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Gallery Exhibit, Catalog Nos. 10 & 32 & 33 & 34 & 35 & 36 & 37

This is the 3rd of four portraits in the Gallery Exhibit on Melancholy. Links to the introduction and other three parts of the exhibit are located towards the bottom of this page.
Portraits of Melancholy — III
Cavendish’s “Studious She is and all Alone” frontispiece, 1655
Cavendish's "Studious She is and all Alone" frontispiece, 1655


This is one of three frontispieces designed for Cavendish’s publications by Abraham van Diepenbeeck. Because the engravings were circulated and sold separately as prints, and because the printer would not have bound expensive graphics in a book unless asked to by the author and/or reader-owner, there is some confusion over the intended versus actual collation of images with text.

I believe Cavendish’s own intent is clear from the four-volume-in-one edition of her opus that she had bound for special presentation “to the university library of Leyden.” This unique edition of her works was gifted to Leiden in November 1658, and is the only book whose production we know for certain she oversaw. Her correspondence with Constantijn Huygens on the matter indicates that Cavendish was directly involved in determining strategies for presentation and distribution of this most important copy of her work — the one edition to reach a broad audience of European scholars beyond known Cavendish Circle affiliates.

In the Leiden copy of her works, the “Studious She is and all Alone” engraving is bound at the front of her Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655); the “Here on this Figure Cast a Glance” engraving fronts her Worlds Olio (1655); and the “Thus in this Semy-Circle, wher they Sitt” engraving fronts her Natures Pictures (1656).

Special thanks to Dr. R. Breugelmans,
former Keeper of Western Printed Books at
Leiden University Library, for information
on the binding and presswork of the
1658 presentation copy of
Cavendish’s collected works.

View an enlarged 869 x 1422 pixel JPG image (380KB)
Text of frontispiece gloss:

Studious She is and all Alone
Most visitants, when She has none,
Her Library on which She look’s
It is her Head, her Thoughts her Books.
Scorninge dead Ashes without fire
For her owne Flames doe her Inspire.

LOIS POTTER USED THE PHRASE the plural I to describe William Cavendish and other royalist writers as composite selves, constructed of myriad voices/texts (e.g., Newcastle’s revoicing of Donne in the love poetry he addressed to Margaret during their courtship in 1644–5 Paris). Our own postmodern conceit that seemingly solitary creative practices — including writing, scholarship, science, and graphic design — are really a conversation of many voices (what Bakhtin would call an exercise of the “dialogic imagination”) was in fact an early-modern conceit as well, used by writers across the political spectrum to enable and justify the emerging print culture.
     For a variety of reasons, personal and political, Margaret Cavendish rejected the protective personae of royalist intertextuality favored by most male royalists, choosing instead to project an extreme singularity — she is, as the frontispiece gloss proclaims, “all Alone” in her studies and inventions.
     An ambitious woman, seeking fame above all else, Cavendish lived in perpetual fear of being lost to after ages, forever rendered covert in the man. This was not an idle concern. At the time Cavendish wrote, a woman’s legal status was that of femme covert, meaning that her identity was subsumed in the person of her husband or male relative: “because Adam hath so pronounced that man and wife shall be but one flesh ... they be by intent and wise fiction of law, one person ...”, explained The Lawes Resolution of Womens Rights (pub. 1632), except “in criminal and other special causes” where “our law argues them several persons.”
     It was for this reason that Cavendish published her autobiography in 1656:

I verily believe some censuring readers will scornfully say, why hath this Lady writ her own life? since none cares to know whose daughter she was, or whose wife she is, or how she was bred, or what fortunes she had, or how she lived, or what humour or disposition she was of. I answer that it is true, that ’tis to no purpose to the readers, but it is to the authoress, because I write it for my own sake, not theirs. Neither did I intend this piece for to delight, but to divulge; not to please the fancy, but to tell the truth, lest after-ages should mistake, in not knowing I was daughter to one Master Lucas of St. Johns, near Colchester, in Essex, second wife to the Lord Marquis of Newcastle; for my Lord having had two wives, I might easily have been mistaken, especially if I should die and my Lord marry again.

(Cavendish, “A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding,
and Life”; pub. with Natures Pictures drawn by
Fancies Pencil to the Life
in 1656, but withdrawn from
the subsequent edition of Natures Pictures in 1671)

And it was probably in large part for this reason that Cavendish cultivated singularity, both in life and letters.

