Philological Quarterly, Spring 1998 v77 i2 p149
Surface and Interiority: Self-Creation in Margaret Cavendish's The Claspe.
Abstract: Margaret Cavendish is generally accepted as one of the first English woman authors to regard herself as an independent individual. Cavendish derived substantive elements of that identity from the court of Charles II, and the chief courtly event that structured her social self was the masque. Clothing becomes synonymous with identity, although this held dangers of which Cavendish was aware.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Iowa
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.
The masque opens on the stage of the brain, as Cavendish specifies, with a pantomime of "a young lady in a Ship, swimming over the Scene in various Weather." The two speeches that follow reveal that the ship is Cavendish herself:
A Ship of youth in the Worlds Sea was sent,
Ballanc'd with Selfe-Conceit, and Pride it went.
And large Sailes of Ambition set thereon,
Hung to a tall Mast of good Opinion.
As in the prose that Gallagher and Lawrence analyze, Cavendish's image--her vehicle, indeed!--is mobile, though not "peripatetic" (Lawrence's term). The ship moves through a fluid and changeable element, sailing toward the solid ground of a "Land of Riches"--"To see if Golden Fame might there be found" (8).
The ship itself is a complexly historicized metaphor. In contrast to the medieval image of the pregnant Virgin as a richly laden ship, this ship is almost piratical: laden with no more than faith in its own entitlement, it moves toward a goal of treasure-seeking. Significantly, Cavendish does not shift from a ship-as-pregnant-woman to a pregnancy-as-literary-productivity metaphor, though this trope is prominent in such familiar poems as the opening sonnet of Astrophil and Stella. Cavendish's ship is not "bearing" goods, but is "ballanced," or ballasted by them; in other words, the self-conceit and pride are not the ship's cargo but the ballast that enables the ship to move steadily toward its goal. Here Cavendish seems aware of her own egotism but places a positive value on it because it spurs her on toward fame.
The image recalls the trope of the ship in Petrarchan verse, in which the boat is commonly the male lover laboring to reach the shore of emotional equilibrium, or of his beloved's favor. But this ship's goal is not love in any sense, and the reconceived trope situates the woman as the active, questing figure rather than the passive object of male attention. Cavendish's decision to eschew the image of ship as lover contrasts with diction later in the masque that recalls the courtly love lyric. But the solipsistic Cavendish finds these forms less appropriate when writing of love than when she tries to metaphorize her own psyche.
The theme of love does, however, have a place in this literary work. After a storm in which "Rebellious Clouds foule black did grow" (line 14; a pointed reference to the Civil War), the ship takes refuge in Paris:
New sailes she made, and all her Tacklings fit,
Made her selfe Fine, and Gay, Respect to get.
Where there a Noble Lord this Ship did buy,
And with this Ship he meanes to live, and dye.
The connection between ornament and the "purchase" of the ship implies a causal relation between dress and social consequence that Cavendish will explore later. The "fineness" of the ship--the tackle that actually makes the craft serviceable--is for Cavendish the means to gain attention and consequence in society, as if the ship could not sail properly without the admiring glances of others. Respect, while not synonymous with fame, is similarly allied with reputation and equally dependent upon the acknowledgment of others.
Yet the account of the boat's purchase does not suggest its subordination so much as an alliance between ship and ship-owner. One may contrast the dependency detailed in such lyrics as Emily Dickinson's well-known "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--" (# 754) with this couplet and its indirect quotation of the ship's master as he plights his troth. The image suggests a partnership, the equal relation of mutual service that allowed Cavendish the extraordinary opportunity to share her husband's interest in the sciences and the humanities. While Cavendish was devoted to her husband, it seems clear that the marriage freed her more than it restricted her. Such a union was highly unusual for an early modern woman with literary ambitions. The ship's next voyage is characterized as more successful than the first:
After this Ship another Voyage went,
Ballanc'd it was with Spice of sweet Content ...
And to the Land of Fame did Traffick in.
This metaphorical ballast is closer to cargo, as if the ship now has something to offer besides temerity. The ship swims in honor, a new sea that apparently provides direct passage to "the Land of Fame." These lines seem to support Sara Heller Mendelson's view that the Duchess was something of a social climber.(10) Clearly Cavendish's respect for rank was not limited to respect for the monarchy, and this verse suggests that, once married, she had attained part of her ambition in the stature of a prominent courtier's wife.
