Concocting the world's olio: Margaret Cavendish and continental influence
Sara H. Mendelson
Mendelson, Sara H. "Concocting the world's olio: Margaret Cavendish and continental influence." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 1.1-34 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-14/mendconc.html>.
For some years now, Cavendish scholarship has been roughly divided between two schools of thought. On the one hand, there are those who have depicted Cavendish as an intellectual solipsist, a free spirit whose creative productions issued mainly from her own imaginative faculties. On the other hand, some scholars have emphasized the ways in which Cavendish was influenced by her intellectual milieu. Rather than being viewed as an isolated eccentric, they argue, she should be accorded proper recognition as a significant chapter in the history of seventeenth-century science and philosophy. 
Early in her career, Cavendish herself was apt to encourage the solipsistic view of her persona as "authoress." She did so partly because her alleged isolation put a premium on originality, a trait which she singled out as her chief advantage over her scholarly and scientific competitors. Responding to those critics who accused her of excessive influence or even of plagiarism, Cavendish replied that she had never read the works of other philosophers, nor had she been able to learn any foreign language. Consequently, as she claimed, she was cut off from the academic and scientific world. Finally, Cavendish declared, she had never conversed with any "professed scholar."  While no modern reader has taken these professions of unsullied originality at face value, several scholars have called attention to the dynamic role of Cavendish's inward-looking imagination, showing how she was in the habit of acting out in her brain whatever she was unable to accomplish in the real world.
In later life, Cavendish made more of an effort to interact intellectually as well as socially with contemporary English and European thinkers. Accordingly, one branch of recent scholarship has focussed on Cavendish's relationship with her scientific and philosophical peers. In the forefront of this trend, Anna Battigelli has placed Cavendish in her contemporary philosophical context, with links to Hobbes, Descartes, and other intellectual giants of mainstream seventeenth-century thought. Others have documented Cavendish's adversarial relationship with members of the Royal Society and her links with other contemporary intellectual influences (Harris, Keller, Mintz, Moore, Nate, O'Neill 1999, Salzman, Siegfried, Stevenson, Wallwork, and Whitaker ch. 12.)
Thus we can point to persuasive arguments on both sides of the debate, and it would be a quixotic enterprise to try to settle the question by choosing one side or the other. Instead, my aim is to complicate the problem, to make it fuzzier and more multi-layered, not clearer and more well-defined. Complicating the debate is a strategy that would have appealed to Cavendish herself, with her love of paradox and irony, of fantastic analogies and unexpected correspondences, of satire and witty repartee (Suzuki). On numerous occasions she presented opposing viewpoints without even attempting to resolve the contradictions that were likely to ensue.  As Cavendish would have done in one of her self-deprecatory prefaces, I should warn you that my arguments are going to be nebulous, speculative, and slippery.
Let me begin with a few points about intellectual solipsism versus cultural influence. First, even if Cavendish functioned primarily as a solipsist, the sense impressions that fuelled her imagination still had to come from somewhere. She may have spent much of her waking hours alone in her room, lost in contemplation or engrossed in the struggle to express her busy thoughts. But she did not fill her works with poetic descriptions of her desk and chair or the decorations on her walls and ceiling. At some point she experienced a variety of external stimuli that helped launch her internal train of thought. Secondly, influence comes not only from reading books or attending lectures or conversing with friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Influence also invades the mind through the pathways of the five senses, the writer's physical, cultural and psychological milieu. It is evident from her writings that Cavendish was attentive to multiple aspects of her living environment. The sights and sounds and even the smells she took in - in fact the very air she breathed - affected the way she thought and wrote.
James Fitzmaurice made this point about the writer's physical and cultural milieu in an article on Cavendish and Antwerp, showing the fertile interaction between the "real" Antwerp situated in the Spanish Netherlands of the 1650s and the imaginary Antwerp that Cavendish evokes in several of her Sociable Letters (Fitzmaurice 2000). Although we cannot separate the real from the imaginary Antwerp in Cavendish's writings, we can recognize the fact that the "real" Antwerp must have provided a strong external stimulus to Cavendish's imagination, as she describes her fascination with sleigh riders, ice skaters and a cross-dressing female dancer in a mountebank's show.
