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Margaret Cavendish’s “French Connection” and Civil War Political Writing

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This chapter discusses the writings during the English Civil Wars of Margaret Cavendish, who accompanied Henrietta Maria in exile to France. Like Christine de Pizan, whose writings she may have known, she produced an extensive oeuvre in various genres. She registers her experience of civil war in her orations, essays, poetry, and plays, written during the 1650s and published after the Restoration in 1660. The Life of William Cavendish (1667), widely read by political and military historians of the English Civil Wars, corresponds closely to Christine’s life of Charles V. Despite her husband’s role as Charles I’s general and Charles II’s governor, Cavendish stakes out a position that might be characterized as “ambiguous royalism”; her position in fact tracks closely the aristocratic anti-monarchism of the frondeuses, active during her sojourn in France. By analyzing the shortcomings of Charles I as king and military leader, she counsels Charles II to avoid the mistakes his father made.

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  1. 1.

    On Cavendish as a royalist, see: Gallagher, “Embracing the Absolute”; James; and Chalmers. Scholars who emphasize her parliamentarian or republican sympathies include: Kahn, “Margaret Cavendish”; Norbrook, “Margaret Cavendish”; H. Smith, “A General War”; and L. Walters. Broad and Green consider Cavendish to be a royalist despite her criticisms of Charles I; they assess Cavendish’s response to the “horrors of civil war” to be a quest for “how to secure the obedience of subjects and maintain peace and order in civil society” (200).

  2. 2.

    On female petitioners to the Long Parliament, see Suzuki, Subordinate Subjects, 145–51.

  3. 3.

    An earlier generation of scholars, e.g., S. Smith, focused on the work’s significance as autobiography for the formation of modern subjectivity. More recently, G. Williams has shown that Cavendish’s title refers to those pamphlets whose titles began with “True Relation,” claiming to provide an accurate account of contemporary events (173). Similarly, pointing out the use of the term relazione for ambassadorial reports and other political documents, Reeves suggests that Cavendish “break[s] new ground in publishing a woman’s autobiography with a political dimension” (186, 192).

  4. 4.

    See also “An Elegy on my Brother, kill’d in these unhappy Warres” (Poems, 196).

  5. 5.

    In Sociable Letters 33, Cavendish praises “Lord C.C.”—presumably Charles Cavendish—“who Visits the Meritorious, Applauds the Worthy, Assists the Industrious, and the like, because he is a Generous Person” (84).

  6. 6.

    J. Crawford reads the Convent of Pleasure, in which Lady Happy has inherited the convent from her father, as advancing “unproblematic single-sex property rights” (Convents,” 202). Moreover, the emphasis on the luxurious appointments in the convent serves to imaginatively counterpoint the material ravages visited upon Cavendish’s natal home and her husband’s properties during the English Civil Wars (191).

  7. 7.

    See Scott-Douglass, “Enlarging Margaret,” 149, 164–69, on Cavendish, the femme forte, and the frondeuses; and Chalmers, 40–46, 52–53, on Cavendish’s use of the femme forte—as inflected by Henrietta Maria—in her plays and in one of her frontispiece portraits.

  8. 8.

    Cavendish may also have been keen to separate herself from the association of eroticism/sensuality with French. On this association, see Fleming.

  9. 9.

    In Sociable Letters 70, Cavendish satirically portrays “Mrs. H.O.” who behaves after “the French Mode” and “speaks French like a Native,” indicating that such women were considered to be self-dramatizing and frivolous. However, in another letter, she discusses reading a translation of a French book (Sociable Letters, 79, p.134). An analogous question is addressed by Hillman, French Reflections, 3: “there is no need to assume more than rudimentary competence in French on Shakespeare’s part in order to account for the ‘French’ elements hitherto identified in the plays.”

  10. 10.

    Although Barnes’ study of epistolary forms in early modern England includes chapters on both du Bosc and Cavendish, she identifies English letter collections such as Angel Day’s English Secretary (1586), rather than du Bosc, as Cavendish’s models (chaps. 3 and 5). Although I disagree with Barnes’ repeated assertion that Cavendish wrote in service of “restored Royalism,” her discussion of the translation of du Bosc as appealing to the French courtly culture around Henrietta Maria and its representation of female friendship as constituting an oppositional community is relevant for my argument concerning the importance of French culture for Cavendish’s political writings. By contrast, while Sperrazza mentions du Bosc along with other letter collections and epistolary manuals as Cavendish’s prototypes, she focuses on intimacy in female friendship (rather than its political implications) in Sociable Letters (456).

