Margaret Cavendish. Sociable Letters. Ed James Fitzmaurice. New York: Garland, 1997. ISBN 0 8153 2451 0 Cloth.

Margaret Cavendish. The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays. Ed Anne Shaver. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. ISBM 0 8018 6099 7 Cloth; 0 8018 6100 4 Paper.
Bernadette Andrea
University of Texas at San Antonio

Andrea, Bernadette. "Review of Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters and The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 17.1-4<URL:

  1. Margaret Cavendish (1623-73), one of the most prolific publishing women in seventeenth-century England, stands out among previous seventeenth-century English women writers for her consistent, albeit often contradictory, conceptualization of herself as an "author." Cavendish (who became Duchess of Newcastle) was born shortly after Mary Wroth published the first original prose romance and sonnet sequence by an Englishwoman, The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (1621). Significantly, the suppression of Wroth's romance, which was attacked by Jacobean courtiers for its presentation of patriarchal violence, resonates in Cavendish's oeuvre as a powerful example of the sanctions against publishing women in seventeenth-century England. In her dedication to CCXI Sociable Letters, which she addressed to her husband, Cavendish paraphrases the attack on Wroth to establish herself as a proper woman writer protected by patriarchal largesse: "It may be said to me, as one said to a Lady, Work Lady Work, let writing Books alone, for surely Wiser Women ne'r writ one; But your Lordship never bid me to Work, nor leave Writing, except when you would perswade me to spare so much time from my Study as to take to the Air for my Health . . ." (4; cf. Shaver, Introduction to The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays, 15,n16). Moreover, during her lifetime, radical sectarian women, publishing en masse, doubled the percentage of women's print publications. Cavendish nevertheless positions herself against such publishing women, whom she mocks as "preaching sisters" and critiques for usurping the clerical privilege of writing about church matters (Sociable Letters 63, 88, 95). She died just as Aphra Behn's career as a self-consciously public playwright and publishing woman took off. Though, as James Fitzmaurice notes, "It is difficult to gauge any direct and immediate effect on women's writing by Cavendish and her books" (Introduction to Sociable Letters xxi), it is clear that her conceptualization of herself as an "author" (rather than as an epiphenomenon of writing) situates Cavendish as a pivotal figure for a study of publishing women in seventeenth-century England.

  2. The two critical editions under review enable us to scrutinize more extensively Cavendish's claims to authorship and to introduce her writings into the college classroom. Shaver's edition of The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays offers selections from Cavendish's 1662 and 1668 collections; Fitzmaurice's edition of the Sociable Letters presents the entire 1664 text. These two editions thus present alternative strategies to republishing seventeenth-century women's writing. While Shaver's selection of plays from Cavendish's two volumes is judicious, resulting in a particularly effective teaching tool, a scholar will want to consult both volumes in their entirety for the range of significant dramatic productions they offer. While Fitzmaurice's decision to publish the Sociable Letters in toto allows scholarly readers to evaluate Cavendish's dialectical approach to issues such as women's ability to participate in public discourse (an approach that, when read out of context, has resulted in the charge that Cavendish is anti-feminist), it renders this text less accessible to student readers. Cavendish structures her Sociable Letters, moreover, as a companion volume to her Philosophical Letters, both of which were published in 1664. A scholar, then, will also want to consult Philosophical Letters.

  3. In his preface to the Sociable Letters, Fitzmaurice details his long-term engagement with Margaret Cavendish's oeuvre as part of a cadre of scholars whose critical editions have provided the foundation for the newest wave of early modern women's studies. The introduction that follows commendably foregrounds seventeenth- to twentieth-century critical responses to Cavendish rather than relying on the conventional biographical treatment of her writings in terms of her life. While this introduction is primarily descriptive, and thus provides a useful overview of the Sociable Letters, Fitzmaurice does propose several theses that bear further development: 1) "Cavendish is not merely the first woman to launch a serious and sustained critique of Shakespeare, she is the first person to do so" (xvii); 2) Cavendish's (in)famous eccentricity was a defensive strategy against the sort of attack Mary Wroth experienced after her publication of the Urania (xix-xx); and 3) Cavendish was not the "pampered aristocrat" that Virginia Woolf so influentially depicted, but was positioned much more precariously in terms of rank and wealth (xviii). As Fitzmaurice concludes, "If one looks closely at Cavendish . . . one does not see a detached aristocrat. Rather, one finds a woman who not only knew how to make money but who also, at least in Sociable Letters, offers an enormously readable description of life as she and her audience saw it" (xxi). Despite these astute theses, Fitzmaurice's claims that Anne Bradstreet was "the first woman to have a book of poems in English appear in print" (xix) and that "Cavendish was . . . the first woman to openly admit that she sought publication" (xix) must be tempered by current scholarship on early modern English women's writing, which indicates that Mary Wroth (and before her, Isabella Whitney, Aemilia Lanyer, and Rachel Speght) published collections of poetry in English and that the publishing prophet Eleanor Davies might be considered an earlier example of a woman who self-consciously presented herself through extensive publication. The Sociable Letters themselves bear sustained and scrupulous reading for Cavendish's negotiation of the conflicting demands of authorship, femininity, and rank. Their specific relationship to her dramatic works, which she details in the "Epistle Appended to Playes, 1662" (reprinted in The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays 271-72), further establishes the Sociable Letters as an indispensable addition to current critical assessments of Cavendish as a dramatist.

  4. Shaver similarly begins her edition by situating it within the larger context of early modern women's studies, a collective endeavor whose growth has been marked over the past decade by the Brown University Women Writers Project, the triennial Attending to Early Modern Women conferences, and the annual meetings of the international Margaret Cavendish Society. In addition to a detailed critical introduction and a carefully annotated selection of Cavendish's plays, Shaver provides a chronology of Cavendish's life, which spanned the English Civil War and the Restoration; appendices highlighting Cavendish's numerous prefaces to her plays; and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. In an introduction addressed equally to the established Cavendish scholar and to readers just discovering Cavendish, Shaver covers the motivations for and the reception of Cavendish's writing. She concludes with the astute methodological recommendation that modern readers should take "a diachronic perspective" on Cavendish's work (7), though one which involves the vantage point of the present (i.e. reception) and the past (i.e. motivation). I would modify Shaver's description of her method, therefore, by calling it a dialectical diachronics of women's writing. Shaver further frames Cavendish's plays with a polemic: "They are not closet drama, a term for plays deliberately written to be read in one's 'closet' or private room; it is not a term appropriately applied to plays that simply were not produced" (8; my emphasis). She concludes her introduction with capsule summaries of the plays she selected for this edition--Loves Adventures, Parts One and Two; Bell in Campo, Parts One and Two; The Bridals, and The Convent of Pleasure--though a survey of the plays she chose not to include remains a troubling lacuna for a full consideration of Cavendish's dramatic productions. Each of the plays Shaver includes, however, is thoroughly annotated with explanatory notes that will ease the introduction of these texts into the classroom. Moreover, her decision to include the prefaces to Cavendish's plays as appendices is highly commendable, as it is in this distinct corpus of writings that Cavendish constructs herself as an "author." Shaver's bibliography, which emphasizes recent critical treatments of Cavendish, complements Fitzmaurice's, which covers the earlier critical responses. Notably, the expansiveness of Shaver's bibliography indicates the relative "explosion" of interest in Cavendish, with over a dozen articles, chapters, and books on Cavendish appearing since Fitzmaurice's edition went to press. With Shaver's and Fitzmaurice's editions available to students and scholars, we should expect dozens more works on Cavendish to appear in the coming years.

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

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).