Best Bedroom (belonging to William Cavendish)

The sign on the Best Bedroom level door to the main back stairs that says “No Entry” is for members of the public, visitors of what is now an English Heritage property.  Still, the sign might have been put there, but on the other side of the door, by William Cavendish (husband to Margaret), who owned Bolsover Castle. As you can see, William was able to close off the main back stairs so as to gain privacy when that is what he wanted.  I expect that the window had a curtain that could be pulled, again when that is what he wanted.  Privacy is a nice to have and to be able to regulate.

“Privacy” as a word and as a concept figures in a big way in the writings of Margaret Cavendish and others of her time.  Ladies and gentlemen intent on amorous discourse looked for private places to meet.  Indeed, William during his first marriage had a reputation as a ladies’ man and is so depicted in Margaret’s plays. Margaret, of course, was his second wife, and he appears to have settled down as he became older. In any event, he is the Lord Loyalty in the comedy The Presence, and described, perhaps in a gentle tease, as “none of the chastest men.”  (The “loyalty” involved was to the King, and William was no rebel.) So, the main back stairs at Bolsover could have been used by him to facilitate assignations, but they were probably more often climbed by friends and business acquaintances who were on their way to his bedroom for routine meetings.  Bedrooms were used in this way.

In Margaret’s verse narrative “A Description of Love and Courage” (found in Nature’s Pictures,1656),  the male protagonist climbs the main staircase of a nearly deserted but beautifully decorated house that is very much like Bolsover Castle.  He then descends “back by another way,” only to chance upon a lady who will become his love.  He finds her in a little chamber off of the Gallery, but there is no gallery in Bolsover Castle and so Cavendish may have conflated this building with the palace at St Germain-en-Laye.    In the story, backstairs and main stairs are only partly a route to romance.  They also allow Cavendish to give her readers a tour of the richly appointed fictional house.  Why do so?  Margaret had a wonderful imagination.  Indeed both she and William treasured what they understood to be the mental faculty of the “phancy.”  The floor plans and decoration of the two buildings, quite possibly, were disassembled and reassembled in her mind.

Stairs down to Beer Celler Bolsover 2015
Stairs from the Hall Down into the Beer Cellar

6. Margaret Cavendish on Walking and Gardens

Tuileries Gardenb Le Notre 17th cent
Tuileries Garden designed by Le Notre in the 17th Century

This week, I have been looking into what walking meant to Margaret Cavendish.  I have tried to contextualize by considering what John Evelyn has to say about the subject in his diary and in one of his translations from the French.  Evelyn was something of a Cavendish friend and certainly a leading authority on gardens.  But why did people walk in gardens in the 17th century?   Same as now or different?

Cavendish is quite modern in connecting walking to maintaining good health.  Indeed, she is very specific in recommending walking for exercise, as this passage from Sociable Letters (Letter 130) makes clear.

“So the Lady V.R. when she is Sick, promises, if ever she Recover, she will Take the Air, and Use Exercises, but being Restored to Health, she Forgets her Promise, or only Looks out of a Window for Once or Twice, and Walks Two or Three turns in a Day in her Chamber, which is as little Exercise as she can do, the truth is, she Errs as much in living too much a Retired Life.”

This character sketch of the Lady V. R. is a parody by Cavendish of Cavendish.  In her autobiographical excursus, “A True Relation” (found in Nature’s Pictures, 1656), Cavendish berates herself for neglecting her health and allowing her “lazy nature” to dominate.  Her only exercise is “walking a slow pace in [her] chamber.”  My sense is that Cavendish exaggerates her portrayal of herself as sedentary, but, whatever the case, she believes that walking induces to good health.

Rubens House Garden
Rubens House Garden, Antwerp

Cavendish writes in Letter 124 of Sociable Letters that her maids walked in the gardens of the Rubens House in Antwerp, where Cavendish lived with her husband for about ten years.  The maids, she says, walked for their “health.”

John Evelyn’s diary is full of narratives of his walks along garden paths.  He writes in detail about the elaborate terraces at St-Germain-en-Laye, which would have been known to Cavendish.  He does not suggest that walking there or elsewhere involves exercise or is is good for one’s health.  Unlike Cavendish, he uses the word “exercise” to indicate intellectual or religious activity.  Walks are meant to bring one to beauty or to lead to a sort of garden drama.  Of Cardinal Richelieu’s villa at Ruel, he says

“On one of these walks, within a square of tall trees, is a basilisk of copper, which, managed by the fountaineer, casts water near sixty feet high, and will of itself move round so swiftly, that one can hardly escape wetting.” (27 Feb 1644)

Cavendish notes such waterworks on occasion but is not especially impressed.  We all know that nothing intrigued Cavendish more than scientific and medical questions, and she considers in a physiological way how walking can cause “rest and ease” in Letter 156.

