"I hate such an old-fashioned House": Margaret Cavendish and the search for home
Alison Findlay
Lancaster University

Findlay, Alison. "'I hate such an old-fashioned House': Margaret Cavendish and the search for home." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 11.1-14<URL:

  1. The household is a highly resonant spatial context in Margaret Cavendish's plays, one that reveals much about her search for 'home' in a broader sense. Home is the primary arena in which space becomes place: in which socialised gender identities and relationships are learnt, negotiated, and contested. It is, as Wiley and Barnes argue, "always a form of coalition: between the individual and the family or community, between belonging and exile, between home as utopian longing and home as memory, between home as safe haven and home as imprisonment or site of violence" (xv). Nowhere is this clearer than in the Margaret Cavendish's drama. Her plays show how the paradox of home is bound up with the wish for self-fulfilment (feeling "at home") and the necessity of accommodating ourselves in a concrete and cultural reality that may be far from ideal (where one does not feel "at home").

  2. Margaret Cavendish's own homes are, I think, important immediate contexts for her plays. The material surroundings of St John's Abbey (the Lucas household), the Rubenshuis, and later Bolsover Castle and Welbeck Abbey are embedded in her 'domestic' drama in different ways. In Cavendish's case, however, the search for home is complicated by exile. The English Civil War transformed her experience of 'home' into one of loss or displacement. Her drama is also 'displaced': occupying an indeterminate no-man's-land, with references to three different spatial contexts: public stages, private performance, and reading. The plays have no home: they are in exile from the public theatre, but cannot easily be classed as 'closet' drama, designed to be read or performed in the private household. [1]

  3. A wider 'household' context also needs to be invoked: between 1642-1660 the country house was a refuge for royalist drama by both men and women, with three times as many closet dramas written as in the previous four decades. [2] Simultaneously, however, the aristocratic household was in a process of fragmentation and change, literally so in the case of properties taken over by the Parliamentary armies, the fate of Cavendish's family home and those of her husband. In addition to instances of dispossession, the country house was 'disappearing' in cultural terms, from a physical and social entity to a symbol of wealth and legitimacy in a newly commercialised economy. In the later seventeenth century, as Kari Boyd McBride argues, land became a symbol rather than a source of wealth in its own right, and art and literature were part of a powerful discourse which transformed the country house into a simulacrum, "a representation of a representation, a fungible commodity in an emerging capitalist economy that can be displayed and exchanged more readily and conspicuously than a landed estate" (138). Cavendish's first volume of plays offers numerous discursive reconfigurations of the aristocratic household in this changing cultural landscape.

  4. I want to look first at The Religious, as a text in which Cavendish deals poignantly with the loss of her childhood home. Gaston Bachelard has argued that the house in which we were born is physically and emotionally inscribed within us since it is the space which has "engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting" (14-15). As well as being the repository of memories, it travels with us, moving across time, existing at levels of daydream and reality. St John's Abbey appears to do this in Margaret's play. In particular, Bachelard asserts, "the houses that were lost continue to live on in us" (53), exerting pressure on us "as though they expected us to give them a supplement of living" (56). [3] For Margaret Cavendish, this experience must have been particularly acute. In 1642 St John's Abbey was plundered by Parliamentary sympathisers anxious to destroy those who "were pretended to be Popish Recusants and Other Malignant Persons." [4] Margaret probably witnessed the ransacking of buildings and gardens, and then breaking into the family tomb in the church. [5] By 1648 the house was almost completely destroyed in the siege of Colchester, and Margaret's brother Sir Charles Lucas was summarily shot. The eulogies celebrating him as a martyr to the royalist cause politicised the religious associations of St John's Abbey. Research by Marika Keblusek has shown that these were in circulation amongst royalist exiles. The Loyall Sacrifice (1648), for example, playfully referred to Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle as "Victims and Martyrs both, & yet we cry / 'Gainst superstition and Idolatry" (A8v) -- as if to deny the 'Popish associations.'

  5. How does one react to such tragedy? I believe that Margaret's play The Religious (1662) responds to the loss of her childhood home, by giving it a "supplement of living" [6] in a curiously self-mocking way. The material destruction of St John's Abbey magnified its quasi-religious topophilic power, but The Religious rigorously avoids sentimentality. The main plot presents home as a site of imprisonment and violence, where the claustrophobia of arranged marriage threatens to turn the play into a domestic tragedy. The heroine's retreat into a cloister is dramatised spatially, by means of a grate and curtain. [7] In a highly erotic suicide tryst, the lovers vow to intermix blood on a double ended sword passing through the grate, with Lord Melancholy complaining that his buttons are "like troublesome guests at Marriage Nuptials" (553).