     Today, we tend to take the solitary heroic figurations of early-modern aristocratic bodies literally. But 17th-century aristocrats were far from the modern selves of most 21st-century imagining. For one thing, the complex figurations of paterfamilias, which incorporate networks of others within the aristocratic self, are mostly invisible to us now. But in the 17th century, “alone” more often than not included an extensive entourage of servants and secretaries and others who were themselves covert in the lord or lady they served.
     In addition to the material contributions of those who sustained noble households, there were the inspirational contributions that came simply from existing in various socio-cultural networks, no matter how remote the domocile. The dialogic imagination was especially important in an age when intellectuals were self-consciously aware of their rôle within the greater Respublica Literaria, as it was then known to such as Robert Hooke, who thrived in the space it created for critical pluralism. Whenever “the good of the Republic of Letters” — as Kircher claimed to serve with the publication of his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Rome, 1652–4) — was at issue, matters of “I” and “we” were hotly contested. Involved himself in a number of priority disputes, Robert Hooke took Henry Oldenburg to task in 1677 for his ambiguous “use of We and Us,” by which Oldenburg conflated the corporate voice of the Royal Society with that of “the Pluralities of himself.”
     It was in this spirit that Walter Charleton wrote to Cavendish in 1654, objecting to her self-fashioning (in her two 1653 publications, Poems, and Fancies and Philosophicall Fancies) as a solitary voice and naturalized intellect, “free from the Contagion of Books, and Book-men.” In his letter, Charleton reminded Cavendish that she was hardly the outsider she pretended to be, and that the “mens unbelief” in this pose (his own, included) was “stiff” and unyielding. After all, had not he himself — “something of a Scholar” — enjoyed many “ingenious Discourses” with her on scientific subjects?
     Despite her claims to the contrary, Cavendish was in fact part of a thriving intellectual network, now referred to as the Cavendish Circle, with connections that cris-crossed Europe, linking most of the prominent scientific figures of the day. In one of the 14 epistles to the reader that front the various sections of her Philosophical and Physical Opinions (pub. in 1655, the year following Charleton’s letter), Cavendish explained in detail about her estrangement from the world of learning:

... I cannot say but I have seen them [Descartes and Hobbes] both, but upon my conscience I never spoke with monsieur De Cartes in my life, nor ever understood what he said, for he spake no English, and I understand no other language, and those times I saw him, which was twice at dinner with my Lord at Paris, he did appear to me a man of the fewest words I ever heard. And for Master Hobbes, it is true I have had the like good fortune to see him, and that very often with my Lord at dinner, for I conversing seldom with any strangers, had no other time to see those famous Philosophers; yet I never heard Master Hobbes to my best remembrance treat, or discourse of Philosophy, nor I never spake to Master Hobbes twenty words in my life, I cannot say I did not ask him a question, for when I was in London I met him, and told him as truly I was very glad to see him, and asked him if he would please to do me that honour to stay at dinner, but he with great civility refused as having some businesse, which I suppose required his absence.... And for their works, my own foolish fancies do so imploy my time, as they will not give me leave to read their books, for upon my conscience I never read more of Mounsieur Des-Cartes then half his book of passion, and for Master Hobbes, I never read more then a little book called De Cive, and that but once, nor never had any body read to me, as for their opinions, I cannot say I have not heard of many of them. As the like of others, but upon my conscience not thoroughly discoursed of, for I have heard the opinions of most Philosophers in general, yet not otherwaies then if I should see a man, but neither know his estate, quality, capacity, or natural disposition ... it is true that I have converst with Physitians more then any other learned profession, yet not so much as to increase my understanding ....

(Cavendish, “An Epiloge to my Philosophical Opinions”
in The Philosophical and Physical Opinions, 1655)

Whether or not she herself discussed philosophical matters directly with such luminaries as Descartes or Hobbes, Cavendish did witness conversations with and about them; she conversed and corresponded at length on scientific subjects with numerous others who debated their ideas; and she herself admits to a prodigious “Art of Memory,” by which “my Braine” becomes “a Magazine, / To store up wise discourse, naturally sent, / In fluent words” and supply “my fancy,” which “will build thereupon, and make discourse therefrom” (see her “Epistle to my Braine” in Philosophicall Fancies, pub. 1653, and “To the Reader” in The Philosophical and Physical Opinions, pub. 1655).
     As a femme covert, Cavendish had no desire to further lose herself in public displays of 17th-century symbolic intersubjectivity. Accordingly, the frontispiece constructing her persona as “the Queen of Sciences” — to whom the “Universities have done ... Homage,” as her son-in-law, Charles Cheyne, would write to her in a letter dated 4 September 1662 — was at the same time a confrontation of genre, and a conventional deployment of form.

