Known as 'Mad Madge', Margaret Cavendish's eccentricities are well documented, but she was also one of the most prolific female authors and philosophers of the 17th century.
- Born: Colchester, 1623
- Field: Writer
- Key moment: Publishing books which anticipated some of the central arguments concerning natural and political philosophy, gender studies and religion.
Displaced by Civil War
Margaret Cavendish was the daughter of wealthy parents and had only a basic education. Like many women of her day, her education focused on learning to read and write, and studying music, needlework and dancing.
In 1642 she moved to court, probably as a result of the English Civil War. By 1643 Margaret was a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria, and in 1644 she travelled with the queen into exile to Paris. There Margaret met her husband, the defeated Royalist commander William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle. Despite protests from the queen and their friends, they were married in 1645.
After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Cavendishes returned from exile and William set to work to restore the family home at Bolsover in Derbyshire.Visit Bolsover Castle
Known as ‘Mad Madge’, Margaret Cavendish’s eccentricities are well documented. She was known for her outlandish dress sense, flirtatious and exuberant manner, and speech packed with ‘oaths and obscenity’.
Samuel Pepys described her as ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous’, while the exiled court of Henrietta Maria saw her as little more than a simpleton. Despite this, it is clear that Margaret Cavendish was an intelligent, ambitious and forward thinking woman.
A prolific writer
By 1653 Margaret was back in England, the Civil War over. Her husband was viewed as ‘the greatest traitor to the state’, and her brother had been executed.
Margaret began writing, and she published her first book of poetry in 1653. This included descriptions of her theory of atomics, told through prose. Unsurprisingly, as a book written by the wife of a Royalist exile, it was not universally well received.
However, she continued to write, her output becoming more and more prolific. She began to discuss issues of sex and gender more, exploring the topics of marriage, courtship and infidelity. She also examined whether gender inequality was caused by an imbalance between the sexes or a lack of opportunity for women.
Margaret Cavendish also began to write more philosophy-driven books, with several noted works published in the 1660s which anticipated some of the central arguments concerning natural and political philosophy, gender studies and religion.
She was probably the most published woman of the 17th century, publishing plays, essays, criticisms and poetry, as well some of the earliest proto-science fiction. In 1667 she became the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society – a bold step which was not repeated for centuries.
Criticism and writing surrounding her work has often tended to focus on Margaret Cavendish the person – ‘Mad Madge’ – more than her work. Yet Margaret’s work has stood the test of time, with many of her books still in print and available today.
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