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The Saucy Polymath Who Scandalized 17th-Century London

PURE WIT: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish, by Francesca Peacock


Margaret Cavendish was an intrepid and prolific writer of the 17th century, who — despite the efforts of many scholars and enthusiasts — is now less well-known than her family’s namesake banana.

Reading Francesca Peacock’s cantering new biography, I thought of that immortal smackdown from “Mean Girls” (movie, musical and soon-to-be movie musical): “Gretchen! Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not going to happen.”

For centuries, people have been trying to make Margaret Cavendish happen — beginning with Margaret Cavendish, born Lucas and educated in “shreds and patches,” who once declared “all I desire is fame.” To that end she wed William, the horsy Marquis of Newcastle 30 years her senior, and — in defiant lieu of children — published poetry, plays, philosophy and prose romances under her own byline, which was very unusual for that era.

Cavendish’s versatility of genre, as well as her gender, surely undermined her bid at a celebrity afterlife; her work could easily be dismissed as dilettantism. Her dynamic if perhaps daffy-sounding theory of matter, a.k.a. “vitalist materialism” — roughly, that inanimate objects may have some element of thought and feeling — presaged Marie Kondo’s instructions to thank the stuff we no longer want before discarding. She wrote about lesbianism and cross-dressing in a period when it was bold to do so. Also, her own clothes were distractingly fabulous.

William was supportive of his wife’s talents (“pure wit” is his compliment) and supremely well-connected, entertaining Descartes and Hobbes at the same dinner party in Paris and renting Rubens’s house from his widow in Antwerp. Their relationship reminded me of that between George Lewes and George Eliot, analyzed in Clare Carlisle’s excellent book “The Marriage Question.” Though William and Margaret sometimes collaborated, his own writing and personal ambition were far eclipsed by hers.

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