The centerpiece of The Claspe follows--a quartet of blasons spoken by four masquers who enter directly after the dumb show of the ship. Their speeches are followed by the entrance of four more masquers, two of whom enact a wedding ceremony and two of whom speak as representations of Vanity and Honor. The stage directions also include a dance by nine musical instruments and the nine Muses.
The author's decision to use the blason is itself unusual. The blason anatomique was originally a continental poetic form ,offering praise or vilification of a body part.(11) Saunders asserts that
[t]he great difference between the blasons anatomique and their predecessors--despite their common terminology--is that the blasons are love-poems, and this basic fact necessarily alters the entire emphasis of the way in which this terminology is used.... description is no longer enough in its own right, but rather serves simply as a prelude to what is for the blasonneur the more important aspect--the effect of this beauty on his own subjectivity, and sensibility.(12)
But the love-lyrics of Clement Marot, the poet credited with establishing the blason anatomique, are far from the straightforward personal expressions of love that Saunders's account suggests. Mayer outlines the evidence that the form may have been derived from a blason competition organized by Marot and Renee of Ferrara.(13) The proliferation of blasons after Marot's Blason anatomiques du corps feminin (published as a supplement to the French translation of Leone Battista Alberti's Hecatomphile in the 1536, 1537, and 1589 editions(14)) and the exuberant and outrageous metaphors of the form suggest that the poet's imagined audience was other (male) writers. Nancy J. Vickers urges us to recognize the extent to which the blason was gendered male:
The rivalry among the original blasonneurs, each one displaying his part of woman's body, was quite literally fought out: Maurice Sceve triumphed by virtue of the superiority of his "Eyebrow."(15)
According to this view, blasonneurs were more likely to be inspired by competition and male bonding than by eroticism or admiration of a particular woman.
Understanding how male writers used the blason helps us see why a female poet would choose this form to explore the construction of gender roles. In recent years, critics such as Vickers have read even the complimentary blason as a literary form concealing authors' egotism, even violence and misogyny, beneath the guise of male abasement.(16) The blasonneur uses the flesh-and-blood reality of a woman as a springboard for his own artistic invention. He replaces the object of his gaze with his own aesthetic creation--the poem itself, but as well the idealized figure he creates through the description that makes up the poem. Although the ostensible object of the poem is the woman described, the poem draws more attention to the poet, whose virtuosity recreates, in fact improves upon, Nature's creation, the woman. The poet sees the subject's poetic possibilities and demonstrates the artistic sensibility that brings the artwork into being. Even when he affects disdain for "false art," he thereby draws attention to his own rhetorical skills, as in perhaps the most famous anti-blason, Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun."
Cavendish's decision to use the blason could have been a gauntlet thrown down to male poets, an indication that she, too, was a contender for literary laurels, though perhaps it was not as strong a statement as it would have been had she been more deeply versed in continental literary antecedents. There is no evidence that Cavendish had read the French blasonneurs, but her work shows an awareness of the genre's conventions that probably derived from reading English poets. Cavendish's verses, for example, bear resemblance to the blasons of Sir Philip Sidney in their use of the conventions of romantic chivalry.
However, Cavendish's appropriation of the form frames it anew. The emphatically allegorical nature of the physical descriptions shifts attention away from the possibility of a real object of desire, drawing attention to authorial power. Her own egotism inspires her overtly to expose the rhetorical strategy of the blason as the poet's focus. Moreover, when Cavendish uses a form understood as a convention of the love lyric in an allegorical masque referring partly to herself but partly to all women, this new context alters one of the functions of the blason. By replacing the implied context of the blason--a relationship between a courtly admirer and a cruel mistress--with the autobiographical masque, Cavendish refigures the form to delineate her psychomachia. And by using descriptions of bodies and clothing to characterize her own nature, she makes herself both subject and object, both the poetic speaker revealing herself and the object anatomized.
The "Lady drest by Love," "Souldier arm'd by Mars," "Lady drest by Youth," and "Woman drest by Age" may seem an unlikely quartet; I interpret the group as the three faces of Woman (maid, beloved, and crone) and a depiction of Man as woman's alter ego. (The masculine figure is a romanticized prototype of the soldier, a figure for William Cavendish as his wife chose to perceive him.) The female blasons offer three scenes of an aristocratic woman's life--entering society, responding to male attentions, enduring the indignity of age's disfigurement. These blasons alternately depict character traits as external expressions of inward feature and as ornaments assumed in response to social strictures. This set of lyrics shifts attention from appearance to conduct, from a woman's seemingly "natural" charms to her compliance with societal expectations. Cavendish's use of the blason shows her awareness that (as Frances Dolan pointed out in her analysis of early modern face-painting treatises), society's valorization of the "natural" conceals its own role in constructing that concept.
