Genre’s “Phantastical Garb”: The Fashion of Form in Margaret Cavendish’s Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life[1]

Emily Smith
Emory University

Smith, Emily. "Genre’s “Phantastical Garb”: The Fashion of Form in Margaret Cavendish’s Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):6.1-40 <URL:>.

  1. Anticipating Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704) and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836), Margaret Cavendish’s Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life (1656) simultaneously is and is not about clothes.  In narratives including “The Contract,” “The Tale of a Traveler,” and “A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life,” Cavendish highlights the significant roles that fashion plays in characters’ modes of self-production and in their ability to be read by others.  The detailed images of clothing that abound in Natures Pictures are in part explained by the analogies that Cavendish makes between literal and literary tailoring processes in  the text’s lengthy paratext.[2]  Cavendish begins addressing her unique style of generic hybridity on the title page uses the text’s front matter to provide readers with ways of approaching her experimental style, often identifying the text itself (as she later identifies individual characters, including herself) as an object sewn together from various material and intellectual sources and in accordance with personally-generated rather than conventionally styled fashions.

  2. Natures Pictures opens with several dedicatory poems and epistles that highlight the ways in which writing, reading, and dressing are similar processes.  Cavendish sets up this relationship after foregrounding the fact that Natures Pictures is a text of extreme generic complexity.  On the title page, she describes Natures Pictures as containing
    several feigned Stories of Natural Descriptions, as Comical, Tragical, and Tragi-Comical, Poetical, Romantical, Philosophical, and Historical, both in Prose and Verse, some all Verse, some all Prose, some mixt, partly Prose, and partly Verse. Also, there are some Morals, and some Dialogues; but they are as the Advantage Loaves of Bread to a Bakers dozen; and a true Story at the latter end, wherein there is no Feignings. [unpaginated]
    Douglas Grant suggests that “a more specific and inclusive title could hardly have been devised,” and Emma L.E. Rees agrees with him, adding that the title “can only be designed to influence the mindset of the reader” and to delimit possible readings of the text.[3]  Can we say the same thing, though, for the following remarkably similar passage?
    The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited; Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light, for the law of writ and the liberty: these are the only men.  [II.ii.396-402]
    No one would suggest that Shakespeare circumscribes readers’ interpretations of Hamlet.  Through Polonius’s words, Shakespeare highlights the flexibility of drama as a medium but does not generically pin down Hamlet.  What Cavendish—like Shakespeare—offers is a sense of the multifarious expansiveness of a text whose construction hinges on complex mixings of modes.  
  3. Cavendish unites the wide range of generic categories listed on her title page by setting up an analogy between her writing process and tailoring:
    I have not endeavoured so much for the eloquence, and elegancy of speech, as the naturall and most usuall way of speaking, in severall Discourses, and ordinary Phrases; but perchance my Readers will say, or at least think I have dressed the several subjects of my Discourses too vulgar, or that the Garments, which is the language, is thread-bare: ’tis true, they are not drest up in constraint fashions, which are set phrases, nor tied up with hard words, nor bumbast sentences, but though they are carelesly, yet they are not loosely drest.  [unpaginated]
    Cavendish knows how to artfully manipulate the garments that clothe her ideas, and she carefully articulates the ways in which she avoids both “constraint fashions” and loose dressing.  By pointing out potential tensions between the subject matter and language of her narratives, Cavendish coyly suggests that her characters and her ideas are dressed to a purpose.  Moreover, she places an emphasis on what readers will not find in Natures Pictures—a tactic that allows her to set up an open-ended description of her work.  She does not actually tell her readers what to expect from Natures Pictures or delimit any fixed ways in which readers should approach the wide-ranging themes and modes that make up the complete text.  Instead, she emphasizes what linguistic and stylistic devices are absent: “set phrases,” “hard words,” “bumbast sentences,” and “loosely drest” discourses. 

  4. Despite this description, Cavendish does slip into a few of these attributes.  In particular, she uses “set phrases” and “hard words” when drawing her work into dialogue with a range of professional discourses.  Cavendish carefully deploys a strong battery of scientific and philosophical terms, and she also dips into styles such as rhymed, metered verse, legal discourse, and philosophical dialogue.  When writing in such specialized modes, she self-consciously modulates her voice according to linguistic and structural rules typical of these forms.  Why would an author that claims to speak only in “the natural and most usual way of speaking” draw fixed discursive modes into her text?  Perhaps, as her use of the words Garments, thread-bare, and drest suggest, she wants to show how delightfully fabrics that do not seem to match can be sewn together into a garment that gives the illusion of naturalness when handled by a competent tailor.

  5. The relationship between generic experimentation and sartorial eccentricity is not one entirely unique to Cavendish.  Most notably, Cavendish seems to respond to Miguel de Cervantes, in whose Don Quixote genre is frequently analogized with and even embedded in clothing.  Cervantes was a palpable presence in Cavendish’s youthful immersion in literature.[4]  In the section of Natures Pictures titled “Heavens Library, which is Fames Palace purged from Errors and Vices,” she acknowledges her authorial and imaginative debts to him by imitating the book burning that occurs in the first book of Don Quixote (1605).[5]  Moreover, when the gods who have instigated this process find Don Quixote, Jove proclaims that “all Romances should be cast out but Don Quixote, by reason he hath so wittily abused all other Romances, wherefore he shall be kept, and also have his Books writ in golden letters” (360).  Don Quixote provides Cavendish with a narrative model that is literally fashioned through the combination of modes and styles.  Early in book one, Cervantes uses a strikingly sartorial image to reveal the textual layering characteristic of his narrative strategies: Don Quixote’s mind is “tattered and torn,” much like the ragtag suit of armor he assembles for himself, and other characters have difficulties interpreting him because of the mixed nature of his costume.  The first innkeeper he meets is “worried by such a display of military apparatus” (10, 15).  Similarly, the reader confronted by the “tattered and torn” fragments from shepherds’ poems, romance novels, histories, and adventures of knight errantry experiences a literary equivalent of this anxiety.

