Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

By Melissa E. Sanchez | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
“Honest Margaret Newcastle”
Law and Desire in Margaret Cavendish’s Romances

Since Margaret Cavendish is frequently described as one of absolutism’s most staunch apologists, it may seem odd to claim that she soundly rejects just the vision of ceaseless devotion that is so often associated with the Stuart masque.1 But Cavendish’s opposition to absolutism should not be equated with a rejection of monarchy as such. Rather, she endorses a return to a Sidneian view that noble subjects have a duty to restrain both their own impulses and those of their sovereign. Cavendish is different from her predecessors, however, in that she wrote after a decade of civil war that had culminated in the abolition of monarchy itself, events that had made legible the extremes to which constitutionalist arguments for resistance could lead. Cavendish’s historical situation complicated her view of the proper expression of the loyal opposition urged by the earlier writers I have examined. For Cavendish, suffering alone no longer provides the moral authority that justifies rebellion. Instead, subject and sovereign alike must strive to subordinate their private desires to the strictly impersonal, unsympathetic realm of public law, however difficult this may prove.

In two mid-century prose romances, Assaulted and Pursued Chastity and “The Contract,” Cavendish repeatedly depicts heroines who regulate their passions and demand that their would-be lovers do the same. By stressing the necessity of legal

1. For readings that assume Cavendish’s “absolutism,” see, for instance, Mendelson, Mental World of Stuart Women; Gallagher, “Politics of the Female Subject”; Trubowitz, “Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World”; and Iyengar, “Rank, Gender, and Race.”

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