Is this a Ladies Closset? â€™t cannot be,
For nothing here of vanity we see,
Nothing of curiousity, nor pride,
As most of Ladies Clossets have beside . . .
62 63 64
Woolf 2001, p. 74. Cavendish 1916b, p. 208Ã€9. Cavendish 1916b, 196.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 29â€™, p. 76. Cavendish 1653, p. [A5].
Conversations in Political Thought 229
. . . Here sheâ€™s in rapture, herein extasie,
With studying high, and deep Philosophy.67
From Flecknoeâ€™s epigrams, Cavendishâ€™s self-descriptions, as well as from
portraits of Cavendish at her desk, we derive an image of the
philosophical, writerly woman revelling in her private closet.
Cavendish articulates her vision of the contemplative life by pitting the
vanities and excesses of aristocratic women against a romanticized
depiction of working women. Whereas she finds â€˜Idle Time is Tediousâ€™
and â€˜Luxury is Unwholesomâ€™, by contrast,
Labour is Healthful and Recreative, and surely Country Huswives take more
Pleasure in Milking their Cows, making their Butter and Cheese, and feeding
their Poultry, than great Ladies do in Painting, Curling, and Adorning
As much as Cavendish had rejected traditional female roles and the
labour accompanying them, in the household labour of women, she finds
something enviable: it is removed from the social world of the upper
classes; it is domestic and private; and it is active.69 Taking great pains to
distance herself from other sociable women, especially the kind with
whom she served at court,70 Cavendish valorizes the intellectual life as
itself active and meaningful, as an appropriate diversion from the
frivolities and excesses of social life. Although the women whom
Cavendish romanticizes are the least able to take her suggestion to actively
employ their minds, in her rendering, they need it the least because they
actively labour. Aristocratic women are most in need of some active
employment; they have no legitimate excuse not to think, â€˜for Thoughts
are freeâ€™, therefore we â€˜may as well read in our Closets, as Men in their
Cavendishâ€™s retreat, however, does not take the form of a quiet escape
into her closet. Cavendish wishes to convey publicly, in fact through her
many publications, her â€˜Retirement from the publick Concourse and
Army of the Worldâ€™.72 Indeed, the private is given meaning in and
through her rejection of the public, her â€˜public gesture of withdrawalâ€™
Flecknoe 1670, p. 26. Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 55â€™, p. 107.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 34â€™, p. 85 describes wivesâ€™ maids who make more pleasant company â€˜as
they do not have time to think of their Splenes, besides, they are forced to Labour and Work for
their Living, which keeps them from such Obstructions or Disease, and the Splene is a Disease
which is onely amongst the Noble and Rich, whose Wealth makes them Idle . . .â€™
See Turberville 1938, p. 122. Cavendish 1655, p. [A5].
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 29â€™, p. 79.
230 joanne h. wright
signifying her critique of what she wishes to leave behind.73 The quasi-
public social world of women, with its incipient gossip, vanity and
superficiality; the noise and disruption associated with too much com-
pany; and the disorder and turbulence of the public, political world: these
are the things from which Cavendish wishes to abstain. Whereas the
private formerly connoted a lack, a deficiency and something potentially
destructive to public order, Cavendish is active in reshaping the mean-
ing of the private, positing it as a virtuous, even superior, choice of
how and where to spend oneâ€™s time. In The Convent of Pleasure, Lady
Happy asks, â€˜what is there in the publick World that should invite me
to live in it?â€™74 Why choose the public when the private offers a more
authentic life that is not necessarily deprived? The virtuous women who
choose this convent will only lack the company of men; in no other
way shall it be an ascetic life, or a â€˜Cloister of restraintâ€™. With beds of
velvet, floors strewn with flowers, and the decor changed according to the
season, Cavendish describes a â€˜place for freedom, not to vex the Senses
but to please themâ€™.75 Indeed, in much of Cavendishâ€™s writing, from the
autobiographical to the fictional and dramatic, her portrayal of private
retirement has a celebratory tone.76
Still, her retreat is not just a social and intellectual choice, but a
political and philosophical one as well. At the conclusion of A True
Relation, after stating that she could â€˜most willingly exclude myself,
so as to never see the face of any creature but My Lord, as long as
I live . . .â€™,77 she addresses the question of why she chose to write her
memoirs at all since, in all likelihood, nobody would care â€˜whose
daughter she was, or whose wife she is . . . or how she lived.â€™ Her reply
to tell the truth, lest after-ages should mistake, in not knowing I was daughter
to one Master Lucas of St. Johns, near Colchester, in Essex, second wife to the
Lord Marquis of Newcastle; for my Lord having had two wives, I might easily
have been mistaken, especially if I should dye and My Lord marry again.78
On the public and private as defined in and through each other, see Brewer 1995. Stewart 1995,
pp. 80Ã€81 discusses the construction of the closet as, at one and the same time, a â€˜place of utter
privacyâ€™ and a â€˜very public sign of privacyâ€™ â€” its privacy was made public by the fact that early-
modern retreats to its recesses were often enacted in full public view.
