The Construction of Female Relationships in the Works of Margaret Cavendish
Margaret Cavendish has become renowned for many reasons; her eccentric personality, the sheer volume of literature that she produced and her fantastical scientific theories, to name a few. She is particularly renowned amongst feminist critics for the ambitious, independent heroines she created, such as those in the short stories 'The Contract' and 'Assaulted and Pursued Chastity' and in the novel The Blazing World. Yet what is striking about these heroines is their solitude and their lack of positive female relationships, leading them to be seen as exceptional and almost incredible figures. These heroines are often placed in opposition to, and are unable to form realistic and supportive friendships with, other women. The construction of female relationships in Cavendish's work both give the reader an insight into the position of women during the seventeenth century and into the personality of Cavendish herself.
One form of female relationship which is central to both 'The Contract' and 'Assaulted and Pursued Chastity' is that of the adversarial contest between current and future wives' (1). Both stories involve a conflict between the beautiful, youthful heroine and the older, wealthy wife of the hero, who must be disposed of before the hero and heroine can marry. In 'The Contract' the opposition between the two women is made clear immediately, the Duke's wife, though described as 'handsome', is also portrayed as being promiscuous; 'whose age made her more facile to younger lovers'. In contrast, Deletia, the heroine of the story, is described as talented, clever, beautiful and, more importantly, virtuous; 'if I had infringed the laws of honour, or broken the rules of modesty...then I should have lamented'. The disparagement of the Duchess continues when she is presented as having manipulated the Duke into marrying her; he was 'loath' to marry her but was 'overcome by several ways of subtlety', thus she is seen as deceitful and untrustworthy and the blame for the Duke's misdemeanour is placed firmly on her shoulders.
Furthermore, whereas Deletia is shown in the trial to be reasonable, eloquent and truthful, the Duchess is aggressive and unpleasant; she does not argue reasonably but simply insults Deletia for her youth and her 'low birth' which only serves to make Deletia appear better in the eyes of the court and of the reader. The Duchess is everything that Deletia is not, she is the antithesis of the romantic heroine and the reader is encouraged to have no sympathy with her despite the fact that her husband is about to leave her for another woman. Although she is married again at the end of the story, it seems that this is more for narrative symmetry and completion than for any other reason, and she is allowed no romance or love; 'since the law hath given your husband away, I will supply his place' is the Viceroy's less than romantic proposal.
Similarly, in 'Assaulted and Pursued Chastity' the heroine (who I shall refer to by her latter name of Travellia to avoid confusion) is set against the wife of the Prince. Although in this story the wife is a more shadowy figure who does not directly appear, she shares with the Duchess of 'The Contract' the fact that she is old and therefore undesirable, compared to the young and beautiful Travellia. Again, the Prince's actions are excused by the fact that he was forced to marry this woman who is 'well-stricken in years' and 'wedded more to interest than love' and no sympathy is spared for her even when she has died; the Prince's only reaction to her death is to feel that his 'doubts were turned to hope'. Thus, in both of these stories, the heroines success is dependant on the misfortune of another woman, a fact which tends to somewhat diminish their success.
Both Deletia and Travellia, and indeed the Empress of The Blazing World, are very solitary figures with no female friends or relatives (excepting the relationships between Travellia and the Queen of Amity and between the Empress and the Duchess which will be discussed later). Deletia has lost both of her parents when very young and is brought up by her elderly uncle, and Travellia is also an orphan and is eventually cared for by the old man she encounters on the ship. Whilst Travellia does come into contact with two women, neither are able to offer her any support; the first is the 'old bawd' who lures Travellia into prostitution and tries to corrupt her virtue for her own profit, and the second is the Prince's aunt who, though kind to Travellia, is unable to offer her any help as she desires to 'comply to (the Prince's) desires'. The Empress too is snatched away from her family and appears to have no female relationships in her new empire, until she meets the Duchess.
