Cavendish, Margaret (DNB00)
|←Cavendish, John (1732-1796)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 09
CAVENDISH, MARGARET, Duchess of Newcastle (1624?–1674), writer, was born at St. John's, near Colchester in Essex. Her father, Sir Thomas Lucas, whom in the autobiographical sketch appended to the first edition of her ‘Nature's Pictures, drawn by Fancy's Pencil to the Life,’ she calls ‘Master Lucas,’ a gentleman of large estates and much consideration, died when she was an infant. The youngest of a family of eight, consisting of three sons and five daughters, she was, according to her own account, bred by her mother ‘in plenty, or rather with superfluity,’ and received a training the influences of which are apparent in her life. In the autobiographical sketch a curious picture is afforded of the manner in which she and her sisters were trained, ‘virtuously, modestly, civilly, honourably, and on honest principles.’ Their dress was not only ‘neat and cleanly, fine and gay,’ but ‘rich and costly,’ their mother holding it more consonant with her husband's opinions to maintain her family ‘to the height of her estate, but not beyond it,’ and to bestow her substance on their ‘breeding, honest pleasures, and harmless delights,’ than to practise an economy which might chance to create ‘sharking qualities, mean thoughts, and base actions.’ At the hands of tutors the young ladies received all sorts of ‘vertues,’ as ‘singing, dancing, playing on musick, reading, writing, working, and the like,’ together with some knowledge of foreign languages. From her mother, Elizabeth, daughter of John Leighton, whom she describes as a woman of singular beauty, she inherited her good looks. Of the personal appearance of her brothers and sisters she gives a naïve description. According to this they were ‘every ways proportionable, likewise well featured, clear complexions, brown haires, but some lighter than others, sound teeth, sweet breaths, plain speeches, tunable voices, I mean not so much to sing as in speaking, as not stuttering, nor wharling in the throat, or speaking through the nose, or hoarsly unless they had a cold, or squeakingly, which impediments many have.’
The happy life at St. John's was interrupted by the outbreak of civil war. The brothers, two of whom were married, resided mostly, when in the country, with their mother, as did the three sisters who married, and who exercised over their youngest sister a supervision which though kind was so close that she was always bashful when out of their sight. But the brothers now joined the standard of the king, and two of them shortly afterwards died. Their death was followed by that of her mother, and anticipated by that of her eldest sister. A strong desire on the part of Margaret Lucas to be maid of honour to the queen was, in spite of the opposition of her brothers and sisters, encouraged by her mother, and when the young girl, disappointed at the life of court, and discontented at being regarded, owing to her shyness and prudery, as a ‘natural fool,’ repented of her wish, her mother counselled her to stay. For two years accordingly, 1643–5, Margaret Lucas remained in attendance upon Henrietta-Maria, whom she accompanied to Paris. Here, in April 1645, she first met her future husband, William Cavendish, marquis and subsequently duke of Newcastle [q. v.] From her brother, Lord Lucas, an animated account of her beauty and gifts had been received. The conquest of the marquis was accordingly soon effected, and the pair were married in Paris in 1645. During their residence in Paris, in Rotterdam, and in Antwerp, they were in constant pecuniary straits. The efforts of the marchioness to obtain money for her husband to keep up the state which, even when their joint fortunes were at their lowest, he held due to himself, were incessant. On one occasion, in company with her brother-in-law, Sir Charles Cavendish, she visited London for the purpose of claiming some subsistence out of the estate of the marquis, or in any manner realising money for her husband's needs. Her success was slight. As the wife of ‘the greatest traitor of England’ parliament would grant her no allowance, and she would have starved but for assistance in the shape of loans obtained by Sir Charles. After an absence of a year and a half she returned to Antwerp.
