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Margaret Cavendish, British women's writing, protofeminism


It might be said of the œuvre of Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673) and in loose, jocular paraphrase of Sigmund Freud that biography has been destiny. Certainly a great many people who study British literature today pay as much attention to the various, often brief, assessments of the life of the woman as to what she wrote. For those scholars who concentrate on canonical male writers of the seventeenth century, she remains as she has for the last fifty years or so—a colorful eccentric who goes by the nickname “Mad Madge.” She is, thus, sufficiently represented by the few poems, the snippet of autobiography, and the brief excerpt from a piece of speculative fiction called The Blazing World that are contained in the major teaching anthologies. Scholars whose interest in British women’s writing is rooted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are liable to believe that she conforms to Virginia Woolf’s notion of the isolated aristocratic woman writer: a sad creature locked away in a lonely country house and driven beyond rationality by an unremittingly patriarchal seventeenth-century society. For these scholars, she is summed up by a half dozen protofeminist extracts from her prefaces and by an equal number of other extracts that make light of the foibles of women. The writing is, alas, a pitiful collection of opposites and inconsistencies. For the small but growing number of scholars who undertake serious study of early women writers and who have had occasion to read a substantial amount of what Cavendish wrote, accounts of the life of the woman might appear to be less important than the writing itself. Those from this group who specialize in the history of science, for instance, often occupy themselves in trying to determine the exact nature of her writing on such topics as vitalism, and therefore might not be expected to show much interest in her life. On the other hand, the work of scientists was sometimes trivialized in the same way as the work of women. The history of science in the seventeenth century is, in part, the history of a struggle for respectability and is the story of people as much as the story of ideas.