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The Literary Invention of Margaret Cavendish

by Lara A. Dodds

Publication Year: 2013

As a reader of her literary predecessors, and as a writer who herself contributed to the emerging literary tradition, Margaret Cavendish is an extraordinary figure whose role in early modern literary history has yet to be fully acknowledged. In this study, Lara Dodds reassesses the literary invention of Cavendish — the use she makes of other writers, her own various forms of writing, and the ways in which she creates her own literary persona — to transform our understanding of Cavendish’s considerable accomplishments and influence. In spite of Cavendish’s claims that she did little reading whatsoever, Dodds demonstrates that the duchess was an agile, avid reader (and misreader) of other writers, all of them male, all of them now considered canonical — Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Milton, Bacon. In each chapter, Dodds discusses Cavendish’s “moments of reading” of these authors, revealing their influence on Cavendish while also providing a lens to investigate more broadly the many literary forms — poetry, letters, fiction, drama — that Cavendish employed. Seeking a fruitful exchange between literary history and the history of reading, Dodds examines both the material and social circumstances of reading and the characteristic formal features and thematic preoccupations of Cavendish’s writing in each of the major genres. Thus, not only is our view of Cavendish and her specific literary achievements enhanced, but we see too the contributions of this female reader to the emerging idea of “literature” in late seventeenth century England. Most previous studies of Cavendish have been preoccupied with literary biography, looking into her royalist politics, materialist natural philosophy, and ambivalent protofeminism. The Literary Invention of Margaret Cavendish is significant, then, in its focus outward from Cavendish to her most enduring and positive contributions to literary history — her revival of an expansive model of literary invention that rests uneasily, but productively, alongside a Jonsonian aesthetics of the verisimilar and a Hobbesian politics of social strife.

Published by: Duquesne University Press

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright

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Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-viii

This work has been many years in the writing, and during that time I have acquired many debts. Institutional support in the form of fellowships and research funding helped me in the early stages of the project. “The Handwritten Worlds of Early Modern England,” an NEH Summer Institute hosted by the Folger Shakespeare...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-22

Appearing in one of the many prefatory letters to Poems and Fancies (1653), Margaret Cavendish’s literary debut, the first of my epigraphs describes the origin of this project. It cannot be true that Cavendish did not read English books; however, this claim was central to her self-presentation as a writer, and the presumption...

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1. Reading and Writing in Sociable Letters; or, How Margaret Cavendish Read Her Plutarch

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pp. 23-56

Margaret Cavendish begins Letter 30 of her Sociable Letters with the following account of reading: “Yesterday, being not in the Humour of Writing, I took Plutarch’s Lives, or as some call them, Plutarch’s Lies, but Lives or Lies or a mixture of both, I read part of the day in that Book, and it was my chance to read the Life of...

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2. “Poor Donne Was Out”: Reading and Writing Donne in the Works of William and Margaret Cavendish

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pp. 57-92

In the preface to her first published work, Poems, and Fancies (1653), Margaret Cavendish claimed that she had no English books to “Instruct me” in natural philosophy. In one of the few direct citations of English poetry in the volume, Cavendish appears equally eager to deny the influence of the poets. She quotes John...

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3. When Margaret Cavendish Reads John Milton; or, Reading and Writing in Tragical Times

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pp. 93-120

So begins one of the earliest, and certainly one of the funniest, attempts to situate Margaret Cavendish’s poetry in literary history. In this 1755 essay, Mr. Town, the “Critic and Censor-General” and mouthpiece of the literary entrepreneur George Colman, describes the new anthology of women’s poetry...

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4. Margaret Cavendish and the Ends of Utopia

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pp. 121-158

“The Empress being thus persuaded by the Duchess to make an imaginary world of her own, followed her advice and after she had quite finished it, and framed all kinds of creatures proper and useful for it, strengthened it with good laws, and beautified it with arts and sciences; having nothing else to do, unless she did dissolve...

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5. The Wife Compares Jonson and the Other Youth: Shakespearean and Jonsonian Influence in Playes (1662)

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pp. 159-190

In his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Dryden describes Ben Jonson as the “most learned and judicious Writer which any Theater ever had.” He “invades Authours like a Monarch, and what would be theft in other Poets, is only victory in him.”1 One such victory is Truewit’s satirical portrait of marriage in act 2 of...

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6. The English Literary Tradition and Mechanical Natural Philosophy in Plays, Never before Printed (1668)

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pp. 191-222

In contrast to the numerous prefatory addresses that accompanied her first volume of dramatic works, Cavendish’s second volume, Plays, Never before Printed (1668), was published with only a single address to the readers. “I regard not so much the present as future Ages,” Cavendish writes, identifying posterity as the audience...

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Afterword: “Work, Lady, Work”: Women Writers, Reputation, and English Literature

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pp. 223-232

As the chapters of this book have demonstrated, Cavendish’s voluminous works provide an unusually rich source of data for tracing the emergence of a modern concept of English literature from the varied circumstances of early modern reading and writing. In her reading of her predecessors, Cavendish is revealed as a remarkably...

Notes

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pp. 233-278

Bibliography

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pp. 279-308

Index

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pp. 309-317

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780820705934
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704654
Print-ISBN-10: 0820704652

Page Count: 324
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies
Series Editor Byline: Rebecca Totaro

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Subject Headings

  • Books and reading -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Women and literature -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, -- Duchess of, 1624?-1674 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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