Happy Families and Learned Ladies:
Margaret Cavendish, William Cavendish, and their onstage academy debate

Alexandra Bennett
Northern Illinois University

Bennett, Alexandra. "Happy Families and Learned Ladies:
Margaret Cavendish, William Cavendish, and their onstage academy debate." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 3.1-14 <URL:

It is dangerous to put young Women to board Schools… for most commonly in these Schools they learn more vices than good manners; for it is a good task, for one body to breed up one child well, and as they ought to be bred, at most two or three, but it is too much for one to breed up many, as for one Woman to breed up twenty young Maids; it is true, they may educate their Persons, but it is a doubt whether they do, or can educate their minds; they may learn them to sing well, but it is a question whether they learn them to think well; they may learn them measures with the feet, and mistake the measures of a good life; they may learn them to write by rule, but forget the rules of modesty. (World's Olio 61-2)

  1. Lying in bed one evening, as my brain wandered on the fine line between sleep and waking, I was inspired by a remarkably Cavendish-like notion. Since Hollywood producers seem virtually to have run out of present celebrities around whom to build 'reality' television programmes, the next logical step surely must be to create 'reality' shows based on celebrities from the past, using their letters, autobiographies, and other 'he said/she said' accounts. (The Renaissance would, naturally, be a perfect source for such materials: think, for instance, of the court of Charles I as a precursor to "Big Brother," and suddenly a great deal of the early seventeenth century in England makes a tremendous amount of sense. For that matter, the extraordinary fondness that Anna Nicole Smith displays for her dogs on her eponymous show is remarkably reminiscent of Henrietta Maria's well-documented insistence on taking her dogs with her wherever she went, even returning to a house under cannon-fire to retrieve one of them. Such heroics would certainly make for gripping television. ) [1] Just as I was congratulating myself upon a brilliant scheme and mentally picking out new accessories to match the sunglasses I would undoubtedly need as a West-coast adapter of seventeenth-century material, though, I realized that if such a project ever got 'greenlighted,' the married life of Margaret and William Cavendish, specifically, would not be a top ratings contender. Though she dramatizes at least one Jerry-Springer-like onstage relationship in her first collection of plays (between Lord and Lady Disagree in The Matrimonial Trouble, complete with stool-flinging, physical clashes that have to be broken up by servants, and death threats), the Duchess of Newcastle's [2] accounts of her own married life with William are unanimous in their depiction of exemplary domestic bliss. As she writes of their courtship and wedding in A True Relation:

    …though I did dread Marriage, and shunn'd Men's companies, as much as I could, yet I could not, nor had not the power to refuse him, by reason my Affections were fix'd on him, and he was the onely Person I ever was in love with…neither could Title, Wealth, Power or Person entice me to love; but my Love was honest and honourable, being placed upon Merit, which Affection joy'd at the fame of his Worth, pleas'd with delight in his Wit, proud of the respects he used to me, and triumphing in the affections he profest for me, which affections he hath confirmed to me by a deed of time, seal'd by constancy, and assigned by an unalterable decree of his promise…. (True Relation 47)

    Hmm, I thought. This sounds much more like fodder for a lackluster movie-of-the-week or, at best, a late-night offering of the Romance Network rather than prime-time MTV material. Sighing, I moved on to more prosaic sleep.

