‘It is not therefore the business of philosophy, in our present situation in the universe, to attempt to take in at once, in one view, the whole scheme of nature; but to extend, with great care and circumspection, our knowledge, by just steps, from sensible things, as far as our observations or reasonings from them will carry us, in our enquiries concerning either the greater motions and operations of nature, or her more subtle and hidden works.’
Margaret Lucas Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, was a rare and singular intelligence, a memorable and outrageous personality, and a prolific thinker and writer. Born on an unknown date in 1623, she was not given much of a formal education beyond the basics of reading and writing. As is so often the case for such independent and active minds, she obtained a higher education on her own. She sought out the company and conversation of learned people, including her brother John, a lawyer, scholar, and founding member of the Royal Society, and otherwise gobbled up learning wherever she could find it.
She married William Cavendish, Marquis and then Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne, in the spring of 1645. Though he was thirty years her senior, they had much in common, including a deep love of literature. Like Margaret, he was an unusual and independent personality, and he encouraged her in her intellectual pursuits, helping her to get her works published when she ran into obstacles doing it on her own. She wrote in a wide variety of genres, including philosophy, poetry, and plays; she wrote essays, a utopia, a biography of her husband, and an autobiography. She hung out with Thomas Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, René Descartes, Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi at her husband’s salons; unfortunately, they would not engage her in serious conversation. So, she engaged with their ideas on her own within her philosophical writings. She designed her own outrageous clothing, was reputed to sprinkle her speech with obscenities, and as far as she could, did as she liked. However much it was due to her connections or to her own accomplishments, she was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Though she was so much younger than her husband, she died two years before him on December 15, 1673, at age fifty. William outlived her by two years, proud of his ‘Mad Madge’ to the end.
Learn more about this amazing woman at:
Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne (c. 1623-1673) ~ for the Manuscripts and Special Collections pages of the University of Nottingham website
Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish ~ at the Poetry Foundation
“Mad Madge” – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle ~ by Lauren Gilbert for English Historical Fiction Authors blog
Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic ~ Min Wild’s review of Katie Whitaker’s biography for the Independent
Margaret Cavendish (1623—1673) ~ by Eugene Marshall for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Margaret Lucas Cavendish ~ by David Cumming for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Which was: immense enjoyment.
My sister was nearly finished reading it when she left it behind at my house one day. In short order, I ‘accidentally’ forgot to bring it back to her the next time I saw her, or to remind her to take it with her when she came to visit. Perhaps I’m a bad sister, but that’s what she gets when she leaves such a marvelous book behind. Oh, the trials of having excellent taste in reading materials!
Anyway, I picked it up and started browsing through it, since she had already mentioned it to me, and from the start, I could hardly put it down. The long inward struggle that Charles Darwin went through prior to publishing his discovery of the evolution of species (or, rather, the primary mechanism that drives it), is well-known. Yet only the broad outline is really known: no-one can entirely imagine what goes through your mind at a time like that. What tortured thoughts must you wrestle with when you know a truth and believe it’s too important to remain untold, but are also shy, torn by loyalty to family and friends, and fear scorn, notoriety, and persecution?
The book begins with the story of Darwin around this time, just after he published On the Origin of Species, when he had finally been spurred on to do so after another naturalist, Alfred Wallace, made the same discovery independently sixteen or so years later. The book returns often to the story of Darwin’s struggles before publishing, since so many, whose stories are also told in this book, went through similar trials; it first opens with Darwin considering how best to acknowledge and properly credit those whose work contributed most to his theory.
The author proceeds to first takes us on a giant leap far back into the past, to ancient Greece, where the great natural philosopher Aristotle gathered sea sponges and fishes and was the first known to describe them systematically. Then she guides through a history, from Aristotle to Darwin, of the intensely curious, intellectually brilliant, and restless thinkers and observers who gave us modern science. Throughout, I was enthralled. Rebecca Stott tells of awkward, cranky loners who spent most of their time in dusty specimen cabinets or crawling about on hands and knees, meticulously recording the denizens of the natural world, of precocious, highly educated children of privilege who went on to lavish their money and leisure hours in the cause of scientific advancement, of pious priests and moralistic skeptics and atheists who considered the natural universe the most sacred and the most beautiful treasure trove of knowledge available to all, and of many more: a wide variety of people of various temperaments, backgrounds, advantages, types and levels of ability and creativity, are represented in this wonderful history of ideas and of discovery.
Among other scenes in book, I felt myself longing to have had the chance to take part in any, if just one, of those salons of Enlightenment Paris or Edinburgh. Fashionable, educated women and men hosted dinner parties to bring together the best and brightest minds, full of the most original, revolutionary, and fascinating ideas that human minds were creating. But these salons were not where it was all happening: some of the greatest discussions and intellectual achievements at the time happened in ordinary and humble studies, attics, homemade labs, lecture halls, monk’s rooms, coffee shops, and student’s quarters. It was a time when thinking and knowledge was, it seems to me, more widely and more highly valued. Not only familiarity with facts and factoids, but real understanding, was the greatest prize to be sought, the greatest goal in life.
If you want some of the best examples of how to be a part of that great quest, pick up this book and romp through the history of ideas with her. I think you’ll be as glad you did as I was.
Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.