SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.2 (2000) 339-354

Margaret Cavendish's Dramatic Utopias
and the Politics of Gender

Erin Lang Bonin *

In a 1663 epistle addressed to scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, Margaret Cavendish compares herself and her female counterparts to "[b]irds in cages . . . [that] . . . hop up and down in our houses, not suffered to fly abroad to see the several changes of fortune."1 Cavendish then associates women's exclusion from universities with their negligible influence in all public contexts. "By an opinion, which I hope is but an erroneous one, in men," she observes, "[w]e are shut out of all power and authority; by reason we are never employed in either civil or martial affairs."2 In this passage, iron bars are a prison, but, in other texts, Cavendish transforms such "cages" into arenas of civil possibility for women. In three of her plays--The Female Academy (1662), Bell in Campo (1662), and The Convent of Pleasure (1668)--Cavendish reconfigures traditional distinctions between private and public by creating utopian heroines who take women's sequestration to extremes, completely insulating themselves from men's public spheres. 3 The literal and ideological partitions they construct result in new "publics" in which women wield political power and authority.

Like Cavendish's science fiction fantasy, The Blazing World (1666), the three plays demonstrate that utopia, as early modern men's texts construct it, is a highly conflicted space for her and for early modern women generally. 4 In contrast to Thomas More and his seventeenth-century imitators, Cavendish does not situate her utopian designs in the new world. For the most part, early modern island utopias depend upon carefully controlled heterosexual reproductive economies.5 Because such utopian narratives valorize natural law and depend upon patriarchal paradigms for marriage, family, and the state, they seldom question women's nature and place.6 [End Page 339]

The Female Academy, Bell in Campo, and The Convent of Pleasure wrest female characters from patriarchal economies to envision female political agency. The three plays feature separatist institutions that temporarily but explicitly reject marriage and family in order to accomplish their utopian projects. Because Cavendish positions all three institutions in opposition to patriarchal economies, she transforms her female characters from objects of exchange into utopian subjects. As Luce Irigaray might say, Cavendish's utopian plays imagine what would happen if the "'commodities' refused to go to 'market'" and "maintained 'another' kind of commerce, among themselves."7

By rejecting the island utopia so prevalent in seventeenth-century culture, Cavendish implicitly criticizes the form's nearly invisible foundation: women's political inferiority. Instead, she pieces together her utopian ideals within other discursive traditions. The Female Academy, Bell in Campo, and The Convent of Pleasure explore the utopian potential of figures often satirized in early modern England--the educated lady, the mannish woman, and the sensual nun. Because these types embody worlds turned upside down, they accommodate visions of societies in which women wield economic, political, and intellectual power. Within these satirical traditions, Cavendish constructs makeshift, ambiguous utopias that simultaneously challenge masculinist assumptions and imagine feminist possibilities. These utopias dissolve as the plays end, as if to demonstrate that culturally dominant modes of thought are dystopian for women. Succumbing to patriarchal pressures, Cavendish's utopian heroines eventually rejoin worlds turned right side up, worlds in which women are men's political inferiors.

Cavendish's educational utopia, The Female Academy, is a "House" where "academical ladies" gather "to speak wittily and rationally" (p. 653). The Academy is a "no place" in the strongest sense; it lacks a specific historical and geographical context and characters have no identity beyond "Antient Lady," "Academical Lady," or "Gentleman." This cultural vacuum envelops the play because Cavendish imagines something that has not been conceived before—an advanced educational institution for women.8 But Cavendish's female academicians endure patriarchal pressures that transcend time and place. Because these utopians retreat from the marriage market to enclose themselves in an all-women's space, their institution resists the larger culture. The play's male characters focus their fury not on the women's intellectual expression, but on their decision to take their bodies out of circulation. As one angry man puts it, "'Tis a sin against Nature for women to be Incloystered, Retired, or restrained . . . for if all women live Virgins, the race of Mankind will be utterly extinguished"

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(p. 659). For him, "Nature" demands compliance with the heterosexual reproductive economy and women who shun this structure are subversive. The men build a rival Gentlemen's Academy and the two institutions come to embody the binary opposition between male and female that troubles the play. Finally, they acquire an arsenal of trumpets and lay siege on the women's institution, blowing their horns so loudly that the ladies cannot "hear themselves speak" (p. 671).

