Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #4: On Woolf on Cavendish

This week’s assignment offered a choice of character depictions. I opted to go with reviewing Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay, The Duchess of Newcastle, from The Common Reader First SeriesIts subject is Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle. I very much enjoyed getting to learn about her. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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It is difficult to come away from Virginia Woolf’s essay on the life of Margaret Cavendish with anything but a sense of admiration for the person the Duchess of Newcastle was: a libertarian who lived life on her own terms, a prodigious thinker, prolific writer and designer, all-round force of nature and perhaps proto-feminist. What is even more remarkable about her life is the context within which it was lived, times which seen from the lofty, enlightened heights of our 21st-century sofas seem like the dark ages. Given the latitude to explore and later express a non traditional interpretation of the roles of daughter and wife by both her mother and husband, we get the sense that virtually every thought she had was encouraged and articulated in some shape or form with no attempt to self-censure. It helped perhaps that there were no children to encumber her free spirit. Given Virginia Woolf’s own life and character – and reputation for being a free spirit of sorts too  – the largely positive portrayal here does beg the question of objectivity given the tendency in all of us to eulogise those who inspire us and worship them as heroes.

How then could one look to build a balanced, more nuanced view of her life and work? As a starting point, one could perhaps look to see what the opinions of her contemporaries were. The consensus appears to be that she was considered a maverick of sorts, an assessment which lives on in her ‘Mad Madge’ nickname. What we know of the societal context and the social mores of the time suggest that this assessment errs on the more negative side of Virginia Woolf’s. No surprise there as even in our day those who benefit from societal power structures tend to take a dim view of non-conformists as mavericks and upstarts. That this is the view which survives is thus a backhanded compliment of sorts and casts a positive light on her legacy.

A second task would be to ascertain how much of her work survives in the various archives. A search in the national archives website identifies over 700 items which suggest that there was enough interest in her work to preserve it. Tracking down a few of these works and where they are stored would constitute a valuable activity, both for the works themselves but also the prestige of the collections which house them. That her life and legacy are the subject of a number of ‘serious’ academic investigations is also another indicator of the heft of the ideas which she espoused.

A third prong to the investigation would be to attempt to assess what debt current thinkers and philosophers owe to her by how much she is referenced and how ideas she raised have been incorporated into their works.

My belief is that each of these prongs taken together would help build a composite picture of the life of the Duchess of Newcastle. From the little I have seen already, I am beginning to side with Virginia Woolf.

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