Sunday, June 8, 2014

her dress so antic

Margaret Cavendish dressed inappropriately, says Pepys, she put doves' eyes in a poem inappropriately, says me, she hewed to her own metaphysics when that kind of imagination was least appropriate, say the scientists of the Royal Society, and she was shy and miserable as a lady-in-waiting until she met William Cavendish, who put her two favourite qualities in her epitaph, wise and witty, for she was appropriate in his opinion and she stayed by him in his exile while he trained horses, and he would rather have sold anything else he owned, said someone, before he would have sold his Barbary horses.

Katie Whitaker amends us, she moderates the vision of Margaret Cavendish, she writes a biography, she is an amending agent, saying so or suggesting herself so in the introduction; explaining that she was “studying the meetings of the early Royal Society as part of the research for my doctoral thesis in the history of science” when she found Pepys' description of the writer, “her dress so antic,” then other descriptions by contemporaries contradicting Pepys, “an heroine,” “the prince of all wit,” “Majestic Quill,” wearing a velvet cap or trimming her nipples with scarlet (and though Whitaker describes the method that other women used when they wanted to make their nipples red she doesn't tell us that Margaret Cavendish used the same method so I am unsure how it was achieved in her case but she visited the theatre like that if I'm recalling that page correctly, not able to find it now and no nipples in the index when they should come after Sir Edward Nicholas and before Dr Nodin but go on) and exchanging letters with philosophers and scientists, good friends with some, Glanville one of those close scientist-friends in spite of their differences (they used to send refutations of one another through the mail), until she, Whitaker, came across an introduction to an 1872 edition of Cavendish's Life of her husband, this introduction written by someone named Mark Antony Lower, and Lower claims that Cavendish had a nickname among her contemporaries, “Mad Madge of Newcastle!'”

Whitaker says that “When I first encountered the story I assumed, as others had done, that he must have had access to some historical record that no one else has seen.” But when she searched for the record she couldn't find it, when she read the letters that people had written to one another about Cavendish she couldn't find it, even in the hostile letters of Mary Evelyn she couldn't find it, not in Pepys could she find it, and not in the writings of any enemy could she find it, nowhere could she find it, and concluded that it was nowhere to be found, and Mark Antony Lower had invented it in 1872 when he was writing his introduction, this antiquarian by profession who liked his own coinage so much that he never bothered to notice that the only extant shortened pet name for Margaret Cavendish during her lifetime was not Madge but Peg.

“It was her early nineteenth-century admirer, the essayist Charles Lamb, who seems first to have named her “Madge Newcastle” as a mark of his affection,” says Whitaker. She guesses that Lower found “Madge” in Lamb. And “Mad” had been Cavendish's reputation since John Evelyn's diaries were published in 1818, containing his wife's description of her, which led to Walter Scott introducing her as “that old mad-woman” in Peveril of the Peak (1823). Pepys' diaries were published in 1825. So her name during the Victorian age was linked to eccentric lunacy, though the lunacy hinged completely on two bits of writing in printed diaries, one of them by a woman who held a grudge against Margaret Cavendish for a reason that had nothing to do with madness or sanity but was due to the fact that Cavendish had promised her a thousand pounds as a wedding present, and then not seen her again for many years, and forgotten to give her the money.

“The early twentieth century represented the nadir of Margaret's reputation, both as a person and as a writer. And the most influential figure in her demolition was the essayist, novelist, and literary critic, Virginia Woolf,” Whitaker writes (then taking Woolf's description apart), and I think, look, here is my villain then, here is the one who gave me a vision that didn't jibe with the prose that I was reading; and Woolf's essay is not a source of information, it is a trapper's pit or distracting sideways arrow.

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