Emma L.E. Rees. Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. pp. 218+vi. ISBN 0-7190-6072-9
Northern Arizona University
Fitzmaurice, James. "Review of Emma L.E. Rees, Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 14.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-14/fitzrevi.html>.
The last few years have seen the publication of several collections of essays about Margaret Cavendish, along with a new and important biography. Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile joins the dialogue, focusing on one crucial period of the life, the 1650s, and on what has become a major area of investigation, her engagement with genre. The study of Cavendish and genre has involved a crucial pairing, because it has served to shift criticism away from the traditional "Why did Cavendish write such odd or quirky pieces of literature?" to "How did Cavendish test the limits of genre in what she wrote?" Although one can still find essays that seek to explain the source of oddity or quirkiness in Cavendish and her writing, it is more common these days read about Cavendish as an explorer on the frontiers of literary form.
Emma Rees's book makes a decidedly useful contribution to this conversation, but it at the same time takes up what is a very traditional, and I would say laudable, enterprise. That is, it looks at the connection between the author's reading and what she wrote. In various chapters, Rees finds Cavendish reading translations of Lucretius, Plato, Homer, and a host of seventeenth-century British authors. I was especially pleased with the suggestion that the character of Travellia from "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" (found in Nature's Pictures, 1656) can be seen as a combination of the ever-wandering Ulysses and his steadfastly chaste wife, Penelope. Rees also does her homework by looking carefully at what, precisely, the materials might have been that Cavendish read. In the case of Lucretius, Cavendish might have used John Evelyn's partial translation of De Rerum Natura, published in 1656, or, less likely, Lucy Hutchinson's manuscript translation of the same work. Although it is clearly an aside and is relegated to an appendix, a very interesting part of Rees's book is a comparison of the two women as people and as writers. Hutchinson is drawn to Lucretius but at the same time horrified by the impiety and sensuality that she finds in his poem, while Cavendish is much more at home with his scepticism and his thinking on what were to become the major questions of seventeenth-century science.
Rees's book is lucidly written, and its main point is never far from what is under discussion. Cavendish is, according to Rees, a "triple exile," which is to say that Cavendish was exiled, first, because of her husband's legal position as delinquent, second, because she was "a woman trying to write in a hostile culture," and, third, because she was a Royalist "promoting the prohibited aesthetic of theatricality in various forms of her writing" (5). While others will appreciate the recurrence of this theme, I felt it was not developed in quite the depth that it deserved. Specifically, I wondered about the two exiles that were mostly a matter of the marginalization in society of a person who was woman and a Royalist. Royalists living on the Continent were not marginalized among themselves and maintained a vital culture, a culture arguably as rich or richer than what was available among the ruling Parliamentarians in England. The Royalists, of course were the party out of power, and Cavendish's perceptions of such matters as political and military power would have been vital. However, I am inclined to think (based on letter 185 of Sociable Letters, 1664) that she would have preferred to have lived peaceably in Antwerp among those out of power than to have anxiously waited in England to hear if her husband had had won the day or had been killed in battle.
As those who know Cavendish's writing can confirm, she loved prefaces, and Rees takes advantage of this situation to examine in detail the "paratext" of her subject's work from the 1650s. Prefaces of the time involve all sorts of routine denials and disclaimers, and Rees is wise to understand that "the topos of humility or modesty" pervades front matter, back matter, and, occasionally, what a person might want to call middle matter (31). Those who see Cavendish as repeatedly rendering herself subservient to men would do well to consider the topos mentioned by Rees. This is not to say that one should conclude that Cavendish was not subservient. Rather one should pay attention to what evidence works and what does not.
The chapters on Heaven's Library and The Animal Parliament are refreshing and pleasant to read because these two pieces are not often examined, at least by comparison with The Blazing World or The Convent of Pleasure. Rees undertakes to show that Heaven's Library has a "Socratic dialogic structure," but the chapter in which this case is made is maybe more interesting for how it ties Cavendish to Cervantes and in how it considers her relationship to romance (82). I would only point out that, while Cavendish railed against romance on numerous occasions, she also wrote romances, and that irony would not have been lost on her. The Animal Parliament, Rees tells us, makes use of the metaphor of the body politic to both muse about the body and about politics. Harvey had concluded that the seat of the body was no longer the heart but the blood. Cavendish also introduces a shift, but of a different sort, for she relocates the "centre of power form the heart to the head" (147).
- Scholars of Cavendish will welcome this book and will find themselves referring to it as they consider the life and writing of its subject during her period of living on the Continent.
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).