In a man's world
The feminism, fiction, science and philosophy of Margaret Cavendish
31 August 2008
She does not offer answers, but instead suggests alternate ways of informing ourselves about the nature of the universe around us
One of the most interesting women in the history of natural philosophy was Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Although her time may seem remote to us now, her ideology, philosophy and desire to explore the true nature of the universe still have something to teach us about our current approaches to science in the 21st century.
Cavendish's life in the 17th century spanned a new consciousness within the world of science, politics and values that motivated her to disseminate and communicate, yet she was expected by society at large to conform to type and leave such heady awakenings to the world of men. In her autobiography, contained as a chapter in her work Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy, Maintained by Several Famous and Learned Authors of this Age (1664), Cavendish notes that her “breeding, or nature of upbringing, was according to my birth and the nature of my sex” (1). Typical of most genteel ladies of her time, she was educated at home in the feminine arts or “accomplishments”, created her own fashions, enjoyed reading on diverse subjects and wrote a number of histories that are notorious for their inaccuracies. However, the impact of science and then current philosophies in her life is evident from her fiction and application; though a woman, she was determined to escape the fetters of her sex and make a contribution on a par with those of her male contemporaries (2).
But life was not easy. Fleeing to France with Queen Henrietta Maria during the English Civil War, she later met and married William Cavendish in 1645. He was 53 and his bride was a young 22-year-old with a burning passion for knowledge. This was his second marriage, but it was obvious that he doted on Margaret and encouraged her in her scientific interests. These curiosities must have been obvious to him as he observed her as the queen’s maid of honour during his time in the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. The queen was a Neo-Platonist and this approach, no doubt discussed at length between Margaret and Henrietta and other ladies of the court, must have influenced Margaret greatly, illustrating the pleasures of intellectual activity no matter what the sex of a person (3). William and his brother Charles would spend hours with her discussing the latest news in natural philosophy and introducing her to the latest scientific concepts. When the family moved to Antwerp, they instigated what would later become known as “the Newcastle circle”, an informal meeting of great minds that included Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes and Pierre Gassendi (4).
Exposure to such genius must have had further intellectual impact, though it would seem from her writings that Margaret preferred her own opinions and directions in such matters, revealing a rather contradictory approach to science. Upon returning to England in 1651, she began working feverishly on plays, poems and her philosophical discourses. Whilst praising their virtues, she examines the philosophy of Descartes and Hobbes and argues within her 1653 text Philosophicall Fancies for the ultimate triumph of reason over that of experiment, becoming extremely distrustful of scientific instrumentation and the new worlds revealed by the telescope and the microscope (5). This was a theme she returned to in 1666 with her book Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Obviously, once she formed an opinion of something, it was difficult to change her mind. Perhaps this was the result of her witnessing the cut and thrust of scientific debate first-hand, leaving her emotionally drained and doubting the new knowledge with its arguments and counter-arguments which appeared to result in little resolution (6).
Despite her distrust, her many poems published in Poems and Fancies (1653) reflect her interest in the Cartesian view of the universe, albeit slightly out of touch with the truer and more scientific sense of this philosophy. These so-called “atomic poems” are in some senses a mishmash of Aristotelian and modern ideas. For example, in The foure principall Figur'd Atomes make the foure Elements, as Square, Round, Long, and Sharpe, she clings to the four elements of the ancients in an attempt to clarify the Cartesian philosophy and apply what elements make up which substance (7). She was not entirely serious in such opinions and observations, yet what her insights did reveal was an Epicurean view, obviously motivated by her discussions with Gassendi. These instilled her with an ideology that led to an agnostic view of the universe, – God being deemed unnecessary if all atoms have an intellect of their own and are individually animate (8). This view not only made her one of the first women in science to espouse a materialist philosophy, but set her apart from many in her day and led to increased personal attacks from critics of her literature, views and lifestyle. Nevertheless, she remained a woman of strong character and large ideas in an age where to be a woman with such was considered a quirky and rebellious thing.
Following her contradictory approach to this intellectual argument, Cavendish had ultimately rejected the atomist view by 1655, acknowledging in correspondence with Hobbes that its application could lead to political turmoil and the refutation of her aristocratic status – after all, if the atoms which make everything in the universe are independent and undirected, then are not all people equal? The repudiation of her status and mode of life was a sacrifice that was too much to make. Interestingly, it may not only have been the social effects of the atomist viewpoint, but the ethereal and unobservable nature of atoms that eventually swayed her mind against accepting their scientific reality, a stance that would also find echoes in the work and attitude of Ernst Mach two centuries later (9).
Cavendish was also interested in feminist issues; indeed, she could be regarded as one of the first feminists that her country had produced. In 1662 she wrote Playes and Orations of Divers Persons which was a diatribe for the liberation of women and their need for freedom and equality, yet which simultaneously made the paradoxical acknowledgment that the power of women lies primarily in their ability to bend men by love and romance (10). Her ideas outlined in this work were almost the muddled distillations of Descartes, Hobbes and others, yet her intent in her writing was to inform and communicate her thoughts, though not apparently to instruct her readers. Her outpourings are intended to convey a train of thought that will allow others to make up their own minds as to the nature of the philosophies and science of the day. They were, just like her observations of the disputes of the natural philosophers of her time, arguments advanced for a particular course and always open to counter-argument and nullifying evidence.
