Playing with Religion: Convents, Cloisters, Martyrdom, and Vows
Erna Kelly
University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire

Kelly, Erna. "Playing with Religion: Convents, Cloisters, Martyrdom, and Vows." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 4.1-24 <URL:

  1. In matters of religion, as on most topics, one can find instances of Margaret Cavendish taking opposing sides. For example, in Philosophical Letters she uses God and the immortal nature of the soul to argue against Henry More's attack on her conviction that matter was self moving. She compares his belief in an immaterial spirit that moves inanimate matter with believing in multiple gods and thus deems it "irreligious." She notes that he need not have spent time proving the immortality of the soul, since so many religions already agree upon that (not only Christians but Muslims and Jews as well), and further finds him presumptuous to think that his philosophy could explain God's relationship to the natural world (Whitaker 263). Yet, her texts often appear to dismiss belief in God. Take for example, her fixation on attaining an afterlife through fame, which undercuts any claims to belief in the immortality of the soul. One could argue her frequent claim that she writes to be remembered is merely the same acknowledgement of the classical heroic ideal expressed by many sixteenth and seventeenth century writers; however, unlike many of these writers, she does not temper her humanist ideal with Christian ideals.

  2. In fact, dedicating The Worlds Olio to Fortune, she takes a New Testament passage and turns it on its head. St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians stresses in the opening lines of Chapter 13 the unimportance of fame gained through language compared with the most important Christian virtue, charity, and implies through Paul's imagery the importance of accompanying humility: "Though I speak with the tongues of man and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." Cavendish, by contrast, hopes that Fortune will place her "Book in Fames high Tow'r, where every Word, like a Cymball shall make a Tinkling Noise; and the whole Volume, like a Cannon Bullet, shall Echo from Side to Side of Fames large Brasen Wall, and make so loud a Report that , that all the World shall hear it." No doubt Cavendish enjoyed the word play in "Volume" and "Report" and through these words associates herself with heroism in battle, another heroic means to the afterlife in addition to the route most open to her, writing. However, omitting any reference to charity or humility, moving away from the hollowness implied in Paul's description to an amplified sound attached to heroic action, Cavendish brazenly challenges the Christian route to an afterlife. Furthermore, her first five essays in The Worlds Olio concern fame. In the second essay, Cavendish gives further legitimacy to being noticed by the world, claiming, "It is a Justice to a mans self: and no vain ostentation or braging, to write or speak truly of his own good service to his king and country." Although she begins the next essay claiming that man is "born to the glory of God," she quickly drops interest in any "Divine influence" and choses to write "onely according to her [Nature's] works," holding that nature has a purpose for all she creates and the purpose of "the rational Soul in man," which is "a work of nature," is "to be industrious to get a Fame to live to after Ages." After all, "dead men live in living men, where beasts die without Record . . . men, that die in oblivion, are beasts by nature" (1, 8-9).

  3. Within the context of her own writing, which examines most topics from as many points of view as possible, it is not surprising that Cavendish presents opposing views about religion; what is more striking is the relative lack of religious references in her texts, especially when compared with contemporary or near contemporary women writers. When I began reading Cavendish's work a decade and a half ago, I found this absence or relative absence rather refreshing after reading autobiographies by writers such as Anna Trapnel, Susanna Paar, Katharine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, Sarah Davy and Hannah Allen or the diaries of Alice Thornton or even Anne Clifford. Likewise, the lack of religion in Cavendish's poetry provided a welcome contrast when compared with that of An Collins, Diana Primrose, or Elizabeth Melville. Katie Whitaker attributes the infrequency of religious topics in Cavendish's writing to the common belief that religious debate helped ignite and fuel the English civil wars, citing references to this reasoning in Philosophical Letters, in The Worlds Olio and in Sociable Letters (265, 390, n. 45). Indeed, the Duchess advises the Empress in The Blazing World to maintain "religious conformity" in her world "otherwise... it may in time prove...as miserable a world as that from which I came, wherein are ...more pretended governors than governments, more religions than gods, and more opinions in those religions than truth." (189, 201). While the relative lack of religious references in her work no doubt can be attributed, in part, to her fear of religious controversy leading to political controversy, had I been asked about Cavendish's religious beliefs when I first began reading her work, I would have said she was probably an atheist or possibly an agnostic, at best rather uninterested in religion or at times at least disrespectful toward it.