  2. It is a truism to say that Margaret Cavendish owed at least some of her productivity as a writer to the support of her loving husband. [3] Indeed, in the preface to one of her volumes of plays, Cavendish notes her admiration of William's plays as models of dramatic craftsmanship and entertainment. Other well-known excerpts from her biography of the Duke and her autobiography paint a portrait of the Cavendish marriage as idyllic, a relationship governed by a wise and benevolent male figure at whose side the Duchess was happy to sit, listening to his discussions with other learned men and gazing at him adoringly. They appear to have concurred on every possible topic, or else she deferred to her husband's views due to his greater age, wisdom, and experience of the world. She outlines this portrait as early as 1655 in The World's Olio, writing "I found the World too difficult to be understood by my tender years, and weak capacity, that till the time I was married, I could onely read the letters, and joyn the words, but understood nothing of the sense of the World, until my Lord, who was learned by experience, as my Master, instructed me" (47). She is quick to deny any direct engagement with other learned figures (such as Hobbes or Descartes, both of whom visited their home on the Continent), and insists "my Lord was the Master and I the Prentice, for gathering [ideas] from Philosophers, I never converst in discourse with any an hour, at one time in my life" (sig. E2). She concludes: "I have learned more of the world from my Lords discourse, since I have been his wife, then I am confident I should have done all my life, should I have lived to an old age; and though I am not so apt a Scholar as to improve much in wit, yet I am so industrious a Scholar to remember whatsoever he hath said, and discoursed to me" (sigs. E3v-E4). All of these assertions combine to create the socially acceptable self-images of virtuous woman and doting wife; if we take Margaret's accounts at face value, their union was total: "one face, one [intellectual] habit, and two persons," as Shakespeare puts it in a romantic moment (Twelfth Night V.i.216). [4]

  3. However, it is possible (and, to a modern audience, far more intriguing) to look at Margaret Cavendish's written relationship with her husband's dramatic output as more than the product of simple admiration. Instead, I wish to suggest here that at least some of Margaret's dramas express an active engagement with (and even occasionally disagree with), some of the ideological positions set forth in William's works. One pair of plays is, I think, particularly interesting: The Varietie, a play written by William Cavendish, performed on the public stage in the 1640s and published in 1649, and The Female Academy, written sometime during the Duchess's exile in the 1640s and 1650s and published in her collected Playes in 1662. This paper will take a (necessarily) brief look at these two plays and the ways in which they address the issue of organized education for women in order to explore how Margaret may well have been responding deliberately and acerbically to the satire written by her spouse.

  4. To put these plays in context, we need to be aware of contemporary thought regarding education for women by the 1640s, when The Varietie was first produced. Boys' educations, of course, were an unquestionable necessity, whether accomplished at home by private tutors, at local grammar schools, or increasingly at those grammar schools which took in boarders such as those at Uffington and Harrow-on-the-Hill (Charlton, Women, Religion, 132). Scholars during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were divided over which site was likely to be of most benefit to students, but were virtually unanimous in declaring that schools should not be coeducational (as being "by many conceived very uncomely and not at all decent") and that the education of girls should be considerably more limited than that provided for their brothers. [5] As Thomas Salter opined in his treatise The Mirror of Modesty (1578):

    And whereas some parents be of opinion that it be necessary for maidens, to be skilful in philosophy moral and natural, thinking it an honour unto them to be thought well learned, I for my part am the contrary because that by the same they are made to understand the evils imminent to human life, yea thereby is opened up to them the inclinations and proneness, which naturally even from our cradles we have, unto vice, which knowledge is not requisite to be in young women. (sig. B6)

    Though it was clearly important that young girls learn the essentials of good household management in the early years of the English Renaissance, writers generally advocated strict limitations on exactly what they should be taught, and how long they should remain under tutelage. One grammar school at Banbury, established in 1594, opted to admit girls, but not "above the age of nine, nor longer than they may learn to read English" (Charlton, Women, Religion, 132).

  5. By the outset of the seventeenth century, however, a relatively new phenomenon began cropping up in various parts of the country: boarding schools for girls, or "academies for the daughters of gentlemen" (Charlton, "Women and Education," 9). In Hackney, a prosperous village north of London populated largely by middle- and upper-class households, several such schools rapidly grew in popularity. They included one run by a Mrs Salmon, whose pupils by mid-century included Katherine Fowler (who would go on to become Katherine Philips, the 'Matchless Orinda'), Mary Aubrey (cousin of John Aubrey and the eventual 'Rosaria' of Philips' verse) and the eldest daughters of Sir John Bramston (See Charlton, "Women and Education," 10, Greer et al. 186, and Todd 247). Clearly, then, contemporary attitudes about the education of girls and, increasingly, of young women (Katherine Fowler, for instance, was about fifteen when she left school to move to Wales with her family, a year before her marriage to James Philips was arranged) were undergoing some profound changes in the years immediately preceding the English Civil War (Todd 247). By mid-century, George Herbert could list "Beware of a young wench, a prophetess and a Latin woman" among well-known proverbs of the day (quoted in Fraser 136).