In her Sociable Letters, Cavendish herself analyzes her mental processes in some detail, explaining how the scenes she had viewed were replicated in her mind in an internal parallel to, and extrapolation from, the external event. First, she registers her impressions of the "real" ice skaters, the sleigh rides, the female cross-dressing dancer. Then she describes how her sense impressions later replay themselves in the theatre of her mind's eye, with the ideas themselves slipping and sliding on mental ice, or capering in the air in higher and higher leaps, in harmony with the cross-dressing female dancer. Finally, the magistrate of her mind (a sort of pre-Freudian superego) becomes alarmed at all this intellectual anarchy and banishes the sliding and leaping ideas from her mind, just as the real magistrate of Antwerp banished the mountebank's company from the city (Sociable Letters 203-207).
The quasi-autobiographical reminiscences of the Sociable Letters thus provide at least one example of the interaction between the vivid experience of foreign surroundings and the resulting stimulus to Cavendish's mental processes. Now I'd like to extrapolate from this little Flemish tableau in order to pose more general questions about Cavendish's sojourn on the continent during the 1650s. How did Cavendish grow imaginatively as she opened her mind to different experiences in an unfamiliar milieu? How did the European locale alter her perception not only of life back home in England, but of the world at large? And finally, how were these changed perceptions reflected in her writing?
Cavendish in mid-century France and Flanders was in an analogous position to those young English gentlemen who took the continental Grand Tour to broaden their educational horizons. At this time, England presented a particularly striking contrast to continental Europe in terms of intellectual ambience and what we might call cultural self-definition. The most obvious difference, and the foundation of many other differences between England and the continent, was the dominance of Catholicism on the continent, in contrast to the hegemony of left-wing Protestantantism in England during the Interregnum. Of course there were Protestant states in Europe. But the premier powers, the political and military leaders -- France, Spain and principal Italian city-states like Venice -- were aggressively Roman Catholic. In 1648, Europe had just finished fighting the Thirty Years' War, a protracted territorial struggle between Catholic and Protestant powers. Meanwhile England during the 1640s and 1650s came perhaps as close as it ever would to a radical Protestant revolution, with deep social as well as ideological repercussions for every sector of society.
I have singled out the Interregnum period because it coincided with Cavendish's exile abroad, as well as presenting the most striking contrast with Catholic continental mores at a time when left-wing Protestants were in control of the English government, the Church, and other institutions. But I could make a similar case for the dominance of an aggressively Protestant (or anti-Catholic) ambience in England for the rest of the century as well. Throughout the seventeenth century, both high politics and popular social movements were fuelled by more or less violent anti-Catholicism. The papacy was reviled in sermons and pamphlets as the "Whore of Babylon," while the Pope himself had been considered England's declared enemy ever since the papal bull against Queen Elizabeth in the previous century (Mendelson 2003, 203-5). Early in the seventeenth century, the Gunpowder Plot appeared to justify English paranoia about the secret machinations of outwardly loyal English Catholics. Ballads, plays and other popular literary forms also tended to be rabidly anti-Catholic. Even misogyny was associated with anti-Catholic imagery during this period (Dolan).
In 1641, the Irish massacre was experienced as the equivalent of September 11th for English Protestants. It was to become a recurrent waking nightmare that was evoked in every subsequent political crisis for the remainder of the century. During the revolutionary upheavals of 1688-89, the popular song Lilliburlero was thought to have "sung" the Catholic James II out of three kingdoms. The lyrics of Lilliburlero spell out the dominant phobia of English Protestants, the fear that the Irish would invade England, cut every English Protestant throat in a reprise of the Massacre of 1641, revoke Magna Carta and bring back Catholicism to England:
Ho, by my shoul, it is de Talbot,
And he will cut all de English throat.
Though, by my shoul, de English do prate,
De law's on their side and Creish knows what,
But if dispense do come from de Pope,
We'll hang Magna Carta and dem in a rope.
And de good Talbot is made a Lord,
And he with brave lads is coming abroad,
Who in all France have taken a swear,
Dat they will have no Protestant heir,
...And he dat will not go to Mass,
Shall turn out and look like an ass.
Now, now de heretics all go down,
By Creish and St. Patrick, de nation's our own...
Judging from contemporary letters and diaries, ordinary English people fully expected to have their throats cut en masse if England ever reverted to its pre-Reformation status (see for example Dormer f. 172).