  11. 11.

    See Garrard, chap. 6, on Artemisia’s female allegories, including her well-known Allegory of Painting (1638–40), also executed in England, which depicts a “living painter who practices the art she represents” and which “bridges the gap between real and ideal by endowing a real woman with iconic power” (222, 224).

  12. 12.

    On Cavendish and Christine, see Scott-Douglass, “Self-Crowned Laureates”; and Broad and Green, 224.

  13. 13.

    For more on seventeenth-century frontispieces, including those in Le Moyne’s Gallerie and Scudéry’s Les Femmes illustres, see Conroy.

  14. 14.

    Cavendish’s self-representation is in stark contrast to the frontispiece portrait of Katherine Philips as a sculptured bust with her gaze averted (Fig. 5.1). However, since Philips’ edition was published posthumously, the choice of the portrait cannot be attributed to the author, as it can be in the case of Cavendish.

  15. 15.

    In the preface “To the Readers” to the English edition, A New Method and Extraordinary Invention, To Dress Horses (1667), William Cavendish states: “The Prince of Condé himself, with several Noble-men, and Officers, was pleased to take the pains to go twice to my Mannage: And though the French think, That all the Horse-manship in the World is in France; yet one of them, and he is a very great Man in his Country, was heard say, directing his Speech to me: Par Dieu (Monsieur) il est bien hardi qui monte devant vous” (c).

  16. 16.

    Sharon Seelig reads The Blazing World as a type of autobiography, a “dramatic self-imaging” for which “A True Relation” serves as prelude (144–45).

  17. 17.

    Line Cottegnies, “Brilliant Heterodoxy,” points out the many similarities between The Blazing World and Cyrano’s Histoire comique. Contenant les Estats et Empires de la Lune. She suggests that the Cavendishes and Cyrano “frequented the same circles” in France and that “Cavendish most probably had a translation of Cyrano’s book at her elbow” (111). However, “the potentially damning impact of being associated with Cyrano, given his notorious reputation as a libertine and an atheist” led Cavendish to omit a reference to him in the preface to the 1668 copies of The Blazing World (109–10).

  18. 18.

    On “A Dialogue of Birds,” see Suzuki, “Thinking Beings”; on “The Hunting of the Hare” and “The Hunting of the Stag” (also in Poems, and Fancies), see “Animals and the Political.”

  19. 19.

    This preface is not included in the English translation, A Triumphant Arch Erected and Consecrated to the Feminine Sexe (1656), whose translator’s preface emphasizes women’s “beauties” that have subdued “the Arms, Scepters, and Crowns of so many monarchs” (A3v) rather than women’s capacity for oratory. Breitenstein, however, calls attention to Scudéry’s project of “explor[ing] … gaps and fissures, giv[ing] voice to the silent insterstices” of the historical narrative by having the female figures speak for themselves (54).

  20. 20.

    Greenberg points out, concerning “the use of the name ‘Monsieur de Scudéry,’” that “the family name is accurate … the author’s identity is not lost, it is simply couched in a different sexual identity—a technique which resembles that of the young girl who, in so many stories, dressed in men’s clothing to accomplish so-called male deeds, all the time claiming to be her own brother” (40).

  21. 21.

    “Agripine au peuple Romain” is not included in the 1656 English translation. Scudéry undercuts her own “argument” that Agrippina speaks only as a grieving widow through the oration itself, where she asserts that Germanicus communicated his valor to her (so that she contributed to the defeat of Arminius, enemy of Rome), reminds her audience that she is “of the blood of Augustus” (her grandfather), and successfully incites the people to demand justice from the Senate and Tiberius against Piso, who was responsible for Germanicus’ death (379, 386–89). Indeed, nearing the conclusion of her oration, she exhorts her audience to punish Germanicus’ enemies, for he deserved consideration as “a grandson of Antony, a nephew of Augustus, and a husband of Agrippina (385; emphasis added).

  22. 22.

    According to Greenberg, Scudéry’s notion of a woman’s “glory” concerns “linguistic activity” (as opposed to passivity), “active participation in the articulation of history,” and “self-awareness over public approval” (43)—concepts relevant to Cavendish’s notion of “Fame.”

  23. 23.