THE STANDARD INTERPRETATION of the frontispiece that introduces Cavendish’s scientific “masterpiece,” the Philosophical and Physical Opinions, is that it constructs the new Queen of Sciences as “melancholic,” although B. G. MacCarthy saw in it a “rakish” Cavendish,

... her coronet askew to give place to the wreath of laurels with which she is being crowned by four fat cherubs. Literary and noble insignia thus precariously perched give an air of ill-balanced and ambitious distinction to the wearer.

(MacCarthy 1944, p. 128)

The engraving plays with a number of familiar motifs, such as the two amorini crowning Cavendish, and recombines them in interesting ways. Compare, for instance, the portrait of Venetia Digby.

Cavendish’s scientific masterpiece was first issued under the title, Philosophicall Fancies, in 1653; then expanded and reissued as the Philosophical and Physical Opinions in 1655 and 1663; and further revised and reissued as the Grounds of Natural Philosophy in 1668
Aubrey described Venetia Digby as one of his age’s greatest beauties (“a most beautifull desireable Creature”).

Winged putti were often pictured with women of beauty, such as the goddess Venus, and it was rumored upon Venetia’s sudden death at age 33 that her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, had killed her by insisting that she drink Viper-wine to preserve her beauty. Aubrey attributes such rumors to “spitefull woemen,” stating that while an autopsy showed “but little braine, which her husband imputed to her drinking of viper-wine,” there were no grounds for any claims that “she was poysoned.”

Venetia Digby (1600-1633)
From a portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck
View an enlarged 850 x 1145 pixel JPG image (224KB)
Ben Jonson, a favorite author of both Margaret and William Cavendish, is said by Aubrey to have made Venetia Digby “live in Poetrey, in his drawing of her both Body and Mind”:

Sitting, and ready to be drawne,
What makes these Tiffany, silkes, and lawne,
Embroideries, feathers, fringes, lace,
When every limb takes like a Face! ....

Aubrey also reports that “Sir Kenelme [Digby] had severall Pictures of her by Vandyke, &c.” and “He had her hands cast in playster, and her feet and Face.” Furthermore,

After her death, to avoyd envy and scandall, he retired in to Gresham Colledge at London, where he diverted himselfe with his Chymistry, and the Professors good conversation. He wore there a long mourning cloake, a high crowned hatt, his beard unshorne, look’t like a Hermite, as signes of sorrowe for his beloved wife, to whose memory he erected a sumptuouse monument, now quite destroyed by the great Conflagration.

(John Aubrey, from his character of
Venetia Digby in Aubrey’s Brief Lives)

The romance and symbolism attaching to the Digbys would not have escaped the notice of Margaret and William Cavendish (who was given an expensive Fontanus-made telescope by Digby while living in Paris). Sir Kenelm Digby, whom Aubrey called a “renowned Knight, great Linguist, and Magazen of Arts” was a “gigantique” figure in life and science. Boyle, for instance, considered Digby one of the most influential “atomists,” and Newton studied Digby’s work closely as well. How (or even if) Digby self-fashioning played in Cavendish’s visual imagination will never be known. But it was certainly part of the visual culture with which she was in constant dialogue.

     Most critics assume that the six verses of the frontispiece, inscribed on the balustrade below the seated Cavendish, were written by her husband. I would agree with this, although there is an unexplained connection with the poet, Richard Flecknoe, who wrote some execrable verses (“breathes an atmosphere of the most sycophantic abasement,” opined one literary critic) on this very same frontispiece.