The special cultural ambience which Royalists associated with Interregnum England was conveyed by derogatory labels which they attached to the radical religious vanguard, including epithets like "Puritan," "fanatic" and "enthusiast." These negative labels persisted in England after the Restoration, serving to delineate the cultural differences between Whigs and Tories up to the end of the seventeenth century and beyond. For, in addition to political, military and economic rivalry between Protestant and Catholic superpowers, the opposition between different religious worldviews was also reflected in cultural wars between leftwing Protestantism and continental Roman Catholicism. Within England, these cultural wars were waged between Catholicism's near ally, ultra high church Anglicanism, and radical Protestantism. Each side had its own distinctive set of social and cultural values, a well-defined lifestyle which was also embodied in the form and content of the arts, including painting, architecture, music, opera, theatre, portraiture, interior decoration, costume and fashion, and hairstyles. Moreover, both the theory and practice of science and mathematics were affected by these oppositional worldviews. We can also observe significant differences in attitudes to gender domains and gender relations.
Among the cultural characteristics which they found particularly repellent, exiled Royalists associated Interregnum leaders with the philistine persecution of conspicuous consumption in general and of the arts in particular. Radical Protestants were assumed (with good reason) to be anti-theatre, including "legitimate" theatre, street theatre, carnival, masques, and all forms of cross-dressing. As Emma Rees has shown, performance, ceremony and spectacle came to be "constructed and perceived as inherently royalist activities" that exiles like Cavendish took with them to the continent (Rees 2003, 37). The more strict among Puritan leaders were also opposed to dancing and to musical entertainments. In Queen Elizabeth's reign, a man was reported to have called the Queen a whore. Why? Because she was a dancer, and his minister had declared that all dancers were whores (Mendelson 2003, 200). During the Interregnum, a focal point of royalist sociability and secret political plotting was the house of musician and composer Henry Lawes, one of the few places Cavendish visited during her stay in London in 1651 (Whitaker 136-7). As late as the 1680s, Lockian Whigs and high-church Tories continued to be divided along party lines for or against opera as an art form. Locke himself was not keen on music in general, calling it a waste of time and energy in his treatise on education (Locke 162-3). When Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas had its premier at a London girl's school, Locke's Whig friends condemned the production as a shockingly immoral event (Goldie). In contrast, the high church Tory Roger North was by upbringing and inclination a fanatic lover of music in all its forms (North 68-89).
Although prominent Puritans were not opposed to painting or portraiture per se, they were more likely to insist on truth in advertising rather than the aesthetics of conspicuous display, as in Oliver Cromwell's famous request to be painted with "warts and all" (see Thomas 1995 and 2003). Hairstyles, too, were short and plain for one side and long and elaborate for the other. The epithets "Roundhead" and "Cavalier" originated in the Puritan preference for short hair for men, in contrast to their longhaired Royalist foes. Plain dress was one of the signs by which pious Protestants of either sex could be instantly recognized. The Quakers represented an extreme example of the preference for plain dress,  but middle-of-the-road Protestant clergymen and their wives also dressed plainly and soberly. During the Restoration, Elizabeth Walker (wife of Essex clergyman Anthony Walker) always wore black. Even as late as the turn of the century, Dame Sarah Cowper still thought it her pious duty to limit her dress budget so she could donate the excess to the poor (Cowper 120).
Although Cavendish lived in exile on the continent throughout much of the 1640s and the 1650s, she spent enough time in England on a visit early in the 1650s to experience the distinctive ambience of Interregnum London. Several of her Sociable Letters offer satirical portraits of pious female stereotypes of contemporary England, ridiculing what she believed was an unhealthy obsession with radical Protestant theology, prayer and preaching, and lifestyle changes. One of Cavendish's Sociable Letters satirizes the newly converted ladies of the Interregnum who had renounced their curls, patches and fancy clothes. Another letter describes the "pure Lady, or Lady Puritan" who spends much of her time listening to radical preachers whose sermons are inspired not by God's word but by "their Factious Humours and Designs." After the sermons, Cavendish comments, "their female Flocks gossip Scripture, visiting each other to confer Notes, and make repetitions of the Sermons, so as to explain and expound them" (Sociable Letters 26-27).