  6. In Natures Pictures costume provides a material concept by which Cavendish unites a text of extreme variety and elaborate disconnection between genre, style, and theme.  The eleven books that comprise Natures Pictures vary tremendously in form: Cavendish brings together poems, comic prose narratives, philosophical and scientific narratives, romances, and fables.  Oftentimes, the narratives cannibalize traits from other modes.  Despite the generic breadth of these narratives, the recurrent role that clothing plays in them unifies the text.  Cavendish shows us that even though the text is contrived of unmatched and at times uneven components, its fibers are knitted together by a sense of self-fashioning through which female authority and identity become carefully bound up in literal fabrics and fashions.[6]  Because the text is a carefully compiled and arranged one, it is useful to examine how the metaphor systems that Cavendish elaborates in specific stories work together.  Beginning with analyses of “The Contract” and “The Tale of a Traveler,” this study moves toward a consideration of the double resonance of “A True Relation”  as “a true Story at the latter end, wherein there is no Feignings” and a deliberate addition to a narrative that is wildly self-conscious of its constitutive feigning.[7]   


  7. “The Contract” tells the story of Lady Deletia, a woman who goes unnamed through the bulk of the narrative and whose story is one (as her name implies) of erasure.  This erasure occurs in a several different ways.  A marriage contract is erased when the Duke ignores it and marries his mistress; Lady Deletia’s body and face are erased when he uncle encourages her to present herself “masqu’d, muffl’d, and scarf’d;” and the ethical lessons that Lady Deletia learns under her uncle’s tutelage are erased when she encounters the handsome yet profligate Duke (187).  In each of these acts of erasure, however, there is the possibility of revision: the Duke recalls the marriage contract when he sees how beautiful Lady Deletia is; Lady Deletia appears unmasked when her uncle wants her to make a grand entrance; and Lady Deletia’s education reappears when she finds herself in the courtroom, capaciously pulling her rhetorical tactics from her memories of the hearings she attended with her uncle. 

  8. In some ways, Lady Deletia functions as a site in which—as Catherine Gallagher succinctly argues in the context of other late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century authors—a “rhetoric of authorship” can be combined with “one of dispossession.”[8]  Lady Deletia is a cipher that is both deleted and deletory.  That is, she is obscured and erased by others’ editorial choices, and she is also capable of deleting aspects of the story that she does not like.  Lady Deletia represents the slipperiness of intelligibility; her story is erased and rewritten through her strategically selected and fashioned costumes.  Through Lady Deletia, Cavendish demonstrates how easily material surfaces—whether of the body or of the page—can be written and rewritten when one understands the manipulability of bodily and generic forms.   
  9. Before she acquires her name, Lady Deletia is given an education and an outfit.  Her uncle strives to make her a “Meteor of the Time” by taking her “to the Metropolitan City,” where he instructs her to remain anonymous: “you shall not appear to the World this two or three years: but go alwayes veiled, for the sight of thy Face will divulge thee” (186).  The knowledge that Lady Deletia acquires in the city is wide-ranging; her uncle discourages her from romances and toward lectures in physics, natural philosophy, chemistry, and music.  What is perhaps most critical, though, is her education in the externals of fashionable society.  Prompted by her uncle’s questioning, she tells him that the ladies and gallants she sees 
    pleased her Eyes for a time, and that their Dressings were like Bridal Houses, garnished and hung by some Ingenious Wit, and their Beauties were like fine Flowers drawn by the Pencil of Nature; but being not gathered by Acquaintance, said she, I know not whether they are vertuously sweet, or no; but as I pass by, I please my Eye, yet no other wayes than as senseless Objects; they entice me not to stay, and a short view satisfies the Appetite of the Senses, unless the rational and understanding part should be absent; but to me they seem but moving Statues.  [187]
    This is a neat social critique.  Lady Deletia, a relative neophyte to city life, sees the contrast between external and internal sweetness and positions herself as one not swayed by such sensory gratification.  Subtler is the connection between Lady Deletia’s critique and the full title of Natures Pictures, which again is Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life.  Lady Deletia here comments on the transitory nature of “Flowers drawn by the Pencil of Nature,” while Cavendish’s title reminds us how images made by “Fancies Pencil” can be made permanent: they can be published. 

  10. Lady Deletia learns how to manipulate her corporeal style in order to control her cultural intelligibility when her uncle suggests she needs to dress herself carefully for her first unveiled appearance in public, at a court masque.  Lady Deletia chooses her first costume to test out her beauty: she decides to dress completely in black so that she can gauge people’s response to her beauty rather than to the gaiety of her clothing.  Her uncle immediately sees that this attire suits her.  She looks, he thinks, “like the Sun when he breaks through a dark Cloud” (190).[9]  With this in mind, her uncle considers how to make sure that this interpretation is shared by all who see Lady Deletia.  He tells her to “throw your Hood over your Face” so that she can dramatically appear upon entry and disappear when leaving the crowd (190).  Her uncle’s calculations are correct.  Using her hood to control the amount of access observers have to her face, Lady Deletia becomes a cipher to which everyone wants to affix his or her own meanings and values.

  11. After this initial experiment, Lady Deletia becomes increasingly more confident in the combined power she has to form onlookers’ opinions about her by carefully calculating the effects of artificial fashioning on her natural beauty.  She tells her uncle that “I must have another new Gown,” to which he eagerly acquiesces (192).  After being given creative control over her attire, Lady Deletia “dres’d her self this time all in white Sattin, all imbroydered with Silver” (192).[10]  Although Cavendish does not delineate the logic underlying Lady Deletia’s choice, she does show us how her uncle serves as a hermeneutical barometer once again: he interprets her costume’s figurative value when he compares her form with “Heaven stuck with Stars” (193), and his response predicts the effects her well-dressed form will have on the Duke and the Viceroy.  Through this gown, as white as paper and overwritten in silver embroidery with unintelligible yet divine signs, Lady Deletia’s body is written into being as something nearly divine in its spectacular beauty.  
  12. Dressed in her white embroidered gown, Lady Deletia “produced the same effects as a Burning glass; for the Beams of all Eyes were drawn together, as one Point placed in her Face, and by reflection she sent a burning heat, and fired every Heart” (193).  The burning-glass was a lens or a concave mirror, either of which could immolate combustible objects by concentrating sunlight on them.  Tools with simple scientific properties like this could be used as parts of the smoke-and-mirror acts that seventeenth-century scientists used when they wanted to generate thrills in their audiences.  Connecting Lady Deletia’s effects on her observers with a burning-glass allows Cavendish to foreground the ways in which costume can import qualities of scientific discourse, dramatic convention, and religious ritual.  Cavendish seamlessly combines these discourses and rapidly moves from science to theatre to devotion by paying attention to the physical appearance of Lady Deletia’s body. 

