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Margaret cavendish from Luminarium.jpgMargaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623 – 15 December 1673) was an English philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction writer and playwright. Being related to royalists, she spent some of the English Civil War in France. She wrote in her own name in a period when most women writers remained anonymous. Aphra Behn and the Duchess of Newcastle deal with the sensitive topic of homosexuality in a predominantly chaste, reserved or romantic fashion, but it is nonetheless there. The duchess, for example, imagines two female characters kissing ‘with more alacrity than women use, a kind of titillation’. Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, otherwise known as ‘Mad Madge’, began her literary career just below the age of thirty in 1652 in the quest ‘to make ourselves as free, happy and famous as men’. In 1668 the first play by a woman that celebrates female eroticism, as well as female transvestism, was composed. The Convent of Pleasure by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, concerns a group of women who flee from a world of males to enjoy each other in their own cloistered nook. The action occures in an all-female community.

Born into a prosperous gentry family in Essex, Margaret became a Maid of Honour to Queen Henrietta Maria in 1643 and travelled with her into Parisian exile in 1644. There she met and married, in 1645, the widowed courtier William Cavendish, Marquis (later Duke) of Newcastle, 30 years her senior, a well known patron of, and participant in, the arts and one of Charles I's chief military commanders. The Newcastles lived lavishly on credit in Antwerp, a centre for exiled Royalists, until the Restoration, after which they virtually retired to Newcastle's estate in Nottinghamshire.

Margaret Cavendish and her husband, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Cavendish had no children and devoted herself, with her husband's support, to the solitary practice of writing: ‘I delight myself with myself’, she said in Sociable Letters (1664). But the private, autoerotic pleasures of Cavendish's writing are complexly linked to an even more unusual desire for publication, each book issued under the authorising dignity of her married name. Still more strikingly, and despite her lack of formal training, Cavendish associated herself with the especially masculinised and secular genres of philosophy and the new science, in titles such as Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655) and Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), arguing ingeniously that women's exclusion from the privileges of education, ‘kept like birds to hop up and down in our houses’, particularly suited them to original speculation and experimental method. The audacity and sheer copiousness of Cavendish's writing, in combination with the deliberate eccentricity of her manners and dress, made her an infamous figure in her own time. After witnessing one of her rare London appearances, Pepys wrote in his diary: ‘The whole story of this Lady is a romance, and all she doth is romantic’, while Dorothy Osborne complained in a letter, ‘there are many soberer people in Bedlam’. Even Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, called her ‘a vision of loneliness and riot … as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations and choked them to death’. For a new generation of feminist scholars, Cavendish's appeal lies precisely in her hermaphroditic self-fashioning and her lifelong engagement with sex and representation, writing and power.

Cavendish occupies a significant place in the history of English women's writing as the author of more than a dozen substantial and lavishly printed books between 1653 and 1668, spanning poetry, fiction, natural philosophy, drama, familiar letters, essays, autobiography and biography. Amongst seventeenth-century women only Aphra Behn can compare with the range and quantity of Cavendish's œuvre. Cavendish's texts enact the cultivation of fame through spectacularised female authorship and personal ‘singularity’, constantly engaging the nexus of sex, gender and rank to stage a discourse of power and knowledge centred upon the transgressive potential of the heroically chaste, ambitious and intelligent woman. The question of female sexuality is thoroughly mediated in Cavendish's work by the fetishisation of chastity as the prerequisite for advantageous marriage, while advantageous marriage is itself figured as the prerequisite for women's greatest access to power, pleasure and knowledge. In her fiction, and in plays such as The Presence (1668) and The Convent of Pleasure (1668), Cavendish frequently thematises the need to counter the threat of powerful affect between women; her overt defence of the imperatives of heterosexual conjugality suggests its vulnerability. In the prose fiction ‘Assaulted and Pursued Chastity’ (Nature's Pictures, 1656), the unmarried Queen of Amity not only falls in love with Travellia, the crossdressed heroine of ‘masculine and courageous spirit’, but her passion continues unabated after the truth of Travellia's gender is revealed. Only divine intervention cures the Queen by transferring her passion to a proper object, the King of Amour: ‘Since I cannot marry her, and so make her my husband, I will keep her if I can, and so make her my friend.’ Similarly, the extreme ‘amity’ between two married women, the Empress and her scribe, ‘Margaret Newcastle’, in The Blazing World (1666), is the subject of a teasingly self-conscious negotiation: ‘Husbands have reason to be jealous of Platonick Lovers, for they are very dangerous, as being not onely very intimate and close, but subtil and insinuating.’

In Cavendish's writing, the most beneficial alliance is the one which transforms a female commoner into either a Duchess or a Queen, thus replicating or improving the example of her own marriage (a marriage that had been opposed by Henrietta Maria as too exalted for her Maid of Honour). The unique status of the sovereign woman, especially the romance plot of a ‘maid’ who becomes a Queen or Empress through her own merit, particularly galvanised Cavendish as a figure for the utopian supervention of gender ideology and the magnetic attraction of power. In the prefatory address ‘To the Reader’ in The Blazing World, Cavendish confesses that she is ‘as ambitious as ever any of my sex was’: ‘Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First.’ After a long gap, most of Cavendish's works are now in print again in modern or facsimile editions.

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