I have come across Margaret Cavendish in number of times in reading about the history of science, I think most recently in a biography of Christiaan Huygens. She is noted for attending a Royal Society meeting in 1666, and for being one of the earliest published female authors in England. She sounded very interesting so I picked up Margaret the First: A biography of Margaret Cavendish by Douglas Grant – one of the few biographies about her.
Margaret Cavendish was born in 1623 to the aristocratic Lucas family of Colchester and died at the relatively early age of 50 in 1673. As a child she was a keen writer, and picked up an interest in science from her brother John although as a girl her formal education was limited.
The Lucas’s were fairly heavily involved in the Civil War on the Royalist side. Margaret joined the household of the queen, Henrietta Maria, as a maid of honour in 1643. She fled to Paris with the queen’s household in 1644. At this point William Cavendish (1st Duke of Newcastle), later to became Margaret’s husband enters the story – he was immensely wealthy and was Captain-General to the Royalist army North England. Following the Battle of Marston Moor he too fled to Europe – to Hamburg in the first instance.
William Cavendish was widower – his first wife, Elizabeth having died in 1643. Margaret and William met in Paris and were married in late 1645. Having read quite a lot of scientific biography I am starting to get a feel for what written resources are available to the biographer – in this case I suspect it was Margaret’s published writings and the financial records of her husband, which were most important. In exile William Cavendish was always struggling for money, although he seems to have had the gift of the gab since a number of times they appear on the brink of destitution which is resolved when William goes and talks to his creditors!
Whilst in Paris, Margaret dined with at least René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes – there was a fairly active salon culture in Paris at the time in which I believe women were moderately involved. In England involvement in intellectual circles appears to have been forbidden for women but perhaps it was a little more open in Paris.
The couple moved to Antwerp in 1648, where they lived in Rubens old house, again surviving on credit which William Cavendish often seemed to spend on horses! It was at this time that Margaret started to write for publication. Grant’s broad view of her output could be summarised as "needed an editor", she appeared to write straight to publication with little sign of returning to work to correct and edit for structure and coherence.
Her early books were poetic with a theme of natural philosophy, this isn’t as outlandish as it first sounds – Erasmus Darwin was to write poetically about natural philosophy in the following century. Her atomic theories would read oddly to our eyes but were not inconsistent with prevailing theories of the time. She sat within the Classical / Cartesian school of natural philosophy with an emphasis on pure thought which in the second half of the 17th century was being displaced by a science driven by observation and experiment. In fact she wrote some criticism of the newly invented microscope. Her writing covers a wide range of forms (poetry, prose, plays, orations, letters), and a substantial fraction of it is what you might describe as romantic fiction – although The Blazing World has been described as proto-science fiction.
Margaret and her husband returned to England in 1660 following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the Restoration of Charles II. After spending some time in London, whilst William Cavendish regained possession of his estates, the couple retired to the country from where Margaret promoted her writing – providing free copies of her books to universities and individuals. It is during this period that she attended a meeting of the Royal Society, Samuel Pepys is quite critical of her and the general impression was that men felt she shouldn’t have been there.
She died rather suddenly in 1673, a few years before her much older husband who died in 1676.
It would seem that Margaret Cavendish was a very bright young woman, who missed out almost entirely on any sort of education because she was a women. Her interest in science was promoted by her older brother John, her husband and his brother as well as extensive correspondence and dinners with leading intellectuals of the day arising from her time in Paris and Antwerp. Her work was published and promoted broadly most likely because of the power of her husband, which also served to mute criticism. She was widely seen as a rather eccentric character, in part this seems to be down to a vintage dress sense but her simply writing would probably been a factor too.
It would be nice to report that Margaret Cavendish was a pioneer, soon followed by other women into the public, scientific sphere but she wasn’t. Caroline Herschel’s work was presented to the Royal Society in 1788 – over 100 years later, exceptionally Queen Victoria became a member of the Royal Society but it wasn’t until 1945 that Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson became the first female fellows of the Royal Society. The first women to study for undergraduate degrees started in 1880 with Oxford and Cambridge not awarding degrees to women until 1920 and 1945 respectively.
This book was published in 1956, there are a limited number of biographies of Margaret Cavendish and although this one was entirely acceptable it is a bit dated and I can’t help feeling there will have been a lot of scholarly work done on her life in the intervening years.