Poet Biographies

Margaret Cavendish: A Feminist Voice of Her Time

Margaret Cavendish was a renowned 17th-century poet, playwright, philosopher, and aristocrat. Her unconventional style made her stand out from her peers, even in a less favorable time for women.

Margaret Cavendish Portrait

Margaret Cavendish was one of the most influential female literary figures of the 17th century, known for her experimental philosophy, poetry, political writings, plays, and some of the first science fiction writings to be published. She is regarded as one of the most published female writers of her era. The writings and poetry of Margaret Cavendish had a significant impact on the science fiction genre

Despite her good work and her high social ranking, being the Duchess of Newcastle, she was seen in a somewhat negative light by her peers. Cavendish was known by many, including her contemporaries, for her eccentricities and unique personality. She was seen as flirtatious and would wear interesting clothing. Samuel Pepys referred to Cavendish as ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous,’ others regarded her to be full of ‘oaths and obscenity,’ while the exiled court of Henrietta Maria considered her to be a simpleton.

Early Life

Margaret Cavendish was most likely born in 1623, but the records of her birth were lost during the English Civil Wars. She was born Margaret Lucas and was the youngest of eight children. Her father died when she was only two years old after being sent into exile over a deadly duel. Therefore, Cavendish’s relationship with her mother was the most important in her young life.

She spent a great deal of her youth alongside her siblings and did not have any formal education. It is said that much of her knowledge came from her conversations with her brother John Cavendish, who became one of the founding members of the Royal Society. The only time she was exposed to new information was from a governess and occasional tutoring sessions. Despite this fact, Cavendish displayed an aptitude for learning and a desire to better herself through writing.

When Cavendish was still fairly young, she became a lady-in-waiting, or maid of honor, to Queen Henrietta Maria while she was in Oxford. This position took the young aspiring writer away from her family for long periods of time, and she traveled with the Queen after she was exiled to France.

It was only a year later, in 1645, when Cavendish met William Cavendish, Marquis and Duke of Newcastle. He, too, had been exiled. The couple married in December of that same year. William was a positive influence in his wife’s life, encouraging her to write and paying for improved education. He would also go on to pay for the publication of her books.

During their marriage, and particularly while in exile, Cavendish would keep her philosophical juices flowing by exchanging ideas with her husband and her younger brother Sir Charles Cavendish. Charles had influence in his circles, connecting intellectual heavyweights such as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, Marin Mersenne, and Pierre Gassendi.

Literary Career

Cavendish did not have any children, so her time was occupied with writing and travel. She moved around Europe between Antwerp, Paris, and Rotterdam. It was in 1651, after a visit to England, that her career finally took a step in the right direction. Her first two books on poetry were published during an eighteen-month stay in the city. Both collections, ‘Poems,’ and ‘Fancies and Philosophical Fancies,’ were published in 1653. The former touched on a wide number of subjects and, through its very existence, spoke on the nature of poetry published by women.

Cavendish’s novelThe Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, or Blazing World, was an example of her attention to political philosophy. This work explored a variety of topics, such as; war, government, virtue, gender roles, and the human condition.

Later Years

In 1653, Cavendish returned to Antwerp to live with her husband and published her next collection, ‘The Worlds Olio.’ In the ‘60s, the couple spent more time in London, England, but they were uncomfortable in the court of Charles II and soon moved to Welbeck. The first collection of plays that Cavendish published was released in 1662 and was followed by Orations of Divers Sorts, Accommodated to Divers Places that same year.

Cavendish lived out the remaining years of her life in discomfort. Her marriage was filled with dispute, her work had not been received well, and she died suddenly in December of 1673. She was buried in Westminster Abbey in January 1674.

Influences on Other Poets

Margaret Cavendish’s natural philosophy work was arguably her crowning glory that shaped the literary and scientific world. Her notion is that the natural world is all interconnected with self-moving mechanisms. Human beings are part of nature and thus are impacted by these mechanisms. She also argued that natural phenomena are caused by a variety of natural elements that all contain active animate matter or a force. These ideas influenced many of the science fiction works that preceded her. Many of these theories were contained in her poem ‘Of Many Worlds in This World.’

Some of her philosophical views have been compared to the likes of Van Helmont and Henry More. However, her view on materialism varies.

It is said that her works influenced literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing.


What was Margaret Cavendish known for?

Margaret Cavendish was renowned for her pioneering works, publishing essays, poetry, plays, criticisms, and some of the first science fiction to be published. During the seventeenth century, Cavendish became one of the most published female writers of the period.

How did Margaret Cavendish contribute to the scientific revolution?

Margaret Cavendish was a significant and influential force in spreading revolutionary scientific ideas, as she released around 14 scientific books and many philosophical writings. These books highlighted pioneering topics like natural philosophies and atomism.

Why did people criticize Margaret Cavendish?

Interestingly, Margaret Cavendish wasn’t necessarily criticized for her work and contributions to philosophy, literature, and science. Rather, it was her personality that came under fire. Some would refer to her as ‘Mad Madge’ due to her unconventional, eccentric behavior. However, as one of the most important women philosophers of the seventeenth century, her work is undeniably important.

Was Margaret Cavendish a feminist?

Yes, it is fair to say they Margaret Cavendish was indeed a feminist. Some consider her to be the first feminist scientist. Through her work, it was clear that she did not agree with the limits and restrictions put on women in society at the time. She agreed with the biological differences between men and women but argued that women and men were equal in many ways.

Where did Margaret Cavendish live?

For the majority of her early life, Margaret Cavendish lived in Oxford, England. When she became the maid of honor for Queen Henrietta Maria, moving into exile in Paris with her in 1644. She would go on to spend her time in Antwerp, the Netherlands, and even lived in England later in life.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

Leave a Comment

Share to...