  4. Not only is the proportion of her work devoted to religion quite meagre when compared with that of many of her female contemporaries; when Cavendish does examine religion, it is usually to show its dangers, as the example from The Blazing World above shows, or to commend its use in service of government. For example, her essay, "A Monastical life," defends monks against those that see them as "drones in a Common-wealth," seeking out "that honey they never took pains to gather." Her defence lists the ways religious orders can be useful to a country. The vow of celibacy helps prevent overpopulation and the vow of poverty means little is required to maintain them; thus they indirectly help maintain national prosperity, which in turn helps nations avoid civil wars. Furthermore, the example of their peaceful lives as well as their use of ceremony, which keeps common people entertained and busy, likewise contributes to the state's tranquility (The Worlds Olio 34, 34-36). When not demonstrating the dangers inherent in religion or its usefulness to a ruler, Cavendish simply uses it cavalierly to further her ideas, as in her parody of Paul, or to further a plot. For example, in The Blazing World souls take on a rather secular appearance: leaving their bodies for a more rarified vehicle, the souls of the Duchess and Empress make travel across worlds possible. The bodies left behind are easily kept animated, either by another random spirit in the case of the Empress or even without such a spirit in the case of the Duchess: "her body, in absence of her soul, was governed by her sensitive and rational corporal motions" (190). Not only can bodies get along quite nicely without their souls but souls can enter other bodies: while visiting England, the women's souls enter the Duke's body creating a miniature Platonic "seraglio." This comparison would no doubt seem blasphemous to Christian readers; her phrase, "three souls in one body" might also seem to them a parody of the trinity. One of the aims of this passage seems to be to make fun of Platonic love, which Cavendish writes in one of her single sentence essays in The Worlds Olio, "is a bawd to Adultery" (105). However, whether she also intended to poke fun at Christian beliefs or was merely being careless, scenes like this one above from The Blazing World may indicate a more negative attitude toward religion than mere scepticism.

  5. Anna Battigelli sees Cavendish's generally sceptical nature as leading her to believe that speculation about the nature of God was useless, though she does not believe this scepticism was atheism (55). Likewise, although Katie Whitaker points out that Cavendish's only religious poem, "The Motion of Thoughts," which begins with "the inspiration of a divine vision," soon leads "to expression of her own deeply skeptical attitude to Christian belief," and also points out that Cavendish was not particularly devout, she notes that Cavendish remained a professed Anglican throughout her life (165, 35). However, I have company in believing that Cavendish could have been an atheist. Both Whitaker and Battigelli note the discomfort that contemporaries such as Glanvill, Cudworth, and Charleton felt with what appeared to them to be atheistic in her work (Whitaker 322-4, Battigelli 55-56). Furthermore, I feel not only is there nonchalance in some of Cavendish's religious references but possibly even hostility. For example, Pauline writings were used to justify women's subordination, thus making it possible that the spirit underlying Cavendish's parody of his epistle to the Corinthian was more than disregard or playfulness but actually hostility. At least one of her contemporaries seems to have also found Cavendish hostile to religion. Whitaker points out the publication in London in 1658 of a small book entitled, Du Vergers Humble Reflections upon . . . Newcastle's Olio, wherein the author writes that while reading Cavendish's "wallowish and unsound" defence of monasticism her "stomach began to rise." [1]

  6. During the last decade and a half, many more Cavendish works have become readily available through modern editions and through expansion of on-line resources. Likewise, the critical articles on Cavendish have expanded exponentially. Having read many more Cavendish works as well as many more critical appraisals of her and her works, I feel free to imitate Cavendish and modify my stance, though unlike her, I have not taken a diametrically opposed position. I still believe the relative lack of references to God and religion in her work, as well as the manner in which she often treats these topics when they do appear, probably shows that they are relatively unimportant to her, except as a means to defend her ideas about the material universe or, even more importantly, as a means to improve society, for her class, but also for all, since a well-run society, she would argue, benefits everyone, including the upper classes. However, I now believe that religion, especially Roman Catholicism, held some attraction for her beyond the utility she ascribes to religion in general.

