Lucy Hughes-Hallett

The extraordinary life of 17th-century polymath Margaret Cavendish

Some thought her completely mad but others were transfixed by her wayward personality and idiosyncratic writings, in which she switched from factual narrative to phantasmagorical fiction and polemical plays

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish by Peter Lely, 1665. [Alamy]

Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century Duchess of Newcastle, has been described as a heroine whose every doing ‘is romantic’ (Samuel Pepys); as being ‘so distracted… that there are many soberer people in Bedlam’ (Lady Dorothy Temple); as looking like ‘a devil in a phantom masquerade’ (King Charles II); as ‘the great atheistical philosophraster’ (anonymous 17th-century gossip writer); as ‘a picture of foolish nobility’ (Horace Walpole); as ‘a giant cucumber’ (Virginia Woolf); as a ‘crack-brained, bird-witted… fantastical… crazy duchess’ (Woolf again) and as ‘the empress and authoress of a whole world’ (herself). She has been seen as that most tiresome of types, a ‘character’. But in this erudite and entertaining book, Francesca Peacock makes a persuasive case for her being, as well, an author whose work is as illuminating as it is unconventional.

Margaret loved to make a spectacle of herself. Peacock begins with a visit she made to London in 1667. She attended the opening of one of her plays, arriving in a chariot drawn by eight white bulls, with her breasts bared and her nipples painted scarlet. When she drove to court wearing a man’s jacket in black velvet, some hundred boys and girls ran behind her silver-ornamented carriage whooping and pointing. She was a ‘pageant’, wrote one man-about-town. But she was also a daring thinker, who refused to accept the snubs of the male-dominated establishment. That same week she attended a meeting of the Royal Society, the first woman to do so.

Alive to the injustices done to her sex, she played with ideas about lesbian separatism and polyamory

At a time when most female authors (whose books, writes Peacock, made up just 1.3 per cent of all those published) used the coy byline ‘A Lady’, Margaret wrote proudly under her own name, and commissioned engraved frontispieces for her works in which she appears flanked by Minerva, goddess of wisdom, or adored by putti who crown her with wreaths of bay.

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