Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish died on this day in 1673, leaving one of the oddest literary legacies. Over several decades, in the leisure that came with being Duchess of Newcastle, Cavendish published twenty-two works in a mix of genres and subjects — from gender injustice to good manners, natural philosophy to animal protection, poetry, plays, romance, and the first extant science fiction written by a woman. The “Mad Madge” appellation was earned less for the odd books than for her peculiarities of dress (she designed her clothes herself), her disregard for spelling, and the haughty tone in this “Epistle to the Reader”:
I have my delight in Writing and having it printed; and if any take a Delight to read it, I will not thank them for it; for if anything please therein, they are to thank me for so much pleasure; and if it be naught, I had rather they had left it unread: But those that do not like my Book, which is my House, I pray them to pass by for I have not any entertainment fit for their Palats.
Cavendish has received attention from literary historians for being, as the subtitle of Katie Whitaker’s recent biography Mad Madge puts it, “The First Woman to Live by Her Pen.” In an essay in The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf both drops her jaw and tips her hat to Cavendish’s “vein of authentic fire”:
There they stand, in the British Museum, volume after volume, swarming with a diffused, uneasy, contorted vitality.… On and on, from subject to subject she flies, never stopping to correct…talking aloud to herself of all those matters that filled her brain to her perpetual diversion — of wars, and boarding-schools, and cutting down trees, of grammar and morals, of monsters and the British, whether opium in small quantities is good for lunatics, why it is that musicians are mad. Looking upwards, she speculates still more ambitiously upon the nature of the moon, and if the stars are blazing jellies; looking downwards she wonders if the fishes know that the sea is salt; opines that our heads are full of fairies, “dear to God as we are”; muses whether there are not other worlds than ours, and reflects that the next ship may bring us word of a new one.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.