Cavendish's decision to use clothing and ornaments rather than natural objects to emblason her subjects was not an innovation, but her tropes present a far deeper sense of clothing's symbolic properties than do more typical blasons. Her considered use of clothing as metaphor was presaged by her longstanding fascination with costume. From childhood, Cavendish had delighted in dressing up and designing her own clothes, taking pleasure, as she said, "in a singularity."(17) During the Restoration, Pepys described her
going with her coaches and footmen all in velvet ... with her velvet-cap, her hair about her ears, many black patches because of pimples about her mouth, naked necked, without anything about it, and a black juste-au-corps.(18)
For Cavendish, clothing served as display, performance, and impersonation. Grant asserts that costume supplemented the childhood role-playing games inspired by reading Caesar, Ovid, and Shakespeare.(19) As an adult, Cavendish undoubtedly dressed to impress her contemporaries with her "singularity"; in doing so, she sought to gain the adulation that she also desired as a writer. This strategy backfired when the uniqueness was interpreted as a dangerous female eccentricity, an eccentricity compounded by her deviance in developing scientific and literary ambitions.(20) Yet these circumstances also freed her from the necessity of conforming to others' expectations of aristocratic women. The reputation as a "crack-brain" enabled her to pursue her own devices; similarly, her childhood masquerades enabled her to examine her own identity under the mask of a fantasy figure. By drawing attention to itself, the rich clothing allowed her to conceal the complex self-image that was developing beneath and by means of each facade that she tried on. Cavendish's understanding of the internal self must necessarily have been affected by her interest in costume; in fact, the relation of clothing to body seems to structure her notion of interiority as an interior space in which one may secretly nurture creativity. As Katharine Eisaman Maus comments in a discussion of early modern gynecological manuals, "women's bodies ... seem to provide a corporeal model for an `inward' subjective strure."(21)
Cavendish interrogates her own notions of interiority through the conventions of the blason. The division in these poems between society and the physical body clarifies the relation between the inner self and its external representation. That division never becomes a dichotomy because the poet posits a layered self, an onion-like figure represented variously by behavior and ornaments, clothing and internal anatomy. (Significantly, there is no overt mention of the naked body until the last poem.) Cavendish's presentation of dress acknowledges that dress is often dictated by society, even though the author herself had a contentious relation to such prescriptions. As we examine these verses, we must respond to the overdetermined meanings of the trope.
The blasons in The Claspe layer social and biological structures over the armature of the body. In the masque, the body itself serves as metaphor for personhood. Initially, the elusiveness of a governing consciousness within these blasons might suggest that society's strictures may be all that can define women, who seem constructed exclusively by institutional networks. But the verses imply that though a responsive psyche may be impossible to locate, it should not be confused with the external forces that shape it. Interiority may be entirely hidden and yet still exist, for the lyric contains the implied author, whose presence is manifested in the racked metaphors and the allegorical references to Cavendish herself. The poet's inability to recreate the subject's presence, moreover, may also call our attention to authorial presence, as Vickers suggests in her discussion of Petrarch's Rime Sparse. The poet's "inability to re-create Laura's absent face," says Vickers, "constitutes the intolerable absence, creates a reason to speak, and permits a poetic corpus."(22)
Cavendish's quartet of blasons presents two oppositions: Love and Mars, Youth and Age. The titles of the lyrics ("A Lady drest by Love," "A Souldier arm'd by Mars") indicate that these terms allude to the allegorical figures who have costumed the masquers. But the narrative soon conflates each trait with the masquer associated with it, all the more so since the earlier part of the masque implies that the entire production is a schematization of Cavendish herself.
By far the most conventional of the blasons is "A Soldier armed by Mars." Even the term "soldier" rather than "knight" or "gentleman" suggests that this subject is William Cavendish. Such courtly conventions are in keeping with Margaret's love and respect for William and with her romantic notions of the Cavalier cause.(23) Without any contradiction the verse could also represent a part of Margaret's public identity--either herself as a questing soul or her husband in the social role of Margaret's marital partner.(24) Cavendish chooses not to examine or ironize this masculine element of her identity. The tropes are standard ones, and the imagery exhibits none of the odd shifts in perspective that occur in the blasons of female figures. With a helmet formed from prudence and a breastplate made of courage, the soldier's armor represents the allegorical virtues typical of a chivalric warrior. He bears a sword made of "pure bright Honor" (8) and a favor, a scarf given him by Fortune. His horse is ambition, which he rides in the service of fame. This description calls to mind Saint Paul's injunction to the Ephesians, to "[p]ut on the whole armor of God." The parallels between Cavendish's soldier and Paul's Christian warrior, with his "helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit," reinforce the Christian aspect of the chivalric code.(25) For this knight, the armor is the only signifier he needs. While his battle-gear tells a story worthy of Achilles' shield, no interiority is suggested. These public virtues protect him from scrutiny; they are all that is necessary to create the allegory.
