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The Atomic Poems of Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, from her Poems, and Fancies, 1653, an electronic edition. Edited with an introduction by Leigh Tillman Partington

by Margaret Cavendish [Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of, 1624?-1674]

date: 1653
source publisher:
collection: Early Modern through the 18th Century

Introduction Contents

Table of Contents

Margaret Lucas was born in 1623, the youngest of the eight children born to Thomas Lucas and Elizabeth Leighton Lucas.1 The Lucas family had been in the process of upward mobility, yet a double scandal in Thomas Lucas's youth effectively halted the family's progression. In 1597, Thomas Lucas had killed a relative of Lord Cobham in a duel and was forced to flee to France. Elizabeth Leighton was pregnant by Lucas at the time of the duel, and his exile caused their first child to be born out of wedlock. When Lucas could finally return safely to England, he married Elizabeth, but the damage was done. Their oldest son was disbarred from inheriting his father's estate and, as Sara Heller Mendelson points out, although "[a] list of Essex royalists drawn up in 1643 ranked the Lucas rentals second in the county. . . . the same list accorded the Lucas family only sixth place in social standing" (12).

Thomas Lucas died in 1625, and Elizabeth took over the family, running the estate in joint supervision with her second oldest son, John. One of her first actions was to attempt to have her poor rates reduced, an action which did not endear her to the peasants living on her land. Elizabeth arranged marriages for her children outside the county, preferring the children of courtiers and businessmen to the local gentry. This isolation affected young Margaret Lucas in two ways.

First of all, her social skills were very undeveloped. Since the family was not on friendly terms with the local gentry, Margaret must have missed ample opportunities to mix with others of her social class and learn from childhood the intricate set of social codes and customs practiced by the upper classes. She was also shy; again, perhaps from not having contact with many people besides her own family. Since her brothers and sisters married out of the county, she did not see much of her extended family either.

The second effect was a series of "riots" during 1640 and 1641, based on the political and religious tensions which would soon erupt in civil war. The Lucas family was staunchly Royalist and High Church, and were the targets of these riots. The worst came in August of 1642, when the manor house was looted, and John and Elizabeth nearly lynched by a local mob, stirred to riot by the rumor that John had horses and arms intended for Charles I hidden on his estate. According to accounts of the riot, at least one of John's sisters was a witness to these events, and that sister may very well have been Margaret, the youngest. Mendelson suggests that these riots, and the alienation of her family from the local gentry, culminated in Margaret Lucas's "lifelong hostility toward the local populace" (Mendelson 16).2

The most important event of Margaret Lucas's young life, occurred, however, when she successfully petitioned her mother to allow her to join the court as a Maid of Honor to Queen Henrietta Maria. Margaret was not a success in court, the intrigues and etiquette so essential to court life being beyond her realm of experience. To make matters worse, her mother, perhaps still suffering the shame of having borne an illegitimate child, filled her daughter's head with dire warnings of immodest behavior and how it could ruin your life. Young Margaret, having no real perspective on what was considered modest or immodest, simply kept her eyes on the floor and spoke only when necessary. She made one attempt to retract her error and leave the court for the safe isolation of home, but Elizabeth decided it would be less embarrassing for Margaret to stay and be considered odd than to leave altogether. When the Civil War erupted, Margaret fled to Paris with Henrietta Maria and her court. In Paris, Margaret's beauty and modesty (shyness) attracted the attention of William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle.

Newcastle was thirty years older than Margaret Lucas, and had a reputation as a womanizer. He headed one of the twenty richest families in England, served in Charles I's Privy Council, and acted as governor to Prince Charles for three years. He had raised an army for Charles I, for which he was dubbed "Marquis." Virginia Woolf, in her essay "The Duchess of Newcastle," summed up Newcastle's military career: "[he] led the King's forces to disaster with indomitable courage but little skill" (71). The disaster occurred in 1644 at Marston Moor, when Oliver Cromwell routed the Royalist troops. Newcastle fled England, arriving at the court in Paris, where he eventually sought out Margaret Lucas, having known her brother Sir Charles Lucas in the military. Despite Margaret's lack of social skills, she managed to avoid being prematurely seduced by the dashing Marquis, and, in fact, held off his advances in just the coy manner required to assure his falling completely in love with her. They married in 1645, despite the general opinion of the court that the Marquis of Newcastle was marrying beneath him (Bazeley 1).