Margaret’s concern for the new philosophies (sciences) enabled her to gain access to the ultimate scientific bastion: she was invited to attend a session of the Royal Society of London in May of 1667, the first woman to so. Not content with the science of the day being “handed down” by the male-led establishment, she insisted on seeing how science was performed and communicated, perhaps hoping that the practical element was more revelatory than the musing and arguments she had experienced in the past. She must have paid close attention to the meeting in which Robert Boyle weighed air before presenting several other experiments and Robert Hooke dissolved mutton in sulphuric acid. Her attendance opened a floodgate of discussion and disagreement on the role of women in society and science that was not to be fully extirpated until the 20th century. Her insistence on inclusion and her political and scientific background – sparse, self taught and singular as they may seem – enabled women of the upper social classes, goaded by her example, to work for new freedoms, freedoms that she had encouraged through her “semy-circle”, a salon of ladies that hoped to influence future political and scientific direction (though most were drawn from her own household). At Bolsover Castle, one of the homes she shared with William, the reaction to such labours was evident amongst the household where, below stairs, she became known as “mad Madge”: perhaps the first mad female scientist (11).
Shortly after her Royal Society visit, she began work on A Description of a New World Called the Blazing World (1668), which can be considered one of the earliest pieces of feminist science fiction, telling the story of a voyage to a Utopian world in much the same way that Thomas More had done over 150 years prior. The book reflects her fascination with science, and the perceived role of women in society, giving her utopians a more liberated approach to the question of feminism. In it she criticizes the approaches and methods of science as much as the practitioners of such methods, bringing out the point that such experiments and philosophies must be directed toward problem solving, not merely being used as knowledge for knowledge’s sake (12). This mode was continued in her last work Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668) where she continued to rail against the rationalist and empirical approach of science and took issue with the emerging idea that man could master nature (13). These ideas were later independently developed and made more effective by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, in which he satirizes the scientists of the flying island of Laputia for the redundancy and apparent irrelevance of their knowledge, a reaction to scientific rationalism that has not disappeared completely from modern culture (14).
Her work set the mode, if not for science, then certainly for literary feminism for many years to come, influencing the later gothic and romantic writers such as Anne Radcliffe. Self-publication was one of the few ways in which any woman, let alone a lady of Cavendish’s stature, could make their political, social or scientific insights heard without bringing immediate condemnation upon themselves. These last fictional books were the culmination of her life and writings, encapsulating her hopes and desires for the rights of women and bequeathing a critical attitude to science and technology (15). Cavendish did not produce any other work after this and died in 1673, achieving the distinction of being buried in Westminster Abbey.
Cavenish's scientific achievements, if any, died with her, but her influence and questing nature managed to infiltrate society and had far-reaching effects. Though today Margaret Cavendish is treated with scorn by scientists and writers alike, there is a burgeoning movement which is beginning to realize the importance of her works as a feminist and natural philosopher. She is seen by such as an equal to her scientific contemporaries. Her methods, strange and humanistic as they seem, remain as an example of scientific critique which has a part to play in today’s onward rush of reductionism or subjective speculation which, for example, is playing an increasingly important role in cosmology. Margaret Cavendish reaches across the centuries to inform us that we do not know everything and that our current sciences may be an irrational or invalid tactic in dealing with the problems humanity now faces. She does not offer answers, but instead suggests alternate ways of informing ourselves about the nature of the universe around us and encourages us to contemplate our limits.
1. Cavendish M. Duchess of Newcastle Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy, Maintained by Several Famous and Learned Authors of this Age, London, 1664.
2. Alic M. Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, Beacon Press, 1986.
3. Kargon R. H. Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton, Clarendon, 1966.
4. Battigelli A. Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind, Kentucky University Press, 1998.
5. Meyer G. D. The Scientific Lady in England 1650-1760: An Account of her Rise, with emphasis on the Major Roles of the Telescope and Microscop, University of California Press, 1955.
6. Mendelson S. H. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle’, The Mental World of Three Stuart Women. Brighton: Harvester, 1987.
7. Cavendish M. Duchess of Newcastle Poems and Fancies, London, 1653.
8. Battigelli A. Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind, Kentucky University Press, 1998
9. Grant D. Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673, University of Toronto Press, 1957.
10. Cavendish M. Duchess of Newcastle Playes and Orations of Divers Persons, London 1662.
11. Bailey J. Bolsover Castle, Bolsover Derbyshire, English Heritage, 2000.
12. Cavendish M. Duchess of Newcastle Description of a New World, called The Blazing World, London, 1668.
13. Spielvogel J. J. Western Civilization, Cengage Learning, 2005.
14. Brake M. & Hook N. Difference Engines: How Fiction Drives Science and Science Drives Fiction, Macmillan, 2007.
15. Lerner G. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness – from the Middle Ages to 1870. Oxford University Press, 1993.