Aside from Cavendish's mocking portrayals, there is plenty of evidence that the religious atmosphere of Interregnum England exerted a strong influence on susceptible women of every social class. For a typical example we can turn to the life and career of Mary Boyle, daughter of the Earl of Cork (later Mary Rich, fourth countess of Warwick) [Mendelson 1987, 62-115]. Boyle's royalist nouveau riche family background was similar to that of Margaret Lucas. During adolescence, the two young women displayed many of the same tastes and ambitions as well. As Mary Boyle recalled in her autobiography:
I was when I was maried in to my husbandes famely as vaine, as idell, and as inconsiderate a persone as was posseble, minding nothing but curious dressing, and fine and Rich clothes, and spending my preatious time in nothing ellse but Readeing Romances, and in Readeing, and seeing Playes, and in goeing to Court, and hide Parke and Spring Garden, and I was so fond of the Court that I had taken a seacret Resolution that if my father dyde and I ware mistres of my selfe I wold become a Courtiar... I had onely to please my father a forme of Godlynes; but for the inward and spirituall part of it I was not onely Ignorant of it but resolved against it, being stedfastly sett against being a Puritan... (Rich fols. 22v-23).
Except for a lack of interest in natural philosophy, the young Mary Boyle sounds very much like the young Margaret Lucas, with her preoccupation with "curious dressing," her love of "reading and seeing plays," her distaste for the pious lifestyle, and her ambition to become a courtier against the wishes of her family.
But Mary Boyle never joined Henrietta Maria's court. Not only did she stay in England, she fell in love with Charles Rich, second son of the great Puritan earl of Warwick. After she married him, the Warwick family milieu of intense religiosity became her destiny. Living in the earl's household, she was constantly bombarded with pious propaganda. After a series of family crises, she had radically altered her entire lifestyle. By 1647 she had converted to a strict regime of piety in which she persisted for the remainder of her life. In her autobiography, written in 1672, she retrospectively attributed the entire sequence of events to God's providence, for putting her in the right place at the right time:
...heare lett me admire at the Goodnes of God, that by his Good Providence to me, when I by my maredge thought of nothing but haveing a person for whome I had a great Pation and neaver sought God in it, but by mar[ry]ing my husband flatly disobayed his Comand...of obaieng my father, yet was pleased ...to bring me by my Maredge in to a Noble, and which is much more a Realidgious famely, wher Relidgion was both practised and incoraged and wher there was dayly many emenent and exselent Deavines [=divines], who preacht in the Chapell most edifyingly and awakeniengly to us... (Rich fols. 16v-17).
Could it have been likewise for Margaret Lucas? What would have happened to her social and literary ambitions, if she too had stayed in England and married into a Puritan family? After all, Cavendish had at least one sister, the appropriately named Sister Pye, who was apparently just as fanatical in her daily devotions as Mary Rich, countess of Warwick (Whitaker 27).
We shall never know what might have happened, because the young Margaret Lucas joined the Court of Henrietta Maria, married a royalist general, and shared his exile in France and then in Antwerp. And in contrast to Mary Rich, what Cavendish absorbed during her stay in the Spanish Netherlands was the archetypal Catholic continental experience. As was the case with radical Protestantism in Interregnum London, the influence of Catholic sensibilities on the continent was not limited to theology and religious ritual. In Antwerp as in other cities of the Spanish Netherlands, Catholicism coloured every area of life, including social and community and gender relations, artistic and cultural styles and preferences, and even the theory and practice of science and mathematics.
During Cavendish's exile in Antwerp, her imagination expanded in response to the entire continental ambience, especially those manifestations of continental culture which were diametrically opposed to their counterparts in contemporary England (Rees 1997). In other words, I am claiming that Cavendish's sojourn on the continent was significant for her creative development. We can make the case that it could have been otherwise. If Cavendish had remained in England she might have developed into a different sort of writer, becoming a closet writer like her step-daughters, or perhaps even no writer at all.  Moreover, we can trace specific ways in which the continental atmosphere helped mould the substance and style of her creative efforts.
How did denizens of early modern Antwerp experience its distinctive cultural ambience? For a description which vividly evokes the sumptuous aestheticism to be found in a Flemish Catholic city in the mid seventeenth century, I shall make use of a passage from Aphra Behn's Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister. Although the novel's action takes place in the 1680s, the passage nevertheless delineates many of the elements of continental Catholic culture that resonated strongly with Cavendish's imaginative life during her exile thirty years earlier.