  6. Given this information, the theme of women's education in The Varietie becomes clearer, as do the attitudes of the play's author. The central characters in the drama include Sir William, who is a suitor to the lovely widow Lady Beaufield. Sir William is noble, generous, and no doubt handsome, but Lady Beaufield, described as "the only Magnetick Widow i'th Town," is wealthy, witty, and flirtatious, unwilling to be caught quite yet in a second marriage at the play's outset (2). [6] The widow has a beautiful young daughter, Mistress Lucy, who is being wooed by Master Newman, a young man-about-town. At the end of the first act, in the middle of a bantering scene between the two couples, one Mistress Voluble enters and inquires, "Is it your Ladiships pleasure I should read to day?" Lady Beaufield replies, "By any meanes, the Ladies will not faile, we should forget our Academy," and excuses herself and Lucy from the men's company, assuring them "our Lecture will not be long" (12). The following scene depicts the meeting of this 'female academy,' in which Mistress Voluble initially protests her unworthiness to take "the Chaire" and describes herself as "rather deserving to be in the number of Disciples, than a professor in any of the female sciences" (13). She proceeds, however, to deliver an extensive and wide-ranging lecture that makes it clear that the "female sciences" are those of deception, consumption, and fashion, all of which are directly related to women's fortunes in the sexual marketplace. Her disquisition begins in true academic fashion, reminding her auditors "at my last reading I did conclude with old-Ladies, that will cozen Nature, and Time, and abuse the men they love best; to these I only add, it is not Mercury to change their skins like Snakes, but they must fill up wrinckles as well as hide gray haires" (13). Consistency is all-important. She then moves on to give sage advice about where to find the best sweetmeats, and to admonish her pupils to buy only from "a man of parts" (14). Complex questions of social philosophy ensue, from how big one's fan should be-"so little, as not to lose the least smirke, or grace of your countenance for it" (15-16)-to the most suitable oaths for a lady to use. Returning to the theme of ways to make oneself look young (which more or less amounts to ensuring that one always sits in flattering light, it seems), she concludes with the apothegm: "Wise Ladies must refuse no Art/ For age will snow upon their heart" (16). Her all-female audience is rapt in attention, interrupting only occasionally to remark: "it is a very learned Gentlewoman" and terming Voluble "the Doctor" of their studies (15, 16). One can easily imagine them assiduously taking notes in preparation for what would be a very practical final exam in the fashionable salons of London.

  7. Clearly, William Cavendish was no fan of academies for women, given the glee with which he satirizes them here: though seventeenth-century humanists may have defended the practice of educating women in order to make them better wives, the 'academy' set out in this play seems to fulfill every single fear that earlier writers expressed on the effects of over-training impressionable female minds. [7] While Sir William and Master Newman wait in another room, Newman remarks "but these Ladies are very tedious, we must have this Lecture put down." That will be hardly likely, Sir William answers: "They are more like to purchase Gresham Colledg, and enlarge it for publick Professors, you may live to see another University built, and only women commence Doctors" (20). The irony of this statement is utterly delicious: Francis R. Johnson has pointed out that Gresham College was a frequent meeting-place for scholars and gentlemen interested in the sciences in the mid-seventeenth century (413-438). It was also the first home of the Royal Society from its inaugural meeting in 1660 and formal inception in 1662; a Society whose first female visitor would be none other than Margaret Cavendish. [8] Nevertheless, Sir William (the one onstage as well as his creator) is evidently using the reference here as a means to ridicule the practice and evident popularity of such "lectures," and thus complementing the satire of the previous scene.