The play suggests that the Female Academy is ill-equipped to sustain itself against these pressures, for its separatist gestures are incomplete. The institution's walls contain a "large open Grate," an architectural design that invites exchange with the larger world. The academical ladies' rhetoric, which reinforces the "natural" hierarchies of gender, adds an ideological permeability. Because the Female Academy launches only an insubstantial challenge to the heterosexual reproductive economy, it soon dissolves into a conventional, comedic ending. The gentlemen contact the Academy's matron, who seamlessly metamorphoses from a mediator into a marriage broker. She rewrites the Academy's initial proclaimed purpose, assuring her male listeners that the ladies' education will make them better wives. As the play ends, we suspect the institution's days are numbered. The Female Academy represents the perils of an ambiguous separatism, suggesting that rhetoric, in addition to walls and stone, is crucial for building a space for female thought and expression. A utopia for women, then, cannot exist in an "equal to" relationship with the outside world, but rather, must be radically "different from."

In Bell in Campo, which envisions women as participants in public life, Cavendish imagines the forms that "different from" might take. The play's setting fancifully echoes the recent Civil War, creating a context more specific than the blank placelessness that surrounds The Female Academy. Drawing from the war's cultural materials and contexts, Cavendish fashions masculinist spheres into separatist spaces for women. Her female characters take advantage of the disorder that war creates to build a women's commonwealth out of a masculinist militarism. The play converts spaces traditionally reserved for men's actions, such as the army camp, the garrison town, and the battlefield, into utopias that both accommodate women's political engagement and question "natural" gender hierarchies that bar them from this engagement in the first place.

Bell in Campo's militant constructivism responds to women's "natural" marginality in early modern political discourse. In her non-utopian texts, Cavendish herself endorses men's "natural" place in public, political realms, delegating women to private, domestic spheres. "Man is made to govern commonwealths, and women their private families," she writes in

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1655.9 She even asserts that women's bodies and sexualities appropriately marginalize them from public, political contexts. Two years after Bell in Campo, Cavendish links women's inability to govern to their mismanagement of their own bodies. "Women in state-affairs can do as they do with themselves," Cavendish contends, "they can disorder a state, as they do their bodies."10 As this remark implies, a woman's biology or "nature" determines her political behavior. Cavendish's utopianism, however, destabilizes this adherence to nature. Bell in Campo experiments with unnatural hybridities of place, body, language, and being. By playing war games that question what is "natural" for both sexes, the play's women utopians piece together a political authority and agency usually available only to men.

As Bell in Campo begins, Lady Victoria asks her husband, the Lord General, to allow her to follow him into battle. Because it is connected to one's sphere of influence, "nature" is the focal point of their ensuing quarrel. At first, Lady Victoria attempts to commandeer nature to legitimize her desires. "'Tis against Nature," she argues, "for husbands and wives to be away from one another" (p. 580). But her husband's counterargument makes her realize that the laws of nature do not sanction movement and action for women. "Nature hath made women like China, or Pursleyn," the Lord General says, "They must be used gently, and kept warily" (p. 580). Like other domestic ornaments, then, women should remain at home. Lady Victoria resists this image of fragility and fixity by attempting to domesticate the hardships associated with military activity. "The hard ground [will] feel as a Feather-Bed," she declares, "and the starry Sky a spangled Canopy, hot dayes a Stove to cure cold Agues" (p. 579). But even this argument does not earn her a place in the public, military sphere, and, for a while, she seems destined to remain at home with Madams Whiffell, Ruffell, and Jantil, female characters who seem content with masculinist definitions of women and with their own ornamental and fixed "natures."

In order to enact her desire for political agency, Lady Victoria rejects natural definitions of women and adopts a constructivist perspective. Modifying her previous argument, she suggests a woman's "nature" is not what she is but what others say about her. Commenting on feminine honor, she observes that a woman may be "as pure as light, or as innocent as Heaven," but, when the "Ink of aspersion is thrown, it sticks so fast, that the spots are never rubb'd out" (p. 581). This negative image suggests that a woman's identity and even her essence are constructed from without. Later, Lady Victoria refashions this thinking for her own purpose, theorizing that is not a woman's nature, but rather, her external conditions that limit her thought, expression, and action. "Had our education been answerable to [men's]," she argues, "we might have proved as good Souldiers and Privy

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Counsellers, Rulers and Commanders, Navigators and Architectors, and as learned Scholars both in Arts and Sciences, as men are" (p. 587). Lady Victoria maintains this constructivist perspective until the end of the play; her rhetoric and actions destabilize masculinist constructions of women, replacing them with her own feminist constructions. Because Bell in Campo is a utopian fantasy, her cultural machinations temporarily alter women's nature and place.

