Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract

By Kahn, Victoria | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract


Kahn, Victoria, Renaissance Quarterly


All things by war are in a Chaos hurl'd But love alone first made, And still preserves the world.

- Alexander Brome

I have heard [William Cavendish] say several times, that his love to his gracious master King Charles the Second was above the love he bore to his wife, children, and all his posterity, nay, to his own life: and when, since his return into England, I answered him that I observed his gracious master did not love him so well as he loved him; he replied, that he cared not whether his Majesty loved him again or not; for he was resolved to love him.

- The Life of William, Duke of Newcastle(1)

In histories of early modern political thought, the rise of theories of contractual obligation has always played an important role. Yet the usual histories construe contract in an overly narrow way, focusing on the canonical works of writers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in which contract is imagined as a social and political agreement between equal parties to set up a sovereign. In these modern histories contract theorists offer a simple theory of motivation according to which the parties to the contract are moved by rational self-interest, the consent of the governed is defined in opposition to coercion, and erotic passion is irrelevant to the production of "calculating and calculable" citizens.(2) While some historians and feminist critics have challenged these fictions of contract theory - in some cases by directing us to the widespread use of the marriage contract as a metaphor for the hierarchical, inequitable political relations of sovereign and subject - they have for the most part been content to offer a reinterpretation of the canonical texts of political theory.(3) As a result of this narrowly focused discussion, much of what is interesting and complicated in this history has been overlooked not least of all the role of narrative and of the passions in motivating contractual obligation.

In the following pages I suggest that we can enrich our understanding of seventeenth-century debates about contractual obligation if we turn to some of the neglected literary texts of the period. Contemporary prose romance in particular dramatizes the paradoxical coexistence of coercion and consent that is at the heart of theories of contractual obligation. In recent years historians and literary critics have made us aware of the political uses of romance during the reign of Charles I and the Protectorate. Yet while these scholars have shown how the adventures and set debates of prose romance allegorize the trauma of civil war, they have given short shrift to the passion of romantic love and its role in debates about contractual obligation.(4) Similarly, historians who have analyzed the rhetoric of the passions and interests in contemporary debates about obligation have focused on self-interest, greed, or acquisitiveness rather than on erotic love.(5) I would like to suggest, in contrast to both these approaches, that in the 1640s and 50s the romance plot of love and adventure explicitly engages contemporary theories of contract by helping the reader both to imagine and to ask questions about a political subject who consents to be contractually bound. Margaret Cavendish's short prose romance, "The Contract," provides an exemplary illustration of the inseparability of romance and contract in seventeenth-century English political debate. In so doing, it contributes to a revised history of seventeenth-century accounts of political obligation, one that integrates literary as well as political works and attends to the political dimension of literary genre.(6)

"The Contract," published in 1656 in a volume entitled Natures Pictures, tells the story of a young woman who, orphaned at birth, is betrothed in childhood by her uncle and guardian to the son of a friend.(7) The contract of the title is thus a marriage contract. At issue from the outset are the conditions that make a contract binding; of particular concern is the relationship of contract to consent. …

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