  8. William Cavendish was not content merely to send up the concept of women's schools or learned societies in his comedy, for he simultaneously portrays Mistress Voluble in more stereotypically negative roles. Her central occupation (and the reason for her popularity as a lecturer, it seems) is arranging liaisons and marriages between the rich fools who pay her and the egotistical would-be aristocrats who wish to climb the social ladder through matrimonial wealth. One of her prime endeavours is to "edifie, and Ladifie" a country widow to make her a prime commodity on the urban marriage market; education for women at all class levels is thus primarily a means to sexual and social ends (31). At the same time, Voluble's extensive knowledge makes her a potential moral, legal, and even metaphysical threat. As the second Act continues, Newman and Sir William discuss Voluble's reputation as a divinator and astrologer: "she is beleev'd a devilish cunning woman…. she is held a Sibill in the City…and most specially seldome failes in her Judgment of the two destinies, Matrimony, and Hanging, this I have heard Sir," concludes Sir William sagely (21). Sure enough, at their next encounter she informs Newman "you will doe something in a melancholy humour will endanger your neck," which leads him to panic and fume "better the witch were burn'd" (26, 27). In other words, the "voluble" woman at the head of the "academy" in this play is not only talkative and a broker of liaisons and marriages, but is also possibly a witch, trafficking with evil spirits and thus wholly condemnable. Only at the play's happy ending does Voluble confess to her role as a procuress in the many curious marriages with which the play concludes, and adds to Newman "I have no skill in starres nor fortune telling, and am but one among the rest that have deceiv'd your easy faith" (86). The restoration of order at the curtain of a comedy requires that the potential threat posed by the 'learned lady' here be revealed as a hollow sham, and the woman herself no better than a liar and a bawd.

  9. While The Varietie sees women's knowledge networks as decidedly sinister and threatening to the social status quo, The Female Academy portrays the possibilities and purposes of women's education in a very different fashion. The quotation from The World's Olio with which I began this paper might seem to suggest that Margaret shared her husband's dislike of female academies and boarding schools, yet a close look at that quotation shows that what bothers her is the little that such contemporary schools are able to teach: "it is true, they may educate their Persons, but it is a doubt whether they do, or can educate their minds…they may learn them measures with the feet, and mistake the measures of a good life" (World's Olio, 62). That is, she expresses disgust not at the idea of educational organizations for girls and women, but by the fact that extant institutions seem unable to train the intellects and inner persons of their students due to an overemphasis upon the external forms of conventional behaviour-the very forms, in fact, that William's play skewers so emphatically. "Besides," the Duchess writes more bluntly, "all board Scholars of the Effeminat sex are like sale-meat drest at a Cooks shop, which alwaies tasts of the dripping pan or smoke; so most commonly those that are bred at Schools, have a smack of the School, at least in their behaviour, that is a contrariness" (World's Olio, 62). In teaching every pupil the same outward forms of conduct, she argues, such institutions both ignore more important inner qualities and produce equally contemptible marriage fare. The pointed contrasts between her commentary of 1655 and her play published in 1662 highlight the developments she sees as necessary in the creation of a true system of education for women.

  10. The play begins with two "Antient Ladies" conversing, in which one tells the other decisively, "If you would have your Daughter virtuously and wisely educated, you must put her into the Female Academy," for there young ladies are taught "to speak wittily and rationally, and to behave themselves handsomely, and to live virtuously" (659). True to Margaret Cavendish's oft-noted streak of aristocratic snobbery and piercing insistence on realism, the scene ends with the warning "If your Daughter were not of honourable Birth, they would not receive her, for they take in none but those of antient Descent, as also rich, for it is a place of charges" (659). [9] The bulk of this relatively short play is taken up with scenes from the Female Academy itself, in which the young ladies "take the chair" by turns and discourse upon themes proposed by their female instructors. The subjects include "whether women are capable to have as much Wit or Wisdome as men" (654), the purpose of discourse (657), the behaviour of women in general (660), and the nature of truth. Far from the superficial and age-anxious disquisitions from The Varietie, these scenes depict young women grappling with weighty philosophical and social questions at the same time as their creator "implicitly enters the debate over whether women should be allowed [the] traditional male prerogative [of public speaking]," as Mihoko Suzuki has pointed out (187).

