Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Lady Gaga of 17th Century Science

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1653.

A noble lady of reduced means is fretting away in a ramshackle apartment that is the best she can manage in light of the times. Her husband, the gallant, horse-mad Duke of Newcastle, is in exile on the continent as a Royalist, and is depending on her to raise funds in England to keep his creditors fed.

It is not going well. This is Cromwell’s England, and the entreaties of a disgraced Royalist’s wife fall on aggressively deaf ears. Frustrated and fearful, the lady turns to writing to fill the time and soothe her worries – poems of outrageous fancy tumble from her pen in mad succession, a universe of wild improbabilities held together by force of whimsy. Looking down at the result of her labors, Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) is pleased. She decides, against all convention, to publish her poems, to become a Woman Who Writes, and the line stretching through Mary Astell, Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood is begun.

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Well and good, but what does it have to do with science?

As it happens, quite a lot. Cavendish’s poems knew no bounds as to topic, and her most beloved of subjects was natural philosophy. She combined science, poetry, tragedy, and fantastic adventure in a fashion the world wouldn’t know again for centuries. She theorized about atomic models of nature, and crafted tales that explored those theories with a reckless and inventive glee. She espoused a purely materialist view of nature that earned her the scorn of the religious establishment, and her conception of the role that shape plays in the reactions of atoms is, in an era of enzyme research marching beneath the banner “Shape is Function,” an imaginative precursor.

Cavendish’s literary apex coincided precisely with the Tipping Moment of Western science, when experiment and mathematical modeling wrested control at last from elaborate metaphysical systematization. The Royal Society of Hooke and Boyle wrestled with problems of measurement and experimental accuracy, and Newton’s mathematization of the cosmos established How over Why as science’s great concern. In that revolution, thousands of pages of systematic speculation became obsolete, and Cavendish was one of that sparkling, doomed era’s last figures.

Her method was to pace her room, thinking over systems that could explain nature’s various effects, using simile as her most powerful tool. For centuries, that was simply how science was done, and Cavendish’s original and individual poetic sense made her a perfect match for that manner of speculation – she could draw comparisons between the known world and the atomic that hadn’t and couldn’t occur to others. Her atomic theory was a Greco-fantastic creation of manifold atomic shapes warring against each other to manifest our world without any need of divine intervention.

The lack of theology, such a marked characteristic of her works, is entirely understandable for a woman who lived sixteen years in exile because of a bloody and savage civil war fought by religious zealots. She argued strenuously for complete religious toleration, and asserted that it was better to pray than preach – the former led to reflection, the latter to strife, and theology is the one topic Cavendish regularly avoided opining upon.

Cavendish’s poems knew no bounds as to topic, and her most beloved of subjects was natural philosophy. She combined science, poetry, tragedy, and fantastic adventure in a fashion the world wouldn’t know again for centuries.

She also argued, against Descartes, for the intelligence of animals, and was one of humanity’s earliest passionate animal rights spokespeople. In poems, she took her readers to a rabbit’s-eye view of a dog chase, a stag’s perspective of a hunt, and condemned our love of inflicting suffering on other living creatures for our own benefit. Proto-feminist, materialist, playwright, #scicomm enthusiast avant la lettre, she was also a fashion icon whose outrageous retro personal designs shocked and delighted the English nobility.

She had her detractors – women who were appalled that one of their sex would write books and, more scandalous yet, books about philosophy and science, books that dared criticize Hobbes and Descartes with manly audacity! More stinging were the jabs of critics who pointed out the palpable shortcomings of her works.

Nobody knew these failings better than Cavendish herself. Her books were packed with numerous prologues apologizing in advance for the particularities of her style and organization. Raised in a tight-knit family that enjoyed its own company above all others, and educated in music, clothing, household management, and not much else, she grew up an intensely bashful woman in mixed company who never learned to adapt her flights of fancy to the world. Denied a basic education, her spelling and grammar were atrocious even by the flexible standards of the time, and every fiber of her being revolted at the idea of editing a completed work. She wanted to always be on to the next thing, to prove to herself that she still had new ideas in her brain, and so her books often groaned under the weight of unnecessary passages haphazardly organized.

She was supremely fortunate, however, in marriage. She was a maid-in-waiting to the exiled Queen of England when she met the Duke of Newcastle, a Royalist hero general now burning through his money buying magnificent horses and maintaining a fleet of servants he could ill afford. They charmed each other, married, and lived out the hard years until the Restoration of Charles II in mutual support. The Duke was visited by Hobbes and Descartes, and Margaret listened to the conversations and learned, and when she wanted to publish her own thoughts, the Duke, far from forbidding it, as virtually any other husband of the age would have done, paid lavishly to have her books well printed, and even wrote charming, bumbling, boisterous introductions to them, extolling her genius.

When 1660 arrived, and brought with it the return of Charles II, Margaret and the Duke could at last return to England. But what a different country it was – a country ruled by a bawdy King who loved the company of young rakes and lovely women. The elderly Duke did not fit in that world, and retired to the country while Margaret came face to face with a scientific movement rapidly outpacing her. She authored an attack on Robert Hooke’s game-changing Micrographia (1665), a pain-staking and lushly illustrated documentation of his microscopic investigations of nature. She spoke scornfully of all this lens gazing – what could it possibly tell you that was more important than what the pure mind could discover?

Critiques notwithstanding, the Royal Society respected her enough to take the unprecedented step of inviting her to view some of its experiments, and she accepted, arriving in high style in a dress it took six maids to handle. She was delighted by the demonstrations, even as she realized what they meant for her own approach to natural philosophy. She wrote her last book in 1668, just three years after the Micrographia, and didn’t publish another line until her death in 1673.

Cavendish’s ultimate legacy is a difficult tangle. It is impossible to ignore her foundational place in British feminism, in women’s literature, and in the movement to treat animals humanely. As a scientific figure, born fifty years earlier, she would have been a marvel by any standard. Fifty years later and she might have been (tantalizing thought) a poet of Newtonian adventure. But being born when she was, and educated as she was, she came hard against an age that had no use for her genius, and so her charming framing of the atomic theory, of magnetism and heat, were swallowed up with the rest of the medievalry that modernity felt it could well dispense with. But for those who have some moments to be charmed and challenged, there is a universe in her books to be discovered, of purple skinned men, of camels with peacock tails, and of atoms that refuse to behave, or perhaps that behave all too well.


FURTHER READING: This is a tough one. Margaret the First by Douglas Grant was written in 1957 and is alternately incredibly charming and unbearably condescending. Grant knows his poetry and 17th century politico-philosophical landscape, but this is definitely a biography from Another Time.

**And for more awesome Women in Science comics check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two

Dale DeBakcsy About Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the writer and artist of the Women In Science and Cartoon History of Humanism columns, and has, since 2007, co-written the webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy with Geoffrey Schaeffer. He is also a regular contributor to The Freethinker, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, and Skeptical Inquirer. He studied intellectual history at Stanford and UC Berkeley before becoming a teacher of mathematics and drawer of historical frippery.

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