  6. This plot may have been influenced by the melodramatic rememories of family loss at St John's Abbey Colchester, but in dramatising the cloister scenes, Cavendish's contemporary surroundings in the Rubenshuis in Antwerp also seemed to have exerted as powerful an influence as memories of her home. The portico of the Rubenshuis provides an ideal setting. The eighteenth-century Mols note records that, in the previous century, the three archways of the portico were covered with grilles or railings, separating the courtyard from the garden. [8] Above the archways were stoic captions from Juvenal's tenth satire, which speak precisely to the situation of Cavendish's star-crossed lovers, and beyond them, to the courage of her brother at execution. Their resolutions are aptly glossed in the inscription "ORANDVM EST VT SIT MENS SANA IN CORPORE SANO // FORTE[M] POSCE ANIMVM ET MORTIS TERRORE CARENTUM // NESCIAT IRASCE CVPIAT NIHIL" ("We should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body, for a courageous soul which is not afraid of death, which is free of wrath and without desire") (Huvenne and Nieuwdorp 11).Although there is no record of a performance of The Religious here, perhaps the dramatic recreation of a cloistered scene in the Rubenshuis portico was Cavendish's way of giving a "supplement of living" to the childhood abbey home she had lost forever in England.

  7. As though in a deliberate attempt to manage such loss, Cavendish pushes religious reverence for the home into parody in the sub-plot of The Religious. This stages the drama of a small wicker child's chair, which Mistress Odd-Humour fetishises as a symbol of her childhood. On a textual level, the chair has an ontological dignity, functioning as one of those special objects which are animated because they are so heavily invested with the power of memory associated with "home" (Bachelard 78, 99). Mistress Odd-Humour tells her maid Nan

    I, using to sit in this Chair from my Childhood, I have a Natural Love to it, as to an old acquaintance; and being accustomed to sit in it, it feels easier than any other seat, for use and custome makes all things easy, when that we are unaccustomed to, is difficult and troublesome; but I take so much delight to sit and work, or Sing old Ballads in this Chair, as I would not part from it for any thing.

    Margaret's humorous protagonist echoes William Cavendish's love of ballads, as a link to the English past, and clings to the chair, and the traditional maidenly virtues it represents, as a retreat from the uncertainty of marriage. However, she is distressed when her maid is bribed "to betray the life of my Chair," as though it were a priest concealed in a priest-hole. Her father "caus[es] a fire to be made of the Chair," forcing her to "see the Martyrdome" (549). She is subsequently obliged to marry (554).

  8. Given that the chair symbolises Mistress Odd-Humour's quasi-religious devotion to single life "by reason Marriage is the most troublesome, unquiet life that is" (548), its destruction is tragic. In performance, however, the serious import of these scenes is undercut by their broad physical comedy. Unlike the shell, the chair-home does not grow with its owner. Mistress Odd Humour's self-determination is inevitably compromised as spectators watch her struggling to get her "Britch" in and out of the tiny chair (531). This ludicrous picture may include an element of self mockery, since Cavendish admitted "I did dread marriage, and shunned men's company as much as I could" (Life 288). Whatever the case, the material limitations of the chair telegraph a clear message to the audience about the cultural limitations of a spinster's life of sewing and singing in the household.

  9. Margaret Cavendish's drama registers a highly ambiguous response to the fragmentation of the country house as a symbol of traditional ordered hierarchy (Battigelli 7). The tradition emblematised by the country house became increasingly outmoded in the climate of increasing commercialisation in later seventeenth-century England. In The Several Wits, The Unnatural Tragedy and The Matrimonial Trouble I and II Cavendish presents households which are haunted by an immanent sense of loss, and an often disturbing nostalgia for the traditional values they represent. In The Several Wits (1662), the aptly-named Madamoisel Solid laments the decline of an old order in which the female soul "keeps at home" looking out on the world of fashion. To her distress, however, the country household is deserted nowadays. Community values and personal integrity have vanished, as the soul moves away from home to the selective economy of the city. The soul

    is never at home, but goeth wandering about, from place to place, from person to person, and so from one thing to another, and not only the soul wanders thus, but all the Family of the soul, as the thoughts and passions; for should any thing knock at the gates of the soul, which are the senses, or enter the chambers of the soul, which his the heart and the head, they would find them empty, for the thoughts and passions, which passions are of the Bed-chamber, which is, the heart and Presence-chamber, which is the head wherein they ought to wait, are for the most part, all gone abroad…' (82)

    This distressing picture of moral and intellectual vacancy is linked to the increased social mobility of the Civil War years. Gossip surrounds the changing fortunes of every family and individual; questions circulate about "what Laws there is made, repeald or broke; what Officers or Magistrates are made, plac'd or displac'd" (83). Anarchy and insecurity in the kingdom are closely allied to its obsession with fashion, according to Madamoisel Solid. The appeal of new fabrics, coaches and clothes jostle for attention alongside the novelty of public entertainments and "what Church is most frequented" (83) for the emergent beau monde. The fashionable characters, including Madamoiselles Caprisa and Volante are, to some extent, victims of this world.