Lady Victoria launches her revolt when she and the other wives who wish to follow their husbands to the "frontiers of the Kingdome" are left in a garrison town "some two dayes journey from the Army" (p. 587). The garrison town is not the home the women have left behind them. As a liminal space between the public, military sphere and the private, domestic sphere, the garrison town seems to be a neat compromise between action and mere ornamentation. Nevertheless, the women are so "incensed" that they pelt their husbands with "vollies of angry words" (p. 587).

A brief look at the functions and cultural meanings of early modern garrison towns contextualizes the women's fury. As Charles Carlton points out, there were two general categories of military spaces during the English Civil War--the field army and the garrison town. 11 Bell in Campo's male troops resemble the field army, which marched across the countryside in search of a scuffle. Two gentlemen observers in the play admire this mobility, praising the field army's "light to be worn" armor, nimble horses, swift wagons, and tents made "so as to be suddenly put up, and as quickly pull'd down" (p. 579). As these material signs suggest, the male field army embodies movement and action, and it is a man's nature that positions him in this space.

In contrast, early moderns associated the garrison town with fixity, passivity, and the good life. 12 Unless the town was under siege, Carlton explains, garrison troops did not engage in battle. Because there were no military barracks, soldiers stationed in the garrison town lived in the citizens' houses, where they were fed and coddled. Although the garrison town was temporarily converted for war, domesticity predominated and continued to shape everyday life, so much so that soldiers' wives and children often lived at the garrison too. In Oxford, a royalist garrison where Cavendish herself lived for two years,girls and women ambled among the soldiers during military exercises. 13 The garrison town was a strange conflation of military and domestic, public and private spheres, a space so peaceful that it was often boring. 14 Bell in Campo's garrison town is boring too; Seigneur Valeroso and Lady Victoria both describe the space as "safe" and "secure." As a military sphere, it is gendered feminine. It is precisely this quality that angers Lady Victoria and the other women, for they wish

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to renounce women's "natural" need for security. They refuse to confine themselves to the garrison town and its domestic comforts because such an environment will give rise to qualities that men perceive as "natural" among women. As Lady Victoria explains, towns "breed or beget a tenderness of Bodies, and laziness of limbs, [and] luxurious Appetites" (p. 591).Instead, the women resolve to be "always intrenched abroad" in the surrounding countryside (p. 591). When they move to the margins of the garrison town, which is itself a liminal space, the women occupy a sphere that is not accounted for in domestic or military discourse. Here, in this ambiguous space, Lady Victoria and her followers fashion themselves into something other than "natural" women. They practice a militant constructivism, performing a hybrid sexuality that grants them access to the political engagement they desire. 15

To embody this hybrid sexuality, Cavendish appropriates the idea of the warrior woman, a figure present in popular ballads. Some warrior women, and many other early modern crossdressers for that matter, harbor unambiguous sexualities underneath their clothes. Dianne Dugaw argues that the plucky maids who pass themselves off as male soldiers in seventeenth-century popular ballads such as Mary Ambree are always "real" women underneath, and, when they conclude their military exploits, they are rewarded as such with good marriages. "The [female warrior] story," Dugaw maintains, "is placed within, and indeed ultimately justifies itself by the rules of the heterosexual, male-dominated social order." 16 Lady Victoria's army, however, is different. Their rhetoric and actions suggest they see themselves as separate from the "natural" economies of gender. Bell in Campo's stage directions and its gentleman chorus associate the women's radical separatism with a figure outside Western culture and its binaries: the Amazon. As an "Amazonian Army," Lady Victoria and her women position themselves as other, occupying a territory that is foreign to the world of the play.

The Female Army is "other" because its doctrines insist that masculine surfaces transform feminine essence. For them, culture has the capacity to alter nature. When Lady Victoria announces, "Now we are resolved to put ourselves into a Warlike body," she is, of course, referring to the women's collective effort to form an army (p. 594). But her resolution suggests that military trappings have the potential to metamorphose the female bodies that make up the army. Her faith in militarism's transformative powers is not unique in early modern culture. In 1650, for instance, Captain Abraham Stanton, a Civil War veteran, reports that "[m]yriads of men now bear arms that bore nothing but only shapes of men before." 17 For him, military training makes men out of beings who are not "real" men previously. Just so, Bell