The setting is a cathedral in Brussels, capital of the Spanish Netherlands, located about thirty miles from Cavendish's home in Antwerp. For those who are familiar with Behn's novel, this is the highly romantic scene in which Octavio takes his vows to join the order of St Bernard. He has decided on the religious life because his lover Sylvia, the object of his secular devotion, has been unfaithful to him. Behn describes the cathedral service in the role of eyewitness narrator. As she begins her account, she introduces the ceremony as a dramatic spectacle, a diversion which any tourist might attend: "I my self went among the rest to this Ceremony, having in all the time I lived in Flanders, never been so curious to see any such thing..." (Behn 379-80).
The description of the ceremony itself is dominated by details of costume and hairstyle, as Behn takes on the role of fashion reporter:
The order of St Bernard is one of the neatest of any of 'em... of which I have seen fifteen hundred at a time in one House; all handsome, and most of 'em Young; their Habit adds a Grace to their Person, for of all the Religious, that is the most becoming: Long white Vests of fine Cloth, ty'd about with White Silk Sashes, or Cord of White Silk; over this a long Cloak without a Cape, of the same fine white Broad-Cloth; their hair of a pretty Length, as that of our Parsons in England, and a White Beaver...(380)
The upper-class sensibility which Behn displays in her other works is evident here in her admiring description of the members of the Order of St Bernard, who, as she points out, are "oblig'd to be all Noble Mens Sons..." These monks bear no resemblance to the derogatory Protestant stereotype: poor, dirty, ignorant, ill-dressed and ill-smelling. The Bernardines live in fine apartments, "fit for their quality," where each monk has his own library. They also have "Attendance and Equipage" according to their rank, and have "nothing of the Inconveniences and Slovenliness of some of the Religious...they have nothing of the Monastick -- but the Name, the vow of Chastity, and the Opportunity of gaining Heaven, by the sweetest Retreat in the world, fine House, excellent Air, and delicate gardens, Grotto's and Groves" (380).
Behn here interjects her own belief that comfort and luxury are far more conducive to true religiosity than the privations of poverty: "... 'tis here a Man may hope to become a Saint, sooner than in any other, more perplext with Want, Cold, and all the necessaries of Life, which takes the thought too much from Heaven, and afflicts it with the Cares of this World, with Pain and too much Abstinence." It was necessity rather than choice, Behn added, that made a man a Cordelier, "that may be a Jesuit or a Bernardine, two of the best [and wealthiest] of the Holy Orders" (380). Virtually the same sentiment was expressed by Cavendish thirty years earlier in one of her Sociable Letters written in the form of a poem:
For Prayers may to Heaven High be sent
With as much Zeal from Souls as Innocent,
That have their Bodies Beautiful and Fair,
Their Garments Useful, Comly, Rich and Rare.
For Garments Rich do not the Soul Pollute,
Nor can Poor Clothes against Great Sins dispute;
Devotion in Prosperity may live,
And Praise God for the Gifts that he doth give... (Sociable Letters 211)
The ceremony Behn describes takes the form of a masque, redolent with perfumed incense, and complete with magnificent costumes, clever stage and lighting effects, and ravishing musical accompaniment:
... there was never anything beheld so fine as the Church that day was, and all the Fathers that officiated at the High-Altar; behind which a most magnificent Scene of Glory was opened, with Clouds most rarely and Artificially set off, behind which appear'd new ones more bright and dazling, till from one degree to another, their lustre was hardly able to be look'd on; and in which sat an hundred little Angels so rarely dress'd, such shining Robes, such Charming Faces, such flowing bright Hair, Crown'd with Roses of White and Red, with such Artificial Wings, as one would have said they had born the Body up on the Splendid Sky; and these. to soft Musick, Tun'd their soft Voices with such sweetness of Harmony, that for my part, I confess, I thought myself no longer on Earth..
At last, the ceremony begins:
While this Musick continues, and the Anthems were Singing, Fifty Boys all in White, bearing silver Censers, cast Incense all round, and perfum'd the Place with the richest and most agreeable Smells, while two hundred Silver Lamps were burning about the Altar, to give a greater Glory to the Open'd scene, while other Boys strow'd Flowers upon the inlaid Pavement, where the gay Victim was to tread......While we were thus listening, the soft Musick playing, and the Angels singing, the whole Fraternity of the Order of St Bernard came in, two by two, in very graceful order...(380-381)
The monks then processed to the altar, whose furniture was embroidered with "Diamonds, Pearls, and Stones of great Value," followed by fifty boys singing, dressed in "white Cloth of Silver, with golden Wings and rosy Chaplets" and then the bishop "in his pontifick Robes, set with Diamonds of great Price, and his Mitre richly adorn'd...." As first-person narrator, Behn testifies to the sublime effects of this elevated form of conspicuous consumption: "... there is nothing gives us an Idea of real Heaven, like a Church all adorn'd with rare Pictures, and the other Ornaments of it, with what ever can Charm the Eyes; and Musick, and Voices to Ravish the Ear, both which inspire the Soul with unresistable Devotion, and I can Swear for my own part, in those Moments a thousand times I have wish'd to Die; so absolutely I have forgot the World, and all its Vanities, and fixt my thoughts on Heaven" (381).
