The Common Reader, by Virginia Woolf

The Duchess of Newcastle4

4 The Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, Etc., edited by C. H. Firth; Poems and Fancies, by the Duchess of Newcastle; The World’s Olio, Orations of divers Sorts Accommodated to Divers Places; Female Orations; Plays; Philosophical Letters, etc., etc.

“ . . . All I desire is fame”, wrote Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. And while she lived her wish was granted. Garish in her dress, eccentric in her habits, chaste in her conduct, coarse in her speech, she succeeded during her lifetime in drawing upon herself the ridicule of the great and the applause of the learned. But the last echoes of that clamour have now all died away; she lives only in the few splendid phrases that Lamb scattered upon her tomb; her poems, her plays, her philosophies, her orations, her discourses — all those folios and quartos in which, she protested, her real life was shrined — moulder in the gloom of public libraries, or are decanted into tiny thimbles which hold six drops of their profusion. Even the curious student, inspired by the words of Lamb, quails before the mass of her mausoleum, peers in, looks about him, and hurries out again, shutting the door.

But that hasty glance has shown him the outlines of a memorable figure. Born (it is conjectured) in 1624, Margaret was the youngest child of a Thomas Lucas, who died when she was an infant, and her upbringing was due to her mother, a lady of remarkable character, of majestic grandeur and beauty “beyond the ruin of time”. “She was very skilful in leases, and setting of lands and court keeping, ordering of stewards, and the like affairs.” The wealth which thus accrued she spent, not on marriage portions, but on generous and delightful pleasures, “out of an opinion that if she bred us with needy necessity it might chance to create in us sharking qualities”. Her eight sons and daughters were never beaten, but reasoned with, finely and gaily dressed, and allowed no conversation with servants, not because they are servants but because servants “are for the most part ill-bred as well as meanly born”. The daughters were taught the usual accomplishments “rather for formality than for benefit”, it being their mother’s opinion that character, happiness, and honesty were of greater value to a woman than fiddling and singing, or “the prating of several languages”.

Already Margaret was eager to take advantage of such indulgence to gratify certain tastes. Already she liked reading better than needlework, dressing and “inventing fashions” better than reading, and writing best of all. Sixteen paper books of no title, written in straggling letters, for the impetuosity of her thought always outdid the pace of her fingers, testify to the use she made of her mother’s liberality. The happiness of their home life had other results as well. They were a devoted family. Long after they were married, Margaret noted, these handsome brothers and sisters, with their well-proportioned bodies, their clear complexions, brown hair, sound teeth, “tunable voices”, and plain way of speaking, kept themselves “in a flock together”. The presence of strangers silenced them. But when they were alone, whether they walked in Spring Gardens or Hyde Park, or had music, or supped in barges upon the water, their tongues were loosed and they made “very merry amongst themselves, . . . judging, condemning, approving, commending, as they thought good”.

The happy family life had its effect upon Margaret’s character. As a child, she would walk for hours alone, musing and contemplating and reasoning with herself of “everything her senses did present”. She took no pleasure in activity of any kind. Toys did not amuse her, and she could neither learn foreign languages nor dress as other people did. Her great pleasure was to invent dresses for herself, which nobody else was to copy, “for”, she remarks, “I always took delight in a singularity, even in accoutrements of habits”.

