Cross-Dressing for Self-Empowerment: a Case Study of Margaret Cavendish

Lucy Morgan | University of Sheffield

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a prolific seventeenth-century author. Born in 1623, she wrote and published fourteen scientific, philosophical, and dramatic works; most famously The Blazing World (1666), which is often described as the first science fiction novel. While historians and literary scholars now celebrate Cavendish’s accomplishments as both a woman and an author, her contemporaries considered her gender a detriment to her work.

When Cavendish became the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society on 30 May 1667, the public was much more interested in her unusual, masculine outfits, than in her contributions to the scientific community. Cavendish is often associated with the nickname “Mad Madge,” and although there is no proof that it was used in the seventeenth century, rumours about her eccentricity circulated during her life and after her death. An examination of her authorial and public personas shows that Cavendish’s cross-dressing during her visit to London was consciously done. It allowed her to flaunt the gender norms which should have prevented her from being considered an intellectual, but it also built on the image of herself that she had created in her books.

For an aristocratic English woman like Cavendish, writing was not necessarily a subversive act. Elite English women were encouraged to write from a young age and were expected to continue doing so after marriage. However, the scope of acceptable texts was very limited. Women were only supposed to write catechisms, pieces that demonstrated their piety and served as educational materials for their children. Aristocratic women were also not expected to publish, although occasionally texts would be published by a male relative, usually after the woman’s death. Cavendish’s circumstances deprived her of the ability to produce this domestic form of writing. She was the second wife to her much older husband, and they had no children. Her step-children were adults – the eldest was older than herself – and so she did not need to educate them. As a result, Cavendish’s authorship was doubly transgressive; not only did she produce inappropriate genres of writing, but she also openly published her own work.

The World’s Olio frontispiece (1655) – Cavendish in her closet. Held in the British Library
The World’s Olio frontispiece (1655) – Cavendish in her closet. Held in the British Library.
Nature’s Pictures frontispiece (1656) – Cavendish with husband and step-children. Held in the British Library.
Nature’s Pictures frontispiece (1656) – Cavendish with husband and step-children. Held in the British Library.

Cavendish continually needed to justify her devotion to writing, and she stressed that her books were, in fact, a feminine and domestic production throughout her publishing career. These attempts to normalise publishing by feminising the stereotypically masculine intellectual content of her books is perhaps Cavendish’s first attempt to cross-dress. The frontispiece images of her third and fifth books, The World’s Olio (1655) and Nature’s Pictures (1656), show Cavendish in imagined domestic settings. In the frontispiece for The World’s Olio, she sits at ease in a private closet, pen in hand, suggesting meditation and repose. In actuality, she dictated her work to a secretary. The frontispiece to Nature’s Pictures is even more domestic. Cavendish sits at the fireplace at her husband’s side, narrating a story to her adult step-children and their spouses. This setting is also fabricated. Cavendish spent almost twenty years as an exiled member of the English court during the British and Irish Civil Wars and Interregnum, had no access to estates and

little communication with her family during that time.

The content of Cavendish’s books also displays an exaggerated gender performance. Even her scientific studies emphasise her femininity, as she inserts superficially girlish observations into otherwise rational insights. For example, in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1664), Cavendish advocated for the further study of particles because it may ‘be an advantage to a decayed Ladies face, by placing herself in such or such a reflection of Light, where the dusty Atomes may hide her wrinkles.’ By showing that she thought and acted like a woman before she thought and acted like an author, Cavendish clearly anticipated her opponents’ most significant criticism of her. If she openly recognised that it was inappropriate for women to engage in the masculine pursuit of publishing, then critics had no reason to denounce her for it. Acknowledging her own supposed ‘naturall stupidity,’ as she did in Nature’s Pictures, had the additional benefit of excusing mistakes in her work by attributing them to her lack of formal education.

The most commonly cited criticisms of Cavendish from this early period were made by a woman. Dorothy Osborne, later Lady Temple, was desperate to read Cavendish’s first book and begged her fiancé ‘for God’s sake if you meet with it send it mee.’ Osborne thought Cavendish had to be ‘a little distracted’ as a normal woman ‘could never be soe ridiculous else as to venture at writing book’s [sic.] and in verse too.’ Three weeks after her first letter, Osborne had finished Cavendish’s book and issued her famously concise verdict: ‘there are many soberer People in Bedlam.’ This comment about Cavendish’s mental state indicates that, at least to other aristocratic women, Cavendish’s attempts to feminise her writing were unsuccessful.

However, condemnation of her eccentricity had the unexpected benefit of preventing Cavendish’s work from being compared to the appropriate writing produced by other women in the period, such as the poems of Katherine Philips, which were first published after Philips’s death in 1664. This division between Cavendish and other female writers reinforced her status as a published author because she was considered so unlike other women. In Cavendish’s lifetime, there was only one significant printed response to her work, a practice that had become common during the Civil Wars. While it could be argued that this demonstrates that the reading public did not seriously engage with Cavendish’s writing, it also shows that there was no ongoing public campaign to censure or stop her from publishing – criticisms of her work were mostly made in private.

By the time of her visit to London, Cavendish had been publishing books for nearly fifteen years. Her stay at Clerkenwell House between 1666 and 1667 was her first (and last) extended public appearance, and an eager public sought her out wherever she went. Samuel Pepys made five attempts to see Cavendish at various points: 30 March, 11 April, 26 April, 1 May, and 10 May 1667. Pepys declared that ‘the whole story of this lady is a romance, and all she do is romantick,’ and became increasingly interested in her after hearing that she wore men’s clothes. He specifically wanted to verify if she wore ‘a velvetcap, her hair about her ears; many black patches, because of pimples about her mouth; naked-necked, without any thing about it, and a black just-au-corps.’ He noted being disappointed at only seeing her hat as he tried and failed to follow her carriage.