Although the "Lady drest by Youth" also seeks fame, her verse reveals an interior self whose existence problematizes her search for renown. This set of seven couplets begins by allegorizing traits as body parts rather than as clothing. But after two couplets, the vehicle of the trope becomes ornament--jewelry, embroidery, and ribbons. This shift makes us question whether we should interpret the character traits of this figure as inherent or as behaviors assumed in order to conceal what is within:
Her Haire was curies of Pleasures, and Delight,
Which through her Skin did cast a glimmering Light.
Despite a later reference to blushes (line 5), the term "delight" suggests a flushing of the cheeks, with the implication that the skin is a transparent barrier that cannot conceal the feeling beneath. But Cavendish's explication of other body parts undermines this corporeal representation of self-revelation:
As Lace, her bashfull Eye-lids downwards hung,
A Modest Countenance over her Face was flung.
Blushes, as Corall Beades she strung, to weare,
About her Neck, and Pendants for each Eare.
These traits differ from those embodied in hair and skin. Pleasure and delight are reactions, not character traits--emotive responses to external events. By contrast, bashfulness and modesty are inherent psychological traits. Yet Cavendish does not represent these with body parts as she does the reactive behaviors. The eyelids conceal rather than display; the reference to lace suggests almost a calculated show of shyness instead of an honestly felt reticence. The modest countenance is construed as a veil flung over the face, concealing the woman's true expression. If Cavendish implies that modesty is a behavior like responsive delight, does she also mean that it conceals the greed and waywardness that such writers as Joseph Swetnam saw beneath women's proper exteriors?(26) The next couplet reinforces our question "What is underneath?", for Cavendish describes the blush, sign of modesty, as a set of jewelry worn to enhance one's attractiveness and to display family wealth. If the blush is no more than an ornament and a sign of status directed toward the community, then what external shows of feeling can the reader trust as clear and unambiguous?(27)
Even the body, as the next couplet shows, is merely a garment:
Her Gowne was by Proportion cut, and made, With Veines Embroydered, with Complexion laid. (7-8)
The skin is not, in fact, the window-like barrier implied in line two: it is an ornamented cloth marked with signs that cannot be interpreted. Interiority is not revealed by nakedness, which only provides covering for the opacity that is the inner self.
Cavendish does not answer the questions she raises in the first half of this verse; instead, in the second half, she shifts the field of inquiry. What is interior is never to be known, her verse suggests. Those who take the exterior for essence and those who consider a fair exterior a cover for sin both err. But since the internal is neither revealed nor signified by the surface, we must bring our interpretive abilities to bear on those signs that can be read. In subsequent lines, Cavendish defines female honor as observable behavior rather than intrinsic virtue. This controversial redefinition accepts the boundary of the skin as impermeable--at least for the purposes of interpretation. What one can read is action, and that is the tenor of the metaphors used for the rest of the stanza:
Light words with Ribbons of Chast Thoughts upties,
And loose Behavior, which through Errours flies.
Rich Jewels of bright Honor she did weare,
By Noble Actions placed were every where.
Chaste thought restrains the light words and loose behavior that may fly through error. Interior honor is indicated by the readily observed ornament of appropriate behavior, whose nobility implies an inward corollary.
The jewels of "bright Honor" parallel the soldier's sword: both are visible and emblematic signs of virtue. Yet the reference to "noble actions" suggests that the lady's honor is not the passive honor of chastity, a virtue this verse has already mentioned. Instead, this honor is derived from activity, from seizing the opportunity to enhance reputation through the performance of honorable deeds. Such activity would traditionally have been gendered masculine, or at least have recalled the warrior-maidens of romance.(28)
Finally, the merits of this figure give her instant entry to the court of Fame:
Thus drest, to Fames great Court strait waies she went,
There danc'd a Brall with Youth, Love, Mirth, Content.
Significantly, the monarch is Fame, and the opportunity to mingle with other guests is apparently itself a sign of one's own renown. Like the ship that is Margaret's married self, this woman has gained fame through an attractive appearance.