On the Dutchess of Newcastles Closet

by Richard Flecknoe

What place is this! looks like some sacred Cell
Where holy Hermits antiently did dwell,
And never ceast importunating Heaven,
Till some great Blessing unto Earth was given!
Is this a Lady-Closet! ’t cannot be,
For nothing here of vanity you see;
Nothing of curiosity, nor pride,
As all your Ladys Closets have beside.
Scarcely a Glass, or Mirrour in’t you find,
Excepting Books, the Mirrours of the mind.
Nor is’t a Library, but only as she,
Makes each place where she comes a Library,
Carrying a living Library in her brain
More worth then Bodleys or the Vatican.
Here she’s in Rapture, here in Extasy,
With studying high and deep Philosophy.
Here those clear Lights descend into her Mind,
Which by Reflection in her Books you find;
And those high Notions and Ideas too,
Which none before, but she, did ever know:
Whence shee’s her Sexes Ornament and Grace
And Glory of the Times, hail sacred Place!
To which the world in after-times shall come,
As unto Homers shrine, or Virgils Tomb,
Honouring the walls wherein she made aboad,
The Air she breath’d, & ground on which she tro’d.
So Fame rewards the Arts, and so agen,
The Arts shall honour her who honour’d them,
Whilst others, who in other hopes did trust,
Shall after death, lie in forgotten dust.

(as first published in A Farrago of Several Pieces
Being a Supplement to His Poems, Characters, Heroick
Pourtraits, Letters, and Other Discourses Formerly
Published by Him. Newly Written by Richard Flecknoe
[London: Printed for the author, 1666])

The verses on Cavendish’s closet were written while Flecknoe was staying at Welbeck, the Newcastles’ seat in Nottinghamshire, where Flecknoe had removed after the Great Plague hit London in June 1665. Because “these Pieces of mine” were “made (most of them) under your Graces Roof at Welbeck,” Flecknoe dedicated A Farrago to Margaret, noting wryly that “The Mortality of the last Year, has given Life to most of these Pieces, which I made in the Countrey, whilst I fled that in Town.”
     Flecknoe would reprint the verses (with minor edits) multiple times, as part of his Epigrams of all sorts written by Richard Flecknoe (1669, 1670, 1671, and two reissues in 1673). The verses were published a final time by Flecknoe in 1675 in the collection, Euterpe revived, or, Epigrams made at several times in the years 1672, 1673, & 1674 on persons of the greatest honour and quality most of them now living: in III books. It was an odd subtitle. Margaret had died in December 1673. But Flecknoe wished to stress, as always, that he lived and wrote for the moment, and not, as did Margaret, for posterity: “as others write to live, after they are dead: I do it, not to be thought dead, whilst I am alive” (Preface to the reader, in Flecknoe’s 1669 edition of Epigrams).
     In 1676, the verses on Margaret’s closet appeared in print again, this time published by William in the commemorative edition of Letters and Poems in Honour of the Incomparable Princess, Margaret, Dutchess of Newcastle (to be reissued by the printer in 1678). This time, the amendments to the verses were more substantive. Lines 10–15 were given a new focus (emphasizing Margaret’s tools of authorship — “her Ink and ... her Pen” — rather than the “living Library in her brain”). And four new lines were added (ll. 27–30). The new edits may well have been introduced by a grieving William, since they complement his design of Margaret’s memorial at Westminster Abbey. The Abbey statuary similarly suggests an ultimate shift in focus from philosophizing to authorship: a full-size figure of Margaret, sculpted in white marble, presents her to posterity with book, pen, and ink in hand. In the end, it was her pen and inkwell — also prominently on display in Diepenbeeck’s “Studious She is and all Alone” frontispiece — that William thought best symbolized the fame his late wife had sought as a “wise, wittie and Learned Lady” (from the sepulchral inscription on the Abbey monument’s entablature).

     Although Cavendish had earlier in 1655 written that women

... may as well read in our closets, as men in their colleges. And contemplation is as free to us as to men to beget clear speculation.

(“The Preface to the Reader” in The Worlds Olio, 1655)

she portrays her closet in the frontispiece as a space for writing, not reading. There are no books at all in Cavendish’s closet, unlike we find in a picture of the Renaissance woman scholar, Isotta Nogarola.