  11. What makes this play so interesting when read as a response to William's play is the fact that satire is still very much present in Margaret's text-but it is directed towards very different targets. Since men are banned from the female academy, either as contributors to the discourses or as suitors to the pupils, the young men of the area decide to set up their own academy as a form of revenge. But the dialogues they engage in are repetitive, superficial, puerile rants about the fact that the young ladies are being kept away from them rather than serious responses to the work being done on the other side of the academy walls. To give an example, one male speaker harangues his fellows with the following sequence of logical fallacies:

    …'tis a sin against Nature for women to be Incloystred, Retired, or restrained: Nay, it is not only a sin against Nature, but a grievous sin against the Gods, for women to live single lives, or to vow Virginity: for if women live Virgins, there will be no Saints for Heaven, nor worship nor Adoration offred to the Gods from Earth; for if all women like Vir[gins], the Race of Mankind will be utterly extinguished; and if it be a general sin to live Virgins, no particular can be exempted; and if it be lawfull for one to live a Virgin, it is lawfull for all; so if it be unlawfull for one, it is unlawfull for all….(659)

    While William Cavendish's depiction of Mistress Voluble deliberately highlights her threatening social functions, Margaret Cavendish's inclusion of similar accusations of unnaturalness serves to mock the male accusers rather than the women they attack. Not surprisingly as a result of such hormone-driven frustration, the men here end up looking far more ridiculous and shallow in their 'academy' than the women do in theirs. Cavendish even includes some brief scenes in which audience members to both sets of lectures comment upon them: one gentleman remarks "Methinks the womens Lectural discouse is better than the mens; for in my opinion, the mens discourses are simple, childish, and foolish, in comparison of the womens" (669), thereby letting us know where the author expects our sympathies to lie.

  12. By the play's end, the men are in such a state that they resort to blowing trumpets outside the women's debating hall to disrupt their speeches, and one of the Matrons of the female academy has to come out to see what on earth the uncouth fuss is about. [10] The men complain emphatically about the women's isolation: one remarks "since men are the chief Head of their kind, it were a sign they had but very little Brain, if they would suffer the youngest and fairest women to incloyster themselves" (679). [11] The Matron then explains that, contrary to the men's beliefs, "these Ladies have not vowed Virginity, or are they incloystred; for an Academy is not a Cloyster, but a School, wherein are taught how to be good Wives when they are married" (679). At the conclusion of the play, the Matron agrees to be an intermediary between the desperate suitors and her pupils, provided that the men can win the approval of the women's guardians. Initially, this might appear to be a disappointing ending for such a seemingly protofeminist work: rather than a bastion of gynocentric action, the Female Academy fulfils the mandates of early seventeenth-century humanist writers in teaching women to be good wives; as in The Varietie, the female authority figure becomes a marriage-broker. However, there are crucial differences here between the two plays: while Mistress Voluble is revealed to be a bawd, and thus sycophantically ingratiates herself with the men and women around her in hopes of their patronage as she arranges their affairs, the Matron of The Female Academy sets conditions on her involvement in future courtships, and the final stage direction demonstrates a very different relationship with the men in the scene: "They all go out, with the Gentlemen waiting on her, with their Hats in their hands, Scraping and Congying to her" (679). In William's play, the broker serves her betters; in Margaret's, the broker holds all the power and knows it.

