Anna Battigelli. Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind. Lexington, Kentucky: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 180pp. $32(US) ISBN 0 813 12068 3 Cloth.Carrie Hintz
Battigelli, Anna. "Review of Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 16.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-3/hintzrev.htm>.
Anna Battigelli's intellectual biography of Margaret Cavendish is an important addition to Cavendish scholarship, and is of interest to any scholar doing work on early modern women. Battigelli argues that Cavendish used ostensibly private genres for political goals: "she could address matters of public interest while appearing to be engaged in private and subjective discourse" (9). Battigelli's balance of biographical, political, and literary concerns is well-sustained, and gives intelligent attention to Cavendish's self-presentation and intellectual contributions.
Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind begins with an opening chapter about Cavendish's early immersion in Henrietta Maria's cult of Platonic love (including valuable attention to the use of Neoplatonic ideas in masques and romances, and the tensions between active and contemplative heroines in her plays). For Cavendish, Henrietta Maria's interest in Neoplatonism illustrated the pleasures of intellectual activity--but also the danger of imposing intellectual ideas onto the world. Further chapters continue the story of Cavendish's negotiation between her mind and world, probing her connections to thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Gassendi and the Royal Society.
According to Battigelli, Cavendish's interest in science was primarily motivated by its illumination of her political and social environment. She saw atomism, for example, less as a theory of matter than as "a metaphor that might account for the conflict that governed her mind and her world" (60). As a model of matter divided into discrete particles, atomism could stand for the clashes of the English Civil War, and a tumultuous Hobbesian state of nature. Since atoms escape sense perception, they also indicate the need to avoid dogmatism when making empirical pronouncements. Despite the subjective nature of Cavendish's interest in early science, Battigelli argues that Cavendish made serious contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge in England. She was, for example, one of the first to import Gassendi's revival of Epicurean atomism from France into England: unlike her counterparts, Cavendish did not feel the need to purge atomism of suspected atheism.
Cavendish rejected atomism in 1655 because it might level the hierarchical order in which she believed; it could also threaten political stability. Exploring Cavendish's political influences, Battigelli offers a useful exploration of Cavendish's relationship to the work of Thomas Hobbes. Like many exiled royalists, Cavendish explored his work (despite his possible rejection of her friendly overtures) and was receptive to his justification of monarchical power. Hobbes and Cavendish shared pessimism about human nature, and an anxiety about ethical and linguistic relativism. They both worried, for example, about the power of atomism to create dispute, and to break down social order. Battigelli posits that Cavendish used narrative frames with multiple speakers to show multivocal disagreement and its consequences: "the inevitable problem of competing points of view and the controversy they create" (74). Battigelli's linkage of genre and political content when speaking about these narrative frames is both canny and convincing. Her appraisal of Cavendish's use of this genre could have benefitted from some more attention to other early modern uses of framing tales, such as Marguerite De Navarre's Heptameron, or even earlier frame narratives such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. How does Cavendish modify generic conventions of the framed tale, and how much is she fitting into them? In the final chapters, Battigelli explores Cavendish's rejection of empirical science in the Observations and New Blazing World.
- In the past, critics have cast Cavendish as a maverick voice, one whose flamboyant singularity made her at best isolated within her culture, and at worst a figure of fun. Battigelli's book portrays Cavendish as imbricated in her social and intellectual circle, but accounts for the impression of uniqueness Cavendish often exudes. Battigelli notes that Cavendish's modus operandi was "to engage people while keeping them at a comfortable distance" (7). The book might have been enhanced by more comparison between Cavendish and other seventeenth-century thinkers who worked from the rhetorical position of retreat, but Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind is such an original and trail-blazing book that it will certainly inspire scholars to begin making these comparisons. Battigelli's deep and meticulous scholarship brings her portrait of Cavendish alive, creating a compelling portrait of an important seventeenth-century thinker.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).