The difference between Cavendish’s hyper-feminine book persona and her masculine public persona is not as disparate as it initially seems. Cavendish’s fashions were deliberately curated for the same purpose as her exaggerated authorial persona, but the gender that she performed had changed; her cross-dressing had become literal. Velvet caps were worn by the scholarly elite and denoted her intelligence. Her lack of necklace accentuated both her masculinity and her financial losses during the Civil Wars. Most notable was her just-au-corps, which had only been introduced to England from France in 1666. This was recognisably a man’s garment; a long-sleeved, knee-length coat with a flared skirt and turned-up cuffs, worn over a waistcoat and breeches.

The just-au-corps was much admired by King Charles II, who was also known to enjoy seeing women in masculine dress. Some of his female courtiers appeared in court masques fully cross-dressed in men’s clothes. To a certain extent, aristocratic women like Cavendish were allowed a degree of ostentation in their appearance as it demonstrated the wealth and status of their families. Cavendish’s just-au-corps, therefore, declared her and her husband’s dedication to the royal family. However, she was wearing an appropriate courtly and male fashion in an inappropriate public setting, cross-dressing her class as well as her gender. Such a breach of acceptable behaviours confirmed existing perceptions of her eccentricity and played into existing fears of the failure of the gender order in patriarchal and hierarchical society.

Female and male cross-dressing had been denounced in the pamphlets Hic Mulier and Haec Vir in 1620, titles which literally translated to ‘manly woman’ and ‘womanly man.’ These pamphlets attacked individuals who adopted the fashions and vanities of the opposite sex on the grounds that they also sought to assume inverted gender roles, allowing women to dominate and men to become subservient. Although it is difficult to gauge how often cross-dressing occurred in seventeenth-century England, not least because successful cross-dressers would by their nature not be discovered, it preoccupied the early modern imagination. These texts and their contents were referenced and republished throughout the seventeenth century and Cavendish’s manly fashions played into and emphasised these pre-existing stereotypes.

On the day of her Royal Society visit, she wore an even more explicitly masculine outfit. A manuscript ballad by Royal Society member John Evelyn depicted Cavendish as a far greater spectacle than the experiments that were performed for her that day: ‘Her head-geare was so pritty / I n’ere saw any thing so witty / Tho’ I was half a feard / God blesse us when I first did see her  / Shee look’d so like a Cavalier / But that she had no beard.’ Wearing a man’s hat allowed Cavendish to cover her hair in a display of appropriate feminine modesty and yet it announced her privileged admittance to an exclusively male space on the grounds of her scientific achievements.

The success of Cavendish’s cross-dressing is demonstrated by Pepys’s disgust of it. After having anticipated their meeting for so long, he concluded that he had previously thought her ‘a good, comely woman; but her dress so antick, and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say any thing that was worth hearing.’ Clearly, Cavendish’s exaggerated performance of gender both in her books and her physical appearance had successfully established a persona that allowed her to assume the masculine role of an author and intellectual despite being a woman. If that persona did not hold up to the close scrutiny of her critics, it did not matter. Less than a year later, Pepys acquired Cavendish’s newly-released biography of her husband, The Life of William Cavendish (1667). Although he complained of pain in his eyes, and considered her to be ‘a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman,’ he read the book anyway. Criticisms of Cavendish’s appearance or behaviour certainly did not discourage potential readers. Her hyper-feminine authorial voice and her manly-fashion public persona allowed her engagement with the masculine publishing sphere to go unchallenged both throughout her life and after her death.

Cavendish was not the most talented authoress of her era, nor was she the first woman to publish a book, but she was certainly the boldest female writer of the period. Her scientific treatises and plays were instrumental in normalising new forms of female authorship, allowing a new wave of respectable female authors to emerge. In Poems and Phancies, she wrote ‘all I desire is Fame, and Fame is nothing but a great Noise.’ She certainly achieved fame – both in her own time and today. However, the eccentricity attributed to Cavendish by her peers and historians alike has minimised her ground-breaking ability to navigate between the male and female spaces in which she existed. By publishing her writing, Cavendish subverted notions of womanly obedience and passivity, but her adopted femininity prevented her work from being seen as a challenge to the wider patriarchal society in which she lived. Similarly, her visit to the Royal Society proved that women could become a part of the period’s formal intellectual society, but her manly fashions preserved the inherent masculinity of the space. Cross-dressing encouraged her critics to focus on her transgressive appearance, rather than her transgressive writing practices, which protected and preserved her status as an author and a scientist.


Further reading

  • Samuel Pepys’s Diary Online, edited by Phil Gyford. https://www.pepysdiary.com/. Read about Pepys’s attempts to see Cavendish, as well as what he was supposed to be doing on those days.

  • Margaret Cavendish ‘A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life’ in Nature’s Pictures (1656, first edition) and The Life of the Thrice Noble William Cavendish (1675, third edition). This is Cavendish’s autobiography, written when she was 33 as an exile during the Interregnum.

  • Katie Whitaker, Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer, and Romantic (London: Chatto and Windus, 2003). A biography of Cavendish’s life beyond the period she discusses in her autobiography.

  • Jane Stevenson, ‘Inventing Fame’ in A History of Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. by Patricia Phillipy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) p.348-363. Explains why Cavendish’s desire to be famous was so unusual for a woman in this period, even among other female writers.

  • Mona Narain, ‘Notorious Celebrity: Margaret Cavendish and the Spectacle of Fame’, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2009) p. 69-95. Examines how Cavendish’s public persona was shaped and her public behaviour at occasions other than her Royal Society visit.

Lucy Morgan is a first-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, studying the relationship between manhood and paternity in society and culture.

Twitter: @Lucy_R_Morgan