17th century / Humanities / Science

Counterpart Lives: Margaret Cavendish and Lady Anne Conway

By Alice Theobald

Margaret Cavendish is chiefly remembered today for being the pioneer of the science-fiction genre with her innovative work The Blazing-World of 1666. However, she also wrote prolifically on political and philosophical matters, championing a pioneering materialism and progressive method of natural philosophy. Published in the same year as her fictional work, Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy provides ample evidence of her explicit engagement with scientific innovations in an age that saw the founding of the Royal Society. With just six years separating their deaths, Margaret Cavendish and Lady Anne Conway (both of high birth – Conway was brought up in what is now Kensington Palace) make for an apt pair in considering not just some of the varying views in natural philosophy circulating in Restoration England but also their remarkable contribution of female voices to an otherwise male-dominated public and intellectual arena.

High birth and high minds alike: Conway was raised in what is now Kensington Palace

High birth and high minds alike: Conway was raised in what is now Kensington Palace

Although never writing for credited publication, Lady Conway engaged in a longstanding correspondence with one of the period’s most prominent thinkers, Henry More, who introduced her to further members of the renowned group of Cambridge Platonists. Her posthumous Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690) demonstrates the influence of these thinkers on her notions of the spirit and matter (which in turn went on to inform Leibniz’s theory of the ‘monad’). Somewhat regrettably, Conway’s legacy seems to frame her nowadays almost as a mere vessel of ideas promoted by male thinkers. However, her philosophical treatise is very much an active response to the intellectual trends of the day and presents her own personal assessment of Platonism which indeed was coloured by her Kabbalism and its accompanying notions of creation. Making for a rather idiosyncratic exposition, Conway piously asserts that all ‘Creatures have their Being and Existence simply and alone’ from God. Founding her enquiries into the natural world on a firm religious belief, Conway harmoniously inserts a theodicy into her work as she finds ‘the Justice of God marvellously appears’ in the works of nature, rightly bestowing upon infidels their ‘due and proper Punishment’.

By contrast, Margaret Cavendish presents a much more celebratory image of man and material being. For her, the mind itself is material and she departs from the philosophical legacy of thinkers such as Descartes with whom she interacted. Unlike the frequent subordination of the corporeal body to an apparently immaterial mind, Cavendish promoted a materialist standpoint and focused upon the ‘body’ in its tangible substance and ‘the cause’ it represented as a source of motion and dynamism. Whereas Cavendish hones in upon natural minutiae, Lady Conway is often preoccupied with heralding God as ‘in a proper and real sence, a Substance or Essence distinct from his Creatures’ – a distinction that does not, however, hinder her being able to find in nature ample cause for celebrating him. Although for Cavendish God is likewise a great ‘Being’, He is altogether ‘Unexpressible, and Incomprehensible’ and inaccessible to us in His ‘infinite nature’. Despite her sceptical philosophy, however, Cavendish still delivers a positive impression of ‘one ground or principle’ of which we can truly be certain, ‘which is self-motion, or self-moving matter’ that she observes in nature. While her Observations repeats the disclaimer that there is ‘more than man is able to know’, she is nevertheless enthralled by material, natural immediacies and the experiential knowledge to be gained from these, particularly with new technologies such as the microscope (an instrument to which she frequently pays homage).

Although Cavendish may praise ‘God [who] hath implanted a faculty of knowing in every creature’, Conway is much more open and abundant in her adoration of the divinity, opening her treatise with a stark statement that ‘God is a Spirit, Light, and Life, infinitely Wise, Good, Just, Mighty, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Creator and Maker of all things visible and invisible’. Where Cavendish delivers a panegyric on ‘the variety of nature in all her works’ as a physical entity, Conway continues to celebrate that God is ‘universally one in himself, and of himself, without any manner or Variety or Mixture’.

Laurels for Learning - portrait of Cavendish after Abraham Diepenbeeck's stipple engraving

Laurels for Learning – portrait of Cavendish after Abraham Diepenbeeck’s
stipple engraving

Despite their differences, the analogies the writers use to describe their process of literary composition rather nicely concur. Both seem to consider their work expansive and guided by rational designs and artful methods of execution. In considering the transition from abstract ideas to concrete manifestations, Conway writes that ‘the Will join’d with the Idea, as when a Master-Builder conceives in his Mind the Idea of an House […] co-operates’. Cavendish uses as similar architectural image when she justifies her literary pursuits and departure from typical feminine duties, terming her writing a form of ‘Spinning with the braine’. However, whereas Conway’s image points towards a more impersonal, almost Platonic, notion of matter, Cavendish boldly asserts the overtly personal end of her literary employment: ‘[I] endeavour to Spin a Garment of Memory, to lapp up my Name, that it might grow to after Ages’ (Poems and Fancies, Epistle Dedicatory to Sir Charles Cavendish). Likewise, whereas Cavendish sets out in her dedication that she desires her ‘Book’ to gain ‘Respect, and Esteeme in the World’, Conway’s posthumous publisher states that she wrote ‘in a very dull and small Character’ which has thus been ‘partly transcribed’ and in turn translated into Latin. While the publisher looks towards a fame like that sought by Cavendish, it is not only rooted in the account of ‘Philosophy’ rather divorced from Conway’s personal authorship – unlike the focus Cavendish places on her goal to ‘lapp up [her own] Name, that it might grow’ – but indeed translated and promulgated by a male hand manipulating ‘this little Treatise’ (translator’s note).

Cavendish’s poetry, too, is a testament to her scientific zeal as the term ‘Atom’ abounds in the titles of her 1653 collection. One such poem, ‘What Atomes make Life’, considers the difference between ‘pointed Atomes’ that ‘to Life do tend’ and ‘those that bowe and bend’ and subsequently ‘dull do live’. It would seem as if Cavendish almost conceives of herself as one of those ‘pointed Atomes’, boldly departing from the ‘Spinning with the Fingers’ she cites in the Epistle Dedicatory as ‘more proper’ to her ‘Sexe’. For Cavendish, such a life of domesticity is comparable to those atoms that bow and bend; while ‘Life lives dull, or merrilie’ according to the ‘Cause’ and formation of ‘Atomes’, Cavendish is determined to prove her own ‘Cause’ and assert her rightful place in the intellectual and literary marketplace, and the minds of posterity thereafter.

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