  7. Frances Dolan and Julian Yates explore fear of Catholics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, pointing out that it was exacerbated by their relatively large numbers when compared with other marginalized groups, but perhaps even more so by the difficulty of distinguishing them from the rest of the population as opposed to identifying members of other marginalized groups such as the Turks or Jews (Dolan 8). As the familiar enemy or the enemy within, they could easily infiltrate the ranks of the majority and thus do damage, whether converting Anglicans to Catholicism or plotting the overthrow of the government. Furthermore, Catholicism was the religion of much of the Continent, which harbored seminaries that sent priests back to England, in some cases to serve the Catholic population there and in other instances to re-establish the Church of Rome. Even the former, while not necessarily increasing the Catholic population in England, kept it alive, thus preventing England from being truly united in matters of church and state. (Dolan 16-44, Yates 157-175). Certainly, Cavendish would be leery of anything that might interfere with a government's ability to maintain social order, yet, there are many factors that could make Catholicism attractive or at least interesting and tolerable to her.

  8. Continental Catholic countries supported monarchy, the form of government favored by Cavendish, and, of course, the Queen of England was Catholic. Erica Veevers points out that Henrietta Maria's Capuchin priests were moderate in contrast to the zealous, proselytizing Jesuits. She also suggests that in the 1630's the queen's "form of religion was a useful middle ground, attracting moderates on both the Catholic and Anglican sides" (182). Furthermore, the agreements drawn up for her marriage to Charles stipulated that Henrietta Maria be allowed to practise her religion in England: what had been hidden, priests and mass, were no longer hidden in her court. Capuchin living quarters were open to the public as were the masses that were said in the two chapels she maintained in London. Spectators were surprised and intrigued by both the ascetic nature of the monk's cells as well as by the splendour of the chapels. Father Cyprien de Gamache, a Capuchin friar serving the queen, described one of the chapels in his memoirs; what follows is just a small portion of his description.

    Behind the altar was seen a Paraclete, [dove representing the holy spirit]
    raised above seven ranges of clouds, in which were figures of archangels,
    of cherubim, of seraphim, to the number of two hundred, some adoring the
    Holy Sacrament, others singing and playing on all sorts of musical
    instruments, the whole painted and placed according to the rules of perspective.
    The Holy Sacrament formed the point of view, with hidden lights, but
    which kept increasing, so that the distance appeared very great, and the
    number of figures double what they were, deceiving, by an ingenious
    artifice, not only the eye but also the ear, all conceiving that, instead
    of music, they heard the melody of the angels, singing and playing
    upon musical instruments. . . . The place where the Holy Sacrament lay
    had a bottom of gold, and as for the lamp to the cloth covering the pyx,
    it was a red oval with rays, the whole of which was so well contrived
    . . . that the painting seemed to vanish, there was nothing left but
    brilliancy of the lights, which caused that place to appear all on fire.
    The number of lights was about four hundred (311-12).

    As Dolan puts it, Catholicism gained a certain panache during the 1630s (42). Although the Queen had fled to Oxford by the time Cavendish joined her entourage, it is possible Cavendish might have seen the chapels in London on one of her visits with her family. Furthermore, both in Oxford and abroad, Cavendish lived among Catholics. And even though exiled Royalists flocked to Paris and later to Antwerp, affording Cavendish an Anglican husband, friends and associates, some of the exiled friends were Catholic, for example, Richard Flecknoe, who continued after the Restoration as a protégé and friend in England. Furthermore, some of the friends were not exiles, but continental-born, and thus in some instances, perhaps many, must have been Catholic. I believe that the impact of interaction and even personal connections with Catholics on Cavendish should not be underestimated. While her description of her family of origin in "A True Relation" does show a closing off to outsiders, it also shows the importance of interpersonal connection for her. In Paris and Antwerp far away from her family of origin, William, his brother Charles, other English exiles, and continental born residents would take their place. Whitaker notes the connections that Margaret and William would have had in Antwerp, describing, for example, visits between them and the Duartes. The Duartes, although from a Jewish Portuguese family, were "now long naturalized in Antwerp" and would have been at least nominally Catholic when they resided in Antwerp (121-123). [2] In addition to possible sympathy gained by exposure to Catholics among the Royalist exiles and citizens of the continental cities in which she lived, Cavendish may also have felt some sympathy for English Catholics, now that she and other Protestant Royalists shared their experience of being out of favour with the English government, or in some cases, as in William Cavendish's, the experience of being actual outlaws. Furthermore, English Catholics were disproportionately from the upper classes. Dolan suggests that their ability to pay the fines levied against recusants (versus the lower classes' inability to shoulder such a financial burden) probably accounts for this disproportion (21). One could also speculate that there was an affinity between this class and a religion that preserved and honoured hierarchy within its own ranks as well as without. The northern part of England had both more Catholics and more supporters of the king. One such person, Christopher Simpson, the musician who wrote books of instruction for the base viol and the treble viol, served in the Royalist army under William Cavendish and later dedicated a book to him. For ten years or more during the Interregnum, he lived with Sir Robert Bolles, a Protestant, until as Margaret Urquhart writes, when "it was safe for him,. . . he emerged c. 1660 in London still under the protection of . . .Bolles"(7). Urquhart compares the records concerning Christopher Simpson, the musician, with those concerning Christopher Simpson, an English Jesuit of a similar age and from the same region, concluding it is possible that they were one and the same, since Jesuits often undertook aliases to protect themselves in England (3-26). Her detailed article is rather compelling. Likewise, materials on Richard Flecknoe speculate that he may have been a priest. However, whether these men were priests or not, they do provide examples of friendships and sympathy between Royalist Protestants and Catholics.

