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financial difficulties, the tensions between his children and their stepmother, and perhaps most
importantly, her inability to produce further heirs. On the latter point, see Cavendish 1916a,
p. 63; Turberville 1938.
33 34
Mendelson and Crawford 1998, p. 129. Mendelson and Crawford 1998, p. 126.
35
See Fletcher 1995, pp. 192À7; and Sommerville 1995, p. 93.
36 37
Fletcher 1995, p. 196. Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 201™, p. 273.
Conversations in Political Thought 223
Cavendish describes the plight of a wife who makes a case for divorce on
the grounds that her husband ˜not only beat her often, but so grievously
and sorely as she is weary of her life™. The defendant justifies his actions
accordingly:
a wife is bound to leave her parents, country, and what else soever, to go
with her husband wheresoever he goes and will have her go with him, were it
on the dangerous seas, or into barren deserts, or perpetual banishments, or
bloody wars, besides child-birth; all which is more dangerous and painful
than blows . . .38
As the head of the household, his authority over his wife, servants and
children is, for all intents and purposes, beyond question.
Against the backdrop of the social acceptability, normality, and
effective legal sanction of physical coercion of wives within marriage,
William Cavendish™s promise to Margaret that, as a husband thirty
years her senior, he would not have the same inclination to dominate
her that a younger spouse might, takes on heightened meaning. In fact,
as much as Cavendish portrays her own marriage as nothing short
of idyllic, in regards her impending union with William Cavendish
she states, ˜I did dread marriage™.39 It was not that Cavendish thought
all husbands necessarily bad and violent,40 but that one never knew
which way it might go. Her critique of the potentially tyrannical
power of husbands comprises a persistent theme throughout Cavendish™s
works, but it is nowhere more evident than in her funeral orations:
˜death is the far happier condition than marriage; and although marriage
at first is pleasing, yet after a time it is displeasing, like meat which
is sweet in the mouth but proves bitter in the stomach™.41 Similarly, about
a recently deceased virgin, Cavendish remarks,
˜tis true, her husband, Death, is a cold bedfellow, but yet he makes a good
husband, for he will never cross, oppose, nor anger her, nor give her cause of
grief or sorrow, neither in his rude behaviour, inconstant appetite, nor lewd
life . . . for there is no whoring, gaming, drinking, quarrelling, nor prodigal
spending in the grave.42



38
Cavendish 2003, ˜Oration 49™, p. 179. For similar historical accounts, see Crawford and Gowing
2000, ch. 6.
39
Cavendish 1916b, p. 195.
40
Although her statement that ˜where One Husband proves Good, as Loving and Prudent,
a Thousand prove Bad . . . ™ does beg the question. See Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 93™, p. 146.
41 42
Cavendish 2003, ˜Oration 100™, p. 219. Cavendish 2003, ˜Oration 99™, p. 218.
224 joanne h. wright
In her own distinctive language and tone, and in a manner unparalleled
in seventeenth-century discourse, Cavendish exposes and lays bare the
power relations within marriage.
Her scrutiny of traditional female roles is not limited to marriage,
however; it extends to pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing. Disliking
the whole culture of breeding, Cavendish chastises pregnant women
for their pride and self-indulgence, for revelling in, and exaggerating
the effects of, their condition.43 In The Convent of Pleasure, bearing
children causes women nothing but pain and sorrow, for even if both
mother and child survive, children grow up to be ungrateful. Connecting
the experience of childbirth to the larger injustices against women,
˜A Child-bed Womans Funeral Oration™ celebrates the deceased™s happi-
ness ˜in that she lives not to endure more pain or slavery™, for women
˜endure more than men™, and they ˜increase life when men for the most
part destroy life™.44 Perhaps owing to her own experience, Cavendish
reserves particular ire for the societal expectation that second wives
produce more heirs for husbands who already have sons. While their
widower-husbands are motivated by the desire to perpetuate their family
name, ˜a Woman hath no such Reason to desire Children for her Own
Sake™.45 Although she suffers the pain of childbirth, and has the greatest
share in raising them, the mother loses proprietary interest over her
progeny when the child receives its father™s last name.
Aside from Cavendish, the only mid-seventeenth-century theorist
who questions the natural basis of these traditional roles for women
is Thomas Hobbes, but he does so for different reasons. For Hobbes,
every human relationship, even that between mother and child, involves
a rational calculation and some measure of consent. Hypothetically,
at least, he entertains the notion that women may decide to walk away
from a newborn: ˜she may either nourish, or expose it™.46 But this is
purely hypothetical for Hobbes; having reduced all relationships down
to their basic contractual parts, his unstated assumption is that women
will still agree to the terms of the conjugal contract. Cavendish does
not. In fact, Cavendish™s language about the feminine roles of wife