“When any one Stands still, the Nerves and Sinews are Stretch’d straight out at Length, but when one Walks or Moves, they have Liberty, as being Unbent, and Unstretch’d.”

Her discussion continues at length and is worth reading if you are interested in knowing what Cavendish thinks happens in the body as a person walks.

Several of Cavendish’s female characters are found walking alone or are said to enjoy walking alone.  Some of them are quite a bit like Cavendish in other ways, so is Cavendish telling us that she takes solitary walks?  It is difficult to know for certain, but Evelyn may give us a hint.

“The rest of my time of stay at Wotton [the home of his childhood] was spent in walking about the grounds and goodly woods, where I have in my youth so often entertained my solitude.” (30 Aug 1681)

Late in life, Evelyn shifts from describing the the beauty and drama that he had searched for in gardens to reminiscing about other reasons for his walks.  As a young man, he walked the “grounds and woods” at Wotton apparently to be alone with his thoughts.   In a wonderful, if ambiguous phrase, he describes the situation by saying that solitude and entertainment go together in some way.

I would not be surprised to learn that Cavendish liked to walk alone in gardens and entertain herself with her musings. Indeed, many of us do that sort of walking today.  Gardens, in any event, offer many possibilities.  Because she was a member of Queen Henrietta Maria’s entourage, Cavendish would have walked with groups at gardens like the Tuileries (pictured at the beginning of this blog) or that found at the Trianon Porcelain (pictured at the end).  There is pleasure in walking even in a vegetable garden, as Evelyn’s translation from the French of Jean de La Quintinie’s Complete Gardener (1693) makes clear.

“It is not sufficient to have set down in general, what relates to the Advantages of the Production [of food for the kitchen], we must likewise declare what relates to . . .  the Pleasure of Walking.”

Cavendish frequently writes in her Poems (1653) of the pleasures of walking, but the thinking part can be work, too.

“When I did write this Booke, I took great paines,
For I did walke, and thinke, and breake my Braines.” (“The Claspe”)

A final suggestion.  Let me know if you find Cavendish saying anything interesting about walking and gardens.

Trianon de Porcelaine, Gardens, near Paris

5. Men Visiting Women: Margaret Cavendish, John Evelyn, and Garden Architecture

John Evelyn wiki commons
John Evelyn, diarist and writer on various topics including garden design

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.

St Germain garden plan
St Germain en Laye, etching by Claude Châtillon (1547-1616)

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.

4. Women Visiting Women and Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters

Cavendish Closet image It is often said that Margaret Cavendish was a recluse, a woman who hid away from the world and lost herself in her writing.  She, of course, gives ample evidence to support this understanding of her life.  In her autobiographical excursus “A True Relation” (published with Nature’s Pictures in 1657), she characterizes herself as a shy melancholic who loves to spend her time with pen ink.  Indeed, the picture to the left plays on this view of self.  There she is in her writing closet with all the necessary tools.  The only oddity is a bell, which she says she used to summon a servant to jot down her thoughts in the middle of the night.  The picture is taken from a frontispiece that was one of three that she sometimes added to printed copies of her books. Although it was not her only frontispiece, is the one that emphasizes the notion of the solitary writer.

Sociable Letters, printed in 1664, gives a good amount of detail about visits that Cavendish’s main character, the letter writer, receives, mostly from other women.   Often the letters start with a phrase like “the Lady P. R. was to visit the Lady S. I.” and then continue with a recounting of what was discussed by the women.  But what is the solitary Margaret Cavendish doing writing in the first person about a character who is forever spending her time entertaining women of the gentry?  The answer is complicated but I will begin by suggesting, as I often do, that Cavendish is playing games with her readers.  She aims to tease and does not expect to be taken literally.  Is her letter writer just a cover for the actual Margaret Cavendish, is there no connection, or what?Ten Women Image

When women visit women, there are a number of conflicting, or maybe not-so-conflicting, circumstances involved.  Visiting, says Cavendish, often entails entertaining guests even when one is not quite in the mood. Guests can be loud and fail to let others talk.  Guests can be censorious of people not present and can gossip.   The other side of the coin is that entertaining guests can be intellectually entertaining for the hostess.  Some guests seem to come primarily for the food, and so, as I mentioned in a previous post, visiting and “junketing” (eating various delicacies as snacks) go together.  In the image to the right  taken from a contemporary print, a group of women meet to chat and eat in a woman’s bedroom.  Certainly one bedroom in Bolsover Castle, a room that Cavendish may have used, is of the size and shape as that found in the print.

