chapter
11 Pages

INTRODUCTION

three hundred and years, Margaret Cavendish and

Over the last three hundred and fifty years, Margaret Cavendish and her writing have elicited a variety of reactions. In a letter composed in response to a personal encounter with Cavendish, Mary Evelyn, wife to the famous diarist, was unimpressed. Cavendish was "rambling as her books, aiming at science, difficulties, high notions, terminating commonly in nonsense, oaths, and obscenity."1 During the seventeenth century more generally, Cavendish was sometimes offered fulsome praise, as may be seen by the volume of letters by various hands and compiled by her husband after her death,2 and she was frequently issued gratuitous insults.3 The eighteenth century brought an end to insult but tended to trivialize and sentimentalize both the woman and the writing. Frederick Rowton is typical of the century in choosing to select poems that characterize the author as pensive and given to writing delicate verses about Queen Mab and the fairy folk. 4 Cavendish did, indeed, write about her melancholic moods and Mab, but she also composed racy plays not altogether unlike what was performed on the Restoration stage. The earlier decades of the nineteenth century saw little change in her reputation. For Charles Lamb, Cavendish was "the thrice noble, chaste, and virtuous, - but again somewhat fantastical, and original-brain'd, generous Margaret Newcastle."5 Later in the century, however, her biography of her husband, long taken seriously by Civil War historians but rarely acknowledged, was suddenly made generally available to the reading public. Accordingly, she came to be viewed less as a poet and more as someone who provided accurate information about the upper classes in the seventeenth century. Virginia Woolf cast Cavendish as a pampered aristocrat, a writer with no literary self-control. Although Woolf gave credit to Cavendish for "passion for poetry," her final, and much quoted, judgment of Cavendish was as a "giant cucumber [that] spread itself over all the roses."6