"Treble Marriage": Margaret Cavendish, William Newcastle, and Collaborative Authorship

By Billing, Valerie | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, October 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

"Treble Marriage": Margaret Cavendish, William Newcastle, and Collaborative Authorship


Billing, Valerie, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


Margaret Cavendish's dedication to her husband at the beginning of her biography of him, The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe (1667), recounts a time when, in response to rumors that she was not the author of the texts that bore her name, Newcastle defended his wife's status as an author: "[you were] moved to prefix an epistle before one of them in my vindication, wherein you assure the world upon your honour, that what was written and printed in my name, was my own; and I have also made known that your Lordship was my onely tutor" (5). This statement represents one example of Cavendish's many declarations of her own individual authorship, but it also signals a reciprocal creative relationship with her husband, William, first Duke of Newcastle. The aristocratic masculine honor associated with Newcastle's titles has the power to confirm her authorship and, in exchange, Cavendish credits him as her writing tutor. Cavendish's writing fashions an image of a husband and wife who rely on each other in the public realm of print: Newcastle gains fame from Cavendish's portrayals of him as a supportive husband and a loyal subject to his king, while Cavendish presents herself simultaneously as a dutiful wife and a publishing writer. In tension with this idea of reciprocity, however, are Cavendish's claims to uniqueness as both a person and an author. She characterizes her "singularity" in her narrative of her own life, A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life (1656): "I took great delight in attiring, fine dressing and fashions, especially such fashions as I did invent my self, not taking that pleasure in such fashions as was invented by others: also I did dislike any should follow my Fashions, for I always took delight in a singularity, even in acoutrements of habits" (60). Singularity of dress becomes a metaphor for singularity of thought, and in this statement Cavendish makes clear her individuality as a person and as a writer. Her marital and authorial relationship with Newcastle is defined by this tension between her main social identity as the wife of an aristocrat and another identity as a unique "Authoress."1 This irresolvable tension surfaces repeatedly in both Cavendish's life writing and her plays as she works throughout her career to develop an artistic persona that blends both of these identities. 2

Here, I argue that Cavendish manages this tension by engaging in forms of literary collaboration with her husband that critique and renegotiate contemporary views of companionate marriage while at the same time revising discourses about and practices of collaborative authorship. Newcastle exists in Cavendish's prefaces and dedications as both an addressee and an author of praise for Cavendish, and he appears as a character in her life writing and as a co-author of several of her plays. In both her life writing and her plays, Cavendish imagines relationships that I term "collaborative marriages" to distinguish them from the much-studied forms of seventeenth-century companionate marriage. Cavendish's version of collaborative marriage subordinates physical gender difference and sexual intercourse, instead privileging spiritual and intellectual partnership. In other words, for Cavendish eliminating the physically gendered aspects of marriage is the only way to undercut the sexual hierarchy of marriage. This relationship takes place on a textual level in Cavendish's work, and thus collaborative marriage produces literary texts and more versions of itself rather than children. This interest in de-emphasizing heteronormative physical sexuality plays out in Cavendish's depictions of her husband and their relationship in A True Relation and The Life of William, which construct him as an inspiration for her writing but also separate this inspiration from her own "singular" authorship. As a writer, Cavendish both leans on her husband's aristocratic identity and marks offher own individuality within their marital and authorial relationships. …

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