So this is a little off the beaten track. I thought I’d share a taste of what I’m studying for my dissertation. Early Modern Women contributed to women’s issues throughout the end of the sixteenth and all through the seventeenth centuries. As I read Margaret Cavendish’s plays, faux letters and essays, I kept thinking, “Why? Why were women not successful with this movement?” And then in a wonderful text edited by Ostovich and Sauer Reading Early Modern Women, they cite Suzanne Hull who conducted extensive research on my question. The answer? “Eighty-five percent of the 163 books in 500 editions addressed to women or largely concerned with women’s behavior or rules were published between 1570 and 1640. That is — manners books telling women how to act, what not to write, how not to speak, etc. But, at least women had a small come back, and contested these texts in ones like Margaret Cavendish’s play “The Convent of Pleasure from Plays Never Before Printed.”
In this play, the main ingenue named Happy is beautiful and wealthy. The opening scene shows three gentlemen discussing/scheming how they should marry her and all benefit from her wealth. But in the next scene, Happy speaks with her servant:
Servant: Madam, you being young, handsome, rich, and virtuous, I hope you will not cast away those gifts of Nature, Fortune and Heaven, upon a person which cannot merit you?
Happy: Let me tell you, that Riches ought to be bestowed on such as are poor, and want means to maintain themselves; and Youth, on those that are old; Beauty, on those that are ill-favoured, and Virtue, on those that are vicious: So that if I should place my gifts rightly, I must Marry one that’s poor, old, ill-favoured, and debauch’d.
Margaret was condemned by some who told her she didn’t write the play according to the “play rules” by Aristotle, which was a way to keep women from publishing. This passage not only reveals an individual mind, but a clever one, one who has considered the world at large, the problems in society, and offers herself as example to right its wrongs.
The play goes on to reveal Happy cloistering herself in a women’s only club, the “Convent of Pleasure” where the goal is to get away from men because they only cause displeasure. Happy describes this cloister as “not a cloister of restraint, but a place for freedom, not to vex the senses but to please them” (Cavendish 101).
I’m crazy to post right before my comprehensive exams, but I haven’t posted in so very long and need to be somewhat human again. I can only hope that this utopian feminine cloister gave some women hope, gave them strength in a society that took away rights and limited speech. Margaret calls to us today, to protect our successes, our speech, our bodies, and our rights.