  9. Another support for my contention that Cavendish's writing shows some affinity for Catholicism is that, despite her conservatism, she was also a risk-taker. Publishing her writing and appearing flamboyantly dressed in public, despite her shyness, are just two examples of this side of her personality. Flirting with Catholicism in her writing might be another instance of this trait. Finally, Catholicism offered Cavendish two more things that she valued. First, it offered spectacle, costume, and theatre. The mass is an enactment of the Last Supper, and medieval drama is thought to have its roots in the Quem queritis trope of the Easter Mass. The splendour of Henrietta Maria's chapel has already been noted, and Veevers notes the similarity between her court masques and the masses said in court chapels (2). Second, Catholic convents offered a socially respectable alternative to marriage not available in Protestant England. Alice Thornton's descriptions of the unsavoury men by whom she was threatened in her single state during the 1640s give a very good picture of what the lack of this alternative could mean for individuals (31-4).

  10. Finally, two of Cavendish's plays, The Convent of Pleasure and The Religious, provide details that show Cavendish perhaps knew more about Catholicism than the average Protestant and also that she may have found some of its practices and doctrines more than merely useful to society. In both plays, the church provides help for an individual with whom Cavendish could identify, and there is perhaps an even more personal attachment to one of the issues explored in the latter play, the meaning of vows and the Catholic point of view on married chastity.

  11. Delighting in presenting unexpected twists and turns, Cavendish, in The Convent of Pleasure, uses an ancient institution as a means of social innovation: the play's eligible upper-class bachelors are stunned by the community that Lady Happy creates. Cavendish's construction of a convent for upper-class women, with domestic services performed by women of lower social status, is not entirely far-fetched. For example, Judith Brown's essay on early modern nuns in Florence, notes just such an arrangement, pointing out how it freed nuns of aristocratic birth for singing and fine needlework ( 117, see also Rowlands 167). Many continental convents for English women were established in the seventeenth century, perhaps as many as forty by mid-century. The nuns, and especially the girls educated in these convents, were largely from the upper classes because their families had the money and/or connections needed to send daughters to convents abroad (Dolan 42, 141, Rowlands 174). Henrietta Maria herself supported a number of English offspring in continental convents and monasteries, including several of Elizabeth Tanfield Cary's children, among them the nun who wrote her mother's biography (Dolan 144-49). Isobel Grundy's survey of the writings of early modern English nuns shows English convents on the continent had hard times, but then many English exiles, whether abroad because of Catholicism or Royalism, had strained resources. And as Grundy points out, the letters and other autobiographical writings of these nuns show not only the ability to enjoy an occasional festive meal but also a sense of humour and general enjoyment of life. Furthermore, Grundy reports that the writings of these women show that many chose to enter a convent to escape what they saw as the dangers of male control in marriage (120-138). Records for seventeenth century Florence indicate that the mortality rate of nuns versus that of secular women is much lower; Brown attributes this to absence of childbearing and the protective isolation of the convents in times of plague as well as psychological and social support within the convent and also social support from city officials (128, 130-132). Rowlands also notes the longevity of English nuns (168).