Cavendish 2000, p. 98. Cavendish 2000, p. 101.
Straznicky 2004 elaborates the relationship between Renaissance womenâ€™s closet drama and
constructions of the private.
Cavendish 1916b, p. 213. Cavendish 1916b.
Conversations in Political Thought 231
Her memoirs, and indeed all of her publications taken together, are
a kind of insurance against the oblivion of mortality. Deeply distraught
by the events of the English Civil War, having personally experienced
some of its worst abuses, Cavendish is all too aware of the temporality of
human existence. Yet, never having produced the heirs that the Duke so
desperately wanted, she has no progeny by which she can be remembered.
Should the Duke remarry after her death and have more children,
she well understood how easily her memory would be eclipsed Ã€
â€˜mistakenâ€™ Ã€ between two reproductively successful wives.
Current interpreters emphasize the devastating impact of the Civil War
on Cavendish and her tendency to personalize its events in relation to
her own family.79 Her mother, although having chosen to live privately,
was forced out of her home â€˜by reason she and her children were loyall
to the kingâ€™. Barbarous to the extent that they â€˜would have pulled
God out of Heaven, had they had power, as they did royaltie out of
his throneâ€™,80 Parliamentary soldiers ravaged the Lucas home, forcing
members of her family out, defacing the house and gardens, killing the
livestock, and plundering the Lucas family vault: â€˜the Urns of the Dead
were Digged up, their Dust Dispersed, and their Bones Thrown aboutâ€™.81
Listing her several family losses, including her mother, who â€˜lived to
see the ruin of her children, in which was her ruinâ€™, and the execution
of her brother, Charles Lucas, Cavendish writes, â€˜I shall lament the loss
so long as I liveâ€™.82 Having lost most of her family members while in exile,
Cavendish reflects abstractly on the nature of civil war:
If the Change of Government had been likely to Alter their Religion, to Destroy
their Natives, to Torture their Friends, to Disperse the Ashes of their Dead
Ancestors, and to Pull down their Monuments, and his Country to be Enjoyed,
Possessâ€™d, Ruled, and Governed by Strangers, he had Chosen Well, to have
Voluntarily Died, rather than to Live to see those Miseries, Calamaties and
Destructions . . .83
Cavendishâ€™s experiences of the wars in England shaped her personal,
philosophical and political perspective. On the political front, she staked
out a position that was fundamentally opposed to war, variously blaming
men who â€˜for the most part destroy lifeâ€™ and, in a strikingly Hobbesian
tone, those whose vanity, pride and envy drove them to create factions
See Williams 2002; and Battigelli 1998. Cavendish 1916b, p. 196.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 119â€™, p. 174. Cavendish 1916b, p. 198.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 187â€™, p. 253.
232 joanne h. wright
in the first place.84 Preferring to live a life of peaceful exile than con-
front the despair of war again, Cavendish points out that â€˜those that
never had the Sweetness of Peace, or have not known the Misery of
War, cannot be truly and rightly Sensible of eitherâ€™.85 Although she
never wavered in her commitment to the royalist side in the Civil War,
and indeed she devoted much effort to defending it and, particularly,
to restoring her husbandâ€™s reputation following his exile,86 she also
distances herself emphatically from civil affairs when she questions
why women should be â€˜Subjects of the Commonwealthâ€™ at all when
they are not considered citizens. Cavendishâ€™s political claim here is less
for womenâ€™s rightful inclusion in the public realm, and more for their
outsider status, since they are â€˜neither Useful in Peace, nor Serviceable
The wars also forced Cavendish to confront the inevitability of death
in an immediate way. Indeed, the theme of death is a powerful one
throughout her works, well beyond her funeral orations: â€˜there is nothing
I Dread more than Deathâ€™, she writes in Sociable Letters. Yet she makes
clear that it is not the pain of death that she dreads â€˜but the Oblivion in
Death, I fear not Deathâ€™s Dart so much as Deathâ€™s Dungeonâ€™. In another
passage she explains that there is no terror in death, nor pain; rather
â€˜it is Life that is Painful both to the Body and Mind . . . for the Mind
in Life is Fearful, and the Body is seldom at Easeâ€™.88 Moreover, since
the life of the body is â€˜like a Flash of Lightening, that Continues not,
and for the most part leaves black Oblivion behind itâ€™,89 one must
contemplate whether it is better to live a long and idle life or a short
and productive one.
Cavendish 2003, â€˜Oration 28â€™, p. 156.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 185â€™, p. 251.