43
Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 47™, p. 97À9.
44
Cavendish 2003, ˜Oration 108™, p. 226.
45
Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 93™, pp. 145À6. Cavendish is frank about Newcastle™s desire for more
children, blaming herself for failing to produce further heirs despite the fact that Newcastle was
being treated for impotency at the time.
46
Hobbes 1991, p. 140.
Conversations in Political Thought 225
and mother À roles which seventeenth-century women were expected to
assume without a great deal of deliberation (beyond consent to the
marriage contract) À implies that these are things that women might
legitimately choose not to do. Hobbes, provocative as he is on this
subject, is engaged in a political exercise to undermine opposing
constitutional theories.47 In contrast, Cavendish™s interest in the subject
is anything but abstract; hers is an interested inquiry into a matter that
affected the well-being of other women and her own as well. After
seriously weighing the advantages and disadvantages, she finds marriage
and motherhood to be so potentially dangerous for women that they
are not worth the risk. In light of this calculation, she advises her
sister against marriage altogether.48
Although Cavendish™s modern interpreters cannot but take notice of
her provocative language about marriage and motherhood, systematic
attempts to make sense of her darker view of the private, or to treat
it as a matter of political import, have been harder to come by.49 The
difficulty in this regard may legitimately arise from Cavendish™s own
apparent inconsistencies on the subject of gender relations as a whole.
On the one hand are her evocative statements to the effect that men
˜would fain Bury us in their Houses or Beds, as in a Grave; the truth
is, we Live like Bats or Owls, Labour like Beasts, and Dye like Worms™.50
On the other hand, she presents a convincing case that she believes
women to be indulged, weak, lacking in intelligence, and that, where
marriage is concerned, there is ˜no Life I Approve so well of ™.51 Of course,
we must understand some of her commentary about women™s appro-
priate deference in the ironic spirit in which it is offered. Moreover,
on the issue of gender relations, part of Cavendish™s gift, Susan James
observes, is ˜a truly rhetorical ability to see the issue from many points
of view™.52 As a royalist who believed it ˜an Honour to Obey the
Meritorious™,53 Cavendish is as able to provide a convincing defence of
societal hierarchies as she is to critique them. That she was steeped in
a culture that perceived women to be intellectually inferior must also

47
On Hobbes™s instrumental use of gender, see Wright 2004, chs. 4, 5.
48
Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 201™, p. 272.
49
Although see Smith 1997a and 1997b.
50
Cavendish 2003, ˜Oration 129™, p. 248.
51
Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 201™, p. 273; ˜Female Orations™ debates woman™s virtue, see Cavendish
2003.
52
James 2003a, p. xxix.
53
Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 201™, p. 273.
226 joanne h. wright
be considered in the assessment of her many rationalizations for her own
inferiority and her other disempowering language.54
Still, if her critique of power relations in the private realm is not
entirely consistent, it is nonetheless persistent. Her critique emerges as an
important theme in several of her works and spans her relatively
compressed writing life, from A True Relation (1656) to Divers Orations
(1662) and Sociable Letters (1664), culminating in Plays, Never Before
Printed (1668), of which The Convent of Pleasure is one. She is determined
to show that, even in the most initially blissful of unions, marriage can
prove to be the ˜Grave of Love™.55 I suggest that a consideration of the
epistemological challenges facing Cavendish as a woman thinker may
help us account for some of her inconsistencies on the issues involving
women™s traditional roles. Cavendish had developed an embryonic
political understanding of the oppressive aspects of private life for women
but the rhetorical space available for such a perspective in seventeeth-
century England was very limited. As Lorraine Code has argued, the
context in which truth statements are made impacts their perceived
veracity. Rhetorical spaces ˜structure and limit the kinds of utterances
that can be voiced within them with a reasonable expectation of uptake
and ˜˜choral support™™ ™.56 Knowledge, in this view, is not produced in
abstract circumstances by ˜no one in particular™, but is instead generated
within ˜textured locations where it matters who is speaking and where
and why™.57 In speaking against, but nevertheless within the context of,
early-modern patriarchal culture, Cavendish cannot be assumed to have
had the receptive audience that would be required to refine and develop
a systematic argument about marriage and motherhood. Moreover,
with no precedent for her views, Cavendish also had no discourse to tap
into, no extant critique of gendered power relations to draw upon which
might have forced her to take sides, to consider her views further, and
thus encouraged her consistency. Cavendish was, on this front especially,
an unaffirmed intellectual whose critique of private relations stood
so far outside acceptable discourse that there was simply no possibility
of ˜choral support™. Therefore, what she offers are persistent references,