  12. Still, Cavendish's emphasis on a proliferation of varied sensual delights, which goes beyond simple material comfort, upholds neither the letter nor the spirit of the vow of poverty taken by nuns, thus differentiating her convent from real convents and making it possible to read this play as a sneer at Catholic convents, confirming the Protestant suspicion of convents as places of luxury and indolence. Lady Happy's devotion to the Goddess, Nature, also differentiates this convent from real ones, but in some ways mitigates the emphasis on sensual delights, since the activities of Cavendish's votaries match their beliefs. The Protestant charge that nuns and monks pretended to worship God while actually worshipping creature comfort is thus eliminated. The various provisions of pleasure in Cavendish's convent--food, sumptuous wall hangings and bedding, lovely scents and the like--create a form of lived devotion as they celebrate the power and abundance of Nature as well as demonstrate that the women have given up no pleasures that marriage could provide save male companionship and possibly sexual pleasure. Actually, without compromising the all-female community, the former is provided through costume and theatre. Some have argued even the presence of homoerotic sexual pleasure is strongly implied in the play. [3] So, perhaps, the only thing missing is heterosexual sexual pleasure. Although Cavendish's "nuns" do not take the vow of poverty and their vow of chastity may be only partial, they obey a vow of obedience. The community obeys the dictate of Nature not only by paradoxically encouraging its members to please themselves (sensually, emotionally, and intellectually), but also by keeping seasonal order, changing room furnishings, bedding, etc. accordingly.

  13. An additional type of order within the convent is channelling recreation into dramatic forms. Convents encouraged women to explore the arts in areas such as music and literature, both in composition and performance; literary activity included drama. Hildegard of Bingen, perhaps best known for her musical compositions, was also a prolific writer. Her play Ordo Virtutum (The Play of Virtues), written about 1151 probably for the dedication of the convent that she established at Rupertsberg, is the earliest extant liturgical morality play. Hroswitha, another prolific writer, living a century and a half before Hildegard, also wrote plays. Two of the instances of acting within Cavendish's convent connect it with aristocratic tastes, specifically the court masques in which Henrietta Maria herself often performed, i.e., the Princess and Lady Happy acting out their personal pastoral drama, and the masque of Neptune performed before the whole convent. The other dramatic instance, a play featuring the difficulties and oppression possible in marriage, perhaps resembles pre-Interregnum citizen drama, providing instruction by thus reminding the ladies of the convent not only of the hazards experienced by those women who because of class are unfortunate enough to be outside the convent wall but also hazards they might face should they leave the convent. Given the positive attitude that shows through Lady Happy's sensible defences of her creation as well as the lack of pretence in Cavendish's convent, I think it is more accurate to read it, not as a sneer at Catholicism, but as a favourable nod toward the religion of the continental countries that gave Cavendish and many other English exiles a home.

  14. The Religious, although less well known than The Convent of Pleasure, can be seen as a complement to the former. In The Religious Cavendish again acknowledges the important social function convents can play for women. Like The Convent of Pleasure, it also explores the problematic nature of marriage for women, though chiefly through an extremely funny sub-plot, which contrasts with the serious nature of Lady Happy's arguments against marriage as well as the many woeful marriage scenes depicted in one of the plays within The Convent of Pleasure. Still, despite the broad humour of the subplot, The Religious is just as serious about exposing problems within the institution of marriage as is The Convent of Pleasure. Both plays also explore chastity, but The Religious takes it outside the convent wall and into marriage, where it becomes something other than virginity or abstinence. Furthermore, in this play it is the nature of vows, rather than the benefits of an all female community, that Cavendish highlights.

  15. In addition to exploring the problematic nature of marriage for many women, both plays also explore the relationship between government and marriage. The convent disbands when Lady Happy's membership becomes a threat to her country. One could say that in marrying the prince, Lady Happy does not remain faithful to her vows, yet in a larger sense she does. Generating offspring conforms to Nature's design for all of her species, i.e., maintaining their place on earth through replication, and so in marrying, Lady Happy remains a faithful votary of Nature. Many readers express disappointment or even dismay at her abandoning the convent, though Gweno Williams on the teaching video tape, Women Dramatists 1550-1670: Plays in Performance, has pointed out that the Prince must be an unusually sensitive man, attuned to a female perspective, to have gained entry into the convent, let alone remain undetected for so long. Still, as some critics have noted, the last play within the play, the masque of Neptune, features male dominion, and Lady Happy ceases speaking at this point. Her silence could be interpreted as reluctance as well as the silencing that marriage brings to the subordinate half of the couple, the woman. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as approval and absence of a need to defend her convent or defend her attraction to the foreign Princess [Prince].

