Vic Keegan: Margaret Cavendish, singular scholar of Clerkenwell

Clerkenwell was the home of William Cavendish, the first Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1593-1676), where he lived in a mansion called Newcastle House (main image) which stood in today’s Clerkenwell Close except for a period of 18 years when, as a Royalist commander for Charles I, he fled to the continent to avoid the wrath of Oliver Cromwell. In Paris Cavendish met a remarkable woman, born Margaret Lucas from St John’s Abbey in Essex, whom he married there.

History has until recently been wantonly unkind to Margaret Cavendish who was a remarkable woman. She has been described as extravagant, flirtatious and obscene and a bluestocking “of the deepest dye” and was known as “Mad Madge” because of her eccentricities. These included requiring her footman to sleep in a closet in her bedroom so he could be summoned to write down any thoughts she had during the night.

She certainly had a lot of them. After returning to London with her husband following the Restoration, the duchess became a prolific author. She produced ten volumes of what have been described as “learned trifles and fantastic verses”, many of which were so short they might have come straight from her footman’s notes. Cavendish often sent copies of her work to distinguished people, sometimes receiving extravagant praise from them with their tongues in their cheeks. She also wrote plays, one of which, The Humourous Lovers, was described by diarist Samuel Pepys in 1667 as “the most silly thing that ever came upon a stage”.

But what was thought silly then is looked at differently today. Cavendish was an an early feminist, whose poems, plays and literary critiques are nowadays pored over for signs of deep insights. Her works and observations about natural science are today highly thought of. Her book The Blazing World is thought to be the first work of science fiction by a woman and a pioneer of the genre itself.

A long article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy written in 2009 admits that although Cavendish’s philosophical work was not taken seriously in the 17th century “it is certainly relevant today”. The duchess, it claims, laid out “an early and very compelling version of the naturalism that is found in current-day philosophy and science”. Among numerous other things she offered important insights that are relevant to recent discussions of the nature and characteristics of intelligence. The encyclopedia adds that she “anticipated some of the central views and arguments that are more commonly associated with figures like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume”.

Cavendish undoubtedly suffered from being a woman at a time when the scientific establishment didn’t take women seriously, but she had married into the Cavendish scientific dynasty which may help explain why she was invited to attend a meeting of the all-male Royal Society in May 1667 despite protests from many of the fellows. Pepys, who was present, recorded in his diary that her dress was “so antic and her deportment so unordinary” that the fellows were made strangely uneasy. They would have been, wouldn’t they? It was a couple of centuries before the experiment was repeated.

The Cavendishes divided their time between Clerkenwell and another property, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Newcastle House – not to be confused with the mansion of the same name which still stands on Lincoln’s Inn Fields – was built on, and indeed from, the ruins of St Mary’s Nunnery, which had passed into the ownership of the Cavendish family during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The duchess died at Welbeck in 1673, aged 50, and the duke three years later at Clerkenwell, aged 84.

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Margaret Cavendish’s legacy is honoured at Westminster Abbey. If you enter it using the north (tourist) entrance, on the left there is a tomb (pictured above) by Grinling Gibbons which is the resting place of the duke and duchess. Of Margaret it says: “This Duchess was a wife, a witty and learned lady which her many books do well testify.” She is shown holding an open book, a pen-case and ink horn to reference her literary output.

The website of the US-based International Margaret Cavendish Society can be explored here.

This article is the 13th of 25 being written by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in Holborn, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and St Giles, kindly supported by the Central District Alliance business improvement district, which serves those areas. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: CDA supported series, Culture

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