Such a training, at once so cloistered and so free, should have bred a lettered old maid, glad of her seclusion, and the writer perhaps of some volume of letters or translations from the classics, which we should still quote as proof of the cultivation of our ancestresses. But there was a wild streak in Margaret, a love of finery and extravagance and fame, which was for ever upsetting the orderly arrangements of nature. When she heard that the Queen, since the outbreak of the Civil War, had fewer maids-of-honour than usual, she had “a great desire” to become one of them. Her mother let her go against the judgement of the rest of the family, who, knowing that she had never left home and had scarcely been beyond their sight, justly thought that she might behave at Court to her disadvantage. “Which indeed I did,” Margaret confessed; “for I was so bashful when I was out of my mother’s, brothers’, and sisters’ sight that . . . I durst neither look up with my eyes, nor speak, nor be any way sociable, insomuch as I was thought a natural fool.” The courtiers laughed at her; and she retaliated in the obvious way. People were censorious; men were jealous of brains in a woman; women suspected intellect in their own sex; and what other lady, she might justly ask, pondered as she walked on the nature of matter and whether snails have teeth? But the laughter galled her, and she begged her mother to let her come home. This being refused, wisely as the event turned out, she stayed on for two years (1643-45), finally going with the Queen to Paris, and there, among the exiles who came to pay their respects to the Court, was the Marquis of Newcastle. To the general amazement, the princely nobleman, who had led the King’s forces to disaster with indomitable courage but little skill, fell in love with the shy, silent, strangely dressed maid-of-honour. It was not “amorous love, but honest, honourable love”, according to Margaret. She was no brilliant match; she had gained a reputation for prudery and eccentricity. What, then, could have made so great a nobleman fall at her feet? The onlookers were full of derision, disparagement, and slander. “I fear”, Margaret wrote to the Marquis, “others foresee we shall be unfortunate, though we see it not ourselves, or else there would not be such pains to untie the knot of our affections.” Again, “Saint Germains is a place of much slander, and thinks I send too often to you”. “Pray consider”, she warned him, “that I have enemies.” But the match was evidently perfect. The Duke, with his love of poetry and music and play-writing, his interest in philosophy, his belief “that nobody knew or could know the cause of anything”, his romantic and generous temperament, was naturally drawn to a woman who wrote poetry herself, was also a philosopher of the same way of thinking, and lavished upon him not only the admiration of a fellow-artist, but the gratitude of a sensitive creature who had been shielded and succoured by his extraordinary magnanimity. “He did approve”, she wrote, “of those bashful fears which many condemned, . . . and though I did dread marriage and shunned men’s company as much as I could, yet I . . . had not the power to refuse him.” She kept him company during the long years of exile; she entered with sympathy, if not with understanding, into the conduct and acquirements of those horses which he trained to such perfection that the Spaniards crossed themselves and cried “Miraculo!” as they witnessed their corvets, voltoes, and pirouettes; she believed that the horses even made a “trampling action” for joy when he came into the stables; she pleaded his cause in England during the Protectorate; and, when the Restoration made it possible for them to return to England, they lived together in the depths of the country in the greatest seclusion and perfect contentment, scribbling plays, poems, philosophies, greeting each other’s works with raptures of delight, and confabulating, doubtless, upon such marvels of the natural world as chance threw their way. They were laughed at by their contemporaries; Horace Walpole sneered at them. But there can be no doubt that they were perfectly happy.

For now Margaret could apply herself uninterruptedly to her writing. She could devise fashions for herself and her servants. She could scribble more and more furiously with fingers that became less and less able to form legible letters. She could even achieve the miracle of getting her plays acted in London and her philosophies humbly perused by men of learning. There they stand, in the British Museum, volume after volume, swarming with a diffused, uneasy, contorted vitality. Order, continuity, the logical development of her argument are all unknown to her. No fears impede her. She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs. We seem to hear her, as the thoughts boil and bubble, calling to John, who sat with a pen in his hand next door, to come quick, “John, John, I conceive!” And down it goes — whatever it may be; sense or nonsense; some thought on women’s education —“Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms, . . . the best bred women are those whose minds are civilest”; some speculation that had struck her, perhaps, walking that afternoon alone — why “hogs have the measles”, why “dogs that rejoice swing their tails”, or what the stars are made of, or what this chrysalis is that her maid has brought her, and she keeps warm in a corner of her room. On and on, from subject to subject she flies, never stopping to correct, “for there is more pleasure in making than in mending”, talking aloud to herself of all those matters that filled her brain to her perpetual diversion — of wars, and boarding-schools, and cutting down trees, of grammar and morals, of monsters and the British, whether opium in small quantities is good for lunatics, why it is that musicians are mad. Looking upwards, she speculates still more ambitiously upon the nature of the moon, and if the stars are blazing jellies; looking downwards she wonders if the fishes know that the sea is salt; opines that our heads are full of fairies, “dear to God as we are”; muses whether there are not other worlds than ours, and reflects that the next ship may bring us word of a new one. In short, “we are in utter darkness”. Meanwhile, what a rapture is thought!

As the vast books appeared from the stately retreat at Welbeck the usual censors made the usual objections, and had to be answered, despised, or argued with, as her mood varied, in the preface to every work. They said, among other things, that her books were not her own, because she used learned terms, and “wrote of many matters outside her ken”. She flew to her husband for help, and he answered, characteristically, that the Duchess “had never conversed with any professed scholar in learning except her brother and myself “. The Duke’s scholarship, moreover, was of a peculiar nature. “I have lived in the great world a great while, and have thought of what has been brought to me by the senses, more than was put into me by learned discourse; for I do not love to be led by the nose, by authority, and old authors; ipse dixit will not serve my turn.” And then she takes up the pen and proceeds, with the importunity and indiscretion of a child, to assure the world that her ignorance is of the finest quality imaginable. She has only seen Des Cartes and Hobbes, not questioned them; she did indeed ask Mr. Hobbes to dinner, but he could not come; she often does not listen to a word that is said to her; she does not know any French, though she lived abroad for five years; she has only read the old philosophers in Mr. Stanley’s account of them; of Des Cartes she has read but half of his work on Passion; and of Hobbes only “the little book called De Cive”, all of which is infinitely to the credit of her native wit, so abundant that outside succour pained it, so honest that it would not accept help from others. It was from the plain of complete ignorance, the untilled field of her own consciousness, that she proposed to erect a philosophic system that was to oust all others. The results were not altogether happy. Under the pressure of such vast structures, her natural gift, the fresh and delicate fancy which had led her in her first volume to write charmingly of Queen Mab and fairyland, was crushed out of existence.