Upon the Restoration she followed, after some delay, her husband to England. She seems to have exercised her influence to induce him to retire from a court in which her virtues no less than her peculiarities rendered her somewhat of a laughing-stock; she desired him to devote himself in the country to the task of gathering together and repairing what he calls ‘the chips’ of his former estates. She died in London, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 7 Jan. 1673–4. In the north transept of that building is a monument erected by her husband, who survived her three years. The epitaph supplies a high tribute to her virtues and accomplishments, and adds, in words which Addison quotes with warm encomium: ‘Her name was Margaret Lucas youngest daughter of Lord Lucas, earl of Colchester, a noble family, for all the brothers were valiant, and all the sisters virtuous.’ At an early age she displayed some disposition towards literature, and wrote upon philosophical subjects. This tendency developed with her increasing years. During her banishment from England she found consolation in the composition of the folio volumes which bear her name, and the same occupation cheered the hours of her voluntary seclusion from court life. She is said in her later life to have ‘kept a great many young ladies about her person, who occasionally wrote what she dictated. Some of them slept in a room contiguous to that in which her grace lay, and were ready, at the call of her bell, to rise any hour of the night to write down her conceptions lest they should escape her memory’ (Cibber, Lives of the Poets, ii. 165). Her poems and plays, together with her ‘Philosophical Fancies,’ and her ‘Philosophical and Physical Opinions,’ and one or two other works, were written previous to or during her exile. The remainder are of later date. A full bibliography of her works has yet to be written. The following list of the editions published during her life is compiled from the British Museum and from Lowndes, supplemented by a private collection of her works: 1. ‘Philosophical Fancies,’ London, 21 May 1653, 8vo. 2. ‘Poems and Fancies,’ London, 1653, folio; second edition, London, 1664, folio; third edition, London, 1668, folio. 3. ‘Philosophical and Physical Opinions,’ London, 1655, folio; reprinted, London, 1663, folio. 4. ‘Nature's Pictures drawn by Fancie's Pencil to the Life,’ London, 1656 (some copies 1655), folio; second edition, London, 1671, folio. 5. ‘The World's Olio,’ London, 1655, folio; second edition, London, 1671, folio (Lowndes treats the two forementioned works as the same). 6. ‘Playes,’ London, 1662, folio, containing twenty-one plays. 7. ‘Plays never before printed,’ London, 1668, folio, containing five plays. 8. ‘Orations of Divers Sorts,’ London, 1662, folio (in some copies the date is 1663); second edition, 1668, fol. 9. ‘Philosophical Letters, or Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy maintained by several learned authors of the age,’ London, 1664, folio. 10. ‘CCXI Sociable Letters,’ London, 1664, folio. 11. ‘Observations upon Experimental Philosophy,’ to which is added the ‘Description of a New World,’ London, 1666, folio; second edition, 1668. 12. ‘The Life of William Cavendish, Duke, Marquis, and Earl of Newcastle, Earl of Ogle, Viscount Mansfield, and Baron of Bolsover, of Ogle, Bothal, and Hepple, &c.’ London, 1667, fol.; another edition, London, 1675, 4to. A Latin translation was published, London, 1668, fol. 13. ‘Grounds of Natural Philosophy,’ London, 1668, fol. This is a second edition, much altered, of ‘Philosophical and Physical Opinions.’ In many cases succeeding editions differ widely from the first. To point out alterations, or even to give the full titles of the various works, is impossible within reasonable limits. The ‘Select Poems’ of the duchess have been edited and reprinted at the Lee Priory Press, 8vo, 1813, as has the ‘True Relation of the Birth, Breeding, and Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, written by Herself’ (Lee Priory Press, 8vo, 1814), which saw the light in the first edition of ‘Nature's Pictures drawn by Fancie's Pencil,’ and is absent from the second edition. The life of the duchess, and that of the duke, edited by M. A. Lower, were both printed in a volume of the ‘Library of Old Authors’ of J. R. Smith, London, 1872, and the life of the duchess, with a selection from her poems, opinions, orations, and letters, edited by Mr. Edward Jenkins, was published in the same year. Mr. C. H. Firth edited a new edition of both lives in 1886. In these works so much of the literary baggage of the duchess as time will care to burden itself with is preserved. To the student of early literature the ponderous folios in which her writings exist will have a measure of the charm they had for Lamb. Through the quaintness and the conceits of her poems a pleasant light of fancy frequently breaks. Her fairy poems are good enough to rank with those of Herrick and Mennis, though scarcely with those of Shakespeare, as some enthusiasts have maintained. The thoughts, when they are not obscured by her ineradicable tendency to philosophise, are generous and noble, and she is one of the earliest writers to hint at the cruelty of field sports. In a paper in the ‘Connoisseur,’ in which a fanciful picture is afforded of the duchess mounting her Pegasus, Shakespeare and Milton are represented as aiding her to descend. The duchess then, at the request of Euterpe, reads her beautiful lines against ‘Melancholy.’ All the while these lines were repeating Milton seemed very attentive, and it was whispered by some that he was obliged for many of the thoughts in his ‘L'Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’ to this lady's ‘Dialogue between Mirth and Melancholy’ (Connoisseur, ii. 265, edit. 1774). This suggestion of indebtedness is, it is needless to say, futile. Her gnomical utterances are often thoughtful and pregnant. In her plays she is seen almost at her worst. The praise accorded her by Langbaine for the invention of her own plots is cheaply earned, since she could not have stolen them. Her characters are mere abstractions figuring certain virtues or vices. In a scene in the second part of ‘Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet,’ she appears under the character of Lady Sanspareile, and gives what may be supposed to be a picture of her own reception at court. As the Lady Contemplation in the play of that name, as the Lady Chastity of the ‘Matrimonial Trouble,’ and in a score other characters, the duchess is recognisable. Not seldom the speeches assigned the characters in her plays are as scholastic and as voluminous as her letters or her philosophical opinions. She does not hesitate to introduce wanton characters and to employ language which goes beyond coarseness. Her philosophy is the dead weight which drags her to the ground. In these deliveries an occasional piece of common sense is buried in avalanches of ignorance and extravagance. Her life of the duke is in its way a masterpiece. With it may be classed her autobiographical sketch, the naïveté and beauty of which are equal. Not easy is it to find a picture so faithful and attractive of an English interior. Not all the respect due to her husband's services to the crown, and to her own high position, could save her from some irreverence in the court of Charles II. Her occasional appearance in theatrical costume, and her reputation for purity of life, together with her vanity and affectation, contributed to gain her a reputation for madness. Horace Walpole, in ‘Royal and Noble Authors,’ sneers at her as a ‘fertile pedant.’ The duchess has been, however, the subject of the most unmixed adulation to which an author has often listened. A folio volume, entitled ‘Letters and Poems in Honour of the incomparable Princess Margaret, Dutchess of Newcastle, Written by several Persons of Honour and Learning. In the Savoy, 1676,’ consists of poems and letters, in English and Latin, written chiefly in acknowledgment of the receipt of presentation copies of her works by various people, including the senate of the university of Cambridge. Among those who are guilty of the most fulsome adulation are Henry More, Jasper Mayne, Jn. Glanville, G. Etherege, and Thomas Shadwell. Adulatory poems in plenty are also prefixed to her various volumes, a curious feature in which is the number of dedications to her husband, her companion the reader, philosophers in general, and others. Among her encomiasts are also Hobbes and Bishop Pearson. Portraits of the duchess, sometimes alone and at other times in the midst of her family, were appended to many of her volumes. These are ordinarily absent, however, and are scarcer than the volumes themselves, the rarity of some of which is excessive. A portrait of her by Diepenbeke in a theatrical habit, which she constantly wore, is still (1887) in existence at Welbeck. In the early catalogues of the gallery it is erroneously ascribed to Lely. An engraved portrait by Van Schuppen from Diepenbeke, prefixed to the second volume of her plays, exhibits her as a tall and strikingly handsome woman. Her description may indeed be read in that previously given of her family. Pepys gives an amusing account of the performance of her ‘silly play,’ ‘The Humourous Lovers,’ 30 March 1667, describes her, 12 April 1667, making ‘her respects to the players from her box,’ dwells upon her ‘footman in velvet coats and herself in an antique dress,’ and adds: ‘The whole story of this lady is a romance, and all she does is romantic.’ Three folio volumes of her poems are said to remain in manuscript, and volumes of her works, with manuscript notes in her handwriting, are in the British Museum Library. Her husband's poems are so mixed up with hers that it is not always easy to separate them. The married life of the duke and duchess seems to have been exceptionally happy. A story that the duke, in answer to congratulations upon the wisdom of his wife, replied, ‘Sir, a very wise woman is a very foolish thing,’ rests upon no very trustworthy authority—the ipse dixit of a Mr. Fellows, preserved by Jonathan Richardson. Walpole's charge, that she did not revise the copies of her works, lest it should disturb her later conceptions, rests on her own authority, and must accordingly be accepted. An attempt to render into Latin some of her works, other than her life of the duke, was commenced but abandoned.
[Works of the Duchess of Newcastle mentioned above; Langbaine's Lives of the Dramatic Poets; Ballard's Memoirs of British Ladies, 1775; Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors; The Connoisseur; Lowndes's Bibliographer's Manual; Letters and Poems in Honour of the Duchess of Newcastle, 1676; Stanley's Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey, 1868; other works cited.]