Observation undertaken while visiting others and receiving guests, gave Cavendish the raw material for creating characters found in Social Letters and also for her plays and short stories.  There are “trencher-guests” who clearly enjoy the food on offer, and there are the ladies who don’t do much else beyond paying and receiving visits.  These are mostly caricatures, drawn with wit and economy.   Joseph Hall and Sir Thomas Overbury would recognize the literary form — the character. Cavendish goes beyond mere caricature, however, and gets into in-depth analysis of personality — her own — in Letter 147.

I Endeavouring to Entertain [my guests] Kindly and Friendly, Talk’d so much, as they might easily believe, my Tongue was in a Perpetual Motion, especially being Strangers to me, not knowing my Solitary, Silent Humour.

What is going on here, I think, is that Cavendish presents us with an experience that we have all had.  She suddenly finds herself talking more than one should.  She says to herself in effect, “Hey, how did that happen?  That’s not really me.”  She then riffs to the notion that women are by nature given to too much talking and from there to the thought that if she, Cavendish (or is it Cavendish’s letter writer character?) doesn’t talk enough she will be a monster (i.e., unnatural).  In a wonderful bit of comedy, she cuts the letter short:

Wherefore, lest I should Commit a Double Fault, in overmuch Writing of my overmuch Talking, I take my leave of you, and rest,  Madam, Your faithful Fr. and S. [i.e., friend and servant]

All is not comedy in the visits in Sociable Letters and one of its most serious letters, number 54, deals with a debate between two women visitors who disagree about the rape of Lucretia, a subject popular in art and literature of the time.  Shakespeare wrote an epillion (a long narrative poem) on the topic and Bess of Hardwick prominently displayed a painted cloth in which Lucretia is shown stabbing herself with a knife.

 The first of the female guests in Letter 54 praises LucretiaSociable Letters Image my book, saying that Lucretia’s suicide proved the classical lady to be a virtuous woman because she sacrificed her life for her husband’s honor.  The second female guest replies that Lucrecia killed herself through “prudence and wisdom,” since the husband was going to kill her anyway.  Cavendish (or her letter writer) does not take sides and only intervenes to stop what is becoming a heated argument.

If the apparent point of the letter is that we don’t really know what Lucretia’s motives were, the actual suggestion put forward obliquely might well be, “Do we really need, as wives, to make absurd sacrifices (theatrical or otherwise) for our husbands?”  It is a question that Aphra Behn, a dozen or so years later, takes up in passing at the beginning of her short novel, The Nun or the Fair Vow Breaker:   Should a wife wife “leap alive into the grave” of her deceased husband to be buried “quick” with him?  I expect that for Behn . . . and Cavendish . . . the answer is a resounding “no.”

Next week we look at the diarist John Evelyn’s visit to Cavendish’s writing closet in Newcastle House in London in spring of 1667.


3. Men and Women Paying Visits to Country Houses, Town Houses, and Palaces

Long shot exterior Chateau S G en L

Alas, I do not quite know all of the ins and outs of WordPress, for I find that an early draft of this post was published and my last draft before calling it quits on Saturday night is lost.  Hum.  I thought I had saved that last draft.  So, I will be working on this post today to try to get it as I would like it to be.  Here we go.

This past week I spend a good deal of time using email to ask scholars and archivists about 17th-century guest books and visitors’ registers.  I had been hoping to learn about the actual visiting habits of Margaret Cavendish and to compare those habits to the way in which she treats the topic of visiting in her fiction, drama, and published letters.

I was disappointed to learn that guestbooks mostly seem to be kept beginning in the early 19th century, though the stress here should be on “seem.”  I will continue my inquiries but now am in the process of shifting my online search terms to “household + accounts” and “steward’s + books.”   Using a tip from a scholar friend, I found a household account book in the 1853 volume of the Chetham Society publications.   The account book (from the 1580s) does list dinner guests and even goes so far as to say that a play was performed.  Alas, the actors (part of the household or travelling players?) are not specified nor is the play.