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665)
From a portrait by Sir
Anthony van Dyck
View an enlarged 845 x 1081 pixel JPG image (153KB)

Compare the 1676 printed variant with Flecknoe’s original verses of 1666
Details from the monument to Margaret Cavendish at Westminster Abbey
(“in full Proportion, of white Marble in a cumbent Posture in [her] Robes”)
Peter Beal interprets the literary symbolism — the open book and pendent inkhorn (with its cords suggesting attachment to a penner on the other side of the book) in Cavendish’s left hand — as indicating that “she is, in effect, reading — with the implication of also writing — into eternity.” “Especially since they are portable and used in transit (as opposed to a static inkwell), these writing instruments effectively suggest Cavendish's readiness for, and continuation of, writing, as well as reading, on her journey into eternity.”
(Beal, In Praise of Scribes, 165-8)

While I agree with Beal that the monument “represents her immortality through writing,” I see no evidence for the claim about Cavendish reading her way into eternity. Indeed, any such association would be at odds with a lifetime of self-fashioning that stressed ennobling acts of inventio to the exclusion of all things having to do with more commonplace acts of imitatio and scholarship.

Bathsua Makin lists Isotta Nogarola as one of Europe’s pre-eminent she-philosophers in An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673):

“I shall conclude with Isola Navarula, who writ many eloquent Epistles. She was a great proficient in Philosophy and Theology, as appears by that Book she wrote by way of Dialogue, between Adam and Eve, which sinned first and most; and by divers other Books.”

Makin also included Cavendish in her list of “some few ladies that have been equal to most men” in “arts and tongues,” including such learned subjects as “oratory, philosophy, divinity, and lastly, poetry.” Appropriately enough, Makin emphasized the singularity of Cavendish’s personal genius:

“The present Duchess of Newcastle, by her own genius rather than any timely instruction, over-tops many grave gown-men.”

Isotta Nogarola, a 15th-century scholar, reading at a rotating lectern in her book-strewn closet
Woodcut from De Plurimis claris sceletisque mulieribus


Or we find at the end of the 17th century in the famous closet of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
     Or in 1692, in the closet of “The Excellent Woman,” as pictured in the frontispiece for Theophilus Dorrington’s, The Excellent Woman Described by Her True Characters and their Opposites (the third English translation in the 17th century of Jacques Du Bosc’s protofeminist L’Honnete femme). Dorrington’s engraving shows The Excellent Woman reading at her desk, in front of wall-mounted bookshelves filled with titles in divinity, morality, history, poetry, physick, and surgery.

In the first chapter, the author recommends women’s closet reading as an exercise in critical pluralism, stating that “It is much more easie to deceive the Ear than the Eye.”
Frontispiece engraving for The Excellent Woman Described by Her True Characters and Their Opposites (London, 1692).

     Nor were women’s closets at the time little more than storehouses for the trappings of feminine vanity, as Flecknoe indicates. As we find in the fourth edition in 1650 of The Mirrour of Complements (a rhetorical handbook of “Complemental and amorous expressions, in speaking or writing Letters, upon any subject or occasion”), the common stereotype of “a Gentlewomans closet” was that it “locks up every toy or trifle.” And writers never tired of berating women for what they did or did not do in their private space within the home. A good example of the genre would be Mary Evelyn’s burlesque, Mundus Muliebris: Or, the Ladies Dressing-Room Unlock’d, and Her Toilette Spread, posthumously published by her father in 1690.
     In fact, many women’s closets were chemical laboratories, used for distilling and preparing medicines, as well as cosmetics. Lady Margaret Hoby, for instance, noted that she made “oile” in her closet and distilled waters such as aqua vita. But Cavendish was as careful about distancing herself from women empiricists as from the male-dominated world of scholarship. It was singularity she sought, not sisterhood. Predictably, her designated space for a singular pursuit of natural inquiry has none of the apparatus (including herbals and recipe books) of the stillroom in it.

     Rather, Cavendish’s frontispiece makes a rhetorically effective use of contemporary philosophicoreligious symbolism in order to position her at the pinnacle of the scientific networks then forming. This message is encoded

  • in the suggestive interplay of light and shadow
  • in such memento mori as the clock on her desk
  • in the references to fire and flame, suggesting alchemical essences and purification rites, as well as the legend of the phoenix (a persona that Cavendish would develop more fully in the unfinished drama, A Piece of a Play, pub. in 1668, and in her own visit to the Royal Society in 1667)
  • in the dismissal of the printed words of men as but “dead Ashes”
  • in the implicit argument that the truths of nature are best got at by way of experientia (or as she wrote in the earlier Philosophicall Fancies, “The Copy is not so lively as the Originall; for the spirits of life move, and work of their own strength, and the dull matter by the strength of the Spirits”)
  • and finally, in the stated preference for revealed knowledge and inspired reading in the book of nature.