This representation of youth achieves entry to "Fames great court"; yet her character traits seem quite ordinary. More disturbing is the figure of "A Lady drest by Love," a representation of mature womanhood. Her traits, too, appear quite conventional, but the convoluted metaphors, when unravelled, create a complicated picture of the power relations inherent in the game of courtly love.
This character is a composite of tropes and metaphors culled from Petrarchan love lyrics. While the other figure dances, this one is frighteningly still; her constraint is antithetical to the "enlarged field of action or range of motion" that John Rogers says Cavendish uses as a figure for female liberation.(29) The verse reveals an active consciousness, but it is that of a male lover. Any indication of the lady's interiority derives entirely from the man's desires, which decorate and construct her. Every metaphor is concerned with the lover's responses, as if she could not exist apart from his reactions to her. But if we accept the notion that she is made up of a lover's reactions, then what is the lover reacting to? Is she solely the product of his fantasies?
Cavendish displays both the cruelty and the power relations inherent in the Petrarchan ideal throughout this lyric. Within the game of flirtation the blason implies, this figure is quite passive. The woman is literally "dressed" by Love--or by a lover. But this "dressing" begins not with her clothing, but with parts of her actual body:
Her Haire with Lovers Hopes curled in long Rings,
Her Braides plaited hard with his Protestings.
Yet often times those curled Haires went out,
With Lovers windy Feares, and Damps of Doubt.
By literalizing the trope of lovers' pains, Cavendish brings new life to the convention of the cruel beloved. The woman's ornaments represent her lover's willing pain. The image of hair curled by lovers' hopes looks forward to Congreve's flirtatious Millamant, who disdainfully uses her gallants' love-lyrics for curl-papers? Arrogant and demanding, these ladies treat men's desire for them as no more than their due. This figure also "tie[s] her Looking-Glasse of Pride, / And Fan of good Opinion by her side" (13-14); static, she still appears theatrical, as if posing.
Our sense of the balance of power between lover and beloved becomes increasingly confused in the two couplets that describe the lover's behavior as his mistress's jewelry:
Strings of threaded Teares about her Neck she wore,
Dropt from her Lovers Eyes, whose Image bore.
His Sighs as Pendants hung at either Eare,
Sometimes were troublesome, if heavie were.
The woman's use of tears and sighs as jewelry gives the reader some sense of her character: she appears disdainful and imperious. Moreover, the fact that her earrings (his tears) bear her image suggests her solipsism. His sighs also ornament her, and she heeds them only as they "trouble" her, possibly by frequency or vociferousness, as heavy earrings irritate the lobes of the ears. She is clothed by his admiration (represented as her gown), and her dress is ornamented by his praise (represented as embroidery). Created by his desires, she still increases those desires. Significantly, courtly convention leads him to conceive her as the one who controls his fate, although in this poem it is his behavior that has constructed her. His seems to be the functioning consciousness, while her feelings and thoughts are ever more elusive. Nonetheless, this belle-ideal of womanhood is a powerful figure, for the lover's happiness depends on her whim.
Gradually it becomes clear that the solipsism originates in the lover rather than the beloved. Almost the very existence of the lady is called into question, as the verse continues to focus on clothing and ornaments, elements exterior to the body. Whereas the feelings of the lady dressed by youth were displayed in her eyelids, her complexion, and her face, the lady dressed by love is created by another consciousness and conceived as a mannequin on which his responses are hung.
The ideas of womanhood offered here indicate the perversity of male constructions of a feminine ideal. While this woman is no more than artifice personified, the artifice is expected--in fact, created--by the male lover's code of courtly and chivalric conduct. Discussing the face-painting debate, Frances Dolan says,
Most anticosmetics treatises emphasize that a woman who paints herself refuses to submit to her passive role as a creature, a being with no legitimate capacity for self-transformation or self-determination, and insists on herself as a creator.(31)
By contrast, the woman of this blason is shaped by male expectations; despite her theatricality, she is literally clothed by masculine concepts. However, the male lover enacts a role as much as the woman does. He has chosen this role of tortured subservience in order to take part in an economy of love and courtship. The exchanges that take place between lover and beloved raise the status of both parties. Men need a cruel beloved in order to position themselves within the courtly system. In this poem, both the female and the male figures enact roles prescribed by societal conventions. If the woman submits to male expectations, both sexes submit to their society's.
