importantly, her inability to produce further heirs. On the latter point, see Cavendish 1916a,
p. 63; Turberville 1938.
Mendelson and Crawford 1998, p. 129. Mendelson and Crawford 1998, p. 126.
See Fletcher 1995, pp. 192Ã€7; and Sommerville 1995, p. 93.
Fletcher 1995, p. 196. Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 201â€™, 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 â€˜not only beat her often, but so grievously
and sorely as she is weary of her lifeâ€™. The defendant justifies his actions
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 Cavendishâ€™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, â€˜I did dread marriageâ€™.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 Cavendishâ€™s
works, but it is nowhere more evident than in her funeral orations:
â€˜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 stomachâ€™.41 Similarly, about
a recently deceased virgin, Cavendish remarks,
â€˜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
Cavendish 2003, â€˜Oration 49â€™, p. 179. For similar historical accounts, see Crawford and Gowing
2000, ch. 6.
Cavendish 1916b, p. 195.
Although her statement that â€˜where One Husband proves Good, as Loving and Prudent,
a Thousand prove Bad . . . â€™ does beg the question. See Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 93â€™, p. 146.
Cavendish 2003, â€˜Oration 100â€™, p. 219. Cavendish 2003, â€˜Oration 99â€™, 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,
â€˜A Child-bed Womans Funeral Orationâ€™ celebrates the deceasedâ€™s happi-
ness â€˜in that she lives not to endure more pain or slaveryâ€™, for women
â€˜endure more than menâ€™, and they â€˜increase life when men for the most
part destroy lifeâ€™.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, â€˜a Woman hath no such Reason to desire Children for her Own
Sakeâ€™.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 fatherâ€™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: â€˜she may either nourish, or expose itâ€™.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, Cavendishâ€™s language about the feminine roles of wife
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 47â€™, p. 97Ã€9.
Cavendish 2003, â€˜Oration 108â€™, p. 226.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 93â€™, pp. 145Ã€6. Cavendish is frank about Newcastleâ€™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.
Hobbes 1991, p. 140.
Conversations in Political Thought 225
and mother Ã€ roles which seventeenth-century women were expected to
assume without a great deal of deliberation (beyond consent to the
marriage contract) Ã€ 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, Cavendishâ€™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 Cavendishâ€™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 Cavendishâ€™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
â€˜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 Wormsâ€™.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 â€˜no Life I Approve so well of â€™.51 Of course,
we must understand some of her commentary about womenâ€™s appro-
priate deference in the ironic spirit in which it is offered. Moreover,
on the issue of gender relations, part of Cavendishâ€™s gift, Susan James
observes, is â€˜a truly rhetorical ability to see the issue from many points
of viewâ€™.52 As a royalist who believed it â€˜an Honour to Obey the
Meritoriousâ€™,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
On Hobbesâ€™s instrumental use of gender, see Wright 2004, chs. 4, 5.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 201â€™, p. 272.
Although see Smith 1997a and 1997b.
Cavendish 2003, â€˜Oration 129â€™, p. 248.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 201â€™, p. 273; â€˜Female Orationsâ€™ debates womanâ€™s virtue, see Cavendish
James 2003a, p. xxix.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 201â€™, 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 â€˜Grave of Loveâ€™.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
womenâ€™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 â€˜structure and limit the kinds of utterances
that can be voiced within them with a reasonable expectation of uptake
and â€˜â€˜choral supportâ€™â€™ â€™.56 Knowledge, in this view, is not produced in
abstract circumstances by â€˜no one in particularâ€™, but is instead generated
within â€˜textured locations where it matters who is speaking and where
and whyâ€™.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 â€˜choral supportâ€™. Therefore, what she offers are persistent references,
Among the most pronounced examples of disempowering language about womenâ€™s abilities is
found in Cavendish, â€˜The Preface to the Readerâ€™, 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.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 89â€™, p. 141.
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 Womenâ€™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 Cavendishâ€™s writing.
a retired life: the other side of the private
Among the many things that separate Cavendishâ€™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 husbandsâ€™ 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 husbandâ€™s estate Ã€ as only wives and family members
were allowed to Ã€ illustrate Cavendishâ€™s inability to accommodate herself
to the image of a Parliamentary petitioner. Thus she asked her brother
to petition on her behalf, reporting unequivocally: â€˜I did not stand as
a beggar at the Parliament dooreâ€™. When refused by the committee,
Cavendish recalls, â€˜I whisperingly spoke to my brother to conduct me
out of that ungentlemanly placeâ€™.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 â€˜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
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
For discussion of Cavendishâ€™s inconsistencies and how to place her in the history of feminist
thought, see Smith 1997b, pp. 122Ã€5.
See Mack 1992; Crawford 1992; Crawford 1993.
Cavendish 1916b, pp. 200Ã€1. 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. â€˜She shut herself up at Welbeck aloneâ€™, in Virginia Woolfâ€™s
famous description.62 Perhaps due in part to Woolfâ€™s characterization,
Cavendishâ€™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
For Cavendish, the private is not just a space or a location, but a choice
as to how to live oneâ€™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 â€˜inclining to be melancholyâ€™.63 Cavendishâ€™s mother, too,
â€˜made her house her cloyster, inclosing herself as it were thereinâ€™, after
her husbandâ€™s death.64 In her adult life, Cavendish feels herself com-
pletely free to do anything and go anywhere, yet â€˜[t]his course of Life
[retirement] is by my own voluntary Choiceâ€™.65 Offering an account
to her friends of â€˜how I spend the idle Time of my life, and how I busie
my Thoughts, when I thinke upon the Objects of the Worldâ€™, Cavendish
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
The contrast between Cavendishâ€™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