Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fantastic Margaret Cavendish

13. Assaulted and Pursued Chastity by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

I just finished reading this and I don't think I can convey how enthusiastic I am on so many levels. This is another one of my early modern women's books and I'm more and more stumped why we aren't reading these women along with Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe and the like. They're just as witty, clever, and thoughtful with characters as psychologically complex. While they may be new "discoveries" of the past couple decades, I think that's more than enough time to move them into the classroom.

In any case, the work of the "thrice Noble, Illustrious and Excellent Princess" Margaret Duchess of Newcastle is well deserving of its unconventional self-promotion. This work is also unconventional as it is admittedly a "feigned" story rather than a history, as many contemporary fictions were designated. And boy is this fiction. I see origins of fantasy novels here, a seafaring journey from island to island reminiscent of the Odyssey and More's Utopia, a Spenserian quality with symbolic names of countries like the Queen of Amity and King of Amour, even previews of Gulliver's Travels.

The hardest comparison to admit and to ignore are the similarities to Richardson's Pamela, but Cavendish's Miseria or Travelia, the primary monikers of the female protagonist, is way more awesome. she does wed her would-be ravisher in the end, but she still gets to shoot him, command an army, and continue ruling a country as the Queen of Amity's viceroy. We've got amazing descriptions of a fantastical land with purple commoners, orange royals, and bald priests. It reminds me of the Kress book I was just reading, as well as numerous Star Trek episodes, and there's even cannibalism and group marriage worthy of Heinlein. Cavendish was well ahead of her time, and I love that I can see both her influences and the many types of novels that she anticipates and yet I was still into her story, I still cared about the characters, I laughed aloud.

Cavendish includes a note to the reader at the end of the work, accusing the printer of misspelling and misrepresenting her work, asking others not to misquote her, and ending with a verse wishing that an age would come when her book would be admired. Her blaming the printer is a real break with the tradition of the humble author, especially humble female author, it's still a problem today with authors being misquoted and misrepresented, and I identify with wanting your book to outlive you and find an age where it would be relevant, if not your own. I think, with updated language, Cavendish's work might have been popular today. Of course, I love it as is.

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