    Against Cousin who considers the primary concern of Artamène to be love affairs among aristocrats and the glorification of French military tradition, DeJean, “La Fronde romanesque,” argues that the “frenetic” publication of its volumes and contemporary letters by Scudéry that record her political opinions indicate the political import of the romance vis-à-vis the Fronde, of significance since other commentaries were published considerably later.

  24. 24.

    Harth, Ideology and Culture, characterizes Artamène as a “Who’s Who of the Fronde” (97); she suggests that its topicality “fulfills the ambiguity of the word histoire”—as history and story (101). Cousin compares Motteville’s description of Longueville to Scudéry’s of Mandana (La Société française, 1:28–30).

  25. 25.

    Broad and Green, however, consider Scudéry to be a monarchist, reading back her celebratory writings concerning Louis XIV to her writings during the Fronde (chap. 8), paralleling their assessment of Cavendish as a royalist.

  26. 26.

    Accordingly, Gelbart throughout designates the opposition press of the eighteenth century “frondeur journalism.” See also Ranum, whose subtitle of his book on the Fronde is “A French Revolution, 1648–1652.”

  27. 27.

    Cavendish wrote Bell in Campo and Loves Adventures in the 1650s and included them in Playes (1662). On the implications for women’s political participation in Bell in Campo, see Suzuki, Subordinate Subjects, 189–91; and in Loves Adventures, see “Gender, the Dramatic Subject.”

  28. 28.

    Subsequently, in April 1652, James, duke of York, joined the French king’s army against the frondeurs (230). By contrast, Charles and Henrietta Maria sought to mediate between the two sides, with the expectation of receiving French aid in support of their efforts to regain the English crown; this attempt eventually broke down over Mazarin’s insistence on participating in the negotiations (230–32). In December 1652, Mazarin sent an ambassador to Cromwell, over the formal protest of Charles and his Council (241).

  29. 29.

    See Joanne Wright, “Darkness, Death,” on Cavendish’s “analysis of the nature of war, violence, politics, life, and death,” and in particular her representation of “the destiny of bodies after death” in the Orations (46–47).

  30. 30.

    On Cavendish’s “critical stance on war” in the Orations, Bell in Campo, and Sociable Letters, see Wright, “Questioning War.”

  31. 31.

    In The Worlds Olio, Cavendish reflects upon the difference between “Fame” derived from “valour” and from “wisdom,” judging the latter to be superior (3). She then proceeds to take up the question of to what degree authors are motivated by the desire to achieve “Fame,” implicitly linking “wisdom” with authorship.

  32. 32.

    However, in “Of forraign War” in The Worlds Olio, Cavendish elaborates on the corporate metaphorSeeAlsoSeeAlsobody politic to characterize foreign war as a purge of the body politicSeeAlsoSeeAlsocorporate metaphor—with both salutary and pernicious effects: “Forraign war is necessary some times to maintain Peace at home, opens the veins of discontents, and lets out the hot & fevourish amb[i]tion of the minde, which otherwise would grow to a dangerous, and mad rebellion; yet it makes most commonly a kingdom weak … if the purges be very strong, it makes them faint and feeble” (56).

  33. 33.

    For a fuller reading, including this essay’s relationship to Montaigne’s “Upon Some Verses of Vergil,” see Suzuki, “Essay Form.”

  34. 34.

    Newcastle had this self-defense printed along with a copy of the warrant for him by Fairfax.

  35. 35.

    Another parallel between the English Civil Wars and the Fronde lies in the importance of the increasingly grievous burden of the taille, the land tax on non-nobles, as a cause of the people’s support of the Parlement’s revolt against the regency.

  36. 36.

    Cavendish’s biting satire anticipates Swift’s in Book 4, chap. 5 of Gulliver’s Travels: “the trade of a soldier is held the most honourable of all others: because a soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can” (293). Swift goes on to satirize “law” (295). On Swift’s use of The Blazing World in Gulliver’s Travels, see Malcolmson, Studies of Skin Color, Appendix.

  37. 37.

    Cavendish states that these scenes were initially intended to be included in The Presence (which precedes the Scenes): “but by reason I found they would make that Play too long, I thought it requisite to Print them by themselves” (Plays, Never Before Printed, 93).

  38. 38.

    Jonathan Scott points out that contemporary to Locke, Algernon Sidney also made this argument (262).

  39. 39.