     These were all recognizable (and controversial) themes in the world of learning that Cavendish addressed with her Philosophical and Physical Opinions, dedicated “To the Universities” and the “Most Famously Learned.” For example, the expert play with lighting and light source that even Flecknoe picked up on would have caught the eye of any virtuoso back then with even the most casual training in optics and/or the visual arts. Abraham van Diepenbeeck, who did the original artwork for all three of Cavendish’s frontispieces (and for her husband’s sumptuously illustrated book of horsemanship, as well), trained as a glass painter, and to some extent, he favored optical motifs which showed off his celebrated skills in this area to advantage. But Diepenbeeck also knew how to use lighting to rhetorical effect, as in his splendid graphics for the Abbot of Villeloin’s book of Ovidian mythology, Tableaux du Temple des Muses, published the same year as Cavendish’s Philosophical and Physical Opinions. John Evelyn referred to Diepenbeeck’s “rare Talent” in his Sculptura, or, the History, and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper, and it’s small wonder really that the Cavendishes chose Diepenbeeck to illustrate their works.
     Cavendish would have liked, of course, to do even more with Diepenbeeck’s “rare Talent” than could be accomplished in a single, emblematic frontispiece more concerned with the representation of philosophical character than philosophical content. In her sixth preface to the Philosophical and Physical Opinions, she raised the issue of multimedia:

I Must advertise my Readers though I have writ different wayes of one and the same subject, yet not to obstruct, crosse, or contradict; but I have used the freedom, or taken the liberty to draw several works upon one ground, or like as to build several rooms upon one foundation, likewise my desires was, to expresse the several works that several motions make in printed figures, that the sense of my opinions might be explained to the eye, as well as to the ear, or conceivements of my Readers; but by reason the Painters and Cutters in this Country cannot speak, nor understand English, nor I any other Language; which reason perswaded me to let my Book be Printed without them ... Wherefore I must intreat my Readers to take a little more paines, and care in the reading, and considering part.

(“An Epistle to my Readers” in
Philosophical and Physical Opinions, 1655)

Since Cavendish couldn’t herself draw or limn (the discipline it required was sheer “Torment” for girls, she protests in the CCXI Sociable Letters), she was unable to visually communicate her natural philosophy, in the manner of an Athanasius Kircher or a Robert Hooke, and had to settle for multi-layered linguistic expression “By Phancy’s Pencill drawne alone.”
     The dialectical interplay between an individual’s sensory experience of nature (to Paracelsians like Croll, “the Living Word, Life”) and humanity’s accumulated verbal knowledge (in the metaphor of Cavendish’s frontispiece, “dead Ashes without fire”) was a rich topos for many a Baroque artist and philosopher, and one that Cavendish’s husband would revisit over and over in the verses he produced for her books and frontispieces. Writing new material for the second and third editions of her Poems and Fancies in the 1660s, William would make even more explicit the alchemical metaphors hinted at earlier in the 1655 frontispiece and its gloss (“For her owne Flames doe her Inspire”):

By similizing to the Life, so like,
Your Fancie’s Pencil’s far beyond Vandike:
Drawing all things, to all things, at your pleasure;
Which shews, your Store-house is the Muses Treasure;
Your Head the Limbeck, where the Muses sit,
Distilling there, the Quintessence of Wit;
Spirits of Fancy, Essences so sweet,
In your just Numbers walk on Velvet Feet.

(“To Her Grace the Duchess of Newcastle, on
Her Book of Poems,” in Poems and Fancies,
editions of 1664 and 1668)

     Of note, the 1655 frontispiece for Cavendish’s Philosophical and Physical Opinions is the only one to show Cavendish in the melancholic dress and posture of the contemplative agent (the other two frontispieces focused on different aspects of the pluralities of herself). The engraving’s concept had already been set, I suspect, when Cavendish wrote her epistle, “A Request to Time,” published in the preliminary Philosophicall Fancies:

Time, prethee be content, and let me write;
Ile use thee better then the Carpet Knight,
Or Amorous Ladies, which doe dance, and play,
Casting their Modesty, and Fame away.
I humbly cast mine eyes downe to the ground,
Or shut them close, while I a Fancy found.
And in a Melancholy posture sit,
With musing Thoughts, till I more Fancies get.

