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

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

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