When Behn's hero Octavio finally makes his entrance, he does so not only as supreme fashion-plate, but in the erotic persona of the unattainable object of female desire:
I never saw anything more rich in Dress, but that of Octavio exceeded all Imagination, for the gayety and fineness of the Work: It was white Cloth of Silver embroidered with Gold, and Buttons of Diamonds; lin'd with rich Cloth of Gold and Silver Flowers, his Breeches of the same, trim'd with a pale Pinck Garniture, rich linen, and a white Plume in his white hat; His Hair, which was long and black, was that day in the finest order that could be imagined...Ten thousand Sighs, from all sides, were sent to him, as he passed along, which, mix'd with the soft Musick, made such a murmuring as gentle Breezes moving yielding Boughs: I am assured he won that day more Hearts, without Design, than ever he had gain'd with all his Toils of Love and Youth before, when Industry assisted him to conquer. (381-2).
The overt eroticism of this passage is underlined in the next stage of the ceremony, in which the trimming of Octavio's long curly hair becomes a metaphor for castration. When Octavio has his long locks cut off, Behn comments, "a soft Murmur of Pity and Grief, fill'd the Place: Those fine Locks, with which Sylvia had a thousand times play'd...she now had the dying Grief, for her Sake, for her Infidelity, to behold sacrificed to her Cruelty, and distributed amongst the Ladies, who at any Price would purchase a Curl..." (382-3)
A number of seductive elements merge in this description to create a sense of aesthetic transcendence: the ostentatious magnificence, the love of ceremonial display, the baroque excess, the refined aesthetic sensibility, the strong undercurrent of eroticism, all wrapped up in an awe-inspiring masque-like spectacle. Although we might have expected at least a tinge of asceticism in a ceremony which represents the induction of a young man into a monastic order, we can detect nothing of the sort here. What onlookers experience instead is an outburst of conspicuous consumption that appeals to all the senses in a combination of theatre, masque, musical extravaganza and fashion show, complete with special lighting and props like artificial clouds. The emphasis of this form of religiosity is on comfort and luxury, on civilized, cultured, upper-class living. There could hardly be a greater contrast to the religious ambience promoted by leftwing Protestants in mid-seventeenth-century England. While Mary Rich in Essex is sermonized into pious submission with threats of eternal hellfire, Aphra Behn in Flanders is treated to a feast of sensuality, an ecstatic foretaste of heavenly delights.
In Behn's description, it is obvious what effect this sort of ceremonial extravaganza had in stimulating her own aesthetic sensibilities. (In any event it is almost certain that Aphra Behn was already a Catholic, so the priests of the order of St Bernard were in a sense preaching to the converted.) What did the baroque magnificence of Catholic Antwerp do for Margaret Cavendish and for her imagination as a writer? After all, Cavendish was raised as a Protestant, even if her family was associated with the extreme Laudian variety promoted during the reign of Charles I (Mendelson 1987, 16). She should have been prepared to resist the lures of the Whore of Babylon almost as a reflex response.
Let me start by saying I don't think Cavendish was all that interested in practical theology per se, at least as it applied to her own personal salvation. Roman Catholicism as a theological doctrine was a seductive lure for many intelligent and well-educated Protestant women at this time: Queen Christina of Sweden is a famous example (Rosa). Yet I doubt that that particular aspect of religiosity was of vital concern to Cavendish. Although she frequently expressed interest in theological questions as an intellectual exercise, there is little or no evidence to indicate that she saw her own salvation as hingeing on the choice between Protestantism and Catholicism, let alone the finer distinctions between the various Protestant sects. She appears to have conformed outwardly to the established Anglican church; her inward beliefs, however, are still anyone's guess. 
