The Paris Review

The Royally Radical Life of Margaret Cavendish

Peter Lely, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1665. Public domain.

To Virginia Woolf, she was “a giant cucumber” choking the roses and carnations in an otherwise orderly garden of seventeenth-century literature. Several of her contemporaries felt similarly. Samuel Pepys found her “dress so antick, and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all.” Dorothy Osborne said of her that “there were many soberer People in Bedlam,” while Mary Evelyn was “surprised to find so much extravagancy and vanity in any person not confined within four walls.”

This was the Margaret Cavendish I first encountered, through Woolf’s exquisitely savage portrait in The Common Reader:

Nevertheless, though her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire. One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable

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