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in Campo's women warriors perceive the armor they don as something much more than a temporary masculine veneer; it is part of a transformative, disciplinary regime. Women warriors, Lady Victoria announces, shall "wear [arms] at all times . . . they shall Sleep, Eat, and Rest, and march with them on their Bodies" (p. 590). Given that civil war armor can weigh twenty-four pounds or more, her order seems excessive. 18 But, as she explains, "more Masculine Souldiers are overcome by their Arms . . . for the unaccustomedness makes them unwieldy . . . whereas Custome will make them feel as light, as their skins on their Flesh, or their Flesh on their Bones" (p. 590). Lady Victoria's rationale is radical in two respects. First, the phrase "more masculine" implies that masculinity is not an either/or proposition, but rather, a matter of degree. This idea, of course, further destabilizes the notion of "natural," fixed, sexual identities. Second, Lady Victoria's language suggests that the armor can become part of, and thus transform, the army's female bodies into something "more masculine." Lady Victoria's warriors are not women, not men, but something else.

To represent this something else, the Female Army experiments with language, a crucial tool in their utopian project. In our first glimpse of the new military commonwealth, a "Reader" announces, "Noble Heroicks, these are the Laws our Generalless hath caused to be inscribed and read for everyone to observe and keep" (p. 590). Unlike the Female Academy's rhetoric, which substantiates the culture it claims to resist, Lady Victoria's language revises masculinist paradigms, buttressing her commonwealth's separate status. When she and her assistant explain the Female Army's rules, they begin to refer to the she-soldiers as "men." In subsequent speeches, they employ feminine designations, masculine designations, and strange linguistic hybrids that replicate their other gender games. Lady Victoria calls her soldiers "Noble Heroickesses" and she herself is referred to as "Tutoress," "Generalless," and "Instructeress" (pp. 588-9). In these instances, the play's speakers affix "ess," a linguistic mark of femininity, onto masculine identities. These linguistic hybrids simultaneously recall and problematize the binary opposition between male and female. Lady Victoria and her women do not erase "natural" sex and gender boundaries, but their utopianism celebrates their confusion.

For a moment, the culture the Female Army creates in the fields surrounding the garrison town turns Bell in Campo's larger world upside down. The warrior women create a space that is utopian because it offers women an alternative to the domestic sphere as well as opportunities for political agency. Among the Female Army's recruits are rural women from the surrounding countryside who join "either out of private and home discontents, or for honour and fame, or for the love of change, and as it were

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a new course of life" (p. 594).Thus fortified, the women "surprise, seize, and plunder" the garrison town intended to protect them (p. 595).Equipped with weapons and provisions, the Amazonian Army begins a march toward the frontiers of the kingdom. Agile and imposing, they resemble the men's field army, so much so that observers identify them not as women but as "boys" (p. 611). Significantly, the men's army falls into a fixity that the play's earlier moments associate with female subject positions; taken prisoner by the Kingdom of Faction, the men are in chains and their leader, the Lord General, "[lies] sick" (pp. 609, 611). Lady Victoria announces that the women have made "[them]selves equal with men" (p. 609). The she-soldiers, it seems, have challenged the gendered binary opposition that shapes the world of the play, and have made themselves the privileged term.

At precisely this point, the play begins to dismantle its utopian ideals. The dissolution begins when the men send their women a letter that describes them as "Goddesses on Earth, who have the power and dominion over men" (p. 616). But what seems to be a public show of political deference is really a standard move in the language of courtship. By calling the women warriors "Goddesses on Earth," the men's letter associates them with nature, reinscribing "natural" gender hierarchies and ignoring the radical potential of the women's utopian project.After the letter is read, a stage direction appears: "All the women fall into a great laughter, ha, ha, ha, ha" (p. 617). The laugh may encode derisive defiance, but it could also be a good-natured surrender. The second reading of this laugh becomes more plausible as the disorder that the women's military commonwealth has created begins to right itself in a conventional, comedic ending.

The dissolution of the women warriors' utopian project seems inescapable as both the male and female armies prepare to return home. For a while, it appears that Lady Victoria and her women warriors will be able to adapt the political agency they enjoyed in their military camp to more civilized contexts. "Lady Victoria shall be brought through the City in triumph," a gentleman observer says, and there "shall be a blank for the Female Army to write their desires and demands" (p. 627). When Lady Victoria reads her proclamations, however, she positions these desires and demands solely within the private, domestic sphere--women's "natural" place. Once defiantly outside the patriarchy, she now demands more power within it. Granted, Lady Victoria's insistence that women become "[mistresses] in their own Houses and Families" displays the vestiges of her earlier desires for political authority; in her brave, new world, a woman will sit at the head of the table, control the children and servants, maintain the finances, and attend any urban amusement she pleases. But the most striking aspects of Lady Victoria's utopian project linger only in her costume. A detailed stage

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direction clothes her in an embroidered short coat, buskins, and sandals (p. 631). Lady Victoria's performance, because it claims an androgyny and a public, political sovereignty, echoes her earlier utopian performances. But, the stage direction describing this costume is in the past tense; her utopia is already over.