Perhaps the solitude of these heroines reflects Cavendish's own sense of solitude. She was a highly unconventional and individual woman, as she herself admits in her autobiography in which she says 'my actions are more than ordinary'. She also presents herself as a recluse; 'I being addicted from my childhood to contemplation rather than conversation, to solitariness rather than society'. It is suggested by some that this image of the lonely, melancholic genius was an attractive one in the seventeenth century and that Cavendish 'pictured herself as more reclusive than she actually was in order to reinforce the characterisation she was forming for herself as melancholic' (2). Whilst this is probably true to some extent, it also seems likely that Cavendish, as such an original and flamboyant woman and author, would have found it difficult to meet friends, particularly female friends, with a like mind, and would have thus experienced some sense of loneliness.
In addition to the scarcity of central female characters, the minor female characters are barely mentioned and are dismissed or belittled. For example, in 'The Contract' Deletia is not only set against the Duchess but also against the ladies at the masques, who are the only other women to appear in the book. When Deletia goes to the two masqued balls she is the centre of all the male attention, and is presented with sweetmeats 'as offerings to a goddess'. This causes all the other women - 'creatures not worthy to be regarded whilst she was there' - to become very jealous; they are in a 'bitter humour' and shoot 'forth words like bullets with the fire of anger'. These images present the women as being petty and miserable and inherently inferior to Deletia, thus undermining her success as a woman; she is incredibly beautiful, talented and clever, almost a goddess, so is she a realistic female character and heroine?
In 'Assaulted and Pursued Chastity' Cavendish treats the minor female characters rather differently, by dismissing them entirely. Whilst much detail is given of the men and of the animals of the strange world in which Travellia and her 'father' arrive, the only information given about the women is that the female slaves are very fruitful, never bearing 'less than two at a birth', and that the women are 'common to everyone's use'. Moreover, all the authority figures of this land - the governors, rulers, priests and wizards - are men. Even in the land of Amity, where the monarch is female, no other female characters are mentioned at all.
These elements are also present in The Blazing World in which, again, all the figures of importance - the natural philosophers, the chemists, the politicians and the mathematicians - are men. Furthermore, the women of the Blazing World are prevented from having 'employment in either Church or State' as 'they most commonly cause disturbance' in both these areas. This could be a subtle critique of the society in which Cavendish lived and certainly echoes the passage in Sociable Letters in which Cavendish seems to view the fact that women 'hold no Office, nor bear...any authority' as a form of freedom; 'if we be not Citizens in the Commonwealth, I know no reason we should be Subjects to the Commonwealth'. However, the issue is not pursued in the novel and the Empress makes no attempt to alter or improve the position of women in her world.
These portrayals of women are perhaps a reflection of Cavendish's own opinion of women. As Lisa Sarasohn points out, although Cavendish recognised that women were forced into a position of intellectual inferiority through the domination of men, she sometimes seemed to lose sight of this and often attacked other women in her literature(3). For example, in her autobiography, Cavendish criticises women for talking too much and for not being rational, and she describes their method of arguing as 'words rushing against words, thwarting and crossing each other, and pulling with reproches, striving to throw each other down with disgrace, thinking to advance themselves thereby' and calls for women to 'rationally ponder'. This exasperation Cavendish seems to have felt is perhaps why she tried to separate herself from other women by dressing and behaving unconventionally, and why her intellectual, rational heroines stand alone.
However, there are two exceptions to this; in 'Assaulted and Pursued Chastity' and The Blazing World the heroines do have important and successful relationships with other women, although neither of these relationships are simple or straightforward. Travellia's relationship with the Queen of Amity comes about when the heroine id disguised as a young man and the Queen falls in love with her. One of the central themes of this story is the exploration of the 'empowering possibilities of disguise' for women (4); Travellia, in disguise, is able to be inspiring spiritual leader and general of the Amitian army, and is also able to have a fulfilling relationship with another woman; they are able to share ideas, have rational discourses and emotionally support one another.