The palace of the Queen wherein she dwells,

Its fabric’s built all of hodmandod shells;

The hangings of a Rainbow made that’s thin,

Shew wondrous fine, when one first enters in;

The chambers made of Amber that is clear,

Do give a fine sweet smell, if fire be near;

Her bed a cherry stone, is carved throughout,

And with a butterfly’s wing hung about;

Her sheets are of the skin of Dove’s eyes made

Where on a violet bud her pillow’s laid.

So she could write when she was young. But her fairies, if they survived at all, grew up into hippopotami. Too generously her prayer was granted:

Give me the free and noble style,

Which seems uncurb’d, though it be wild.

She became capable of involutions, and contortions and conceits of which the following is among the shortest, but not the most terrific:

The human head may be likened to a town:

The mouth when full, begun

Is market day, when empty, market’s done;

The city conduct, where the water flows,

Is with two spouts, the nostrils and the nose.

She similised, energetically, incongruously, eternally; the sea became a meadow, the sailors shepherds, the mast a maypole. The fly was the bird of summer, trees were senators, houses ships, and even the fairies, whom she loved better than any earthly thing, except the Duke, are changed into blunt atoms and sharp atoms, and take part in some of those horrible manoeuvres in which she delighted to marshal the universe. Truly, “my Lady Sanspareille hath a strange spreading wit”. Worse still, without an atom of dramatic power, she turned to play-writing. It was a simple process. The unwieldly thoughts which turned and tumbled within her were christened Sir Golden Riches, Moll Meanbred, Sir Puppy Dogman, and the rest, and sent revolving in tedious debate upon the parts of the soul, or whether virtue is better than riches, round a wise and learned lady who answered their questions and corrected their fallacies at considerable length in tones which we seem to have heard before.

Sometimes, however, the Duchess walked abroad. She would issue out in her own proper person, dressed in a thousand gems and furbelows, to visit the houses of the neighbouring gentry. Her pen made instant report of these excursions. She recorded how Lady C. R. “did beat her husband in a public assembly”; Sir F. O. “I am sorry to hear hath undervalued himself so much below his birth and wealth as to marry his kitchen-maid”; “Miss P. I. has become a sanctified soul, a spiritual sister, she has left curling her hair, black patches are become abominable to her, laced shoes and Galoshoes are steps to pride — she asked me what posture I thought was the best to be used in prayer”. Her answer was probably unacceptable. “I shall not rashly go there again”, she says of one such “gossip-making”. She was not, we may hazard, a welcome guest or an altogether hospitable hostess. She had a way of “bragging of myself” which frightened visitors so that they left, nor was she sorry to see them go. Indeed, Welbeck was the best place for her, and her own company the most congenial, with the amiable Duke wandering in and out, with his plays and his speculations, always ready to answer a question or refute a slander. Perhaps it was this solitude that led her, chaste as she was in conduct, to use language which in time to come much perturbed Sir Egerton Brydges. She used, he complained, “expressions and images of extraordinary coarseness as flowing from a female of high rank brought up in courts”. He forgot that this particular female had long ceased to frequent the Court; she consorted chiefly with fairies; and her friends were among the dead. Naturally, then, her language was coarse. Nevertheless, though her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire. One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it meanders and twinkles through page after page. There is something noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted, about her. Her simplicity is so open; her intelligence so active; her sympathy with fairies and animals so true and tender. She has the freakishness of an elf, the irresponsibility of some non-human creature, its heartlessness, and its charm. And although “they”, those terrible critics who had sneered and jeered at her ever since, as a shy girl, she had not dared look her tormentors in the face at Court, continued to mock, few of her critics, after all, had the wit to trouble about the nature of the universe, or cared a straw for the sufferings of the hunted hare, or longed, as she did, to talk to some one “of Shakespeare’s fools”. Now, at any rate, the laugh is not all on their side.

But laugh they did. When the rumour spread that the crazy Duchess was coming up from Welbeck to pay her respects at Court, people crowded the streets to look at her, and the curiosity of Mr. Pepys twice brought him to wait in the Park to see her pass. But the pressure of the crowd about her coach was too great. He could only catch a glimpse of her in her silver coach with her footmen all in velvet, a velvet cap on her head, and her hair about her ears. He could only see for a moment between the white curtains the face of “a very comely woman”, and on she drove through the crowd of staring Cockneys, all pressing to catch a glimpse of that romantic lady, who stands, in the picture at Welbeck, with large melancholy eyes, and something fastidious and fantastic in her bearing, touching a table with the tips of long pointed fingers, in the calm assurance of immortal fame.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01