In her writing, Cavendish responded to the medium rather than the message, the sensual and aesthetic appeal of Baroque Catholicism. What attracted her was the cultivation of luxury, magnificence, and conspicuous display, presented in a framework of refined aestheticism. In Catholic Europe, these cultural preferences were associated with a lively interest in, and use of, all the arts and sciences. Flanders was full of religious orders, both monasteries and convents, which catered to the tastes and lifestyle of the wealthy well-educated elite. Members of continental religious orders like the monk Marin Mersenne, the illustrious friend and correspondent of her brother-in-law Sir Charles Cavendish, must have presented a perfect model of civilized living in the service of science and the arts. A member of the religious order of the Minims, Mersenne fostered the development of European science, mathematics and music from his Paris cell, coordinating the efforts of others through an extensive correspondence (Beaulieu).
Cavendish was also fascinated by what we might call the "romantic" element in continental monasticism, the ideal of withdrawal from the mundane world to live on a higher plane of being. We can see these themes developed in several of her major and minor works. There is her debate on the monastic life in The Worlds Olio, resolved in favour of monasticism as an institution that benefits the larger community; her portrait of the "She-Anchoret" in Natures Pictures; and her play The Convent of Pleasure.  When we view the play, we are likely to assume the concept of a "convent of pleasure" was a pure product of Cavendish's fantasy life. Surely there were no real convents like the Convent of Pleasure, a sort of early modern luxury resort which provided every form of sensual delight except heterosexual romance. But as Behn's description reveals, in Flanders there probably were convents which resembled the Convent of Pleasure, established to cater to the comfort and entertainment of a wealthy well-educated elite.
Some features of Flemish convents might have helped Cavendish to think about the possibilities of higher education for girls, of women acting in or writing for the theatre, and even of the involvement of aristocratic women in international politics. Convent schools for girls were common on the continent; English Catholic families were in the habit of sending their daughters to these institutions as a sort of finishing school for secular as well as religious purposes. These convent schools were friendly to the arts: one of Aphra Behn's stories, "The Fair Vow-breaker," mentions the nuns' practice of putting on plays with student actors. In the political realm, the heads of several Flemish nunneries were deeply involved in Charles II's secret intelligence operations during the Interregnum.
The cult of religious aestheticism merges into more secular forms in many of Cavendish's writings. There are the elaborately detailed plans for beautiful and comfortable surroundings for the happy inmates of the Convent of Pleasure (Bowerbank and Mendelson 105-6). There is the baroque magnificance of the architecture and interior decoration described in the Blazing World. Even the imperial stables are made of precious metals and encrusted with jewels:
...the main Building was of Gold, lined with several sorts of precious Materials; the roof was Arched with Agats, the sides of the Walls were lined with Cornelian, the Floor was paved with Amber, the Mangers were Mother of Pearl, the Pillars, as also the middle Isle or Walk of the Stables, were of Crystal; the Front and Gate was of Turquois, most neatly cut and carved. The riding-house was lined with Saphirs, Topases and the like; the Floor was all of Golden- sand, so finely sifted, that it was extreamly soft, and not in the least hurtful to the Horses feet, and the Door and Frontispiece was of Emeralds, curiously carved. 
Such hyperbolic luxury applied to horses' stables has almost the effect of a burlesque of baroque continental ecclesiastical furnishings. As such, it offers an appropriate foil for the wonderful van Diepenbeeck engraving of the Duke of Newcastle surrounded by worshipping horses (Cavendish 1658, plates 3 and 4). Cavendish's love of music was another facet of her European style aestheticism, attested by scattered references throughout her works. It is also borne out by her close friendship with those virtuouso continental musicians, the Duarte family (Sociable Letters 217-24; Whitaker 118-19).
The passage from Behn's Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister reflects what we might call the "high end" of Flemish Catholic culture. But Cavendish also responded strongly to the lure of popular culture in its continental mode. Although in her plays she gave the lower class comedic scenes to her husband to write, Cavendish was clearly stimulated by the carnivalesque atmosphere of Catholic Flanders, the vitality of European street theatre and Shrovetide festivals. The cross-dressing practices associated with these continental rites may have inspired some of the gender-bending games she played both in her works and her own life.
