restricted access Memory, Monuments, and Melancholic Genius in Margaret Cavendish's Bell in Campo
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Memory, Monuments, and Melancholic Genius in Margaret Cavendish's Bell in Campo

Margaret Cavendish's inclination to celebrate female participation in martial affairs in her dramatic works has received a substantial amount of critical attention. The indulgent wish fulfilment represented by the remarkable victories of Lady Victoria and her female army in Bell in Campo, and the astonishing battle achievements of Lady Orphant (Affectionata) in Love's Adventures, have unsurprisingly been the focus of that attention. While the disruption and horror of the civil war overturned gender hierarchies, allowing and even requiring women to assume traditionally masculine roles, few writers depict female soldiers quite as flamboyantly and unapologetically as Cavendish.1 Not until very recently have scholars turned their attention to the less startling but, we contend, no less dramatic figure of Madam Jantil, a mourning war widow in Bell in Campo, who dies of grief after designing and overseeing the erection of an elaborate monument to her husband, a casualty of war. [End Page 13]

For the most part, Madam Jantil has been compared unflatteringly to Lady Victoria. Jacqueline Pearson has argued that the treatment of women, including Madam Jantil, in the subplots of Bell in Campo emphasizes female frailty.2 Madam Jantil's flaws, most critics conclude, are her all-consuming love for her husband and her passivity on his death. Karen Raber notes that "the death of her husband is the death of her worldly identity. The only action left to Madam Jantil is self-interment with the corpse of her spouse"; "the main thrust of Bell in Campo," Raber concludes, "is decidedly against the kind of passive feminine virtues embodied by Madam Jantil."3 Rebecca D'Monté concurs with this conclusion, arguing that "Madam Jantil is in denial against a sense of self. She is so totally subsumed into her husband's identity that when he dies, she has to die as well."4

Shannon Miller and Miranda Wilson, however, have recently challenged this critical consensus by convincingly proposing that Madam Jantil is an empowered character. Miller argues that Jantil, in "preserving someone's memory," takes on the "identity of poet" in the play.5 As female memorializer—at one point even creating her own poem in memory of her husband—Madam Jantil is neither passive nor self-effacing. Wilson aligns Madam Jantil with "classically inspired early modern [Italian] theories of architecture," noting that she "uses architecture to create spaces that speak eloquently precisely because they enable a life of silence and control."6 Her monument, Wilson concludes, "lasts far longer than the temporary [End Page 14] army that Lady Victoria organizes."7 Madam Jantil is indeed an engaged creator, as Miller and Wilson profess, yet we contend that the nature of her creation is far more public and culturally significant than their readings intimate. Cavendish deploys Madam Jantil in Bell in Campo as a figure of the generative female playwright and performer whose melancholic genius inspires a remarkably innovative and transformative cultural work. The aesthetic energies of the war widow not only signify a productive grief in response to the tragic death of one soldier, but also the creative anguish necessary to cope with and surmount all royalist military losses during the civil war. Through Madam Jantil, Cavendish justifies her own recourse to the work of mourning in Bell in Campo and elsewhere as a means to participate in the rebuilding of royalist culture soon after the Restoration.8 The structure erected by Madam Jantil, like Cavendish's closet drama, is not a static icon, but a living monument, a textual performance engendered by suffering and woven out of the threads of familiar literary genres in order to give meaning to private and public loss.

Juliana Schiesari has argued that melancholy is a key element of the masculine artistic temperament in the seventeenth century. The ideas of the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio [End Page 15] Ficino, she maintains, significantly influenced early modern English writers, who were drawn to his conception of melancholy as creative impetus. To Ficino, Schiesari explains, "depression became translated into a virtue for the atrabilious man of letters ... [M]elancholia appears as a specific representational form for...