While I was busy asking for help from those who know the printed sources and archives, it occurred to me that I might do a quick read-through of Margaret’s letters sent to her future husband when both were in France.  These letters were never intended to be published and are mostly a record of the efforts by the two of them to marry without affronting Queen Henrietta Maria.

Pictured above is the Palace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where the then Margaret Lucas lived with the Court of Henrietta Maria for a time during the Interregnum.  Margaret’s letters to William Cavendish (the future husband, pictured below) often propose meetings with him, which will take place during visits to Paris (about 12 miles away) that she makes as a part of the entourage of the Queen. William had asked her to “send” for him to come to St-Germain Palace, but she in Letter 2 refused, invoking her need to protect her reputation.

William Cavendish Image

She does suggest that he approach Henrietta Maria, but it is not clear whether he did or did not.  Margaret knows that they are being discussed as a couple, but she is not interested in secrecy.  Rather she hopes to conduct their visits according to generally accepted social rules so that there will be no “grounds” for condemnation (Letter 3).  In one of her later letters (Letter 16), she she says that she plans to visit Paris for her own “occasions,” presumably independently of the Queen.  Indeed, she is increasingly dismissive of other people’s opinions as her letters progress.  Pictured below is the Hotel de Carnavalet, the town house of Madame de Sevigne, as it would have appeared perhaps 30 years after Margaret lived at St Germain.  Margaret and William might have met at such a venue.

Carnavalet Garden Jan 2015

In a short story called “The Loving Cuckold” found in Nature’s Pictures (1657), Margaret tells the tale of a wife who is, to use Margaret’s word, “corrupted” by a man who pays visits to her at her home.  This is not a moral tale that adumbrates the novels of Samuel Richardson.  Rather it is an examination of the realities, some of them ironic, of city and country house visiting.  The  man who becomes involved with the wife had come to her house on several occasions to find her husband, and it is the husband’s absence that creates the opportunity for the affair to develop.  Margaret does not condemn either the wife or her lover, but rather finds irony in the fact that the husband begins to take notice of his wife once she has a lover.  The husband does not become angry or enraged.  He simply begins to desire her because someone else does.  It is a bit like wanting an ice cream cone because you see someone else with one.

Let’s return to the problem of real life versus fiction.  Both Margaret’s letters (real life) and her short story (fiction) indicate that visiting by men and women, contrary to what I suggested in my last post, could be arranged quite informally.   Margaret seems to have been able to meet with William in Paris at short notice and when not in an entourage, but she no doubt risked her reputation.  The two married, so no harm done.

The letters from Margaret to William can be found in The Phansies of William Cavendish (ed., Douglas Grant), and in Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind (Anna Battagelli).

2. Literary Biography and Guestbooks

Rubens Huis Exterior July 2015

Margaret Cavendish has a great deal to say in her plays, fiction, and published letters about ladies paying visits to other ladies’ houses. Sometimes she she trivializes and mocks what she sees as a world of social gadabouts and suggests that visits are no more than an excuse for sessions of gossiping.  She, Margaret, is a solitary and contemplative woman by contrast.   No merry making at little neighborly feasts, no chit chat with pals for her.  She disdains these “junkets.”

Those who have read Cavendish know better than to take such trivializing and self-representations at face value.  While Margaret was never a social butterfly, there is plenty of evidence to show that she paid calls on other women and other women came to her.  In letter 202 of Sociable Letters (1664), she writes to Lady Eleanora Duarte to describe a visit of Elanora’s two sisters, Katherine and Frances, to the Cavendish residence on Wapper Street in Antwerp, a building that is now the Rubens House Museum and that is pictured above in a view from the back garden.  Margaret goes on in the letter to say that the “good company” of the two women put her into a “Frolick humour” and that she sang some old ballads.  Although the letter is couched in a large amount of playful self-deprecation typical of the time, it is fascinating for what it says about amateur musical performance.  It goes into detail about which sorts of voices work best for which sorts of music.