Yet they do not achieve these things as two female friends; their relationship is highly eroticised and the language they use very romantic; 'had you that love for me, as I have for you' laments the Queen, to whom Travellia replies, 'Beauty of your sex, and Nature's rarest piece'. What is particularly interesting is that Travellia seems so content with her disguise, she has every opportunity to reveal her true identity to the Queen yet she does not and she even feels that she is 'masculine and courageous'. Furthermore, the pronouns used to describe Travellia during this section of the story are often male; 'he told her his opinion was...' (my italics). Thus it seems that in order to have a relationship with a woman, a heroine must assume the character of a man, how to do this as a woman is explored in The Blazing World.
The Blazing World has been described as the first piece of Utopian fiction written by a woman, yet it could perhaps not be described as a 'female utopia', consisting as it does of a world of men dominated by one woman. This lack of female community is very noticeable in the book and is only relieved by the arrival of the Duchess, about half way through the story, which leads to a close friendship between her and the Empress. Again, the women are able to discuss philosophical issues rationally, they advise each other and they exchange platonic embraces and kisses.
However, the relationship is complicated by the fact that the Duchess is Cavendish herself, and as a character she does not seem to differ from the Empress in any way. They share similar thoughts, speak in the same way, and both have supportive yet largely absent husbands, Cavendish even expresses in her Epilogue to the novel that her ambition is to be Empress of her own world. Moreover, the two friends are described as being 'like several parts of one united body'; they are essentially the same character, through the Empress, Cavendish is able to live out her fantasy of absolute power. This again indicates Cavendish's loneliness and self-reliance, she is only able, or only wants, to turn to herself for female advice and support. She cannot imagine sharing her thought and ideas with another woman.
This can perhaps be seen as a result of the society in which Cavendish lived. The sixteenth century had seen the dissolution of the monasteries and the convents, removing a place where women could congregate away from men for independent activity an intellectual debate, and these were not replaced with any other kind of meeting place. Men of the seventeenth century had coffee houses where they could go to talk and to exchange ideas, but for women there was no equivalent. By increasingly encouraging women into the private sphere of the home and family, the patriarchal system offered no opportunity for female communities or groups. Of course, as a Duchess, Cavendish had more opportunity than many to travel and to meet people, but women like her were still an exception.
However, this does not entirely explain the lack of positive female relationships in Cavendish's work. Other women writers of the same period show a variety of female friendships in their work; Katharine Philips, for example, through her rather erotic portrayal of her friendship with Anne Owen, shows how women can emotionally and intellectually support each other. Another example is Aphra Behn, who shows, through the friendship of Helena and Florinda in The Rover, two women supporting and advising each other in their struggle against the boundaries imposed on them by their fathers and brothers.
Whilst male dominated societies certainly do not encourage spaces for
women's intellectual freedom, either physically or textually, the scarcity
of female relationships seems to be more closely linked to Cavendish herself.
As an eccentric and independent woman she seems to have lived before her
time, drawing much criticism from her contemporaries; Dorothy Osborne,
for example, famously wrote that there were 'many soberer people in Bedlam'
(5). Self-reliant and defiant, Cavendish recoursed to the world of
fiction and fantasy to fulfil her dreams, 'for which', as she says in her
Prologue to The Blazing World, 'nobody, I hope, will blame me'.
1. Lilley, xvii.
2. Fitzmaurice, 297.
3. Sarasohn, 201.
4. Lilley, xvii.
5. Osborne, 41.
Cavendish, Margaret. The Lives of William Cavendish, Duke of
Cavendish, Margaret. The Blazing World and Other Writings.
Kate Lilley, Ed.
Fitzmaurice, James. "Fancy and the Family: Self-characterisations
of Margaret Cavendish."
Lilley, Kate. "Introduction."
The Blazing World and Other
Osborne, Dorothy. Letters from Dorothy Osborne to Sir William
Sarasohn, Lisa. "A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminisma and the
Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish."
Snellgrove, L. E. The Early Modern Age.
Text copyright ©1999 Lora Davies. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.
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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on March 21, 2000.