We should recollect, however, that this portrait scarcely creates an interior psychology for its subject. Even the male consciousness that creates this idea of womanhood is only implied; the appearance of the woman is the only thing Cavendish overtly portrays. In enabling us to envision so much more, Cavendish is using her virtuosity for a purpose. The verse becomes a commentary on society rather than on female artifice, showing how this standard portrayal of womanhood develops from society's dictates of interaction between the sexes. As in "A Woman drest by Age," the author dissociates herself from the feminine consciousness, staying entirely outside of the mind of her subject. While we tend to fill in what the author leaves out, what Cavendish offers us is a portrait literally from the skin outward, with a greater emphasis on the environment and the responses of others than on even the figure's physical appearance. In leading the reader to envision so much more than she portrays with these conceits, Cavendish reveals the paucity beneath the copia. What initially appears to be a character portrait is in fact art examination of what results from aristocratic society's expectations of women.
Reading this figure, one might believe that Cavendish had anticipated postmodern notions of the self: this blason initially presents identity entirely as a social construct. But the final couplet says otherwise:
Sometimes Love Pleasure took a Veile to place,
Of Glances, which did cover all her Face.
Once again the veil suggests that behavior is only surface, that although the essential cannot be located, it exists nonetheless. The poem must finally be understood as a critique of the Petrarchan conventions that lead to blatantly theatrical shows.
"A Woman drest by Age," the sixteen-line portrait that completes the group of blasons, returns the reader to the realm of the physical. This verse focuses on the sensations of the elderly body, which is entirely defined by its corporeality. The woman's costume is composed of her body parts, most especially of the bodily deformities that come with increasing age. The poem offers a grotesque inversion of inside and outside: putting the aged body on display, this verse reflects on the vanity of the preceding portraits, so celebratory of the ornaments of sexual attractiveness. Artifice is abandoned, replaced by physical sensation.
Though the subject of this verse seems less artificial than that of the rest, the blason reinscribes the very notion of nature. Cavendish's portrait of old age suggests that nature destroys rather than creates beauty, aligning nature with mortality. The old woman, like the reader, is alienated from this body; its ills are imposed upon her from without. Dressed in a costume she did not choose, she cannot throw off these clothes without throwing off her mortal form. Her stature is diminished as she becomes a scapegoat for the author's disgust at old age. This blason is a memento mori reflecting the vanity evident in the preceding poems. But while Cavendish emphasizes the misery of life rather than the peace of death, she also posits a mind/body split, the existence of a consciousness separate from the sensations she anatomizes.
Physical constraint is evident once again; Cavendish describes the disabilities of age as restrictive clothing:
A Milk-white Haire-lace wound up all her Haires,
And a deafe Coife did cover both her Eares.
A sober Countenance about her Face she ties,
And a dim Sight doth cover half her Eyes.
This verse inverts the internal and the external--so much so that we may feel that Cavendish is disembowelling the figure for our viewing. Once again the woman is the victim of forces beyond her control. Old age itself is dressing her--is covering her: her coif deadens her ears to sound, her sober expression veils what once must have been vivacity, and decreasing vision shades her eyes. Cavendish perceives the experience of age as a muffling up, a barrier that intervenes between the senses and the world. Yet, as author, she mercilessly displays her subject, half-comic and half-pathetic.
The physical debility of old age ornaments this pitiable figure as the poem proceeds. Formerly decorative items of clothing become macabre in this verse:
Her Stockings Crampes had knit, Red Worsted Gout,
And Paines, as Garters, tied her Legs about.
A paire of Palsey Gloves her Hands draw on,
With Weaknesse stitched, and Numnesse trimm'd upon.
The images of cramps and gout locate muscles and nerves outside the body; palsy becomes an external mechanism, as such shaking often appears to be.
Finally, Cavendish concludes with a reminder of what these ailments portend:
A Mantle of Diseases laps her round,
And thus she's drest, till Death laies her in Ground.
The soft warmth of the lapping mantle is ironized by the cruel discomfort of the deterioration that the cloak represents; yet the mantle image underscores the mutual eroticism between death and the death's-head that this woman becomes. When death "laies her in ground," she loses this costume: her clothes decompose along with the rest of her and, as literally, these pains and mannerisms cease upon her death. At that point, her body is revealed, freed from that disfiguring costume, and she is displayed to death au naturel, as she has already been artfully displayed to the reader.
