The scientific revolutionary
Name: Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
Fields: Natural philosophy, poetry
Claim to fame:Popularised many of the important ideas of the scientific revolution
The 17th century writer Lady Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) helped to popularise the ideas of the scientific revolution. Colourful, outspoken and widely ridiculed for her eccentricities, she was one of the first to argue that theology is outside the parameters of scientific inquiry. As England‘s first recognised woman natural philosopher, she also argued strongly for the education of women and for their involvement in science.
Grey matter in motion
Margaret Lucas was the youngest of eight children born to a wealthy family near Colchester, England. She received a rudimentary education at home from an elderly lady, and showed a very early interest in writing. The closeknit royalist family scattered when King Charles I was exiled to Oxford, and Margaret became maid-of-honour to Queen Henrietta Maria. In 1644, when royalist forces were defeated, she fl ed to France with the Queen and a few other attendants.
In 1645, Margaret met and married the 52-year-old nobleman William Cavendish in France. The two moved from Paris to Antwerp where Margaret was introduced to science in an informal salon society of other exiles dubbed the ‘Newcastle Circle’. Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi were part of this circle in which Margaret learned about the newly popular ‘mechan ical philosophy’ and atomism, which explained all natural phenomena as being matter in motion. At the same time, she was also given private lessons in science and philosophy by her husband and his brother. Margaret visited England in 1651 and quickly gained a reputation for extravagant dress and eccentricity. The following year, she began to write her own works on natural philosophy. The Cavendish family returned from exile in 1660 when the monarchy was restored.
A most insistent voice
On her return to England, Margaret began to study the works of other natural phil osophers (the term ‘scientist’ had not yet been coined) and continued to write. In 1663, she published Philosophical and Physical Opinions, wherein she reasoned that if atoms were animated matter then they would have free will and liberty, and thus would be unable to co-operate in the creation of complex organisms. The following year, she published another work in which she challenged the ideas expressed by contemporary natural philosophers. She had the two books dispatched by special messenger to the most celebrated scholars of the day.
In 1666, Margaret published her Observations upon Natural Philosophy, which strongly criticised the shortcomings of the new science. “The dusty motion of atoms” could not be used to explain all natural phenomena, she argued, and so every atom must be “animated with life and knowledge”. She also claimed that the newly invented microscope distorted nature and led to false observations of the world.
Scientific high society
In 1660, the Royal Society of London was founded, inspiring the creation of a network of societies across Europe. Until then, natural philosophers had for the most part discussed their revolutionary ideas on science in people’s homes which, to a certain extent, had allowed some women to learn about the latest debates. As few people generally and still fewer women were educated at the time, the members of these new societies were small in number and mainly composed of men. They distanced themselves from the classical tradition of academic learning, and were often ridiculed for their experiments.
Margaret wanted more than anything to be recognised by the scientific community. In 1667, she enjoyed a personal triumph when she was the first woman to be invited to visit the Royal Society. Her visit was one of the best attended in the Society’s history. She and her entourage watched a programme of experiments staged by the respected scholars Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. Afterwards, the society officially banned women. The ban held until 1945.
A tempered view
The year after her famous visit to the Royal Society, Margaret published a book that was more modest in tone and scope than her previous works. In it, she retracted some of her more extravagant claims.
Lady Cavendish’s health deteriorated as a result of her acting as her own physician, and she died in 1673. She had been proud of her writing and unashamed of her lack of education; she demanded a voice on public matters and sought fame. It is perhaps for these reasons that, in the 19th century, she was given the insulting nickname ‘Mad Madge’, although she was certainly not considered mad by the standards of her own day.
Lady Margaret Cavendish was a prolifi c writer who was inspired by the ideas that emerged during the scientific revolution. Despite being mocked, many found reading her works irresistible and she managed to popularise the discussion of many new ways of thinking. The tributes to his wife published by her husband after her death contain letters of gratitude from the Universities of Leiden, Cambridge and Oxford, from the Bodleian Library, St John’s and Trinity Colleges at Cambridge, and from numerous recognised men of learning.
She published 23 books, and explained that she wrote "since all heroic actions" and "public employments... are denied our sex in this age". In addition to her prose, she wrote plays and poems contemplating atomic theory, Aristotelian philosophy and Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood. As she was recognised in England as a natural philosopher, her case argued strongly for the education of women. Her memoirs are considered to be the first major secular autobiography written by a woman.