A melancholic persona was more appropriate for the Queen of Sciences, anxiously awaiting her crown, than the more “antick” identities (those Gothic composites of human, animal and floral forms, resonant of the iconology associated with Florentine neoplatonism) Cavendish would take on in the 1660s.
     Even so, there was a downside to Cavendish’s melancholic self-fashioning. As Burton observed in his Anatomy of Melancholy, the melancholic was prone to “phantastical meditations” and to building “castles in the air,” attributes that would eventually undermine Cavendish’s scientific monarchy and tarnish the coveted crown.
     “To build castles in the air” (in Italian: “Far castelli in aria”) — both versions being recorded by the botanist, John Ray, in his Collection of English Proverbs — was such a well-known proverb in the 17th century, that it was no doubt simply a matter of time before some wag would contravene Cavendish’s narcissistic epistemology (“For her owne Flames doe her Inspire”), linking it to the proverb and punning on her heavily-promoted Newcastle title (“Written By the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, the Duchess of Newcastle”).
     Legend has it that the wag was John Wilkins (1614–1672), and the occasion, a witty exchange between the two during Cavendish’s visit to the Royal Society in 1667.

     Wilkins was a founding member of the Royal Society, dating back to its Oxford Circle days in the mid-1650s, and he authored the first English textbook of mechanics (Mathematicall Magick, or, the Wonders That May Be Performed by Mechanicall Geometry, pub. 1648) — a book which the instrument-maker Joseph Moxon and the publicist John Houghton declared should be placed in every boy’s hands to turn his thoughts to inventions. Wilkins also wrote The Discovery of a World in the Moone, which was popular enough to be printed twice in 1638 when it was first issued, and was reissued with additions in 1640, 1684, and 1707. The third edition in 1640 included a new section on space travel, and this had clearly caught Cavendish’s attention.
     H. T. E. Perry traces the anecdote to three different sources, to his mind proving not only “the instability of any traditional narration, but that some repartee of the kind took place seems sufficiently well attested”:

  • As a note to his 1806 edition of Walpole’s Catalog, Thomas Park writes [III, 154, n.]: “In a book of anecdotes this is related. The duchess of Newcastle once asked bishop Wilkins, how she should get up to the world in the moon, which he had discovered? ‘Oh, Madam, (said the prelate) your Grace has built so many castles in the air, that you cannot want a place to bait at.’” (qtd. Perry 306)

  • In her 1844 Memoirs of Eminent Englishwomen (III, 219), Louisa Stuart Costello records the dialogue as: “‘Doctor, where am I to find a place for bating at in the way up to that planet?’ ‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘of all the people in the world, I never expected that question from you, who have built so many castles in the air, that you may lie every night in one of your own.’” (qtd. Perry 307) Perry argues that Costello’s “misspelling of ‘bating’ leads one to imagine that this story’s vitality may have been oral, a conjecture which is more firmly established by the change of ‘bating’ to ‘waiting’ in” Stanley’s third version (see below) of the tale.

  • Stanley, in his 1868 ed. of Memorials of Westminster Abbey (p. 233), has Cavendish ask “‘Doctor, where am I to find a place for waiting in the way up to that Planet!’ ‘Madam,’ Wilkins replied, ‘of all people in the world, I never expected that question from you, who have built so many castles in the air, that you may be every night at one of your own.’” (qtd. Perry 307)

Douglas Grant has argued that the account is apocryphal since “Wilkins would never have had the face to make such a reply to a woman of Margaret’s rank.” (Grant 1957, p. 203) I’m not so sure. Wilkins was a confident and cultured man, capable of negotiating his way in both royalist and revolutionary regimes. I agree with Perry that something along these lines was probably said.
     Regardless, Wilkins would have been giving voice to witticisms with which Cavendish was by then all too familiar. She herself had first used the metaphor in her 1656 publication, Natures Pictures, where a character in one of her tales compares castles in the air to the homes of spiders or silkworms, described in elaborate detail.
     And in her 1664 Philosophical Letters, Cavendish actually anticipated Wilkins’ witticism by bantering, in remarkably similar manner, with Henry More over his account of a travelling human soul. The material or natural soul is not, she objected,

... like a traveller, going out of one body into another, neither is air her lodging; for certainly, if the natural human soul should travel through the airy regions, she would at last grow weary, it being so great a journey, except she did meet the soul of a horse, and so ease herself with riding on horseback.