Rubens House Dining Room 2015

But why write a letter?   Why not just drop in on Eleanora, who lived around the corner on what is now Meir Street, and mention the visit of the two sisters?  The answer, I would guess, is that members of the social elite in Antwerp did not just drop in on friends and that visits were pre-arranged.  Visits were often formal, and one went to dinner at the Cavendish residence on Wapper Street by invitation.  The room where such a dinner would be held is probably the one now a part of the Rubens Museum and pictured above and to the right.

All of this said, it seems to me that letters were not just for communication when a visit had not been arranged. Rather letters made for a very effective way to create set pieces designed to evoke thought and a considered response.  Lady Eleanora might write back or might bring up the topic on a visit to Wapper Street.  A second letter from Margaret points up another characteristic of epistolary communication.  You don’t have to read letters all the way through if you find them tedious and you may be free to choose not to respond.  My sense is that Lady Eleanora would have been less likely to respond to a second letter from Margaret (letter 206), a letter that goes on at length about the chemistry of gold.   Music was more Eleanora’s interest than chemistry.

And now to literary biography and guest books.  Much of what I have to say about Margaret Cavendish’s writing relies on literary biography — what sort of person was she as a writer.  My sense from reading her plays, fiction, and published letters is that she was not much of a “junketer,” but there is a way to for me to check on myself by using fact (if I can find it).  Many large houses of the seventeenth century had guest books or visitors registers. I heard a couple of papers last year at a conference at the University of Northampton in which European scholars used guest books to trace visits made by Europeans to English country houses.  So . . . I have been using online tools like National Archives Discovery to look for sets of key words like “guest + book” and “visitor + register.”  I have not had much success so far.  I have written to some scholars, museums, and country houses.  Again no luck.  If you are an archivist, watch out.  I soon may be asking you about guest books.

Haddon Hall roses in bloom

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, not so very far from Bolsover Castle where Margaret sometimes lived.  I wonder if she visited Haddon.

Next week: More on visiting (by both men and women).  More on guest books.

1. Research in the Literature of Renaissance Houses and Gardens

Rubens Huis Exterior July 2015

I am much involved in a long-term research project on the literature of Renaissance houses and gardens in which I envisage several outcomes.   First, I hope to make connections between houses and gardens that Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673) might have seen and her published poems, plays, fiction, letters, scientific essays, biography, and autobiography.  She was  a prolific writer and is today remembered along with Aphra Behn as one of the two great English women writers of the seventeenth century.

Second, I will try to connect house and garden to poems by such writers as Thomas Carew.  I especially like his verse letter “To G N from Wrest” (ca 1639), which plays with the meanings that gather around or emanate from a set of garden statues at Wrest Park in England.  Ceres and Bacchus are paired, and I am looking for other groupings of classical figures in garden sculpture.  I  like to go off on tangents in research, so my third objective is less a tangible goal and more a matter of keeping myself and like minded readers entertained with the oddities of literature and its historical backgrounds.

To return to Cavendish, one of the one places that she lived with her husband while he was in exile during the Interregnum was at the Rubens house in Antwerp.  The building was let to the Cavendishes by the widow of the painter Peter Paul Rubens.  Rubens added the three-storey wing that is shown slightly left of center in the picture above.  He also added the gate which is at the center of that image and the one below.

Rubens House Gate Summer 2015

Margaret Cavendish had an interest in gates for large houses like this one and writes about people being “put out at the gates” in one of her plays, ‘The Unnatural Tragedy.’   Gates also can be important in actual English country houses. A gate at Wentworth Woodhouse was singled out for special attention by the guide on the tour that I took in summer of 2014.  It was from the Wentworth Woodhouse gate that Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford, began his journey to be put to death in London in 1641.  His family considered him to be a martyr.  See the Wentworth Woodhouse gate below.


In any event, I plan to explore how various elements of architecture would have influenced the thinking of Cavendish and her readers. The gate at the Rubens House does not separate the house from the outside world, for it lies between the house and the garden.  The Rubens House gate is, rather, mostly an edifice that evokes ancient Rome in the midst of bourgeois Antwerp.  It claims a venerable past, a past that is in a sense timeless and immutable.  If Cavendish has a gate like this one in mind, then we might understand that the scheming lady’s maid, Nan, who is ejected from the gate in the play is dismissed from ancient civility and not only from a prosperous household.  Nan’s mistress, the heartless social-climer Madame Maleteste, eventually leaves this gate behind as well.   Comments welcome.

The next blog in this series will be on literary biography and guest books in English and Dutch country houses.

Jim Fitzmaurice