Cavendish Handout

ENGL 520

Dr. Fike

During our one day on Margaret Cavendish, we will focus on her autobiography, A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life. The following questions ask you to look carefully at the text itself and to make connections between the autobiography and her other works. You will need to collaborate with others in the class to prepare remarks to share with the class. A handout might be helpful in some cases. 


Cavendish herself:

Ask what kind of self-fashioning did she do? Look in particular for the repetition of forms of the word “truth.” She places great emphasis on telling the truth? What do you make of that? Do you think that she is actually obscuring the truth in some respects? Doth she protest too much? Does she seem evasive sometimes? See if you can point to specific passages that might undermine her explicit claims of veracity.

How do the other things you read tie in with the autobiography? In particular, do you see reflections of C’s personality in her non-autobiographical works? Consider especially “A Dialogue Between Melancholy and Mirth.” Do you also detect the presence of the following central theme: depth > surface? See, for example, “A dialogue betwixt Wit, and Beauty.”


Cavendish and the 17th century:

How are her texts  a record of social history of the 17th century? Think in particular about gender and the history of women and writing. Here you might refer to “To the Two Universities” on pages 890-91. How does C define herself in relation to male authority?

How does C’s life intersect with the English revolution, the Protectorate, and the Restoration? What impact did it have on her family? What are C’s attitudes toward war and its consequences? What words point to her royalist sympathies? See especially “An epistle to Souldiers” and “An Elegy on my Brother, kill’d in these unhappy Warres.”


Cavendish and science:

What evidence of scientific thinking do you find in the autobiography? The 17th century was the period in England when Ptolomaic cosmology yielded to Copernican: geocentric ŕ heliocentric. The circle was an important image (see, for example, Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s The Breaking of the Circle). What evidence of the two systems do you find in “A Discourse of Beasts” and “A World in an Eare-Ring”? You may also benefit from her little poem “The Weight of Atomes” and the prose text Observations upon Experimental Philosophy.

Cavendish and writing:

What does C’s autobiography say about her writing? Make connections to her poems on this subject, especially to “The Poetress’s Hasty Resolution,” “‘I Language want,’” “Of Poets, and their Theft,” and “A Poet I am neither borne, nor bred.” Her autobiography is the only work C ever withdrew from publication. Why do you think that is?