  16. The Religious begins, not with the formation of a convent, but with a marriage desired by the young protagonists, promoted by Lady Perfection's mother, and sanctioned, though somewhat reluctantly, by Lord Melancholy's guardian, his uncle. Minor characters see the young couple's mature and loving behaviour as evidence of an idyllic union. However, creating a counterpoint to the main plot, is a subplot that satirizes marriage through debates between a young woman resisting her father's marriage plans and her bawdy nurse, who as I have pointed out elsewhere is reminiscent of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. [4] One of Mistriss Odd-Humour's objections to marriage is made as a suitor and her father discuss her dowry: she accuses them of being "Merchants Trafficking . . . to make a bargain" (535). As Mihoko Suzuki has pointed out "both plots deal with [parental] traffic in children" (485). The difference is that the young lovers of the main plot welcome Lady Perfection's mother's manipulative moves to bring them to the altar. Much less to their liking, though, is the parental trafficking planned by Lord Melancholy's father, away on ambassadorial duties, i.e., a match between his son and the niece of his country's Arch-Prince. Angry at learning of his son's marriage but determined to use his offspring for an advantageous alliance, he finds ways to convince the Arch-Prince to manipulate civil and canon law to annul the marriage between Melancholy and Perfection. Melancholy, torn between his father's wishes and his initial marriage vows, eventually gives in to parental pressure.

  17. While government intervention in matters of marriage appears, on the whole, to be condoned in The Convent of Pleasure, in this play it is depicted as sinister. The Arch Prince's desire to marry his niece at the expense of an established, happy marriage affects not only Lady Perfection, who finds herself in a social lacuna: as she says she is "neither Maid, Virgin, Widow, nor Wife" (537). [5] It also affects Lord Melancholy, who, torn between obedience to his father and his ruler on one hand and his original marriage vows on the other, marries the Arch-Prince's niece, yet spends little time with her. So different are his and his new wife's personalities, he explains, "we are happyest when we are fardest asunder" (543). All three young people are distraught. Yet this is but a minor part of the play's sinister government intervention. As in The Convent of Pleasure, in this play the good of the whole country is at stake. Lady Perfection becomes the target of the Arch-Prince's "raging" desire, which prompts threats of rape when she refuses his marriage proposal (541). After tampering with the law, the Arch Prince now puts himself above the law in threatening rape and simultaneously risks the peace and prosperity of his country by ignoring the Emperor's wish for a union between his daughter and the Arch-Prince.

  18. In this play the convent again offers refuge and social alternatives; here, though it provides a woman without a social identity with one, and it protects a marriage as well as provides escape from an unwanted marriage or possible rape. Perfection maintains, despite an annulment, that she is still married to Melancholy, and thus "cannot vow Virginity, nor a single life." However, she can be true to her marriage vows and still "vow Chastity and retirement." With the latter vows, she feels, she may "be permitted into a Nunnery," but, realizing that "there is too much Company in ordinary Nunneryes," for her mental state, she resolves instead to live in "solitariness," in a "Cloyster" created from a "little Tower" her father built before he died. [6] In order to assure her safety, and I think also reputation, she will include her nurse. Furthermore, she acquaints "the Fathers of the Church" with her plan (544). All this is done without public knowledge, so that no more laws can be manipulated or broken before she is safely immured in her cloister. The prince, who has proven capable of arbitrarily changing civil laws, pressuring the church to change canon law, and refusing an alliance with the Emperor's daughter, which will almost certainly precipitate a war, not surprisingly seeks to prevent her from taking vows, but, upon learning he is too late, leaves her alone. As she predicted he will not "not commit Sacrilege" (544).

  19. The play is saturated with religious language: Church Fathers, sacrilege, cloister, vow, religious order, and so forth. The terms repent and repentance also occur frequently. Early on, the play's citizen chorus speculates that the protagonists may repent marrying so young. Mid-way through, in response to Odd-Humour's desire to enter a convent, Nan proclaims that many repent their decision to marry or enter a convent, since most do it merely "for a change in life." However, the young couple never repent their marriage and Mistriss Odd-Humour contends that Nan is mistaken: "those that are married wish to be unmarried, by reason Marriage is the most troublesome, unquiet life that is, but a Devotes life is the most peaceable and quiet life that is." When Melancholy's second wife dies in childbirth, again the citizen chorus predicts repentance, Perfection's, for having been so "Religious as to have Incloyster'd her self from the World, and to ha'bard (sic) up her liberty with Vows" (548). Perfection, however, does not repent her religious vows any more than she did her marriage vows; she takes all her vows seriously: vows of chastity and solitariness are as important as are her still unbroken marriage vows. This play highlights constancy.