Earlier in his life, Newcastle had married a rich widow, and had three daughters and two sons from his first marriage. He had also managed to spend most of his fortune, mostly in trying to increase his influence at court. The first seventeen years of his marriage to Margaret Lucas were spent in exile, moving from Paris, to Rotterdam, to Antwerp, living lavishly on credit. Newcastle's diligence paid off in some sense -- he was awarded a dukedom in 1665 for services rendered to the king (Bazeley 2).

Newcastle, and his brother Sir Charles Cavendish, were both patrons of the arts and sciences. Sir Charles, in particular, was interested in science, and was a dedicated amateur mathematician. Newcastle was more serious about the training and breeding of horses than almost anything else, but his lavish and generous hospitality attracted a group of intellectuals to his table, and thus the Newcastle Circle was formed in Paris in the 1640s. During this time, Margaret Cavendish met and sat in on discussions with: Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, John Pell, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir William Petty (Bazeley 2). Her interest in science dates from this period, although she did not begin to write about science until 1652.

After the battle of Worcester in 1651, when Cromwell defeated the Scots and, it seemed, any hopes for restoring Charles II to the throne, the financial situation of the Marquis of Newcastle looked bleak. Cavendish and her brother-in-law, Sir Charles, sailed for London in November. Sir Charles was to travel to England to compound for William's lands, and Margaret went along to petition, as the dependent of a delinquent, for a share of the Newcastle estate (Mendelson 28). While in London, she wrote and published her first book, the 1653 edition of Poems, and Fancies.

Between 1653 and 1671, Cavendish published fourteen books about "atoms, matter and motion, butterflies, fleas, magnifying glasses, distant worlds, and infinity" (Merchant 270). She wrote poems, plays, philosophies, orations, and discourses (Woolf 69). Deborah Bazeley suggests, based on Patricia Crawford's study of the impact of the Civil Wars and the Interregnum on women's published writings, 3 that Cavendish was encouraged by the increasing number of publications by women during this time period:

The half-decade 1646-50 produced the greatest number of women's first editions in any half-decade of the century. Equally important, the range of subjects addressed by women in print after the Civil War years broadened from the customarily "feminine" to include political controversy (pamphlets, petitions, feminist criticism) and instructional matter (almanacs, cookery books, herbals, medical texts) (2).

Despite this surge in women's writing, Cavendish was the only woman who "dared to speculate publicly in print on the most relevant scientific issues of the day"4 (Bazeley 3). She published voluminously, despite the fact that her education had not been rigorous.

Many of Cavendish's creative works contain references to the lack of education for women, and many of her female characters long for a "male" education in the arts and sciences. Mendelson selects a number of quotations from these works and presents them as autobiographical; although I question her practice, I find the quotations interesting enough to include a few here : "As for tutors, although we had for all sort of Vertues, as singing, dancing, playing on Musick, reading, writing, working [i.e. needlework] and the like, yet we were not kept strictly thereto, they were rather for formalitie than benefit" (14). Mendelson goes on to note that "[r]eading and writing were taught by an 'ancient decay'd gentlewoman' whose incompetence Margaret blamed for her own 'ill hand' and extraordinary orthography" (14).

Douglas Grant also addresses the shortcomings of Cavendish's education, and the subsequent effect on her writing:

Once they were unkindly pointed out, she excused herself for her many errors by generally asserting that it was rather by the spirit than by the form that any work should be judged; or she offered separate excuses for particular faults. As for spelling, she admitted that she could not spell and thought it was "against nature for a woman to spell right"; and as for grammar, she confessed that she was unable to understand it, but that the little she did know was enough to make her "renounce it"(112).