  13. The Matron's explanations and her power at the end of The Female Academy also suggest more potentially seismic transformations implicit in Cavendish's vision of female education here. For if women are being taught "to speak wittily and rationally, and to behave themselves handsomely, and to live virtuously" with the end result of being "good Wives when they are married," then this suggests that the definition of what a "good wife" might be is in question, open to new ideas and possibilities for women. [12] Under the guise of conformity (with the conventions of comic resolutions in the theatre, conflict ending in marriage) lurks the potential for dissent, just as it did in the relationship between Margaret and William themselves. She may have written in adulatory fashion to and about him, and he may have defended and contributed indulgently to her writings, but that does not mean that she has to have agreed with his ideas-at least, not all the time. Richard Flecknoe's poem "The Portrait of William Marquis of New-castle to his Lady the Lady Marchionnesse," published in 1660, is a blatant attempt to curry favour with Margaret by praising William to the skies:

    And who would hear th'Epitome of Wit
    Let them but read the Comedies h'as Writ,
    Whose Excellent VARIETIES do show
    That none the world and Men, dos better know,
    Nor better understands the Art, then he,
    To gain them all by Noble Courtesie
    Who have no greater happinesse then when
    He speaks….[13]

    Margaret's own written works, by contrast, seem to disagree with this effusiveness somewhat. The juxtaposition of The Varietie and The Female Academy suggests that on the subject of women's organized education, at least, the Duchess of Newcastle was determined to show herself the equal of her husband rather than his acquiescent follower, and to do so in a public genre and a published forum. [14]

  14. Perhaps my drowsy vision of Margaret and William in front of television cameras might not be such a bad idea after all.


1. See de Motteville I: 219-21 for an account of the Queen's daring canine rescue in 1643.

2. Margaret Cavendish's title changed several times during the Civil War and Restoration, since William was made Marquis of Newcastle in 1643 and Duke in 1665. For the sake of consistency, I refer to her by her later title throughout this paper.

3. I strongly suspect that if the Cavendishes were alive today, she would be a hugely successful writer of film and television scripts, and he would be an ex-Olympian-turned-world-famous-equestrian-coach, each extolling the other's virtues in dewy-eyed interviews with Barbara Walters before Academy Awards telecasts.

4. Had the Duchess been able to write her autobiography as a screenplay, the music cues would probably point to "Stand By Your Man" or "Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic" as suitable soundtrack entries at this point.

5. Thomas Saunders (founder of a school in Uffington, Oxfordshire, in 1637), quoted in Charlton, Women, Religion, 132.

6. The designation "Magnetick Widow" is an obvious salute to William Cavendish's literary mentor, Ben Jonson, whose play The Magnetic Lady was written in 1632. Curiously, the allusion and events of the play also link the brilliant widow with Elizabeth I, since she, like the Queen, carefully encourages without giving a definite answer to any of her suitors until the play's end, when she marries one Master Manley, whose fondest pastime is dressing as the Earl of Leicester (!).

7. Later in his 1578 treatise, Salter remarks: "sure I suppose there is no man of reason and understanding but had rather love a maiden unlearned and chaste than one suspected of dishonest life, though never so famous and well learned in philosophy" (sig. B7v).

8. Alas, the Royal Society no longer met at Gresham by the time of the Duchess's visit on May 30, 1667. See the Royal Society Webpage (http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/library/home_gresh.htm) for more information.

9. This particular piece of grave counsel may very well serve as a precursor to the current admissions policies of many graduate schools, it seems.

10. The excerpt from The Female Academy directed by Gweno Williams, videotaped at the University College of Ripon and York St. John in 1995 as part of the Women and Dramatic Production Project, captures both the vitality of the women's debates and the attempted anarchy of their frustrated male suitors in a remarkably effective fashion.

11. Indeed, one might remark, these are Men of Very Little Brain.

12. The play hints at some of the same ideas about marriage and education that Bathshua Makin would set forth in her more contentious Essay to revive the ancient education of gentlewomen in 1673.

13. Richard Flecknoe, "The Portrait of William Marquis of New-castle to his Lady the Lady Marchionnesse" (London, 1660), sigs.A3-A3v.

14. I must here acknowledge the detailed study of the Duchess' discussion of women's education by Guyonne Leduc in "Women's Education in Margaret Cavendish's Plays," Cercles 4 (2002): 16-38; unhappily, I became aware of her article only after this paper was completed.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).