    Esposito contrasts this conception of the body politic with one that recalls James I’s: “If, for example, the ultimate evil is identified in the threat of insurrections and rioting, the health of the State will be viewed as residing in an order guaranteed by the control of the head over the other parts of the body” (121).

  40. 40.

    In The Second Part of the Lady Contemplation, published in the Playes (1662), Cavendish’s heroine significantly affirms the necessity of “policy”: “for without policy (which is deceit) there can be neither government in peace or war; wherefore it is a vertue in a States-man, or a Commander, to be a dissembler” (II,14, p. 222).

  41. 41.

    Ironic, because these were the very texts that Cavendish read and used in writing her works, by contrast to the literal-minded interlocutors who agree that reading history is useless: “Why such Books, since you are neither Greek nor Roman? So that those Histories, or Historians of other Nations will not benefit thee”; “what are their Wars, or Peace to us, unless the same Cause, the same Places, and the same Men, were again in our time?” (II.i, pp.12–13). We may detect an ironic echo of Machiavelli’s critique of those who fail to see the relevance of history: “as though heaven, the sun, the elements, and men had changed the order of their motions and power, and were different from what they were in ancient times” (Discourses, Preface to Book I, p.105).

  42. 42.

    Machiavelli radically departed from his predecessors, such as Brunetto Latini, who counseled against deception or only appearing to be virtuous (Skinner, 48). On Elizabeth and Machiavelli, see Janara.

  43. 43.

    An example of Elizabeth’s strategic doubleness—accurately captured by Cavendish—can be seen in the queen’s approach to the threat posed by Mary Stuart. In addressing Parliament, she surmised that had she and Mary been two milkmaids “with pails on [their] arms … [she] could not consent to [Mary’s] death” (188), while in the poem she arranged to be circulated in manuscript, “The Doubt of Future Foes,” she ominously threatened to “poll [the] top[]” of her rival (134).

  44. 44.

    Cavendish uses the phrase “Reason of State”—associated with Machiavelli through the title of Giovanni Botero’s attack on Machiavelli, Della ragion di stato (1589)—in Sociable Letters 75 (130). According to Skinner, Machiavelli’s predecessors, such as Petrarch and Alberti, invariably fit the ruler’s virtù into a Christian framework; Skinner considers Machiavelli’s reconception of virtù—to include fraud, dissimulation, and deceit—to be one of his most important innovations (92, 182–85).

  45. 45.

    In the Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan makes this very argument in defending Semiramis for marrying his son (1.15, p. 40).

  46. 46.

    See, for example, Chalmers: “her propensity for dialogic forms can make it hard confidently to identify her own particular opinion” (9).

  47. 47.

    For a more recent statement of Machiavelli’s republicanism, see McCormick.

  48. 48.

    For William’s Advice to Charles II, see An English Prince. Condren notes that there were many titles by Machiavelli in the catalogue of the auction of the library of the dukes of Newcastle, c.1718, including a Latin translation of The Prince. He further states, “in any case availability would not have been an issue by the time of the Interregnum, either in Italian, other languages, or by cribs, digests, and critiques” (“Casuistry,” 166n). Needless to say, these texts would also have been available to Margaret. On the Newcastle library, see also Crawford, “Margaret Cavendish’s Books.” On the reception of Machiavelli during the English Civil Wars, see Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, chap. 11.

  49. 49.

    According to Peter Burke, “Translating Histories,” anthologies of aphorisms taken from histories were published separately (134); seen in this light, Cavendish’s collections of William’s and her own aphorisms correspond to one of the various forms of history writing with which she was engaging in composing the Life.

  50. 50.

    Cavendish follows this statement with another that reiterates this opposition: “That those which have Politick Designs, are for the most part dishonest, by reason their Designs tend more to Interest, than Justice” (225).

  51. 51.

    On the Cavendishes’ literary collaboration as a “collaborative marriage,” see Masten, 158; and Billing.

  52. 52.

    J. Crawford, “Margaret Cavendish, Wife,” suggests that Cavendish conceived of the office of wife as a counselor to her husband.

  53. 53.

    On the Life’s “mixed genre”— the inclusion of “spreadsheets,” which detail William’s financial losses, and maxims by both William and Margaret—see Fitzmaurice, “Margaret Cavendish,” 93–98.

  54. 54.

    On the excoriating accounts in contemporary pamphlets of Newcastle’s retreat after his defeat at Marston Moor, see Bennett, 271–72.

  55. 55.