The issue of women's writing, and women's education, during the seventeenth century, is complex. 5 Although Renaissance humanists like Sir Thomas More advocated education for women, it was mainly to ensure that they could tutor their children properly (male children particularly, of course.) Lawrence Stone points out that:

As a result of this active propaganda by influential English Humanists educators, there appeared for a short time a handful of aristocratic women who were as expert as men in classical grammar and language. . . . [however, i]n 1561 there appeared in translation Castiglione's The Courtier, which put forward a different ideal of womanhood, one who had a sprinkling of letters, but whose prime qualities were now the social graces -- skill in music, painting, drawing, dancing and needlework. This new courtly ideal, and the Protestant, especially Puritan, ideal of the woman as the docile housewife, the diligent upholder of holy matrimony in a subservient role to the husband, spelt the end of the learned lady. . . . To the late seventeenth-century playwrights, would-be learned ladies like the Duchess of Newcastle became figures of fun, to be satirized and ridiculed for their pedantic and unattractive folly (143).6

The story of women writing mirrors that of their education. Women began by writing and translating religious works, and slowly branched into a few other areas -- religious poetry, memorial poetry, prose prayers, meditations, confessions, and professions of faith metamorphosed into treatises on motherhood, breast feeding, prefaces, defenses of a woman's right to write, preach, and learn, and finally, into imaginative literature, including masques, closet drama, plays, long poems, and fictional prose.7 When women wrote, they prefaced their work with apologies for writing. The convention of this apologetic preface is apparent in Poems, and Fancies. The volume begins with "The Epistle Dedicatory: To Sir Charles Cavendish, My Noble Brother-in-law" and, in asking for Charles's protection, Cavendish writes:

True it is, Spinning with the Fingers is more proper to our Sexe, then studying or writing Poetry, which is the Spinning with the braine: but I having no skill in the Art of the first (and if I had, I had no hopes of gaining so much as to make me a Garment to keep me from the cold) made me delight in the latter; since all braines work naturally, and incessently, in some kinde or other; which made me endeavour to Spin a Garment of Memory, to lapp up my Name, that it might grow to after Ages: I cannot say the Web is strong, fine, or evenly Spun, for it is a Course peice; yet I had rather my Name should go meanly clad, then dye with cold. . . ( see Appendix A, page A3-A3v).

However, when faced by fourteen volumes of Cavendish's published work one might conclude that her apologies for writing are strictly a formality. The fact that women are writing much more these days, as noted by Bazeley and Crawford, is reflected in the next dedication in Poems, and Fancies, "To all Noble, and Worthy Ladies":

Condemne me not as a dishonour of your Sex, for setting forth this Work; for it is harmlesse and free from all dishonesty; I will not say from Vanity: for that is so naturall to our Sex,as it were unnaturall, not to be so. Besides, Poetry, which is built upon Fancy, Women may claim, as a worke belonging most properly to themselves: for I have observ'd, that their Braines work usually in a Fantasticall motion . . . For all I desire, is Fame, and Fame is nothing but a great noise, . . . wherefore I wish my Book may set a worke every Tongue. But I imagine I shall be censur'd by my owne Sex; and Men will cast a smile of scorne upon my Book, because they think thereby, Women incroach too much upon their Prerogatives; for they hold Books as their Crowne . . . Therefore [ladies] pray strengthen my Side, in defending my Book; for I know Womens Tougns are as sharp, as two-edged Swords, and wound as much, when they are anger'd. And in this Battell may your Wit be quick, and your Speech ready, and your Arguments so strong,as to beat them out of the Feild of Dispute. So shall I get Honour.. . (A4-A4v).

Unlike her contemporaries, Cavendish does not excuse her writing by claiming "maternal or religious altruism" (Mendelson30). She admits frankly that she desires "Fame," a most immodest ambition for a seventeenth-century woman.8 Cavendish also acknowledges that men feel threatened by women writing, but hopes that other women will defend her right to publish. She employs several rhetorical strategies to defend herself. She claims that poetry is a fanciful genre, and therefore a natural outlet for women's fanciful brains. Thus, Cavendish uses the popular belief that women are intellectually inferior to men to "excuse"her writing. By this same argument that poetry is fanciful, Cavendish will excuse any errors in her scientific theory: ". . . the Reason why I write [Poems, and Fancies] in Verse, is, because I thought Errours might better passe there, then in Prose, since Poets write most Fiction, and Fiction is not given for Truth, but Pastime" (B3).

Grant conjectures that Cavendish "was always in such hot pursuit of the idea that to pause was unbearable, and rather than correct what she had composed, she let it pass in the hope that errors had been avoided by instinct" (112). Grant supports this idea with a quotation from Cavendish's Life: "for besides that I want also the skill of scholarship and true writing, I did many times not peruse the copies that were transcribed, lest they should disturb my following conceptions; by which neglect. . . many errors are slipped into my works" (Life B qtd.Grant 112). Because of these errors, Cavendish chose to express her early scientific writings, as she says, in Verse.