Turberville 1938, p. 145 notes the â€˜monstrous sin of ingratitudeâ€™ toward her husband by the
restoured monarch as a recurring theme in Cavendishâ€™s work, emerging most clearly in her
biography of him. Chalmers 1997, pp. 217Ã€24 argues that to â€˜act as a dutiful mouthpiece for
grievances which her husband himself cannot voiceâ€™ was Cavendishâ€™s primary political purpose.
Her many publications, then, were a kind of â€˜wifely self-displayâ€™ which served to affirm the
coupleâ€™s â€˜aristocratic status in the aftermath of the Civil Warâ€™. Yet the content of her work
indicates that she had political and social concerns well beyond those of her husbandâ€™s
reputation; moreover, it seems problematic to assign to Cavendish no self-driven motives for
her writing and publishing career.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 16â€™, p. 61.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 119â€™, p. 173.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 90â€™, p. 142.
Conversations in Political Thought 233
Cavendishâ€™s preference to â€˜Leave a Little to After Ageâ€™, in effect to
employ her short time profitably rather than â€˜Wast a Great Deal of Time
to no Purposeâ€™, is vitally connected both to her desire for fame and
her choice to live her life in private contemplation. If the physical
body must die, and worse, if its remains can be desecrated at will, better
that she leave an idea behind Ã€ her â€˜paper bodiesâ€™, her â€˜castles in the
airâ€™ Ã€ something that will continue to live in the memory of others.90
The private is the space uniquely suited to thought, and â€˜those my
Mind likes best, it sends them forth to the Senses to write them downâ€™,
and subsequently â€˜out to the Publick view of the Worldâ€™.91 Her desire for
fame is not necessarily in conflict with her professed desire for privacy,
since the kind of fame she seeks is not that associated with â€˜Rich Coaches,
Lackies, and what State and Ceremony could produceâ€™. These things
are connected to the temporal world, but her â€˜Ambition flies higher,
as to Worth and Merit, not State and Vanityâ€™.92 The public sphere is noisy
and oriented to things superficial, but the private life is serene, a place
where her â€˜Mind lives in Peaceâ€™, and â€˜calm Silenceâ€™ prevails.93 Cavendish
wants to actively and publicly defend the private as a legitimate choice
as to where and how to live oneâ€™s life, connecting it to tranquility,
creativity94 and ultimately, immortality.
While we have reason to be cautious about the language of public
and private Ã€ an insight that is engendered by debates within womenâ€™s
history and, implicitly, the history of political thought Ã€ an under-
standing of Cavendishâ€™s political import is incomplete without it. It is
evident in reading Cavendish that the discourse of public and private
was one that resonated deeply for her. This is not to say that the terms
circumscribed or even described her own experience; as the most published
English female author of her time, she clearly did not reside exclusively
in the private realm. Nevertheless, the terms had significance for her as
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letters 143, 113â€™, pp. 203, 167.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 29â€™, p. 77.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 82â€™, p. 136. Cavendish interpreters tend to agree that there is some
tension between her desire for privacy and her desire for fame. Jagodzinski 1999, p. 130 argues
that Cavendish resolves the anxiety that surrounded her quest for privacy by publishing, that for
Cavendish, â€˜publication is the only true sign of virtueâ€™. Conversely, I suggest that Cavendish
exhibits more anxiety about publishing her works than she does about writing them in private;
publication is indeed a virtuous outlet for oneâ€™s ideas, but Cavendishâ€™s many defences of private
life suggest that virtue can also be found within it.
Cavendish 2004, â€˜Letter 29â€™, p. 77.
See further Huebert 1997, p. 26.
234 joanne h. wright
means of making sense of social and political life. She was acutely
aware of the power relations within the private Ã€ she saw their gendered
dimensions Ã€ even if she had no immediate solution to them. At the
same time, she was anxious to affirm a distinction between public and
private, to emphasize the private itself as a site for intellectual auton-
omy and a more authentic life. Defined in relation to the public Ã€ and
often in opposition to it Ã€ the private could be a womanâ€™s ruin or her
salvation. For Cavendish personally, it was likely a bit of both. As modern
interpreters we neither share her precise concerns, nor see public and
private from her perspective, but her language is not so different from our
own that we cannot gain some insight from her analysis. In continuing
to ask questions about public and private, feminist political theory will
come closer to an understanding of how the discourse(s) have changed
over time, and refine our sense of why it looked different from the
perspective of thinkers like Margaret Cavendish.95
I wish to express my thanks to Gordon Schochet, Lorraine Code, Leah Bradshaw, David
Bedford and Kate Bezanson for their helpful feedback on various parts of this chapter; to the
participants in the Folger Institute conference on British Political Thought in History,
Literature and Theory for which this chapter was written; and especially to David Armitage for
his valuable editorial suggestions.
c h ap t e r 1 2