Sunday, May 25, 2014

to the beautiful obliquities

Woolf and Firth: Charles Lamb would have had to forgive both of them. “I can pardon her [his sister, disguised as “Bridget”] blindness to the beautiful obliquities of the Religio Medici; but she must apologise to me for certain disrespectful insinuations, which she has been pleased to throw out latterly, touching the intellectuals of a dear favourite of mine, of the last century but one—the thrice noble, chaste, and virtuous,—but again somewhat fantastical, and original-brain'd, generous Margaret Newcastle” (Mackery End, in Hertfordshire). Firth acknowledges Lamb's intelligence; Firth praises him.

Certainly his larger sympathy, and keener insight, enabled him to perceive in the style and in the writer those finer qualities which the more conventional judgment of Pepys had refused to recognise.

Lamb is loving, Lamb loves; he inserts her into a discussion of bookbinding where she did not have to be but he will mention her, “thrice noble” again in the Two Races of Men: “the Letters of that princely woman, the thrice noble Margaret Newcastle.” Horace Walpole had an opinion of her: “pedant.” Pepys, as already mentioned, had his opinion, “I do not like her at all.” Walpole had read her works but Pepys had seen her and listened to her speak. Her clothes annoyed him. He thought he had watched one of her plays but it was her husband's play instead. On Wednesday the 18th of March in the year 1668 he looked through one of her books and disliked it, “the ridiculous History of My Lord Newcastle.” Lamb venerated that same book in the early 1800s: “no casket is rich enough, no casing sufficiently durable, to honour and keep safe such a jewel.” “[I]t may be taken for granted that his [Pepys'] recollections of the authoress influenced his judgment of her book,” writes Firth, pointing out, also, that the diarist had been suffering from bad eyes that night. “So to bed, my eyes being very bad.”

Fitzmaurice opens his Introduction to the Garland Sociable Letters with these words: “Over the last three hundred and fifty years, Margaret Cavendish and her writing have elicited a variety of reactions.” There are so many reactions that Firth won't decide between them. He says, “To decide between these conflicting sentences [Pepys', Lamb's, those of “learned bodies” at the University of Cambridge], and expound the precise amount of truth contained in each, would be a tedious and ungrateful task.”

Fitzmaurice lists some of the people I've mentioned as well as a couple of others, Frederic Rowton, for example, who wrote The Female Poets of Great Britain (1853), and Mary Evelyn, Pepys' contemporary, whose word for Cavendish is “rambling,” although it's curious of Fitzmaurice to refer to Evelyn's husband John as “the famous diarist” without quoting him on Cavendish as well. He described her as he saw her on the day when she visited a meeting at the Royal Society, “a mighty pretender to learning.”

John Evelyn is writing on May 30th, 1667, and Pepys, writing on the same day, describes the same event. “I find much company, indeed very much company, in expectation of the Duchesse of Newcastle who had desired to be invited to the Society.” Evelyn says that they showed her experiments and Pepys says so too. Pepys chooses to describe the experiments and Evelyn does not. “Several fine experiments were shown her of colours, loadstones, microscopes, and of liquors among others, of one that did, while she was there, turn a piece of roasted mutton into pure blood, which was very rare.” The Society's minutes for that meeting have the experiments like this: “Dutchess of newcastle intertaynd wth. 1 weighing the air in a glasse Recr. of 9 gallons & 3 pints. which exhausted weighed & opend to let in air weighed 1 ounce & 71 caratts more than when exhausted. Expt. of mixing colours. 3 cold liquors by mixture made hott. 4 water boyle in Rarifying engine . and making a bladder swell 5 bodys floating in medio aquae. 2 marbles separated by 47ll.“

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