Grant also offers a brief but thorough examination of Cavendish's theory of poetry. He finds five earlier poets mentioned by name in her works: Ovid, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, and Davenant; he assumes "that she had also read Spenser, Daniel, and Drayton"(113). In The Worlds Olio, Cavendish writes that Poetry:

is the finest work that Nature hath made for it animates the spirits to devotion, it fires the spirits to action, it begets love, it abates hate, it tempers anger, it assuageth grief, it easeth pain, increaseth joy, allays fear, and sweetens the whole life of man, by playing so well upon the brain as it strikes the strings of the heart with delight, which makes the heart to dance and keep the mind in tune, whereby the thoughts move equally in a round circle where Love sits in the midst as mistress, and judges (The Worlds Olio 65 qtd. Grant 111).

Grant also quotes from Sociable Letters, where Cavendish describes poets and philosophers as being one and the same, the wisest of men, "having so deep an insight as to pierce even into the secrets of nature" and the happiest, "having all the delights of the mind" (Sociable Letters 21-22 qtd. Grant111). This rapturous art seems far from the realm of "fancy" suitable for women writers Cavendish describes at the beginning of Poems, and Fancies. Perhaps her definition of poetry has changed,or perhaps she felt that strongly about the powers of poetry from the beginning.

Cavendish returned to Antwerp before the publication of Poems,and Fancies, her reason being that could no longer bear to be apart from Newcastle. Perhaps she felt apprehensive about the book's reception. Poems, and Fancies did cause a sensation. Dorothy Osborne, who disliked Cavendish because of her somewhat eccentric behavior and dress, wrote to William Temple on April 14th, 1653: "And first let me ask you if you have seen a book of Poems newly come out, made by Lady Newcastle. . . . for god sake if you meet with it send it me, they say 'tis ten times more extravagant than her dress" (Grant 126).

Sir Charles died in 1654, and his death brought some financial relief to Newcastle and Cavendish. Both indulged in publishing "lavish" editions of their work. The first edition of Newcastle's book of horsemanship cost £1,300 to print; Cavendish published five books between 1653 and 1656 (Mendelson 39). In 1659, with the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, the Marquis and the Marchioness returned to England. Newcastle found his influence at court greatly reduced; Charles II preferring to surround himself with younger, less morally restrained courtiers. Although Newcastle was deeply hurt by his exclusion from court matters, he made the best of the situation. He petitioned to have his estates restored, and having succeeded, retired to the country with Margaret. Immersed in their writing, their estate, and their happy marriage, they seldom left the country from that time forward.

There is one further incident in the life of Cavendish which deserves description, particularly since she is possibly more famous as the first woman to visit the Royal Society than she is as a writer. Newcastle and Cavendish took an extended trip to London in the spring of 1667, and Cavendish asked the Royal Society if she might be allowed to visit (Mendelson 45). The Royal Society had been formed in 1662 as a Baconian institution and a forum for experiments and essays to be shared by its members. The Society was, of course, all male, but after much debate, they invited the now-Duchess of Newcastle to their May 23rd meeting. Cavendish's many volumes on natural science were not seen as a reason to invite her; in fact, Mendelson suggests that she was invited in spite of her writing (46). Her rank, and the fact that Newcastle had many influential friends in the Society, assured her invitation. Cavendish was escorted to the Society meeting by Newcastle's friends Lord Berkeley and the Earl of Carlisle. Her dress was embellished by a train so long that six maids had to carry it in (Mendelson 46). Samuel Pepys, who had been racing around London for several days trying to catch a glimpse of the famous recluse, was disappointed by her appearance, and the fact that she said nothing except to express her admiration (47). The experiments which the Society had arranged for that day included the weighing of air, the dissolution of mutton in sulfuric acid, the demonstration of the power of a sixty-pound magnet, Robert Boyle illustrating his theory of colors, and Robert Hooke demonstrating his microscope (Mendelson 47).

Three hundred years would pass before the Royal Society invited another woman to visit one of their meetings.