And Cavendish makes two further references in 1664 to castles in the air, this time in her CCXI Sociable Letters. In Letter CII, she writes about “Buildings ... like Airy Castles, which Vanish to nothing”:

... True Happiness Lives Within the Mind or Soul, not Without it, and whosoever build their Happiness Without it, shall Miss it when they Seek it, nay, those Buildings are like Airy Castles, which Vanish to nothing, or rather like Unwholsom, or Ill Vapor; or as a Snuff of a Candle, that goes out, and leaves an Ill Savour behind itt so those that place their Happiness Without them, as on the Opinion of Men, or the Vanities of the World, shall have nothing but Loss, Trouble, and Vexation, instead of Peace, Rest, and Content ....

And in Letter CXIII, she acknowledges having heard rumors that she herself was similarly engaged:

In your last Letter you were pleased to tell me ... the Lady M. L. spoke of me, saying, I liv’d a Dull, Unprofitable, Unhappy Life, Imploying my time onely in Building Castles in the Air.... and as for the Minds Architecture, as Castles in the Air, or Airy Castles, which are Poetical Conceptions, and Solitary Contemplations, which produce Poems, Songs, Playes, Masks, Elegies, Epigrams, Anagrams, and the like, they will be more lasting than Castles of Wood, Brick, or Stone, and their Architecture, if well Designed and Built, will be more Famous, and their Fame spread farther than those of Stone, viz. to the View and Prospect of divers Nations, if Translated into divers Languages, whereas Castles of Timber, Brick, or Stone, cannot be Removed nor Translated ... neither doth the Builder need any other Monument or Tomb, than his Own Airy Works, which, if Curiously Composed, and Adorned with Fancies, Similitudes, Metaphors, and the like, and Carefully Written and Printed, are more Glorious, Stately, and Durable, than Tombes or Monuments of Marble, Costly Gilt, and Carved ....

Perhaps. But as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz would bitterly expostulate a few decades later in her Respuesta a sor Filotea de la Cruz (Mexico City, 1691),

... cabeza que es erario de sabiduría no espere otra corona que de espinas. ¿Cuál guirnalda espera la sabiduría humana si ve la que obtuvo la divina?

[A head that is a storehouse of wisdom can expect nothing but a crown of thorns. What garland may human wisdom expect when it is known what was bestowed on that divine wisdom?]

As Sor Juana knew only too well, Cavendish’s coveted crown or wreath of laurel could debase as well as exalt its wearer.

Compare, for example, the methodological preferences of Sir Kenelm Digby
John Wilkins (1614–1672)
Woodcut from The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right Reverend John Wilkins, Late Lord Bishop of Chester (London, 1708)
» next (Portrait IV)
» Portraits of Melancholy  (Introduction)
» Portrait I   (Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514)
» Portrait II   (Burton’s Anatomised Melancholy, 1628)
» Portrait IV   (Emblems for Melancholy and Pensiveness, 1709)
Related Links

• a transcription of Cavendish’s 168-line poem, “A Dialogue between Melancholy and Mirth” (from the 1653 ed. of Poems, and Fancies), with its complementary verbal portrait of the melancholic self, in the LIBRARY

• the Western printed books department of Leiden University Library, which holds the unique copy of Margaret Cavendish’s works presented to the university by Constantijn Huygens in 1658

further discussion of Margaret Cavendish, one of’s central PLAYERS

• a note on early-modern naming conventions (“Written By the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, the Duchess of Newcastle”)

• a LIBRARY monograph, Time, Soul, Memory, that discusses Cavendish’s theories of phylogenic and artificial memory in relation to Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Hooke, and women’s ars memoria

• an IN BRIEF topic on “the dialogic imagination” and other concepts of Bakhtin’s relating to the plural I

• further discussion of Wilkins’ The Discovery of a World in the Moone in the LIBRARY publication, LIB. CAT. NO. DTB1985

• an IN BRIEF biography of Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1596–1675)

• an IN BRIEF topic on early-modern cosmetology

• complete text of Walter Charleton’s 1654 letter to Margaret Cavendish in the LIBRARY

• the famous portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in her book-lined closet (in poses which show her reading and writing)

• a transcription of the “philosophies of the kitchen” passage from Sor Juana’s Respuesta a sor Filotea de la Cruz in the LIBRARY



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