  13. With the initial comparison drawn between Lady Deletia’s carefully dressed form and the burning-glass, Cavendish anticipates the sort of experiments that members of the Royal Society would display for onlookers like Cavendish herself.[11]  The Royal Society’s experiments often depended on sensory-altering tools, like “Otocusticons, or Instruments to improve the sense of hearing” and “an Instrument for grinding Optick-glasses: a double Telescope: several excellent Telescopes of divers lengths, of six, twelve, twenty eight, thirty six, sixty foot long, with a convenient Apparatus for the managing of them” (250), all of which Thomas Spratt describes in a lengthy catalogue of instruments used by members of the Royal Society.  Despite Cavendish’s interest in science, she frequently criticizes experiments designed to create spectacle rather than to advance knowledge.  By linking Lady Deletia to an experiment more impressive in form than in function, Cavendish highlights the performable aspect of science, which would shortly become the Royal Society’s modus operandi.  Further, she emphasizes that sometimes the metaphoric resonances of scientific phenomena are more significant than the science itself.  The fact that a burning-glass directs light in such a way as to inflame any combustible object is less important than the imagistic attributes that the burning-glass is invested with, in both its comparative qualities (Lady Deletia’s effect is like that of the burning-glass) and its literary uses.[12]  The image has basic scientific properties, but it is the combination of scientific and theatrical convention through which Lady Deletia and her uncle impress their audience.

  14. After this juncture is made between Lady Deletia’s carefully costumed body and the range of discourses that come into dialogue in “The Contract,” descriptions of clothing suddenly vanish from the text.  Lady Deletia’s body becomes fixed.  Not coincidentally, it is not long after the ball that we first learn her name, and from this point on Lady Deletia stops being a text overwritten with fashions and starts acting as a reader and producer of texts.  She tells her uncle that she takes her “Text out of Virtue” when making decisions; she takes up “Pen, Ink, and Paper” to respond to the Duke’s amatory letter; and she articulates her points in stylized legal discourse when the marriage contract leads her into a courtroom (195, 199, 209).  By tracing this trajectory from fashion to discourse, “The Contract” demonstrates how a woman can transform from sign to signifier and suggests that communicating through bodily decoration is part of a process leading toward written communication and public discourse rather than an end in itself. 


  15. Two books separate “The Contract” from “The Tale of a Traveler”: “The Ambitious Traitor” (the seventh book) and “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity” (the eighth book).  Because “The Tale of a Traveler” relates the adventures of a central male character, it can be usefully counterpoised against “The Contract” and other of Cavendish’s narratives in which women take on masculine attire such as Bell in Campo (1662) and The Convent of Pleasure (1668).  Much as gender becomes a category reformulated according to conventions of clothing and of genre in those texts, class is rendered unfixed in “The Tale of a Traveler.”  Obliquely Cavendish thus takes a look at the late sixteenth-century sumptuary laws in this narrative, but what makes Cavendish’s take on the interconnectedness of clothing and class mobility striking is her repeated integration of intelligibility into her designs of costume. [13]  

  16. Cavendish’s traveler is a man who is born poor and educated at a free school, where his inept tutors “bur[ied] the knowledge and understanding, in the confusion of many words, and severall Languages” (273).  After spending four years at university, he feels that he has been cloistered and wishes to interact with the world, so he begins traveling “into forraign Countryes, to see the varieties and curiosities therein” (274).  He then to live in his ancestral homes and use his money to fabricate an identity for himself, which he does—he selects fine garments for himself and gives “phantasticall Liveries” to his many “Pages, Lackays, and Groomes” so that he can find a position for himself at court (276).  He marks the bodies of his servants with a design that implies worth through ostentation, originality, and eccentricity.

  17. For Cavendish, the word phantastical doubly invokes science and fantasy.  During the seventeenth century, the word circulated in texts that dealt with questions typically asked by scientists and philosophers concerning the nature of things.  Several years after the publication of Natures Pictures, the word became even more loaded with scientific connotations when Robert Hooke used it in his Micrographia, or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies (1665).  In the course of this text, Hooke makes some observations “of fantastical colors” (unpaginated).  Cavendish responded to Hooke and other members of the Royal Society with her own scientific treatise, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy.  To which is added, The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World (1666).[14]  Phantastical takes on accumulated generic senses in the manifesto-style letter to the reader annexed to The Blazing World
    But lest my Fancy should stray too much, I chose such a Fiction as would be agreeable to the subject treated of in the former parts; it is a Description of a New World not such as Lucian’s, or the French-man’s World in the Moon; but a World of my own Creating, which I call the Blazing World: the first part whereof is Romancical, the second Philosophical, and the third is merely fancy, or (as I may call it) Fantastical, which if it add any satisfaction to you, I shall account my self a happy creatoress; If not, I must be content to live a melancholy Life in my own World.  [unpaginated]
    Through her use of somewhat obscure, specialized words throughout this passage, Cavendish interlinks references to and subversions of language typically used in philosophical and scientific discourses.  Cavendish recognizes that she has taken the language of science and inflected it with her own meaning; her use of the phrase “as I may call it” invests the term phantastical with an idiolectical value. 

  18. Cavendish deploys the word phantastical twice more in “The Tale of a Traveler,” both times in descriptions of clothing.  The first reference comes when the man inwardly recoils against his former friends for their profligacy.  He discovers them behaving like “compleat and absolute fools” dressed in their “phantasticall garbes,” which catalyzes him to return to his “native Soil” (277).  This is a point of rupture in the narrative: the “phantasticall liveries” of the man’s own servants, overwritten with designs that help the man achieve class mobility, vanish from the text.  These liveries are replaced by “phantasticall garbes,” critiqued for their excessiveness and impracticality.    