Mendelson suggests that the visit had a profoundly negative effecton Cavendish:

The year before, in the preface to Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, Margaret had asserted that Hooke's microscopic investigations set forth in his Micrographia were the product of delusions. But the testimony of her own eyes proved that her methodology of "rational conjecture" was mistaken. . . . Margaret made her last attempt at a comprehensive synthesis of her theories in Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668), a much revised version of Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655). But after her visit to the Royal Society Margaret's succeeding scientific publications were second or third editions, not original works: she printed no new revelations on natural philosophy (47-48).

Mendelson does admit, eleven pages later, that Cavendish's chief occupation during the last years of her life was the management of her husband's estate, rather than science (59). Cavendish suffered from amenorrhea and melancholy, and despite her doctor's advice to the contrary, she bled herself regularly as treatment for these two conditions. This habit of bleeding might have hastened her death, and would have weakened her considerably in her later years. Regardless, Cavendish died in December of 1673, at age fifty. Newcastle outlived her by three years.


1. The biographical information included in this section, unless otherwise noted, has been drawn from: Mendelson, Sara Heller. The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies. Amherst: U Massachusetts P, 1987. The lengthiest treatment of Cavendish's life is found in: Grant, Douglas. Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle 1623-1673. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957. Grant and Mendelson offer valuable information on the life of Cavendish; however, they both pull quotations from Cavendish's creative work and present them as autobiography, an approach which I feel is problematic. My biographical sketch of Cavendish relies on Mendelson, and to a lesser extent Grant, insofar as they present facts not dependent on this approach.

2. See The Mental World of Stuart Women (Amherst: U Massachusetts P, 1987, pages 12-61) for Mendelson's complete discussion of Margaret Cavendish. I believe that Mendelson offers a thorough explanation of Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish's adult personality, and agree with her assessment that many of Cavendish's perceived eccentricities, which resulted in her being labelled "the Mad Duchess ofNewcastle," were in fact the result of her awareness of her social ineptitude, her painful shyness, and her sense of isolation.

3. Patricia Crawford. "Women's Published Writings 1600-1700." Women in English Society 1500-1800. Ed. Mary Prior. London: Methuen,1985.

4. Deborah Bazeley points out that the only other woman writing extensively on scientific theory was Anne Finch, Viscountess of Conway (1631-1679): "Although Finch's writings circulated in manuscript form among the Cambridge Platonists, and her theories were espoused by the likes of Francis von Helmont and Leibniz, only one of her works (Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy) was ever published. Translated into Latin and edited by her friend van Helmont, it was first published posthumously (and anonymously) in Amsterdam; two years later it was retranslated into English and published in London as the work of an (again anonymous) English countess 'learned beyond her sex.' Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on Finch and the significance of her scientific thought, contending that Leibniz's concept of the 'monad' derives from Finch's work. Jane Duran has recently supplemented Merchant's study with a follow-on piece contrasting Finch's version of monistic vitalism with Descartes' epistemology and metaphysics. Duran argues the 'superiority' of Finch's theory in numerous areas. Finch's New Science doctrine is at key points startlingly similar to that of Margaret Cavendish, and systematic comparison of their similarities and differences in articulating themes central from that point on to feminist philosophy could prove fascinating. Notably, certain key themes broached by Cavendish and Finch resurface at century end in the writings of the next feminist generation, in particular Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659-1708).. . . Even with the proliferation of 'she-philosophers' dating from about the 1690s on, there were, significantly, no further original contributions by English women in the field of scientific theory during the seventeenth century, and none at all during the first half of the eighteenth century" (Bazeley cf. 3).

5. The list of books and articles dealing with this topic is far too lengthy to be included here. A brief list of helpful books, both in terms of content and bibliography, would include Beilin, Fraser, Haselkorn and Travitsky, Henderson and McManus, Stone, Warnicke, and Wilson.

6. Stone's example is not an unusual one. In my research for this project, I have found Margaret Cavendish named as an example of a ridiculous learned lady more often than any other. Again, I think Mendelson's chapter on Cavendish takes positive steps toward dismissing the "mad Duchess" myth, but finally, it is only in the criticism which considers Cavendish as an important part of the history of science (Bazeley and Sarasohn) that Cavendish is presented as having a completely sane, albeit imaginative and curious, mind.

7. This list is drawn in part from the genres included in Travitsky's The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance.

8. For a more complete discussion of the idea of women writing as "masculine" and "immodest," see Mendelson's section "Writing as a Vocation" in her chapter on Cavendish in The Mental World of Stuart Women (pages 34-45).

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