Cavendish's utopianism resurfaces in The Convent of Pleasure, which appears in print four years after The Female Academy and Bell in Campo. The play takes place in a nunnery, a space historically and geographically distant from Cavendish and her contemporaries. Yet, even though real convents had been eradicated from the English landscape generations before, the institution harbored rich symbolic potential. The convent's status as a separate, potentially oppositional space, combined with impressions dating back to the medieval period, made it a locus for fantasies, desires, and fears about female sexuality and power. 19 As Bridget Hill has argued, seventeenth-century England sometimes idealized the convent as an arena for female education and as a safety net for a patriarchal society's surplus women. But the nunnery elicited mockery and revulsion as well. Because some women controlled conventual property and resources, outsiders associated the institution with economic mismanagement and corrupt opulence. And the Protestant valorization of marriage encouraged seventeenth-century England to regard the celibate nun with suspicion. Popular stories, ballads, and poems titillated with their tales of sexually insatiable nuns who refused to allow a mere cloister to impede their liaisons with men. Perhaps most frightening of all was the notion that women did not need men to satisfy their sexual desires. Indeed, homoeroticism often colored representations of the convent. The Henrican nunnery Andrew Marvell imagines in "Upon Appleton House," for instance, houses "subtle nuns" who court and almost seduce a "blooming virgin" before she is saved into a Protestant marriage. 20

The convent's utopian potential lies in its capacity to house forms of female authority and autonomy unthinkable in other social contexts. The Convent of Pleasure explores and develops utopian possibilities embedded in the institution's dubious reputation. The convent's walled exclusivity facilitates Cavendish's representation of a space aggressively separate from the heterosexual economy. The play reconfigures the relationship between women and property. Women are no longer mere appendages to their dowries, the means through which men transfer land, goods, and cash. Instead, women manage these commodities themselves in a community that eschews marriage. The play's early scenes represent marriage as a purely economic arrangement, in which the wife is the losing partner. As part of its disavowal of matrimonial romance, the play situates sexual desire in explicitly feminine contexts.

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The Convent of Pleasure's heroine, Lady Happy, begins the play firmly positioned within the heterosexual, reproductive economy. But she soon launches a resistance. As an "extream handsome, young, rich, and virtuous woman" who also happens to be an heiress, she is a valuable commodity in the multiple senses of the term. When she announces her intention to "incloister" herself from the "World," Lady Happy angers the patriarchy by taking her body and her possessions out of circulation (p. 3). She founds an institution open only to women on the margins of the patriarchy: maids and widows. Unlike the Female Academy, which expresses defiance through its architecture only, the convent's discourse reinforces its separatist stance. Lady Happy's rhetoric celebrates the convent's paradoxical walled freedom, refashioning marriage into the true cloister. "Marriage to those that are virtuous is a greater restraint than a Monastery," she insists (p. 3). Her incloistered women even stage a convent drama that depicts the physical and emotional pains of being a wife, redirecting female desires toward other spheres (pp. 24-30). Because the convent rejects marriage, it threatens larger political contexts. Monsieur Facil voices a masculinist conflation of family and state; when he hears of Lady Happy's retreat, he declares, "Let us see the Clergy to perswade her out, for the good of the Commonwealth" (p. 11).

Cavendish suggests the convent's pleasures are inaccessible, and even inconceivable to those positioned within the patriarchy. When Monsieur Courtly asks, "But is there no place where we may peak into the Convent?" Monsieur Adviser replies, "No, there are no Grates, but Brick and Stone-walls" (p. 19). Grates are absent by Lady Happy's decree, making her institution more insulated than the Female Academy, where perforated walls enable limited exchange. The convent is sealed not only from men, but from wives as well. As married women, Lady Amorous and Lady Virtue can only wonder about the delights within the convent. Their only glimpse of the convent comes through Madame Mediator, a widow who occupies a position inside and outside both the patriarchy and the convent. Madame Mediator has a limited capacity to describe the convent's rituals and pleasures to those firmly ensconced within the patriarchal economy: men, wives, and sometimes even the play's readers. But Madame Mediator's discourse provides only partial access to the utopian cloister. When Lady Virtue exclaims, "Well might I wish I might see and know, what Pleasures they enjoy," Madame Mediator responds, "If you were there, you could not know all their Pleasure in a short time, for their Varieties will require a long time to know their several Changes" (p. 17). Here, the widow's language is enticingly vague, suggesting the convent's "Varieties" of pleasure are unimaginable to those doomed to live outside its walls.