    In “A True Relation,” Cavendish repeatedly states that she is “addicted to contemplation” (384, 385); these statements confirm the link between Lady Contemplation and her author.

  56. 56.

    On Cavendish’s use of Plutarch in the Life (with William in the role of Caesar) and her engagement with Plutarch in Sociable Letters, see Fitzmaurice, “Margaret Cavendish’s Life,” 84–90.

  57. 57.

    On these corrections, see Fitzmaurice, “Margaret Cavendish,” 302–4. In the copy held by the British Library intended for Charles II (194.c.15)—with gilt-tooled calf-binding which has emblazoned on it “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” the motto of the Order of the Garter associated with the royal coat of arms—the passages are inked out in such a way that they are completely obliterated. In another, marked as having been owned by Thomas Grenville (1755–1846) (G1712), both passages are obliterated, but below the second one, the crossed-out text is supplied in manuscript (Fig. 4.4). After a military career, Grenville became an MP and a member of the Privy Council; he left his large and distinguished library of 20,000 volumes to the British Museum.

  58. 58.

    The 1675 edition omits altogether this inked-out passage and the marginal annotation.

  59. 59.

    In Book 2, Cavendish recounts how Henrietta Maria rejected Newcastle’s advice to seek help from Scotland: “my Lord delivered his sentiment, that he could perceive no other probability of procuring Forces for His Majesty, but an assistance of the Scots; But Her Majesty was pleased to answer my Lord, That he was too quick” (75).

  60. 60.

    As Chalmers states, “[a]t times the text takes on the format of an account book, setting out the money allegedly owed to Newcastle by his Stuart masters” (25).

  61. 61.

    Cavendish further notes that Newcastle was empowered to exercise sovereignty in having “the Power of Coyning, Printing, Knighting, &c. which never any Subject had before, also the Command of so many Counties … and the Power of placing and displacing what Governours and Commanders he pleased, and of constituting what Garisons he thought fit” (112).

  62. 62.

    On the differences between the political views of Cavendish and her husband, see H. Smith, “A General War.”

  63. 63.

    On the importance for political counsel of speaking the truth, parrhesia, and Foucault’s notion that it is the founding concept in the history of political thought, see Introduction.

  64. 64.

    Cavendish’s criticism of both Charles I and II for not recognizing in William what Cavendish calls “Merit” continues her criticism of Elizabeth for being influenced by her favorites in exiling Cavendish’s father and of James I for selling offices. In the opening sentence of “A True Relation,” she pointedly states that her father’s “Title is grounded and given by Merit, not by Princes; and ’tis the act of Time, not Favour” (368).

  65. 65.

    Cavendish had made a similar point in “The She-Anchoret,” where she recommends as privy counselors those who “had seen the several changes of Fortune” (as did William) and calls attention to the pernicious consequence of having favorites (such as Strafford, who was convicted of treason and executed): “they hate that particular person, as an Usurper, ingrossing wholly the King’s favour, which makes them think their Prince unjust, to give one man, that which ought to be distributed according to merit and worth” (328).

  66. 66.

    In “A True Relation,” Cavendish criticizes the “riot,” “hurlie burlie,” and “disorder” of “Kings Courts and Princes Palaces,” in contrast with the “method, & Temperance” and orderly living of her own family (369). Similarly, “The Tale of the Traveller” includes an extended satiric critique of “flattering and dissembling Courts” (277), promoting a retreat from court life to the privacy of companionate marriage. Just as Cavendish earlier in this tale brought a critical perspective on William’s military career, so here, she debunks his career as a courtier through the protagonist who, in incurring large debts to support his extravagant living above his means, represents a thinly veiled version of William. See also the satire of courtiers as frivolous and inconsequential in The Presence (Plays, 1668; I.ii, pp. 4–6).

  67. 67.

    On the oppositional nature of the “rhetoric of counsel” in the seventeenth century, see Condren, Language of Politics: in restricting the monarch’s prerogative and in enabling the councilor to claim political participation arising from independent judgment, the rhetoric of counsel “could approach something like a theory of sovereignty” (121).

  68. 68.

    On public and private interests in seventeenth-century politics, see Gunn. Of the frondeuses, Cavendish is closest to Motteville, both in the sophistication of her political analysis and her consciousness of contributing to posterity’s historical understanding of her own time.

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Suzuki, M. (2022). Margaret Cavendish’s “French Connection” and Civil War Political Writing. In: Antigone's Example. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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