  19. Without the traveler’s initial cognizance but with plenty of Cavendish’s trenchant wryness, the poorer people whom the traveler encounters in the country transform their own coarse woolen clothes into texts that communicate foibles, pride, excess, and idiosyncrasy or difference.  Although Cavendish never calls the heavy woolen attire prevalent among “the lusty Lasses, and merry good Wives” and “men with cloth breeches and leather doublets” phantastical, there is an implied sense of fashionable excess insofar as it fits in these country people’s means (278).  The women “were drest in all their bravery, in their stammell petticoats and their grey Cloth-wascoates or white wascoats wrought with blackworsted, and green aprons,” and the men’s leather doublets were embellished with “peuter buttons.”  By associating the term bravery, which would have implied finery and embellishment as well as gallantry, with the women’s practical and inexpensive clothing Cavendish cuts through simplistic readings of classed values.  The rural acquaintances that the traveler meets care as much about display and ostentation as his rich friends do—they simply write their bodies and meanings into being with red petticoats, roughly sewn but ornately embroidered garments, and pewter buttons rather than more “phantasticall garbes.”[15]  Regardless of the material used, Cavendish implies, individuals invest their bodies with intelligible meanings by manipulating conventional material signs.

  20. Rather than represent a conventional pastoral fantasy of rural wholesomeness in this interval, Cavendish anatomizes the countrywomen’s sartorial bravery so much that it can almost be referred to as what Douglas Bruster calls embodied writing.[16]  Bruster writes specifically about texts like blazons, in which the body appears in all of its sensuous extremes under either a mythical or otherwise fictional name.  Cavendish achieves a similar effect here. She makes the bodies of her lusty lasses, merry good wives, and country men (all described as types rather than individuals by name but given fully individuated physical, social, and psychological aspects) into figures that in Bruster’s words “collapse the traditional distance between bodies and texts” (50).  By collapsing this distance, Cavendish shows how very little difference she sees between writing about writing and writing about clothing. 

  21. Is the traveler’s attire any more inconspicuous than that of his country companions?  Despite the fact that he chooses his coarse woolen (or frize) outfit in contrast to the “phantasticall garbes” of his former friends, he retains a degree of sartorial self-consciousness when he dresses “himself in a frize Jerkin, and a payre of frize breeches, a frize pair of mittins and a frize mountier-cap, to keep out sharp cold in Winter mornings, when the breath freezes between the teeth” (277).  His clothing is coarse and utilitarian, a far cry from the silken vestments of his former friends.  Significantly, though, the man’s costume is not without its fashionable value as the narrator’s reference to his mountier-cap implies.  During the seventeenth century, this Spanish-style hat was fairly modish.  Even Pepys, who was so harsh about Cavendish’s appearance and took much pride in his own ability to follow trends, wrote in his diary about choosing between two such caps—Pepys chose “the saddest colour” (1.92), a choice in keeping with preferences for muted colors like black.[17] 

  22. Like the coarse fabrics that the traveler wears to keep out the cold, Cavendish’s literary output might be thought of as a “Course piece.”  In her dedication for Poems and Fancies, she acknowledges that

    Spinning with the Fingers is more proper to our Sexe, then studying or writing Poetry, which is the Spinning with the braine: but I having no skill in the Art of the first (and if I had, I had no hopes of gaining so much as to make me a Garment to keep me from the cold) made me delight in the latter; since all braines work naturally, and incessantly, in some kinde or other; which made me endeavour to Spin a Garment of Memory, to lapp up my Name, that it might grow to after Ages: I cannot say the Web is strong, fine, or evenly Spun, for it is a Course piece; yet I had rather my Name should go meanly clad, then dye with cold.  [unpaginated]

    Cavendish’s fingers do not spin but her brain does; writing becomes a surrogate domestic act for her, and she uses it as a way of figuratively weaving garments that she believes will prove functional and lasting.[18]  Regardless of how the “Garment of Memory” turns out, it clothes Cavendish’s name and protects her from the cold.  Being “meanly clad” can be a form of self-publication by which an author puts his or her body into circulation or on display.

  23. Even as the traveler tries to move away from a society in which significance is inscribed into “phantasticall garbes,” Cavendish highlights the ways in which the same interpretive processes continue to work on him: he reads others and is read by them according to the signs affixed to his body.  This process of manufacturing intelligibility through attire abuts the writing process when the man decides he wants a wife.  When he decides to court “a young Lady, who has the reputation of being virtuous, born from an antient Stock, and honoured Race, carefully bred, and well qualified,” the first thing he does is change clothes:
    After he had received this Letter, he put himself into a wooing Equipage; and so compleat he was in Apparel and Attendance, that the same eyes that had seen him when he followed his husbandry, and should view him now, would forswear they had ever seen him before: Such alterations fine Cloaths and many Followers make.  [283]
    By putting on his “wooing equipage,” he transforms from a laboring man into a suitor.  Promptly he pays a visit to the young woman in question.  The man immediately falls in love (no doubt a residual effect of wearing “wooing attire”) and amorously discourses with her until “they had discoursed themselves after this manner out of breath” (284).  After this initial conversation, “the Gentleman was directed to his Chamber, where he laid by his riding Cloak, shifted his Boots, brusht his Hat, kemb’d his Hair, and set himself in order” (284).  He prepares himself for further amatory conversation by making sure that his clothes and figure continue to adhere to the pattern of a wooer.  The lady apparently buys into this representation, for she tells her maid that he “has a manly garb, and a wise countenance” (285).  The couple decides very shortly to marry. 