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The play hints that these "Varieties" of pleasure are homoerotic. Reading and interpreting signs encoding desire among women in The Convent of Pleasure, or any other early modern cultural artifact, is difficult. As Valerie Traub points out, "the conceptual framework within which was articulated an early modern discourse of female desire is radically different from that which governs our own modes of perception and experience." 21 But Traub argues that early modern female homoerotic desires are most visible to us when they are represented as resistant to the patriarchal economy, and she employs this theoretical perspective to read several male-authored plays of the period. 22 In Cavendish's The Convent of Pleasure, we find a woman's representation of female homoerotic desires, discernible to us precisely because she imagines them in opposition to marriage and family.

The convent's strict exclusionary rules and its cultural associations establish a homoerotic context, but Lady Happy's discourse also privileges desire among women. Although the convent includes a range of spaces and occupations, Lady Happy is preoccupied with the most private retreats and rituals. In contrast, Madame Mediator provides a comprehensive blueprint of the convent's structure and social configurations, describing the house, the grounds, and the economy (p. 12). When Lady Happy says, "Now give me leave to inform you, how I have order'd this our Convent of Pleasure," we expect her discourse to preside over all the arenas Madame Mediator describes (p. 13). Because language sustains a separate sphere, a doctrine similar to the one Lady Victoria utters to launch her military utopia seems to be in order. But, while Lady Victoria's proclamations delineate every aspect of public and private life, Lady Happy's decree focuses only on the convent's most private, potentially erotic spaces: "our Chambers" (p. 14). She explains in great detail how the furnishings, flowers, carpets, and, most importantly, the beds in the convent's chambers should be altered seasonally. To these copious aesthetic and sensual pleasures, Lady Happy adds "a great Looking-Glass in each Chamber, that we may view our selves and take pleasure in our own Beauties, whilst they are fresh and young" (p. 14). The looking glass may indulge only a simple narcissism, but it also negates heterosexual desire and hints at a determination to seek pleasure in homoerotic contexts only. Lady Happy uses the mirrors to renounce gendered binaries, focusing the convent's collective gaze on an economy that embraces female sexuality only.

The arrival of the Princess accentuates the convent's homoeroticism, for she and Lady Happy cultivate a friendship that rapidly develops into a passionate romance. To some extent, the Princess's androgynous qualities make the relationship similar to the heterosexual partnerships outside the convent's walls. Lady Happy calls her "my most Princely Lover, that's a

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She" and Madame Mediator comments on her "Masculine Presence" (pp. 23, 16). But, despite these androgynous references, the play does not dismantle the Princess's female identity until the denouement. In contrast to most crossdressing plots in early modern drama, we never see an initial scene in which a prince dons a woman's clothes and announces his intent to disguise himself in order to gain access to his beloved mistress. Thus, the romance between the Princess and Lady Happy has homoerotic potential and significance until the end of the play.

The convent's status as a homoerotic space rapidly dissipates when the Princess announces that s/he is really a Prince, a revelation that both legitimizes and undercuts the play's previous homoerotic moments. In some ways, The Convent of Pleasure possesses the elegiac, "always about to be betrayed" quality that Traub discerns in early modern representations of desire between women. 23 Indeed, the convent's fall begins well before its official dissolution. Although the "Princess" tolerates the convent's cultural productions, s/he undermines their separatist perspective. For instance, the "Princess" censures the incloistered women's renunciation of marriage. Upon seeing their play, s/he says, "I cannot in conscience approve of it; for though some few be unhappy in Marriage, yet their [sic] are many more that are so happy as they would not change their condition" (p. 25). "Her" critique influences the next convent drama; here, the players discard separatist discourse to stage a pastoral scene that enacts heterosexual paradigms for desire. They erect a phallic Maypole, ushering the patriarchy's valorization of fertility into their previously separatist space. The pastoral production obliterates the "Varieties" of pleasure that animate earlier moments in the play. Lady Happy even complements the "Princess's" capacity to quantify and order desire. "The Appetites you measure, / And weigh each several Pleasure," she sings to her "Shepherd" (p. 40). Lady Happy's celebration of a strictly defined and regulated desire rejects alternatives explored earlier in the play. When Madame Mediator finally reveals that a man has penetrated the convent's walls, a stage direction reads, "They all skip from each other, as afraid of each other; only the Princess and the Lady Happy stand still together" (p. 46). A man's presence and his implicit judgment initiates a panic that dismantles alliances between women. A heterosexual pair is the only part of the community that remains intact.

