Surface and Interiority: Self-Creation in Margaret Cavendish's the Claspe

By Low, Jennifer | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Surface and Interiority: Self-Creation in Margaret Cavendish's the Claspe


Low, Jennifer, Philological Quarterly


Recent criticism has generally agreed that Margaret Cavendish was one of the first English woman writers to conceive of and create a female subjecthood: Cavendish is credited with having constructed herself out of whole cloth, so to speak.(1) Current critics often perceive her eccentricities as a sign of her originary self-fashioning, made possible partly by her privileged position as a wealthy aristocrat with an indulgent husband and partly by the improvised court society that offered not direct prescriptions but a flexible paradigm for self-shaping. Catherine Gallagher alludes to Cavendish's self-construction as "an autotelic, self-sufficient being" in the course of an argument that "the ideology of absolute monarchy provides, in particular historical situations, a transition to an ideology of the absolute self."(2) Karen R. Lawrence suggests that

the improvisation of the explorer, rather than the creation ex nihilo of the godlike monarch of the imagination, provides ... a more general metaphor for the flexibility of a writing in which accommodation is the form of power.(3)

Both critics emphasize the exilic aspect of Charles II's little court on the Continent, the peripatetic and improvisatory nature of his coterie. But the court's comparative fluidity should not obscure the degree to which it remained bound by aristocratic custom. Jerzy Limon reminds us that courtly behavior "was highly ritualized and semiotized."(4) Limon does not allude to the prescriptive aspect of court life, but the increasing popularity of conduct books in the early modern period indicates the existence of an audience eager to learn and to conform to the social codes inherent in the court's elaborate rituals.(5) While critics rightly note Cavendish's determined self-creation, they tend to ignore the power of the community against which I believe she is reacting. In her writing and her public behavior, Cavendish both reacts against and performs for the courtly audience she often affected to despise. Although she clearly aspires to become the autotelic world of her writing,(6) Cavendish is equally aware, of and eager to impress the English court. Her theatricality can never be overrated: she sought recognition throughout the second half of her life, as many of her prefaces overtly state.(7)

To theorize about Cavendish's psychology might seem over-speculative--but Cavendish herself indicates these opposing desires in The Claspe, Phantasmes Masque, a closet masque published in Poems and Fancies (1653). The Claspe engages in a double narrative of self-definition and societal influence, each movement undercutting the other. While the masque itself allegorizes the significant events and influences of the author's life, the blasons that serve as the centerpiece of the masque dissect the pressures that form ladies of the court and women in general. In these lyrics, feelings take a physical form as part of the anatomization of the figures described. The masque, which initially functions as an account of a developing interiority, goes on in the blasons to undermine the very categories of "inside" and "outside," thereby questioning the very relation of self to world that makes the term "autonomous" meaningful.(8)

Thus this masque, by undermining its own premises in the central blasons, problematizes our previous understanding of Cavendish's self-hood. Cavendish simultaneously writes and unwrites her authority, as if writing forwards with the left hand and backwards with the right. Although the opening section of the masque, and indeed the act of writing itself, is self-defining, the blasons' conflation of costume and the corporeal presents a picture that compromises the notion of interiority. Not only does Cavendish acknowledge the influences of certain institutional communities upon her (the romance epics that structure "A Souldier arm'd by Mars," the court's constraint of "A Lady drest by Youth," the scientific scrutiny of "A Woman drest by Age"), she also seems to perceive the self as a composite of discontinuous parts, all interacting with one another. …

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