  24. As their marriage approaches, the man argues for a wedding that will communicate his age and dignity.  He argues against a public ceremony by explaining that “it is most comely, noble, and majesticall for Youth to follow the strict and severe rules of Age, than for Age to follow the light measure, phantastical garbs, and vain rules of Youth” (286).[19]  Again, clothing and its incumbent qualities of self-display are described as phantastical.  Cavendish brings us back to the society described at the beginning of the tale, and she does so with a difference: this is not a critique of upper class norms or of sartorial excess.  Rather, this is a man trying to come to terms with the cipher-like figure he’s had for so long.  He wants to acquire a fixed identity and a stable character through marriage, but he realizes that neither the phantastical garbs of youth nor the frize garments of countrymen suit his age and his status.  He therefore chooses conformity:
  25. whil’st he governed his outward Affairs, [his wife] governed the Family at home, where they lived plentifully, pleasantly, and peaceably, not extravagantly, vain-gloriously, and luxuriously; they lived neat and cleanly, they loved passionately, thrived moderately, and happy they lived, and piously died.  [286]
  26. The story cannot end until the man’s shape-shifting ceases.  Once he stops trading in one class for another through his repeated costume changes, his story becomes containable and the narrative becomes sartorially closed to subversion, instability, and unintelligibility—communication becomes, in those final moments, textually bound rather than contingent to bodily signs of fashioning.     


  27. What is the effect of placing “A True Relation” at the end of almost four hundred pages of generic experimentation, many of which functionally demonstrate the links between self-created fashions and self-fashioned textual identities?  For most readers, not much.  Too often, “A True Relation” is read as a memoir or an autobiographical fragment rather than as a carefully composed part of a narrative that explodes generic categories.  When excerpted from Natures Pictures, “A True Relation” serves as an interesting cultural artifact about an early woman writer struggling to define her identity as an author and as an autonomous figure.  The narrative becomes lumped in with Lucy Hutchinson’s The Life of Mrs. Lucy Hutchinson Written by Herself, a Fragment (published in 1806, but written at some point before Hutchinson’s death in 1675), Lady Ann Fanshawe’s Memoirs (1676), and Lady Anne Halkett’s The Memoirs of Anne, Lady Halkett (1677-1678).  Mary Beth Rose, for one, goes to great lengths to read “A True Relation” as an autobiography, which she defines as a mode that should “impose a coherent structure of selfhood on potentially contradictory aspects of identity” (249).  According to this definition, “A True Relation” is “an interesting and most illustrative failure” because it traces the development of “a troubled, complex, and indecisive shaping intelligence” rather than a fixed, coherent self (250-51).  Psychologically anachronistic and generically limited, this classification does not allow for the fact that Natures Pictures is about incoherence and the corporeal tactics by which a body physically transforms in meaning through reiterative adaptations rather than through a process angling toward coherence. 

  28. Line Cottegnies has recently demonstrated that “A True Relation” is both historically and contextually contingent.  Against Cavendish’s claims for the authenticity of “A True Relation,” Cottegnies lodges the fact that Cavendish “deliberately offers a critique of the notion of memory, thus giving a twist to her whole enterprise as the inclusion of her ‘life’ into a collection of fictional tales already suggested” (104).  “A True Relation” is thus not an autobiographical fragment carelessly annexed to a series of fictional narratives.  Rather, it is a continuation and a complication of the narrative structure.

  29. Still, Emma L.E. Rees argues in “Triply Bound” that Cavendish’s autobiographical writing should be thought of as a key to the rest of Natures Pictures.  After reading “A True Relation,” Rees claims that one can unpack specific facts about Cavendish’s life and character from the other narratives in Natures Pictures.  Sara Mendelson similarly claims that Cavendish’s autobiographical text adds a component of personal legibility to her dramas.  While these arguments both do justice to Cavendish’s skillful rendering of her own life, neither Rees nor Mendelson acknowledges that an inverse reading is possible.  Instead of using “A True Relation” as a way to generate autobiographical interpretations of Cavendish’s other works, the rest of Natures Pictures can be used to show the elaborate fictionality of Natures Pictures.

  30. In the same collection in which Cottegnies’s, Rees’s, and Mendelson’s essays appear, “A True Relation” is cited alternately in quotation marks and italics.  The first citation style suggests the text’s position in Natures Pictures; the second evokes its status as an independent unit, even though it never appeared alone.  Perhaps even more notably, in their introduction to the essays Cottegnies and Nancy Weitz cite “A True Relation” from C.H. Firth’s 1907 edition of The Life of William Cavendish, First Duke of Newcastle, to which is added A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life by Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, which differs markedly from Cavendish’s original version.  Firth’s editing of “A True Relation” does not only modernize the spelling.  It also silently alters some of Cavendish’s idiosyncratic systems of spelling and punctuation.  Moreover, because Firth’s volume brings together “A True Relation” with The Life of William, the text codifies an interpretation of “A True Relation” that involves generic fixity and autobiographical functionality. 

  31. The epistle to “A True Relation” hints at the narrative’s paradoxical interest in creating generic flexibility through fragmentation of stories, selves, and styles.  Cavendish notes that friends expect authors to be able to recite their own works but that when she has tried to do so she repents it “both for the disfiguring of my Works, by pulling out a piece here, and a piece there, according as my memory could catch hold: Also for troubling, or rather vexing the hearers with such discourses they delight not in” (364).  In some ways, this passage viscerally breaks down the generic strategies that Cavendish discusses at length in her prefatory materials.  When a text is sewn together from a variety of garments or fashions (the terms Cavendish uses to illustrate discursive and narrative styles), “pulling out a piece here, and a piece there” destroys the text’s intended illusion of wholeness.  To a degree, Cavendish seems to anticipate the anthologization process: pieces of her works are pulled out and recontextualized in a variety of anthologies as well as in selected versions of Cavendish’s own works.[20] 

  32. Clothing in “A True Relation” serves a threefold purpose.  On a most literal level, she wants to identify herself as a female author who is original.  To do this, she pulls data from her life but supplements it with what she knows has been said or written about her.  Secondly, she maneuvers descriptions of her costume so that they are always in proximity to discussions of her writing strategies.  Finally, she supplements discussions of her own literal body and its authorial attire with subtle references back to the text of Natures Pictures, thereby suggesting that she has in fact dressed herself in garments made by her own imagination.