At this moment, as the convent dissolves, Lady Happy is strangely silent. Whether we attribute her ambiguous silence to an incapacity or to a reluctance to defend her separatist space, it is directly related to her views of nature. From The Convent of Pleasure's beginning, the men marshal natural law to justify the patriarchy. As Monsieur Take-pleasure reasons,

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"The Lady Happy is become a Votress to Nature; and if she be a Votress of Nature, she must be a Mistress to Men" (p. 12). Instead of questioning masculinist appeals to "nature," as Lady Victoria does in Bell in Campo, Lady Happy completely ignores them, taking for granted her own definitions. She simply declares, "I will serve Nature" (p. 6). Because Lady Happy does not explicitly challenge nature, her convent is vulnerable to masculinist censure. When she finds herself in love with the "Princess," she asks, "But why may not I love a Woman with the same affection as a Man?" She immediately answers herself, "No, no, Nature is Nature, and still will be / The same she was from all Eternity" (p. 32). Here, nature circumscribes desire and passes judgment, signaling the beginning of the conventual utopia's end.

In The Female Academy, Bell in Campo, and The Convent of Pleasure, "nature," a concept that conflates essentialism, determinism, and even female sexuality, consistently emerges in the struggles between masculinist and feminist perspectives. The male characters who wish to limit women's desires for education, political agency, and pleasure endorse nature's deterministic implications, often brandishing them as rhetorical weapons to combat women's separatist projects. In her scientific texts, Cavendish herself professes such determinism, often portraying nature as a fundamental force outside of culture that dictates the course of events. But Cavendish's thought takes a different turn in her dramatic utopias; here, nature's hallowed, inviolable status is up for debate. All three plays suggest that an adherence to nature perpetuates patriarchal economies. Because natural law positions women in domestic spheres Cavendish deems decidedly dystopian, her female utopians challenge nature. In order to construct separate, nondomestic spheres for themselves and their projects, her women characters subvert the cultural contexts and codes around them to question and sometimes redefine nature.

Each play's imaginary community is both a space for utopian possibilities and a forum that illustrates patriarchal pressures and their destructive effects. As such, Cavendish's dramatic utopias represent both fulfillment and frustration. In some ways, these textual spaces resemble the discursive opportunity that Bell in Campo's gentleman observer imagines when he proclaims, "There shall be a blank for the Female Army to write their desires and demands" (p. 627). Because they are partitioned off from patriarchal economies and their constraints, Cavendish's separatist institutions accommodate inscriptions of "feminist" political systems that are unthinkable or unrepresentable in other early modern contexts. But, even as the plays construct ideal spaces, they insist that no space, even an imagined, separatist utopia, is ever really "blank." The Female Academy, Bell in

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Campo, and The Convent of Pleasure insist that there is no tabula rasa outside culture available for unrestricted representations of female intellect, power, and sexuality. Cavendish's utopian heroines learn that their projects are always already circumscribed by cultural assumptions about female sexuality and identity. Although they perceive their makeshift communities in opposition to such assumptions, resisting and sometimes challenging culturally dominant modes of thought, all three plays stage utopia's end. The insistent impermanence of Cavendish's dramatic utopias suggests that women's desires are marginal, inappropriate, or even impossible to imagine and sustain outside of patriarchal contexts.

Erin Lang Bonin received her Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


* Thanks to Reid Barbour, Amy DeRogatis, Marya DeVoto, Barbara Harris, Megan Matchinske, James Truman, Hilary Wyss, Keith Zahniser, and David Zercher.

1. Margaret Cavendish, "Epistle to the Two Universities," rprt. in Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook/Constructions of Femininity in England, ed. Kate Aughterson (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 286-9, 288.