Another aspect of continental influence which we might explore is Cavendish's attitude to the theory and practice of science and mathematics. Europeans were more willing than their English counterparts to admit that they pursued their scientific investigations because they found the enterprise great fun. Some of the most brilliant continental mathematicians, including Fermat and Mersenne, pursued mathematics as a diversion for their leisure hours, deliberately choosing problems in the new discipline of number theory that appeared at the time to have no practical value.  In contrast, in England the official Baconian school of thought was eager to boost the advancement of both mathematics and science as a utilitarian duty for the good of mankind (Bowerbank and Mendelson 264-300; Thomas 1987; Hill). From its foundation in 1662, the Royal Society was vociferously Baconian in its orientation. Cavendish's sympathies clearly lay with the continental view of science as a diverting pastime rather than a dreary quest for useful technologies. From the inception of her scientific career, she flaunted her amateur status, defending her first published work by declaring "I had nothing to do when I wrot it, and I suppose those have nothing, or little else to do, that read it" (Poems and Fancies sig. A6). Her response to the English scientific establishment from Bacon to the leading lights of the Royal Society was predominantly satirical (Nate; Salzman; Suzuki).
What can we conclude about continental influences on Cavendish's writing career? There was clearly a relationship between her actual travels and her imaginary ones. Living in foreign lands opened up new intellectual doors for Cavendish, just as it did for successive women travellers like Aphra Behn and Mary Wortley Montagu. Even if the effects of her European sojourn were nebulous and indirect, the Flemish locale offered Cavendish an exhilarating context for her artistic productions. As with the Grand Tour for males, the European experience encouraged her to "think outside the box" that was Interregnum England. Then the leapfrogging steps of her agile mind took her beyond Europe, until finally the whole world -- and other worlds as well -- became imaginative spaces for her creative manipulation.
1. For a selection of articles (by no means exhaustive!) representing these alternative schools of thought, see the following. For a focus on the inward-looking side of Cavendish's persona as a writer, see Adachi, Bonin, Bowerbank, Cottegnies 1999, Gardner, Kegl, Paloma, Payne, Tomlinson, Wagner, and Walker. For more emphasis on context and influence, either on or by Cavendish, see Battigelli, Bertuol, Broad, Chalmers 1997 and 1999, Clucas, Cottegnies 2003, Donovan, Fitzmaurice 2003, Gallagher, Harris, Hutton 1997A and 1997B, James, Lewis, Low, Malcolmson, Moreman, Nate, O'Neill 1998 and 1999, Raber, Rees, Salzman, Sarasohn 1984 and 2003, Schiebinger, Siegfried, Sheehan, Smith 1982 and 1997, Stevenson, Trubowitz, Wallwork, and Wiseman.
2. For a contemporary criticism of Cavendish and some of her replies to her critics, see Hyde (Bodl. MS Clarendon 46) f. 409; Letters and Poems 146; "An Epistle to Justify the Lady Newcastle" prefaced to Philosophical and Physical Opinions; Philosophical Fancies 85; Worlds Olio sig. E2 (following p. 26).
3. For an entire book organized according to these rhetorical principles, see Cavendish's Orations. In many of her dramatic works, like The Several Wits, The Sociable Companions and Wits Cabal, female repartee and dialectical rhetoric is the focus or even the raison d'etre of the play's dialogue.
4. A few Quakers extended the preference for plain dress to the ultimate extreme of "going naked for a sign".
5. For the artistic productions of Cavendish's step-daughters Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley see Ezell, Findley, Hopkins 1999, and Milling.
6. In one of her Sociable Letters Cavendish presents a tableau of three women disputing questions of theology, concluding with a defence of the view that God does not ordain man's damnation in advance. Most of her stray comments on religion are in line with this view, portraying God as a kind, tolerant and gentlemanly figure who accepts a wide range of different beliefs. See CCXI Sociable Letters 1664, 353-8.
7. See "A Monastical Life," in The Worlds Olio 28-30; "The She-Anchoret" in Natures Pictures 287-357. Cavendish referred to the latter as "the most solid and edifying" of all her tales in Natures Pictures (xviii).
8. Bowerbank and Mendelson 246. In fact the real Bolsover was sufficiently Baroque in its decorations. For ambience, architecture and decorations at Welbeck and Bolsover see Hopkins 1999 and 2000, Raylor, and Worsley and Addyman.
9. Mersenne would no doubt be astonished to learn that the non-factorability of large primes is today of immense practical importance for secure communications systems. On the other hand, he would be gratified to know that the organized search for large "Mersenne primes" (the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS] is still purely an entertaining hobby for amateur mathematical afficionados. On November 17th, 2003, the 40th Mersenne prime was found, a number with more than six million digits.
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