  33. Cavendish begins with a fairly straightforward, didactic representation of clothing: “As for our garments, my Mother did not only delight to see us neat and cleanly, fine and gay, but rich and costly; maintaining us to the heighth of her Estate, but not beyond it” (369).  As a child, Cavendish implies, one does not dress oneself.  Rather, one is dressed.  The process is one by which another person defines a child and teaches the child to respect a specific set of values -- here, cleanliness, beauty, and luxury.  In effect, the remainder of “A True Relation” demonstrates how these early-acquired ideas about how to dress inform Cavendish’s way of reading her world and her way of writing herself into it.  After her mother and her sister die, Cavendish notices that
    though time is apt to waste remembrance as a consumptive body, or to wear it out like a garment into raggs, or to moulder it into dust, yet I finde the naturall affections I have for my friends are beyond the length, strength, and power of time: for I shall lament the loss so long as I live, also the loss of my Lords Noble Brother, which died not long after I returned from England, he being then sick of an Ague, whose favours and my thankfulness ingratitude shall never disjoyne; for I will build his Monument of truth, though I cannot of Marble, and hang my tears as Scutchions on his Tomb.  [378]
    Rapidly, Cavendish moves from one analogy to the next.  Memory is first a consumptive body (both her sister and her sister’s daughter had recently died from consumption) and then a worn out garment.  On basic and external levels, bodies and garments corporeally engender memory.  Through the process of writing out the truth—building a “Monument of truth,” and a story with “no Feignings”—these physical components of memory take on didactic and metaphoric functions. 

  34. Cavendish shifts her focus from her upbringing and her memories, both events in the past, in order to discuss her more immediate identity as a fashionable construction of others’ imaginations.  While geographically separated from her husband, she notes
    seldom did I dress myself, as taking no delight to adorn myself, since he I onely desired to please was absent, although report did dress me in a hundred severall fashions: ’tis true when I did dress myself I did endeavour to do it to my best becoming, both in respect to myself, and those I went to visit, or chanc’t to meet, but after I had been in England for a year and a half, part of which time I writ a Book of Poems, and a little Book called my Philosophicall Fancies, to which I have writ a large addition, since I returned out of England, besides this Book and one other: as for my book entitled the Worlds Olio, I writ most part of it before I went into England.  [382]
    “Report did dress me in a hundred severall fashions,” she notes—and surely it did.  John Evelyn, Mary Evelyn, and Thomas, Lord North each dressed Cavendish according to his or her own feelings about Cavendish as a writer, a scientist, a wife, and a woman.  Dorothy Osborne asked William Temple to send her Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies because “they say tis ten times more Extravagant than her dresse” (37), and Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on 30 March 1667 that Cavendish “hath been a good, comely woman; but her dress so antick, and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all” (8.243).  Cavendish knew that this circulating body of information shaped the way her contemporaries perceived her.   Acknowledging the fictionality of others’ descriptions catalyzes Cavendish’s assessment of her own role as a producer of fictions.  She quickly reveals that the “best becoming” fashions she selects to appear in public are not just her garments but also her carefully collected, illustrated, and bound folios.  Cavendish reiterates this relationship between public discourses, personal dressing strategies, and authorship when she explains “because I would not bury my self quite from the sight of the world, I go sometimes abroad, seldome to visit, but only in my Coach about the Town, or about some of the streets, which we call here a Tour, where all the chief of the Town goe to see and to be seen” (385-86). 

  35. Cavendish demonstrates the reciprocity between her reputation and her authorial designs by closely linking others’ gossip about her fashion with her own authorial processes.  Furthermore, she saliently manipulates the same discourses of her bodily eccentricity in order to heighten readers’ perceptions about her uniqueness as an author:
    my serious study could not be much, by reason I took great delight in attiring, fine dressing and fashions, especially such fashions as I did invent myself, not taking that pleasure in such fashions as was invented by others: also I did dislike any should follow my Fashions, for I always took delight in a singularity, even in accoutrements of habits, but whatsoever I was addicted to, either in fashions of Cloths, contemplation of Thoughts, actions of Life, they were Lawfull, Honest, Honorable, and Modest.  [387]
    This statement has been taken seriously by readers as astute as Virginia Woolf.  However, recently scholars like Margaret J.M. Ezell have pointed out that women’s literary assertions of inferiority and ignorance are often interpreted as being literal, when in fact they are as formulaic as humility topoi in men’s writings.[21]  Cavendish’s assertion that she could not spend much time in “serious study” should thus be considered as a rhetorical trope of modesty or humility typical in seventeenth-century writing.  When she suggests that her “delight in attire” took away time from her studies, Cavendish emphasizes a stereotypical hierarchical arrangement much like that espoused in Mary Evelyn’s (John and Mary’s daughter) slightly later poem Mundis Muliebras: Or, The Ladies Dressing-Room Unlocked and Her Toilette Spread (1690).  Yet Cavendish complicates and even subverts such stereotypes by pointing up the creative aspects of personal dress.  Closely bound for her are fashion, invention, and singularity, all of which she represents as intimately connected to “contemplation of Thoughts” and “actions of Life.” [22] 

  36. Dressing is not, then, something that Cavendish enjoys as a diversion but as an adjunct to all of the modes of creativity in her life.  She concludes the narrative with a passage that foregrounds the externalities that make up her public authorial persona:
    though I desire to appear to the best advantage, whilest I live in view of the public world, yet I could most willingly exclude myself, so as Never to see the face of any creature, but my Lord, as long as I live, inclosing myself like an Anchoret, wearing a Frize-gown, tied with a cord about my waste.  [390]
    Here, Cavendish returns to the language of clothing that has circulated throughout Natures Pictures with two specific references, one to “The Tale of a Traveler” and the other to “The She Anchoret.”  Significantly, these are the tales to which she specifically directs her readers’ attention in the final prefatory letter to her readers: “I do recommend two as the most solid and edifying, which are named, The Anchoret, and the Experienced Traveller, but especially the Anchoret, they are the last of my feigned stories in my Book” (unpaginated).  Cavendish integrates these pivotal tales in “A True Relation” by imagining herself dressed in “a Frize-gown, tied with a cord about my waste.”  There is, on a very literal level, a sense of gendered ambiguity here.  Cavendish chooses the term anchoret rather than she-anchoret for herself (although both terms could apply to a woman, it is notable that Cavendish prefers she-anchoret for her character and anchoret for herself).  Additionally, the “Frize-gown” she would wear should remind readers of the male traveler rather than of the women in “The Tale of a Traveler” who wore “stammell petticoats” and “grey Cloth.”  By alluding to these narratives in the final paragraph of her unfeigned narrative, Cavendish reminds readers of the fictions to which “A True Relation” is annexed.  She thus implies that she has constructed “A True Relation” from bits of fiction; what is unfeigned depends materially on the feigning antecedent to it.