The narrator's exposure of her subject's pains seems unnecessarily cruel. Far from expressing sympathy or respect, the speaker's tone is objective, almost scientific. The body of the old woman becomes a page on which the writer reveals her skill; indeed, the verse merits comparison to Vesalius' anatomy demonstrations. Of one of these bodies, Jonathan Sawday comments,
The man who is still alive as Vesalius speaks has already been conceptually anatomized. Objectified, he is to be the passive recipient--a blank drawing page--of anatomical knowledge.... These organizations of veins, arteries, and nerves are a complex interlacing which exists in the mind of the anatomist and must be mapped onto the subject stretched out on the dissection table.(32)
Similarly, Cavendish is displaying to us the anatomy of her still-living subject. The grotesqueness of old age serves as a blank page upon which Cavendish displays her virtuosity. The degradation of femininity apparent in this verse may make us uneasy, but this emphasis on the author's ability to reinterpret and to control reality shows Cavendish's determination to shape the world of her art as she chooses.
Following the quartet of blasons, the masque continues with the Muses dancing a measure in twenty-four figures (representing the letters of the alphabet). There is a chorus, followed by a wedding and concluded by two epilogues spoken by Vanity and Honor. The wedding represents not the union of William and Margaret Cavendish, but that of the qualities Cavendish considered masculine and feminine. The bride's verse mentions youth and beauty, delight and modesty; the groom's, honor, virtue, fortitude, and justice. Their yoking together represents the poet's conception of her own maturity, in which all her admirable qualities come to fruition within her.
As the masque moves toward its close, Cavendish returns to less disturbing allegorical images. Clothing becomes a quite straightforward means of representation when the last two masquers, Vanity (or "the World") and Honor, speak their pieces. Cavendish precedes each epilogue with an equally long verse account of each masquer's costume. Vanity's clothing is described in terms of lime-twigs, bribes, silks, feathers, and several colored ribbons--as a snare, as corruption, as all that is effete, airy, and unnatural. Honor's costume, by contrast, is "loose yet Manly," crumpled by time, yet not spotted. The significance of these outfits is easy to read, in contrast to the more ambiguous costumes of the four other masquers. In the conclusion, Cavendish reverts to the clear, almost moralistic lessons of the masque's opening--Honor's epilogue begins with an admonishment that honor matures and perfects the psyche over time:
Noble Spectators, pray this learne by me,
That nothing without Honour, Time, can perfect be.
But Cavendish cannot entirely conceal the fractures indicated by the four central portraits. The battle for representation pictured in these figures' costumes is complex because no force works through any central agent, but through gradual cultural conditioning. Self-creation must acknowledge the influence of external and not entirely benign forces if it is to develop the original figure that Cavendish aspired to become.
The central blasons of The Claspe transpose interior and exterior in both the vehicle and the tenor of their governing tropes. The verses characterize anatomy as clothing, clothing as character trait.(33) Although much of each figure's psychology seems derived from the influence of specific social institutions, the lyrics also imply that the exterior may create a space in which one's self may reside. This self Cavendish turns inside out for our inspection in the course of the masque.
Cavendish acknowledges the court's influence on the creation of her social self, even as she defiantly writes a cohesive allegory of her own development. Her use of the blason is significant in its deconstruction of the courtly sensibility that actually germinated the form. By corporealizing courtly conventions in such a grotesque manner, Cavendish urges her reader to recognize the hazard of making one's appearance one's identity. Throughout the masque, she both accepts and denies the significance of the social forces that define gender roles. By the conclusion the image of the autotelic being is greatly compromised; yet the very creation of this autobiographical production restores authority to the woman who is at once both the subject of the masque and the object of authorial scrutiny. Indeed, the masque as a whole greatly complicates the binary notion of the "socially visible exterior" and the "invisible personal interior.(34) It leaves us with the author's acknowledgment that these elements are better understood as the product of constant negotiation than as clearly defined, discrete components.
Florida Atlantic University
(1) See Catherine Gallagher, "Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England," Genders 1 (1988): 24-39; Dolores Paloma, "Margaret Cavendish: Defining the Female Self," Women's Studies 7 (1980): 55-66; and Karen R. Lawrence, Penelope Voyages: Women and Travel in the British Literary. Tradition (Cornell U. Press, 1994), 28-50; among others.
(2) Gallagher, 26, 25.
(3) Lawrence, 34.
(4) Jerzy Limon, The Masque of Stuart Culture (U. of Delaware Press, 1990), 92.
(5) While Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (U. of California Press, 1984), argues that "the principal function of Elizabethan courtesy literature ... was the government of the abrupt sixteenth-century bridging of the gap between ruling and subject classes" (6), it is equally important to note the ways courtesy literature affected those gentry and nobility who wished to bridge the country/court division.
(6) See Gallagher.