  10. Homes are caught up in the frantic maelstrom of acquisitive desire: "with such a house, or houses, or Lands, or with such Jewels, or Plate, or Hangings, or Pictures, or the like" (83). They no longer have any solidity in a commercial society where they are displayed and exchanged as symbols rather sources of wealth and legitimacy. Madamoisel Solid offers a totally different, non-materialistic value system, which seems closely akin to Margaret Cavendish's view that in a home "order in less fortunes shall live more plentifully and deliciously than princes that lives in a hurlyburly… for disorder obstructs; besides it doth disgust life, distract the appetites, and yield no true relish to the senses" (Life 277). In a deliberate inversion of commodity culture, Madam Solid argues that "the Pallacesses of fame may be furnished and adorned by the wit of a poor Cottager" whose native merit could spin, weave and thread "fine and curious Tapestries to hang in the Chambers of fame," and whose imagination, wit and poetry would create pictures, sculpture, and elaborate fountains for home and garden (111-12). This utopian vision is hopelessly nostalgic and somewhat sentimental, as is the romance between Madamoisel Doltche and Monsieur Noblissimo (a semi- autobiographical portrait of Margaret's courtship). Perhaps the extent of the Cavendish debts at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp led Margaret to place more value on imaginative tapestries of wit. Doltche and Noblissimo's marriage offers a ray of hope amidst the decadent world, in the form of "reason on both sides" (114). However, the closest one can get to stability is the contract of trust between the intelligent figures of Madamoisel Solid and Monsieur Perfection. Even this is provisional; as Perfection points out, "we cannot make any choice upon certainties but uncertainties" (90).

  11. The uncertainties of the metropolis as compared to the rooted order of the country house are represented even more starkly in The Unnatural Tragedy. Cavendish exploits the conventional association between woman and home in the contrasting figures of Monsieur Malateste's first and second wives. The aptly-named Madam Bonit and Lady Malateste play out the opposition of good and bad housewives in Proverbs 14:1, explained by Robert Cleaver: "A good woman coming to a house scarce wall-high will set up the roofe and furnish the rooms: but a lewd huswife, finding a house already built and stored will raise the foundation of it and quickly empty it of all the furniture." The two women exemplify a transformation between old and new orders which the Civil War helped to escalate. However, any simple moral distinction between Lady Bonit and Madam Malateste is complicated by the play's insistent questioning of where a woman is most at home. Lady Bonit is praised as "virtuous and wise," beautiful, wealthy, well born and "of a sweet disposition" (349), but her conformity to the conventional patterns of housewifely virtue is self-destructive. The unnatural tragedy that can result from looking perpetually inwards to home, as Bonit does, is played out in more extravagant terms in a sub-plot centred on incest. [9]

  12. Lady Bonit's successor is expected to take over her traditional, subservient role, as is clear when the servants carefully prepare the country house with all the best furnishings, including, very interestingly, a set of bed hangings depicting the Old Testament story of Abraham, Sarah and her maid Hagar (348). However, the new Lady Malateste, immediately registers her dislike: "Fie upon it, I hate such an old-fashioned House; wherefore pray pull it down and build another more fashionable" (351). The directions she gives redefine the house as a dazzling luxury commodity that no longer has any organic connection to the surrounding community or even to the landscape. It is to have "a Bell-view and Pergalus" (pergola), checkered floors inlaid with silver, a large winding staircase, and, illogically, vaulted lower rooms and flat-roofed upper ones. Outside, she insists that her husband "take in two or three Fields about your House" to make elaborate, geometrically-arranged gardens with "Fountains and Water-works" (381). I don't think this is a description of Bolsover or even Welbeck which Cavendish's views represent as ancient, old fashioned houses, associated with old money, rather than the "new" country seats of the nouveau riche. Such extravagant expense is to demonstrate "the imposition of capital and human will," exactly the symbolic redefinition of the household identified by Kari Boyd McBride as typical of later seventeenth-century metropolitan society (16).