  20. Martyrdom is another religious element in this play. In the main plot, unable to reunite on earth, Perfection and Melancholy agree to a double suicide so that their souls can unite in the hereafter; thus, they are ready to become martyrs for love and for religion, but above all for keeping one's vows. Faring better than Romeo and Juliet, though, the couple at the point of piercing their hearts on a double-ended sword, which Melancholy had extended part way through the cloister grate, is stopped by two friars alerted to the suicide plan by Perfection's nurse. The friars point out they have saved the couple not merely from corporeal death but imply more importantly from an immortal death. To them suicide is murder, a mortal sin, and committing it at a convent is sacrilege. [7] Furthermore, they show Perfection how she can remain true to her religious vows and yet resume her marriage. Since husband and wife are one, her vow to live alone will remain intact; furthermore by being sexually faithful to her husband she will be practising chastity. In fact, the friars establish a new order for the couple, the "Order of Chastity in Marriage." Through this play's protagonists, Cavendish promotes mutual fidelity in marriage; however, she also implies it is rare: guests at the remarriage smilingly predict that few beside the bridal pair will join the new religious order. Whether Cavendish was aware of the existence of lay orders, which provided a way for a married person to also take religious vows, I cannot say, but it is possible, since she seems to be aware that new religious orders need official church approval, and she also knows that for Catholics chastity does not automatically translate to celibacy. She further specifies that the "Religious Habit" that Lady Perfection wears is one "Somewhat like the Normetanes" (547). I have not found any reference to a religious order with that name; still, she may have meant the Norbertines, an order whose name sounds somewhat like Normetane and which has associations with Belgium.

  21. Martyrdom is a feature of the subplot as well. Mistriss Odd-Humour is emotionally attached to her childhood chair, a symbol of her wish to arrest her maturation, thereby avoiding marriage. This attachment generates much of the humour in the play. In fact, at one point of the play, she is not only emotionally but literally attached to her chair. Because she has grown to adult size, sitting in it makes for a tight fit. As she, startled, rises to greet a suitor, who has been sent into her unannounced, the chair sticks to her bottom. He breaks off the proposed match immediately. Momentarily embarrassed, she rallies, reminding herself that the chair has protected her from an unwanted marriage. Her father's response, however, is a command to get rid of the chair. Disobeying him, she continues to use it when he is absent, hiding it when he visits her room, having asked Nan to act as bawd between it and her father, warning ahead of time of her father's visits. Still, almost religious devotion to remaining a child and to its tangible symbol, the chair, cannot help Odd-Humour. [8] Like government officials searching English houses for priests, her father hunts down the chair and, finding it in a coal hole, burns it. The hiding place for it becomes refigured as a priest hole when Odd-Humour mournfully relates to Nan the chair's "Martyrdome whereat I was so afflicted, . . . I lost my sight in tears, which . . . I let run on the fire, hoping to quench it . . ., but they were so brind with grief, . . . they did rather augment the fury of the fire, than abate the rage of the flame; so that which I thought would have been a preserver did hasten the destruction" (549).

  22. In addition to showing the impossibility of remaining a child, the martyrdom of the chair could signify Cavendish's disapproval of hidden or secretive religious affiliation as opposed to her approval of officially sanctioned, and thus open, religious devotion. The chair is not only figured as a priest being caught and martyred; it also is figured as a lover when Odd-Humour suggests that Nan act as a "Bawd." Perhaps, Cavendish subscribed to Protestant rumours of sexual relationships in recusant households between women and the priests hidden there (Dolan 85-94). Still, it seems more likely given the humour of the scene that Cavendish is instead mocking or trivializing those rumours. What is clear is that religion operating more openly--i.e., in officially recognized, though Cavendish modified, convents and cloisters--can prevent unwanted and predictably disastrous marriages. It can also facilitate good marriages, keeping Lady Happy single until a proper suitor comes along and Lady Perfection's marriage on hold until time and the creation of yet another religious order allow her to resume it.