54
Among the most pronounced examples of disempowering language about women™s abilities is
found in Cavendish, ˜The Preface to the Reader™, in Cavendish 1655. She was not alone in her
use of such language, as the female religious activists of the Civil War period often tempered
`
their demands to be heard by professions of their own inadequacy and inferiority vis-a-vis men.
See Mack 1992.
55
Cavendish 2004, ˜Letter 89™, p. 141.
56 57
Code 1995, p. ix. Code 1995, p. x.
Conversations in Political Thought 227
hints of a critique which do not, in fact, get taken up until much later
and are not perhaps fully developed until the Second Wave Women™s
Liberation Movement.58 We need not draw any simplistic historical lines
between Cavendish and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s to identify
and foreground what is, in my view, a distinctively political view of the
private realm in Cavendish™s writing.

a retired life: the other side of the private
Among the many things that separate Cavendish™s use and understanding
of the private from, for instance, that of the Second Wave feminists, is her
disinclination to seek social change to remedy its evils. Here again, there
is no existing discourse for Cavendish to fall back upon; restructuring
private relations was simply a non-issue. And the only women who are
making any sort of plea for greater public roles in the mid-seventeenth
century, the many and diverse religious activists, are doing so to legiti-
mate either the authority of their public biblical interpretation or their
attempts to plead for their husbands™ release from captivity.59 Cavendish
makes it clear that she neither shares their interests nor sanctions their
methods. Her reflections on her trip to London to petition for some
monies from her husband™s estate À as only wives and family members
were allowed to À illustrate Cavendish™s inability to accommodate herself
to the image of a Parliamentary petitioner. Thus she asked her brother
to petition on her behalf, reporting unequivocally: ˜I did not stand as
a beggar at the Parliament doore™. When refused by the committee,
Cavendish recalls, ˜I whisperingly spoke to my brother to conduct me
out of that ungentlemanly place™.60 Cavendish is anxious to distinguish
her public advocacy, done discreetly and for legitimate economic reasons
for her noble husband, from the activities of other women who ˜become
pleaders, attornies, petitioners and the like, running about with their
several causes, complaining of their severall grievences, exclaiming against
their severall enemies, bragging of their severall favours they receive from
the powerfull™.61
Unwilling to position herself in any official public political role,
however minor or justified, but clearly rejecting traditional female roles
and activities as well, Cavendish chooses a different path. For herself
58
For discussion of Cavendish™s inconsistencies and how to place her in the history of feminist
thought, see Smith 1997b, pp. 122À5.
59
See Mack 1992; Crawford 1992; Crawford 1993.
60 61
Cavendish 1916b, pp. 200À1. Cavendish 1916b, p. 201.
228 joanne h. wright
and for other women, she advocates instead a retired existence, divorced
from the noise and chaos of the public realm and from the demands
of aristocratic social life, and yet separate from the tedium of the
domestic. ˜She shut herself up at Welbeck alone™, in Virginia Woolf™s
famous description.62 Perhaps due in part to Woolf™s characterization,
Cavendish™s choice in this regard is typically seen as the act of an eccentric
who was in the end more ridiculous than serious. However, when
interpreted in light of her dismissal of aristocratic female culture, her
views about the Civil War, and her reflections on human mortality,
her defence of a private life for women takes on greater political and
metaphysical gravity.
For Cavendish, the private is not just a space or a location, but a choice
as to how to live one™s life. It is a choice grounded in the history of
her family life; as a child she favoured contemplation over other activities,
if anything ˜inclining to be melancholy™.63 Cavendish™s mother, too,
˜made her house her cloyster, inclosing herself as it were therein™, after
her husband™s death.64 In her adult life, Cavendish feels herself com-
pletely free to do anything and go anywhere, yet ˜[t]his course of Life
[retirement] is by my own voluntary Choice™.65 Offering an account
to her friends of ˜how I spend the idle Time of my life, and how I busie
my Thoughts, when I thinke upon the Objects of the World™, Cavendish
writes:
For the truth is, our Sex has so much waste Time, having but little imploy-
ments, which makes our Thoughts run wildly about, having nothing to fix
them upon, which wilde thoughts do not onely produce unprofitable, but
indiscreet Actions; winding up the Thread of our lives in snarles on unsound
bottoms.66
The contrast between Cavendish™s chosen employments and those of
other aristocratic women is elaborated by Richard Flecknoe, a frequent
guest at Welbeck who flatters Cavendish as being a woman elevated high

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