  37. To complicate this final reference to costume, it is worth noting an alternate meaning for Cavendish’s spelling of waist: waste could refer to the unused pages in a book.[23]  Not only, then, is waste one of several spellings for waist used during the seventeenth century (wast, waast, and waste all referred to the waist, which does not become the common spelling until the nineteenth century); it is also a spelling that implies a secondary meaning.  Despite the wildly vocal detractors who comment on Cavendish’s reportedly erratic orthography, there is no reason to think that her spelling is without significance.  Even in contexts less virulent than Seamus Cooney’s “Bad Poetry” and Nick Page’s In Search of the World’s Worst Writers: A Celebration of Triumphantly Bad Writers, Cavendish’s readers often suggest that she is a victim of the press rather than a skillful manipulator of language in all its dresses.[24]  For instance, George Parfitt suggests that Cavendish’s “oddities of spelling, syntax and metre were compounded with the many errors introduced by the hurried and mediocre printer” all of which contributed to an impression of eccentricity” in his note to the 1972 facsimile reprint of Poems and Fancies.  While Kate Lilley’s note on her edition of The Blazing World usefully addresses complaints about Cavendish’s spelling, little has been done to demonstrate how Cavendish’s misspellings often suggest wry jokes, subtle puns, and sophisticated double entendres.[25]  Looking at two instances in which she uses waste should at least foreground the possibility of such lexical playfulness.

  38. Before she wrote “A True Relation,” Cavendish had already used an alternate spelling of waist in her earlier book Poems and Fancies.  In the poem “Natures Dress,” she describes Nature’s garments:
    The Sun crowns Natures Head, Beams splendent are,
    And in her Hair, as Jewels, hang each Star.
    Her Garments are made of pure Bright watchet Sky,
    The Zodiac round her Wast those Garments tie.  [127]           
    When she revised Poems and Fancies for its “much altered and corrected” edition in 1664, she replaced Wast with Waste (156).  Both of these words do mean waist; however, only waste means blank pages.  That Cavendish bothered to re-spell a word that was technically correct suggests that she wanted to access both meanings.  Moreover, as in “A True Relation,” these lines do lend themselves to a layered interpretation in which the waste is both literally a woman’s waist and figuratively an incomplete document, a story that needs to be written.  After all, nature is something that Cavendish repeatedly tries to write; in Poems and Fancies, twenty-two of the poems have titles that include the word nature.  The idea of nature as an unwritten—and writeable—body would certainly have appealed to Cavendish. 

  39. Similarly in “A True Relation” Cavendish fashions a woman whose story she wants to write in a garment fastened about the waste.  Dressed with her clothing “tied with a cord about my waste,” Cavendish suggests that she still has a lot to say.  The blank paper is there; she simply needs to write her stories onto it, she implies.  With each innovation in costume, with each idiosyncratic stylistic or generic choice that she makes, Cavendish sees herself as writing onto that waste, writing herself into bodies of fiction through which she gives herself specifically designed shapes and meanings.  Cavendish’s spellings—in their unedited, old-fashioned forms—lend an element of instability to her texts.  Cavendish’s specific lexical choices often encode a complex range of syntactical and semantic possibilities, many of which hint at intertextual and even hypertextual relationships between the text, Cavendish’s other works, and the vast body of literary, scientific, and philosophical texts familiar to Cavendish.

  40. In this instance, Cavendish’s vocabulary refers readers of “A True Relation” back to her poems and to her other stories, particularly in references to the clothed body in process of becoming an intelligible producer of meanings.  Like “The Contract” and “The Tale of a Traveler,” “A True Relation” tells a story of a blank figure invested with a range of changing, flexible meanings and values.  This character discerns that intelligibility must be achieved through audacious, repeated experiments with forms and therefore writes herself into being by inventing fashions that imply singularity and self-authoring.  By bearing in mind the striking intersections between fashion and genre in Natures Pictures, the text’s powerful synthesis of fiction and fact, of external form and buried meanings, can begin to be denuded.



[1] Many thanks are due to Martyn Smith for comments and corrections, as well as to two anonymous readers who provided helpful feedback.  Transcriptions preserve original spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.

[2] I borrow the term paratext from Genette.  See especially Genette’s introduction: “the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public” (1).  The paratext, as Genette describes it, serves as a threshold, as a zone of transition and transaction, and as a fringe or boundary that controls one’s reading of a text.

[3] See Grant, 159, and Rees, “Triply Bound,” 28.  Rees complicates Grant’s description of Natures Pictures’s title by rightly pointing out that Cavendish playfully confronts the tension between a title (usually open to multiple interpretations) and the designated text with her lengthy description of Natures Pictures’s contents.

[4] Whitaker, 21: “Cervantes’s Don Quixote in particular was a family favorite whose larger-than-life characters provided the [Lucas] sisters with material for jokes and the typecasting of real-life people.”  Rees also notices that much of Cavendish’s generic self-consciousness seems rooted in Cervantes.  In Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile, Rees focuses more on the political coding that these similar generic tactics offered: “In Don Quixote genre operates in a way similar to that in which Cavendish establishes generic expectations which allow her to publish apparently seditious material” (89).

[5] Compare Don Quijote, 29-34, in which the priest and the barber decide to burn “the true authors of all the damage.”

[6] Lewalski describes the importance of self-fashioning in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women’s writing: “Women also appropriated and redirected genres and discourses associated with self-definition and self-fashioning, claiming them in the position of subject, not object” (312).   Compare also to the process that Greenblatt describes as involving an “increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process” (2).  