  13. Madam Malateste's extravagance on "vanities" in the "Metropolitan City" (357) likens her to the foolish housewife who "spares not to lavish out and misspend" (Dod 77-78). In the latter part of the play she loses the family estate in gaming and revels. Monsieur Malateste grows ill and dies finally recognising his first wife's virtues (363), so at a superficial level, the play dramatises the loss of the traditional household as an "unnatural" tragedy. Simultaneously, it questions that judgement, by showing Madam Malateste's reasons for preferring the metropolis. Rather than immersing herself in the interests of her husband's estate, Madam Malateste demands "a fine house in the City for I intend to live there, and not in this dull place, where I see no body but my Husband, who spends his time sneaking in after his Maids tails" (357). She may be selfish, but there is something admirable in Madam Malateste's assertive nature. She "hath such a spirit, as she will share in the Rule and Government" (349), says one of the servants. Her determination to send Nan out of the house, or to set up a house in London rather than tolerate the affair is far more dramatically satisfying than Lady Bonit's passivity. In an ensuing argument, woman's interests are aligned with the novelty of the city:

    Monsieur. It is my delight and profit to live in the Country; besides, I hate the City.
    Madam. And I hate the Country.
    Monsieur. But every good Wife ought to conform her self to her Husbands humours and will.
    Madam. But Husband, I profess my self no good Wife: wherefore I will follow my own humour.

    Paradoxically, Madam and Monsieur Malateste are well matched: her abuse of the family estate in the city exposes an equally exploitative gender bias at the heart of the traditional household system. It may be a perfect home for her husband, but the "delight" and "profit" he finds in the country is bought at the expense of his wife and servants.

  14. Quite where Margaret Cavendish's own sympathies lay -- where she felt at home -- is very difficult to establish. When she returned in England in 1660, what new resonances did her plays about the country house acquire, as she and William reclaimed the family estates at Welbeck Abbey and Bolsover Castle? As an incomer to the Cavendish family, to what extent was Margaret still, in some sense, an exile in those homes, weighted with generations of ancient Cavendish family tradition? Did Madam Malateste's outspoken desires for the novelty of the metropolis carry new meanings for Margaret as the couple retired more to the country and Margaret herself managed to secure possession of Newcastle's town house in Clerkenwell as part of her jointure in 1667 (Whitaker 307)? The drama does not provide any definite answers of course. What is clear from reading the plays in the first volume, including the brilliantly-observered Matrimoniall Trouble I and II, is that Margaret was well aware that the domestic arena is a site of violence as well as comfort. Her representations of home echo with memories from the past -- the monastic, and traditional foundations of the English country house, and her own personal memories -- but this is a site in which she is never truly at home. In spite of the conservative appearance of many of her "domestic" dramas, Margaret Cavendish is always in exile from the patriarchal bias which operates there, and is looking beyond that tradition, for a new place to call home.


1. In the epistle dedicatory to the 1662 volume, Cavendish tells her husband that, while his plays "lye by for a good time to be Acted" hers are not to be presented for "publick Condemnation" either now or in the future (A3). While this clearly marks their withdrawal from the professional stage, it does not necessarily rule out domestic performance. Cavendish's apology for plays "like dull dead statues" (A3) rather than living drama is not to be taken at face value, since her attention to theatrical dimensions constitutes an appeal for "the hands of applause from the Spectators" (A3v), even if the performance is imagined rather than realised. Sophie Tomlinson has explored how the 1662 volume emphasises the importance of recreating an imaginary performance in "My Brain the Stage: Margaret Cavendish and The Fantasy of Female Performance." Neither does Cavendish's insistence on the priority of the printed text constitute a rejection of performance per se. Marta Straznicky's most recent work argues for a complementary, rather than oppositional relationship between reading and theatricality in closet drama, which seems particularly relevant to Cavendish's plays. See Straznicky, Privacy, Playreading and Early Modern Women's Closet Drama.

2. Marta Straznicky estimates these statistics following the figures given in Harbage's Annals of English Drama. See Straznicky, "Reading the Stage" 357.

3. On the importance of private space in Cavendish's writings see Sanders.

4. See Mercurius Rusticus, August 22, 1642 and A Declaration of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament concerning abuses lately done by several presons in the county of Essex (1642), 4.

5. For an account of this see Cavendish, Life, 290-1.

6. The phrase is Bachelard's, but see also Sanders.

7. All references are to occasionally inconsistent page numbers in Playes Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious and Excellent Princess, The Lady Marchioness of Newcastle (London, 1662).

8. Rooses 16, 23. For further discussion of Cavendish's experiences in the Rubenshuis see Fitzmaurice. James Fitzmaurice, "Margaret Cavendish in Antwerp: the actual and the imaginary," In-between 9 (1999), 29-40.

9. See also the depiction of Mr Underward's country house in the subplot of The Presence in Plays Never Before Printed (London, 1668), and the fate of Underward's eldest sister, Madam Impoverished (especially 123-7).

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).