(7) See "A Dedication to Fortune" prefacing Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, The Worlds Olio (London: J. Martin and J. Allestrye, 1655); "To the Reader" and "The Poetesses hasty Resolution" prefacing Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Poems and Fancies (London: J. Martin and J. Allestrye, 1653); and the preface to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Natures Pictures (London: A. Maxwell, 1653).
(8) This notion of interactive forces rather than hierarchical influences is the subject of John Rogers's chapter on Cavendish in The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton (Cornell U. Press, 1996), 177-211. Rogers is primarily concerned with Cavendish's scientific writings, such as her Observations' upon Experimental Philosophy, in which she asks how else "shall Parts work and act without having some knowledge and perception of each other?" (qtd. in Rogers 192).
(9) All quotations from The Claspe: Phantasmes Masque are from Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Poems and Fancies (London: T.R. for J. Martin and J. Allestrye, 1653), 155-60.
(10) Sara Heller Mendelson, The Mental World of Stuart Women (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 12-61.
(11) See T. Sebillet, Art poetique franfoys, ed. F. Gaiffe (Paris, 1910), 169: "Le Blason est une perpetuele louenge ou continue vitupere de ce qu'on s'est propose blasonner."
(12) Alison Saunders, The Sixteenth-Century Blason Poetique (Berne: Peter Lang, 1981), 67.
(13) C.A. Mayer, ed., Marot's Epitres (London: Athlone, 1958), 217.
(14) Saunders, 310.
(15) Nancy J. Vickers, "This Heraldry in Lucrece' Face," The Female Body in Western Culture, ed. Susan Suleiman (Harvard U. Press, 1986), 209-22; 219.
(16) See Nancy J. Vickers, "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and ,Scattered Rhyme" Critical Inquiry. 8 (Winter 1981): 265-80, and Vickers, "Heraldry."
(17) Cavendish, Natures Pictures, 387.
(18) Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 8 vols, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (U. of California Press, 1974), 8:186-87.
(19) Douglas Grant, Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957), 41-42.
(20) One of Cavendish's contemporaries, Dorothy Osborne, comments of Poems and Fancies that "they say tis ten times more Extravagant than her dresse" (37). G. C. Moore, ed., The Letters of Dorothy Osborne to William Temple (Oxford: Clarendon, 1928, rpt. 1959).
(21) Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (U. of Chicago Press, 1995), 212.
(22) Vickers, "Diana Described," 276-77.
(23) See Grant, 47-55.
(24) Dolores Paloma muses, "Perhaps more than she wanted to be a writer, Margaret Cavendish really wanted to be a hero" (56).
(25) Ephesians 6:11, 17.
(26) See Joseph Swetnam, "The Arraignment of Lewde, idle, froward, and unconstant women" (London: Thomas Archer, 1615). Rpt. in Katharine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1540 (U. of Illinois Press, 1985), 189-216.
(27) Cavendish seems to be working with a series of stock images of virgins; Thomas Fuller's The Holy State and the Profane State, 2 vols. (Columbia U. Press, 1938; rpt. New York; AMS, 1966), offers a character of "The Constant Virgin" that describes the chaste and unmarried woman as "casting [her eyes] down," "lost in a modest silence," and "blush[ing] at the wanton discourse of others in her company" (1:35-7). Yet Fuller himself comments on the impossibility of reading the woman aright from these outward signs. His list of explanations for what he calls the "maiden's blush" includes guilt as well as surprise, anger, and outrage (1:37-8).
(28) Cf. Paloma's assertion that "the heroic life as defined in Cavendish's writing involves activity, productiveness, and dominance whereas the accepted definition of feminine life prescribed passivity, submissiveness, and only biological productivity" (56).
(29) Rogers, 187.
(30) William Congreve, The Way of the World, ed. Kathleen M. Lynch (U. of Nebraska Press, 1965), 2.323-38.
(31) Frances E. Dolan, "Taking the Pencil out of God's Hand: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England," PMLA 108 (March 1993): 224-39; 229-30. In contrast, Frank Whigham argues that the attack on women's cosmetics was an attempt to distinguish women's practices of self-creation from men's (116-117).
(32) Jonathan Sawday, "The Fate of Marsyas: Dissecting the Renaissance Body," Renaissance Bodies, ed. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (London: Reaktion, 1986), 111-35; 115.
(33) See Alastair Fowler's discussion of the complexity of double allegories in Astrophil and Stella in Conceitful Thought (U. of Edinburgh Press, 1975), 98-103.
(34) These are terms that Maus employs in a different context (12).3