[7] At the 1999 conference of the Margaret Cavendish Society in Paris, Loughlin delivered a paper that made a similar claim; in her abstract, she states that the concentration “on a few exceptional pieces from the rich miscellany of Natures Pictures deprives us of the opportunity to explore how the works various pieces shape our reading of its final autobiographical account.”  Loughlin ultimately suggests that Natures Pictures is “an exploration and problematization of the inter-penetration of romance and life-writing, of the different cultural standards which apply to the expression of desire and the self in these two genres.”  My argument differs from Loughlin’s by emphasizing the way that images of clothing lend coherence to the text, thereby making it function less as a miscellany than as a unified narrative arranged of various yet carefully connected components.  

[8] Gallagher, xx.  Gallagher’s study focuses primarily on Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. 

[9] This is an image that Cavendish also uses in one of the poems in the first book of Natures Pictures:

The Prince the Letter read, and pleased so,
As by his smiling Countenance did shew;
Which made all cloudy thoughts disperse, and clears
His mind, as in dark days when Sun appears.  (14)

Here, Cavendish uses the analogy in a more private context, even though the image of the sun ultimately hints at the ultimately public nature of a prince’s changing emotional state.

[10] Compare this description to Cavendish’s husband William’s comedy The Varietie (1649), in which Mistris Voluble (a self-described “professor of the female sciences”) explains: “you must be sure to have so many leaves and curtaines before your windows, that you may shew your selves at more various lights than the most cozening Mercer his faded and deceitfull Ware, for the youth of your white Satin will be then but pearle colour at the best, it may be but ash colour, and therefore refuse no advantage to give it gloss” (16).  Throughout the play, William uses Elizabethan fashion to demarcate a system of moral codes.

[11] Although the Royal Society was not chartered until 1662, the group existed as a forum for scientific inquiry and exchange before the English Civil War.  Cavendish’s early interests in science were supported by her husband’s brother Charles, an original Fellow of the Royal Society.  Charles—along with William—had studied Hobbes and later studied mechanical philosophy in Paris.  For some fairly recent accounts of Cavendish’s later visit to the Royal Society, see Grant, Whitaker, Sarasohn, and Mintz. 

[12] For example, Shakespeare uses the burning-glass in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “The appetite of her eyes did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass” (1.iii.74).  Compare also to Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies: “But with a Glass those scatter’d Beams draw in, / When they’re united, pierce through every thing” (mispaginated 21, corrected to read 23).  

[13] The sumptuary laws were designed to prevent transgressions of class and to protect the English wool trade.  There were five “Acts of Apparel” and at least nineteen proclamations regulating dress.  Kastan discusses these laws and their implications, 152-53.

[14] Cavendish takes on Hooke directly in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy and more obliquely in The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (published together in 1666).  Observations simultaneously imitates and subverts Micrographia at several points.  For instance, Cavendish's section “Of Colours” is followed by “Whether an Idea have a Colour, and of the Idea of a Spirit” (79-90); both of these arguments are steeped in knowledge of Hooke’s and others’ experiments and observations on color. 

[15] The Oxford English Dictionary defines stammell petticoats as garments, usually dyed red, that were made of coarse wool. 

[16] Bruster defines embodied writing as “a kind of text and a textual process that, increasingly during the 1590s, put resonant identities and physical forms on the printed page,” thereby allowing an author to produce a text that “mediated the imaginary and actual in its bodily address” (50).

[17] Willett and Cunnington explain how clothing became darker and more subdued during the seventeenth century than it was during the sixteenth century.  Except for the color red, muted tones (especially black) were popular (12).

[18] Cavendish frequently situates her writing in relation to needlework, spinning, and other domestic work, as in Sociable Letters:

I cannot Work, I mean such Work as Ladies use to pass their time withall, and if I could, the Materials of such Works would cost more than the Work would be worth, besides all the Time and Pain bestow’d upon it.  You ask me, what Works I mean; I answer, Needle-works, Spinning-works, Preserving-works, as also Baking and Cooking-works, as making Cakes, Pyes, Puddings, and the like, all which I am Ignorant of; and as I am Ignorant in these Imployments, so am I Ignorant in Gaming, Dancing, and Revelling.  (38)

As in Poems and Fancies, Cavendish humbly and formulaically suggests that she only writes because she lacks domestic talents (or, more to the point, she lacks interest in and patience with household arts).

[19] Cavendish makes a similar point in “Ages Folly,” a narrative in Book Two of Natures Pictures: an older man is ensnared by a younger woman, and his wife recognizes his infidelity in part because he becomes “extravagant in his actions, phantastical in his dress, loose in his discourse” (117).  She also connects “phantastical garbs” with absurdities of courtship in her play The Several Wits: “in seeing their phantastical garbs, their strutting postures, their smiling faces, and the jackanapesy actions” (87).

[20] Cavendish’s works appear in the following anthologies: Early Modern Women’s Writing: An Anthology, 1560-1700, The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, First Feminists: British Women Writers, 1578-1799, and Major Women Writers of Seventeenth-Century England.  Paper Bodies, The Blazing World and Other Writings, Bell in Campo and The Sociable Companions, and The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays all reprint selections from different texts by Cavendish.

[21] Woolf notes: “Already she liked reading better than needlework, dressing and ‘inventing fashions’ better than reading, and writing best of all” (70).  Also, see Ezell, especially 1-13.  

[22] Chalmers notices that “Cavendish’s wish to achieve singularity through the display of ‘fine dressing’ offers an analogy with her yearning to acquire a unique fame by means of displaying her texts” (328).

[23] According to The Oxford English Dictionary, an obsolete meaning of waste that was fairly common during the seventeenth century describes time or leaves in a book as “Spare, unoccupied, unused.”  

[24] Page is harsh about Cavendish’s supposed orthographic errors, and he assesses her works as demonstrating only “the empowering possibilities of bad writing” in an online description of her life, works, and reception.  Selections from his book are available at  

[25] Lilley notes that although Cavendish’s “extremely idiosyncratic punctuation and grammar have usually been seen as simply a function of her lack of formal education, and carelessness in overseeing the preparation and printing of her manuscripts,” we should not “discount the defiance with which Cavendish treated normative writing practices at every level” (xxxiv).  Bennett supports Lilley’s assessment in her own “A Note on the Texts” of Bell in Campo and The Sociable Companions.

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