2. Ibid.

3. The Female Academy and Bell in Campo appear in Plays (London: John Martin, James Allestrye, and Thomas Dicas, 1662), and The Convent of Pleasure appears in Plays, Never before Printed (London: A. Maxwell, 1668). Hereafter, all references to these plays come from these editions and will be cited parenthetically in the text by page numbers. Elaine Hobby notes that Cavendish composed the 1662 plays during the 1650s, when she was a royalist exile in Antwerp. The 1668 plays were probably composed after her return to England in 1660, as they are somewhat influenced by Restoration theater. The plays were never performed on stage, and critics are divided as to whether Cavendish envisioned their production as she wrote them. Marta Straznicky dismisses the plays' performative qualities, arguing that they display the conventions of Commonwealth closet drama. In contrast, Sophie Tomlinson argues that the plays reflect Cavendish's extensive exposure to Caroline, Continental, and Restoration theater. Tomlinson points out that Cavendish saw plays in London before the war, masques in Henrietta Maria's court, and street theater in Antwerp. Furthermore, Cavendish may have learned the art of writing performable plays from her family. Her husband, William Cavendish, and her stepdaughters, Lady Jane Cavendish and Lady Elizabeth Brakeley, were all playwrights. See Hobby, Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing, 1646-1688 (London: Virago Press, 1988), pp. 105-6; Marta Straznicky, "Reading the Stage: Margaret Cavendish and Commonwealth Closet Drama," Criticism 37, 3 (Summer 1995): 355-90; and Sophie Tomlinson, "'My Brain the Stage': Margaret Cavendish and the Fantasy of Female Performance," in Women, Texts, and Histories: 1575-1760, ed. Clare Brant and Diane Purkiss (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 134-63, see particularly pp. 138-40.

4. For a comprehensive study of the utopian tradition, see Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1979). For assessments of utopian writing in Cavendish's time, see J. C. Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing, 1516-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981); and Amy Boesky, Founding Fictions: Utopias in Early Modern England (Athens and London: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1996). For a survey of women's contributions to the genre, see Kate Lilley, "Blazing Worlds: Seventeenth-Century Women's Utopian Writing," in Brant and Purkiss, pp. 102-33. For an excellent feminist critique of "utopia" as it is traditionally understood, see Lucy Sargisson, Contemporary Feminist Utopianism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

5. Davis points out that utopian social organization hinges upon patriarchal authority and, correspondingly, women's inferior political status in Thomas More's Utopia (1516), the utopian fragment in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), Samuel Gott's Nova Solyma (1648), and Gerrard Winstanley's The Law of Freedom (1652).

6. In this respect, we might compare utopian narratives to emergent social contract theories. In The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1988), Carole Pateman contends social contract theory relies upon women's subservience to their husbands. Because Enlightenment thought takes for granted this gendered inequality, women are not considered to be political subjects.

7. Luce Irigaray, "Commodities among Themselves," in This Sex which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 192-7, 196.

8. As Londa Schiebinger notes, proposals for women's colleges do not appear until the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. See Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex: Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 32-6.

9. Cavendish, The World's Olio (London, 1655).

10. Cavendish, "Letter IX" of CCXI Sociable Letters (1664), rprt. in The Cultural Identity of Seventeenth-Century Woman: A Reader, ed. N. H. Keeble (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 193.

11. Charles Carlton, Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-1651 (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

12. Carlton, pp. 150-5.

13. Cavendish lived in the royalist garrison, Oxford, between 1642 and 1644. See Kathleen Jones, A Glorious Fame: The Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673 (London: Bloomsbury, 1988).

14. Carlton, p. 150.

15. I am influenced by Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-81.

16. Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), p. 4.

17. Abraham Stanton, "Dedicatory Verse to Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Elton," quoted in Carlton, p. 5.

18. Carlton, pp. 99-100.

19. For histories of the early modern convent and English attitudes toward it, see Marie B. Rowlands, "Recusant Women 1540-1640," in Women in English Society, 1500-1800, ed. Mary Prior (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 145-80; Bridget Hill, "A Refuge from Men: The Idea of a Protestant Nunnery," Past and Present 117 (November 1987): 107-30; Patricia Crawford, Women and Religion in England, 1500-1720 (London and New York: Routledge, 1993); and JoAnn McNamara, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996).

20. Andrew Marvell, "Upon Appleton House," in The Complete Poems, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (London: Penguin, 1972), pp. 75-99, lines 85-280.

21. Valerie Traub, "The (In)Significance of 'Lesbian' Desire in Early Modern England," in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 62-83, 62.

22. Traub, p. 78.

23. Traub, p. 72.