  23. As for the relationship between government and marriage, Cavendish seems to have a consistent hierarchy: the peace of the kingdom takes precedence over the desires of individuals. Lady Happy, although initially committed to a celibate life, marries the Prince and prevents war; the Arch-Prince reins in his desire and marries the Emperor's daughter. On the other hand, the place of religion seems to be to aid and protect those whose lives vis à vis marriage are imperilled by either the government, misguided parents, or in Lady Happy's case, a lack in society that renders impossible a match between social and intellectual equals. Although it cannot be absolutely ascertained that Cavendish's playful use of convents, cloisters, martyrdom and vows shows a respect for, admiration of, or even attraction to some of Catholicism's principles, practices, and institutions or merely amusement with and/or disrespect toward them, it is clear that religion, as a means of preventing bad marriages and fostering good ones, is a privilege of the upper classes. Mistriss Odd-Humour, while not impoverished, is not an aristocrat and apparently does not have the means to join a convent.

  24. Maybe more than the chair or Lady Perfection or even Lady Happy, who some readers maintain dies to herself in marriage, I believe the real martyr is Mistriss Odd-Humour, who has no say about her marital state. Although it may be argued that any objections Lady Happy may have toward her marriage are silenced by considerations of the good of her country, it can also be argued that her silence acknowledges that she no longer needs to defend life in a convent because she has changed her mind about marriage. That she already knows the Prince (to a degree) and was attracted to him increases the odds that hers will be a happy marriage. On the other hand, as Odd-Humour notes, her father may marry her to a miserly man, who "will allow . . .[her] nothing to spend," and little to eat, or a jealous man, who will bar her from company. Her ideal husband would have "more love than jealousy, more merit than title, more honesty than wealth, and more wealth than necessity," (535), but in reality the economics of the match will dictate who is willing to marry her and whom her father will choose.


1. Although the authorship of this publication cannot be absolutely ascertained, there was a "Susan Du Verger, who had translated . . . the writings of a French bishop into English during the 1630's" (320-21).

2. The information about the family origin and religion and their being at least nominally Catholic is from a conversation with Katie Whitaker at the Fifth International Biennial Cavendish Conference, University College Chester, England, July 17-20, 2003.

3. See Emma Donoghue, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (London: Scarlet P, 1993); Theodora A. Jankowski, "Pure Resistance: Queer(y)ing Virginity in William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Margaret Cavendish's The Convent of Pleasure," Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 218-55; Erin Bonin, "Margaret Cavendish's Dramatic Utopias and the Politics of Gender," SEL 40 (Spring 2000): 339-354; Misty Anderson, "Tactile Places: Materializing Desire in Margaret Cavendish and Jane Barker," Textual Practice (Summer 1999): 329-52; Laura J. Rosenthal, Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property (Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1996), especially the chapter "'Authoress of a Whole World': The Duchess of Newcastle and Imaginary Property."

4. "Drama's Olio: a New Way to Serve Old Ingredients in The Religious and The
Matrimonial Trouble," in Margaret Cavendish and Shakespeare: Interconnections.
Eds. Katherine Romack, James Fitzmaurice, and Gweno Williams. Forthcoming.

5. See Measure for Measure for similar words from Mariana. The silence of Isabella at the end of Shakespeare's play might be contrasted with Lady Happy's relative silence at the end of The Convent of Pleasure.

6. In "'I hate such an old-fashioned House': Margaret Cavendish and the search for home," also in this issue, Alison Findlay convincingly suggests that The Religious is "a text in which Cavendish deals poignantly with the loss of her childhood home," the cloister scenes echoing St. John's Abbey, Colchester.

7. Cavendish shows her knowledge of the Catholic attitude toward suicide as well as of compounding its seriousness by committing the act in a sacred place. However, she seems to differentiate between the Catholic doctrine and her own belief when she has Lady Perfection answer the friar who questions the genuineness of her devotion: "Father, know I accounted self Death no wickedness, and will venture on my own belief" (553).

8. Findlay speculates that "Cavendish pushes religious reverence for . . . [her childhood home] into parody" via the martyrdom of the chair in an attempt to manage the great loss she experienced with the plundering of her home and family graves in 1642 as well as the news she received, while in exile, of her family home's near destruction in the siege of Colchester in 1648 and her brother's subsequent execution.

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).